Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.
Jacksonian Miscellanies is a weekly email newsletter which presents short documents from the United States' Jackson Era, with a minimum of commentary. Anyone can receive it for free by sending to firstname.lastname@example.org a message with
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This issue might be called "In the beginning was the Word", or "Words are deeds".
At an early age, the slave Frederick Douglass had to good fortune to move off the plantation for a while, and live, as a "companion" to master's child, in the city of Baltimore. This provided abundant opportunities for a mind with the creative genius to make use of them.
The following are excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave:
"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would ~spoil~ the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."
"These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.
"Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both."
It will be noted that Douglass relished irony, and used it very effectively as a distinctive feature of his writing and oratory. This style, with an element of noble hauteur must have done much to remove him from his hearer's stereotypes of a black man.
Having learned just a little, Douglass managed to obtain a book, which he studied whenever possible, sometimes with the help of white street urchins. Though he had a little mastery reading, the skill of putting words on a page still eluded him. The way he got boys to give him lessons in writing was especially creative.
"The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus--"L." When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus--"S." A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus--"L. F." When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus--"S. F." For larboard aft, it would be marked thus--"L. A." For starboard aft, it would be marked thus--"S. A." I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named.
"After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write."
From time to time I feel a bit like Douglass, when my saying "Hey I can do history - just watch!", elicits corrections and valuable lessons from far more experienced members of the historical community.
In 1826, at the commemoration of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, on the exact 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July, 1776, Daniel Webster may have felt hard pressed to convey the qualities of John Adams, next to the memory of Thomas Jefferson's dazzling mastery of words. If he did sense a difficulty, the following - Webster at his best - shows how he turned it to advantage.
"The eloquence of Mr. Adams resembled his general character, and formed, indeed, a part of it. It was bold, manly, and energetic; and such the crisis required.
"When public bodies are to be addressed on momentous occasions, when great interests are at stake, and strong passions excited, nothing is valuable in speech farther than as it is connected with high intellectual and moral endowments. Clearness, force, and earnestness are the qualities which produce conviction.
"True eloquence, indeed, does not consist in speech. It cannot
be brought from far. Labor and learning may toil for it, but they will
toil in vain. Words and phrases may be marshalled in every way, but they
cannot compass it. It must exist in the man, in the subject, and in the
occasion. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation,
all may aspire to it; they cannot reach it.
It comes, if it come at all, like the outbreaking of a fountain from
the earth, or the bursting forth of volcanic fires, with spontaneous, original,
native force. The graces taught in the schools, the costly ornaments and
studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men, when their own lives,
and the fate of their wives. their children, and their country, hang on
the decision of the hour. Then words have lost their power, rhetoric is
vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Even genius itself then feels
rebuked and subdued, as in the presence of higher qualities.
"Then patriotism is eloquent; then selfdevotion is eloquent. The clear conception, outrunning the deductions of logic, the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit, speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature, and urging the whole man onward, right onward to his object,-this, this is eloquence; or rather, it is something greater and higher than all eloquence,-it is action, noble, sublime, godlike action."
Did this speech inspire the phrase "Godlike Dan"? Webster did not always seem the most sincere of men - he seemed far too much concerned with bodily comfort and luxury. But he appeared to be, and surely in some important sense was the way he described John Adams, or a deep and real side of him was like that.
In Jacob Abbott's popular The Cornerstone, or A Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Truth, pp313-338, he describes how virtually the whole student body at Amherst (where he was a professor), had a deep spiritual awakening in the course of a week. For traditional New England Christians, this was what was meant by a "revival". Religion was revived, as if by a visitation of the spirit.
In summarizing the experience, he implicitly takes issue with the new class of itinerant revivalists who try to make a revival of religion. Clearly he sees it as God's prerogative to "make a revival", and suspects these men of manipulating emotions, and not leaving in their wake a true conversion. The notion of conversion had a definite place in New England religion. It was considered a definite, recognizable happening in a person's life, and many young people, such as Catharine Beecher, anguished over their inability to have this sort of experience, without which, according to the old belief, one was destined for Hell.
"There are many persons who, because they have seen or heard of many spurious and heartless efforts to make a revival of religion, accompanied by noise and rant, and unprofitable excitement, doubt the genuineness of all these reformations. But I ask them whether the permanent alteration, in a week, of nearly all the wild and ungovernable and vicious students of a college, is not evidence of the operation of some extraordinary moral cause. We who witnessed it cannot doubt. Such cases too, are not uncommon. They occur continually, all over our land, producing entire changes in neighborhoods and villages and towns, and very often in colleges. The effect in this case upon the police of the institution was astonishing. Before the revival, the officers of the institution were harassed and perplexed with continual anxiety and care, from the turbulence and vice of their pupils. But from this time we had scarcely any thing to do with the discipline of the institution. Month after month, every thing went smoothly and pleasantly, and we had nothing to do but to provide instruction for industrious, faithful and regular young men; while before, the work of punishing misdemeanors, and repressing disorder, and repairing injuries, demanded far the greatest portion of our attention and care. Similar changes have often been produced in other communities, and the fact that so many persons have thus had the opportunity personally to witness them, is the real ground of the conviction which almost universally prevails, among the most intelligent and substantial portions of the community, that they are the work of God. That there will be some counterfeits is to be expected. As human nature is, it is certain. But we ought, when convinced that there are counterfeits, not to condemn all, but carefully to discriminate, and to bring before the world the marks of a counterfeit as distinctly as possible, so that nothing but what is genuine may obtain credit among mankind."
In this concern to detect and avoid the "counterfeit" revival, the question is "Was this the true conversion experience ? Was it really a work of God performed on souls of participants?" Or was it merely some artificially, and humanly induced induced excitement?
Charles Grandison Finney was the most famous, and the most articulate of those who would set out to "make a revival". He and like-minded men set off a wave of revivals, especially in upstate New York, and created a heated controversy in the Presbyterian church, by boldly setting out to "make a revival" as Abbott would have said. The following is from Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 1838, which is practically a "How to" book for generating a revival.
A REVIVAL OF RELIGION IS
NOT A MIRACLE
"1. A miracle has been generally defined to be a Divine interference, setting aside or suspending the laws of nature. It is not a miracle in this sense. All the laws of matter and mind remain in force. They are neither suspended nor set aside in a revival.
"2. It is not a miracle according to another definition of the
term miracle something above the powers of nature. There is nothing in
religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in
the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing
else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth
exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert the
powers they had before in a different way and use them for the glory of
"3. It is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means, as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means There may be a miracle among its antecedent causes, or there may not. The apostles employed miracles, simply as a means by which they arrested attention to their message sage, and established its Divine authority.
"But the miracle was not the revival. The miracle was one thing; the revival that followed it was quite another thing. The revivals in the apostles' days were connected with miracles, but they were not miracles.
"I said that a revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means."
Much of what he said after this is conciliatory to the old position, but clearly and emphatically, he is saying that men can and ought to "try to make a revival", however much God's help may be needed for its success.
Finney was pre-eminently the man of action. He exemplified Lyman Beecher's assertion that a sermon that didn't ask the listener to do something was a sermon thrown away. And the asking to do did not stop with the appeal to have God take possession of ones soul (not a very active action indeed). Like Beecher, the first of the major religious temperance crusaders, Finney challenged listeners to continue acting; to act in the world like a righteous man. While he did less of promoting particular reforms than others, he seemed to inspire the reformers, such as Theodore Weld, to go out and do something in the world, which could be considered God's work.You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks