Jacksonian Miscellanies, #44

January 13, 1998

Edward Abdy: A Blunt Abolitionist Traveler in America

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.

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The following is taken from Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834. by Edward S. Abdy (London: Murray, 1835)

This is a "first anniversary" edition of Jacksonian Miscellanies, which was launched on January 14, 1997, my 45th birthday. I got the Abdy book as a birthday present. I believe its only publication in the United States was in the 1960s, as a reprint from the Negro College Press, I think.

Leonard L. Richards' Gentlemen of Property and Standing (1970, Oxford U. Press) is the first book I saw reference Abdy, though perhaps it has been used more in the last decade or two. One thing I didn't quite realize is that it was written primarily as a response to American slavery and racism, or so it seems from the introduction.

My first impression of Abdy is that he seems to have been sensible and fair-minded, and came to the U.S. expecting to give us the benefit of the doubt.

I am considering serializing it -- i.e. putting it into every 3rd or 4th issue of Jacksonian Miscellanies for the next couple of years. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on that.


A FEW words may perhaps be necessary to explain the chief objects of the following Work.

Having left England in company with two of his countrymen, one of whom (Mr. William Crawford) had been sent out by our Government to inspect the prisons of the United States, the Author was induced to remain after their return; and, finding the journal he had kept, contained what he thought might essentially serve the cause of humanity, he determined to sacrifice his reluctance to appear in print, and give a full and faithful picture of the cruelties he had witnessed.

If too much space should appear to be taken up by the same subject, it should be remembered that slavery, as it exists in America, comes home to our " business" as well as to our " bosoms"; and appeals no less to English pockets than to English sympathies; for the slave trade, which has cost us so much blood and treasure, springs naturally from the compulsory system of the new world, and must follow its fate. We have paid upwards of ten millions sterling between the years 1825 and 1834 (inclusive) for the suppression of that traffic, and have aggravated its horrors in proportion to our activity and expenditure. Our ships of war have forced an open commerce into the hands of the smuggler; and our bounties for captured negroes have called into action the worst passions, and the most cruel devices. Let the moral influence of England be substituted in America for her cannon on the Atlantic; and the black man will gain by our philanthropy what he now loses by our money. Commerce and civilization will spread their healing wings over Africa; and Christianity will follow in their train. It may be added, that we have a closer and a deeper interest in the question of American slavery; for, if the Southern portion of the Union should endeavor to prevent its discussion, and resist or separate from the other, a civil or a servile war would ensue, and the interruption of its staple cultivation would cut off from our cotton factories the chief sources of their prosperity, before a supply could be obtained from our Eastern settlements, or from other quarters of the globe.

The Author would observe that, in deviating from the usual mode of spelling some words, he had no desire to set up a new standard, where it would more become him to conform to what exists. He has quoted frequently from American writers, and he has adopted their orthography, because he wished to preserve uniformity.

The title " Journal" has been retained, though not strictly in accordance with the order of dates.





Arrival at New York.-First Introduction.-Governor Marcy. -House of Refuge.-Public Schools.-Mistakes of Travellers. -Language.-W.L.Garrison.-Singsing Penitentiary.-Prerogative of Pardon.-Education in the United States.

I LEFT Liverpool, March 3, 1833, in the Canada, Captain Wilson, and arrived at New York on the 11th of April. My friends proceeded, in the course of a few days, on their journey; and I remained to recruit my strength, having been confined by sickness to my berth during the greater part of the voyage.

After a mouth's nursing, being still too ill to join my fellow­travellers, I delivered some of the letters of introduction, with which I had been furnished in England, and met with that friendly and hospitable reception which every "stranger in America" experiences on such occasions.

If first impressions hare any influence upon our opinions, I could not but think favorably of the society among which I found myself: I was invited to dine at a house in Laight Street. It was a family party, consisting of twelve or thirteen: the latter number is not connected with any superstitious feeling in that part of the world. A hearty welcome, and an unaffected manner, that put every one at once at his ease, greeted my entrance; and the absence of' display and reserve rendered the conversation that passed during the evening, exceedingly agreeable. The delicate attentions I received, made me forget that I was a foreigner and an invalid. I could perceive but little difference in what I saw and in what I had been accustomed to: the greater or less degree of formality seemed to be the chief national distinction. Upon further acquaintance, I found that the different members of the family were as much distinguished for amiable dispositions as for natural good breeding. Here, as in other houses I visited, were signs of domestic attachment, not very common in the old country. Under the same roof were living the parents, their mother, and sisters, and the grown­up children. Whether so striking a difference between two nations, descended from the same stock, is to be referred to the difference in the law of descents that prevails in each, is not unworthy of consideration.

Of the beauties of the Broadway, and the Battery, of the City Hall,and the Exchange,, and of other public buildings,, it would be needless to speak where so much has been written by abler hands.

May 21, I went to the City Hall for the purpose of being introduced to the governor of the State by a gentleman, for the honor of whose acquaintance I was indebted to Mr. Stuart, the traveller. On our way to the "Audience Chamber" wee took a peep at the Court of Common Pleas and the Supreme Court -the latter a well­lighted and well­furnished room. There were three judges presiding; and the general appearance of the court, with the counsel pleading and the audience listening, was much the same as with us. The absence of wigs and gowns was matter rather of remark than of regret. It is hardly fair to put English associations into the bosom of an American, and then blame him for the incongruity which his opinions and actions exhibit with these supposititious tastes and feelings.

Several other persons were introduced at the same time with myself to the governor. The ceremony was of' true republican simplicity. The announcement of the name was answered by a friendly shake of the hand. After the conversation that ensued had ceased, the guests dispersed themselves to chat with their friends, or admire the fine view from the windows, and the historical portraits with which the room was decorated. The governor, who was a man of plain manners and a sensible countenance, afforded a striking example of the encouragement which the institutions of the country hold out to talent and industry. He had risen, by his own exertions, from one of the humblest to the highest rank in the State. He had come, when a youth, as he afterwards told me, into the State of New York with but eight dollars in his pocket; and of these the greater part was of no value. As one of his objects in visiting the city was to inspect the public schools, he was kind enough to propose that I should accompany him; and I gladly agreed to avail myself of his politeness, when the day, of which he promised to give me notice, should arrive.

The next day Dr. Hosack-so well known to English travellers for his hospitality-took me with him in his carriage to the House of Refuge-an institution for the reception of juvenile offenders. Here we met Governor Marcy, who had come with a committee on an official visit to the establishment-one of the best, perhaps, of its kind, to be seen in any country. Comfort, cleanliness, and convenient arrangement were observable throughout. I had, on a subsequent occasion, a better opportunity of viewing the institution. Having gone through the different portions of the building, we retired to the superintendant's room; where, as specimens of the literary proficiency made by the inmates, two papers, the one written by a boy, the other by a girl, were read to the company. They contained a sort of analysis of a lecture on anatomy, that had been delivered a short time before by a professional man to the children. Though neither of the writers was above fifteen years of age, both compositions exhibited a degree of correctness and reflection that would have done honor to persons of riper years and a happier lot. I could see, upon inspection, that the writing had not been corrected. It was painful to observe the studied manner in which the white and colored children were separated and distinguished from each other, as if moral improvement could be promoted in either by encouraging pride and inflicting humiliation. I should have made no remark on the subject, had not my attention been directed to it by one of the party: I observed that I could not see why the children of one common parent should meet with such different treatment. A contemptuous smile and a very silly assertion that Nature, by degrading the one race, had placed an insuperable barrier to a closer approximation with the other, were the only reply. I contented myself with remarking, that there was no color in the soul, and turned the conversation to some other topic. An Englishman may wish in vain that this feature in the national character were less frequently and less obtrusively thrust forward. The next day was that on which the governor, was to inspect the schools, accompanied by some of the corporation. I took my seat in one of the carriages provided for the occasion, and the visitors proceeded to make their rounds. The buildings, appropriated to the purposes of instruction, were large and airy; and all built upon the same plan; the ground floor being set apart for the infants, and the stories above for the boys and girls respectively. The system of teaching, if the tree is to be judged of by its fruits, appeared to be excellent. The rooms were all remarkably clean and well arranged. The children were attentive, intelligent, and orderly. They read clearly and distinctly, with good pronunciation and appropriate emphasis. In one establishment there were about eight hundred children, including the three separate divisions. That of the infants-the most interesting-contained above three hundred. It was extremely affecting to watch a group of little creatures, under two years of age, sitting lovingly together, and listening with the eager curiosity of infancy, to the wonders that their teacher was unfolding to them-all good­humor, and innocence, and harmony. I was pleased to hear from the mistress, to whom I put a few hurried questions, that the first thing taught an infant is to repeat its name and place of abode-thus securing its return home, should it by any accident be lost,- a very simple mode of precaution that ought to be put in practice by every parent: Eight or ten schools were visited during the course of the day; and at each of them, when the examination was over, an address was made to the children by the governor, one of the aldermen, or some other person. Satisfaction was expressed with the progress made

and c exhortation given for the future. The necessity of application to study and of strict obedience to their parents and teachers, preparatory to the due discharge of those social and political duties they would one day be called upon to perform, was particularly inculcated. They were told of the munificent provision made by the State for their education, and of the great interest felt for their welfare by its chief magistrate, in whom, and in many around them, they might see a diving example of the successful career, by which patient and persevering industry might rise from obscurity to an honorable distinction. Attachment to the political system of their country was thus, at an early period of life, identified with the promotion of their own happiness, and national honor built upon personal improvement. This ceremony was omitted at the African schools, as they are called. In one of these I wag struck, on our entrance, by the appearance of two boys, who had no signs of the Pariah caste about them. They were both of fair complexion with light, silky hair. 1 immediately pointed them out to one of the visitors, who was standing by me, and he looked as if he was shocked at the sacrilegious inter-mixture. Questions were eagerly put, and whispers passed mysteriously from one to another; when, at last, it was agreed that further inquiries should be made into the matter, and the incipient contamination be arrested, by removing the objects of their solicitude from the black sheep among whom they had been so improperly placed. The first Africo­American free school v, as established at New York in 1787, by the Manumission Society of the State. In 1790 the girls were taught needle­work by a female engaged for that purpose. In 1808 the school was incorporated, and the next year the Lancasterian system was introduced into it. There was not an instance, according to C. C. Andrews, who has published an account of the schools for colored children, of any pupil, instructed in this institution, having been, down to the year 1830, "convicted of crime in any of the courts of justice."

The Trustees of the Manumission Society, under whose care the "African" schools are placed by the commissioners of the school­fund-(some of them are Quakers),-have made a distinction between the white and black teachers, that is consistent neither with justice nor good policy. They give higher salaries to the former than to the latter, without reference to the qualifications of the master or the number of the scholars. A man of color, of the name of Hughes, receives but 500 dollars a year: while a white man, whose name it would be invidious to mention, as he is acknowledged to be inferior to the other in every respect, has 600, for performing the same duties in a school of the same class.

The city of New York paid, in the year 1832, the sum of 90,748 dollars, eighty­six cents, for the use of the public schools. As great remissness on the part of parents to have their children educated was experienced, an agent was appointed by the school society, with a salary of 800 dollars per annum, to visit the poor, for the purpose of removing whatever objections or obstacles might exist to the performance of this great parental duty: at the same time an ordinance of the corporation of the city excluded "from the participation of public charity, when it may be required, all out­door poor, whether emit grants or not, who, having children between the ages of five and twelve, neglect or refuse to send them to some one of the public schools."

In spite of what has been done in this and other States for popular education, a very large portion of the population is still deprived of its benefits. A writer in Niles's Register states, that there are nearly a million and a half of children in the United States destitute of the school instruction they require. Add to this amount the slaves and a great many of the free blacks, and the waste of human intellect is frightful indeed!

Having visited the schools, we proceeded to the City Orphan Asylum, a well­conducted establishment, containing about 140 objects of charity; boys and girls. The guardian had been, for twenty years, at the head of an "African" school. He assured me that he could not discover any difference of intellect in blacks and whites:-he thought that, with similar advantages, the former would be fully equal to the latter. This testimony is not to be hastily rejected, derived, as it is, from a man highly respected, of much experience in the tuition of both races, competent to form a sound opinion, and coming to a conclusion directly opposed to all that he had been taught and all he still hears.

The business of the day concluded with a plain but plentiful dinner at the Alms House-a spacious and handsome building in what are now the outskirts of the city, and commanding a noble view, in front, of the East river with its numerous beauties. A proposition was made, after the good things on the table had been disposed of, that the school fund should be transferred from the trustees to the corporation, or, at least, some more effectual control exercised over them, on the principle that no man is exempt from temptation to abuse a public trust. The measure, however, was opposed with the same good humor as had been shewn in recommending it; no danger of the kind to be provided against was admitted to exist: and the general feeling was in favor of the existing arrangement. That no man is to be trusted is said to be a political maxim in the United States. My first attendance at a public meeting afforded a striking exception to the rule.

There are of course many things in New York and in London that strike an Englishman and an American on their first arrival as singular, if not absurd. A better illustration of the embarrassment alluded to cannot be given, than a passage that occurs in a little work published some thirty years ago by a Yankee on his return from a trip to England. "The first funeral, he says, I saw, was such a novelty, that I followed it a short distance, not knowing what it was; and, as my manner is to question every one, who, I think, can give me any information, [a Yankee custom,] I asked an honest fellow,'what the show was?'-he seemed a little offended, but directly replied-'you may know one day, if you do not come to the gallows !' This man, like Chatham, was 'original and unacommodating.''' Austin's Letters, &c. Now, it is evident that the man imagined Austin was bantering him, or he would not have used an expression, the humor of which-and it really is not without point -would have been thrown away, as the answerer must have known, upon any one unacquainted with the nature of the procession. The writer adds- "observing I was surprised at his answer, and feeling perhaps a little mortified, he asked me, 'if I lived in London ?' I told him 'I had just come.' 'Well! but people die sometimes in your town?' By this time I discovered the performance was a funeral. The plumes being white, a sign of a virgin, instead of black, which are more usually displayed' account for my ignorance. Had I been in Pekin, I should have expected a white funeral, but was not prepared to see one in London." Thus it is that nature is punished for the blunders of a traveller's imagination; and nations are angry with each other because their respective customs do not correspond with their own preconceptions. What is allowable at Pekin is ridiculous in London or Boston. Veniam petimusque damusque:-I shall have frequent occasion to claim the benefit of the act.

That two nations, separated by the broad expanse of the Atlantic, should differ in many points from each other, is to be expected; but why should their agreement in a matter common to both excite surprise? Yet several persons with whom I conversed, complimented me on the correctness of my language, and seemed to be astonished that an Englishman should speak his mother­tongue with propriety:-that he should leave the letter h in its right place, and suffer v and w to speak for themselves. One man observed to me, that the grammatical accuracy with which Charles Kemble spoke struck the people on his first arrival in New York as something unusual in one from "the old countrie."

We may "guess" from this what sort of gentry are used to honor the United States with their presence. Many who go thither upon business and are distinguished at home for nothing but vulgarity and ignorance, set up for gentlemen-(though they have no pretension, or rather are all pretension)- and complain that outward appearance is not treated with sufficient respect, as if insolence would be taken for full payment of personal merit any where.

As John Bull, when he travels, generally assumes the rank which is most wanting to him at home, and puts forth his claims in an inverse ratio to his qualifications, it is not surprising that he should impose upon "the natives" in a double sense, and sink his country while he is raising himself.

It is probable that the average of literary accomplishments is higher among our brethren in the new world, while the extremes at either end are less distant from the middle point of the scale.

It may be observed that the English and the Anglo­Americans are placed in circumstances less favorable to a fair appreciation of each other's peculiarities than any other two nations, with the exception of those which bear the same relation to each other. Their common language is the chief impediment in the way of a mutual understanding. That which seems to bind them together, serves too often to dissever them; and the pleasurable feeling which attends their approximation is frequently merged in the sensation of an unaccommodating dissimilarity. When a word has two meanings, one that we have been long accustomed to, and the other, not only new but opposed to the former, it need not be asked to which we would give the preference. But when the new associate attempts to displace the old, and by connecting itself with the expression, to take sole possession of the mind, it is extremely difficult, under the shock of conflicting feelings, to do justice both to past and present impressions-to retain our former attachments, and to enter, by sympathy, into those that are equally cherished by others. No such prepossessions are interwoven with a foreign language; and our partialities take a different direction when we are among those who speak it.

About this time I received a visit from a man who had already made some noise in the country, and is destined, if he live, to fill a niche in its history. The person of whom I speak, is William Lloyd Garrison-the Apostle and Martyr of Emancipation. I had expressed a wish to see him, to the steward of the vessel which took me out; and the latter, communicated what I said to him, as he was taking his passage by the same ship for Liverpool. He was going on a mission from the New England Anti-slavery Society, with the view of undeceiving the British abolitionists, whom Elliott Cresson, an advocate of the American Colonization Society, had misled with regard to the objects and motives of the latter institution. As I was fully aware of the deception that had been practiced both by the principal and the agent, I was anxious to learn how the impression it had made was to be removed, and was highly gratified that a measure had been adopted, the ultimate effects of which would involve the destinies of millions not only in America, but in Africa; and, I may add, of the whole globe,-for freedom is the parent of civilization, and civilization of commerce. Upon the solution of this important question depends the continuance or the dissolution of the union; and every one who visits the States that compose it, must feel interested in all that bears upon it, whether the aspect in which he views it, be moral or political. Efforts had been made to detain Garrison by a legal process, through the medium, fictitious or real, of an action for libel. Like all pioneers in the cause of reform, he had employed weapons of a rough kind, more suited to the nature of the work and the paucity of coadjutors than agreeable to the taste of his opponents and the delicacy of his friends. His private character, however, was unimpeachable; and those who differed most widely from him in opinion, could not have found in his manners that severity which those, who most agreed with him, lamented in his writings.

As soon as he had sailed, a cross fire of abuse was opened by the morning and evening papers upon him and all connected with him,-"the fanatic" Garrison, and his "crazy" coadjutors re­echoed through the columns of the journals, which were thus, by exciting discussion, giving activity to the cause they were trying to smother. The merits of the question might be inferred from the manner in which it was urged; and the result might safely be predicted from the demeanor of the disputants. Those who would have us think a feeble advocate must have a bad cause, should take care lest we think a violent advocate cannot have a good one. Fanaticism*

is not more closely allied to philanthropy than to selfishness; and the pride that would "humble" a fellow mortal is as "crazy" as the humility that would "exalt" him. The papers had the public with them; then why should they have been so angry?

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