Jacksonian Miscellanies, #48

February 10, 1998

"More Like a Colony of Beavers or Ants, Than Human Beings" (Abdy #2)

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 a second excerpt from Edward Abdy's Journal of a Residence and Tour in The United States of North America (London: Murray, 1835).

Much of this excerpt is about Singsing Penitentiary, and the system of making prisoners labor, while at no time allowing them to talk to one another (when not working they were essentially in solitary confinement).

The book is in large part, a reaction to American slavery, so heated that it was never published in the U.S., except in the 1960s by the Negro University Press. It has received too little attention, though one exception is Leonard Richards' Gentlemen of Property and Standing, which draws extensively on it for observations of the racist rioting of the 1830s.


Two things I notice about the author:

Conclusion of Chapter I (pages 16-29)

May 27. I accompanied the Governor on a visit, which, he had informed me, by a very polite note the day before, he was going to make, to the prison at Singsing, about thirty miles up the river. We left the city at 7 A.M. by a steam boat, and arrived at 11 o'clock. The morning was fine and clear, and the scenery, on both banks, delightful. Some militia men, who were on board with a band, amused themselves with dancing reels; while the gaiety and cheerfulness that prevailed, reminded me of some scene on the Rhine. The latter is, however, narrower than the Hudson, and differs from it as much in the style as in the variety of its beauties. The military left us at Yonker's Hotel, which lay on our right, and gave the Governor a salute as they landed. Five or six miles further, and on the same side, we passed Tarrytown, the spot where Andre was taken. Much has been said and sung about his unhappy fate: but is it not a false principle which makes it a duty to sacrifice private honor to national glory, and encourages in an enemy the infidelity it would condemn in a friend? He was a spy and an accessory to treason.

Great attention was shewn to the Governor by the passengers; and "his Excellency," in return, was not wanting in courtesy to those who sought an introduction to him. An elderly man, who had observed me conversing with him, requested me to perform that ceremony for him. I told him I was a stranger,-more fit to receive the honor than to confer it. He saw that I did not like to put myself forward, and very good humoredly applied to another quarter. Soon after this we landed at our place of destination, and the boat went on to Albany.

The system, on which Singsing prison is conducted, is calculated to make a strong impression on the mind. I could take, however, but a cursory view of an institution which, though an imitation of the Maison de Force at Ghent, as the Philadelphia system is of that at Glasgow, has excited so much attention in Europe. The unremitted industry of the convicts, the skilful manner in which they work, the unbroken silence that prevails throughout, the organized discipline, the complete arrangement among such a variety of objects, the passive obedience of men habituated to insubordination and irregularity, and the universal expression of thorough subjection and helplessness, --produce sensations and feelings that cannot be explained by any thing that the spectator has witnessed in places usually appropriated to the reception of prisoners. The whole presents a combination of physical exertions, unaccompanied by the signs and sounds of rational creatures, that resembles rather a colony of beavers or a community of ants, than a collection of human beings. The power of language is seen here in its absence. It is the want of it which has subjected the many to the few; and made them the unresisting instruments of an influence from which its possession would have rescued them. Such is the external aspect of the place and its inhabitants. We naturally ask, do the ultimate results correspond with this calm and order, and will he, who is perfect as a physical machine here, be better as a moral agent when he gets out? Subsequent enquiry and reflection afforded some reasons for doubting whether the answer would be quite satisfactory.

The body of the building, which is situated near the bank of the river, and is oblong, consists of five stories, separated from the walls by an empty space, the ground floor and the galleries above admitting of a passage round the successive divisions, in each of which are 100 cells; and, as each side corresponds with the other, there are thus 1,000; with grated doors looking to windows placed on the other side of the passage, in the opposite wall. Each cell contains a blanket and a board to lie on, and a bible. It is here that the three daily meals are taken­­one hour and a quarter after breakfast and dinner being allowed to their solitary tenants, who are debarred from all communication with their neighbours, and are confined by means of an apparatus, by which every lock along the line is fastened and opened simultaneously. Every convict, as he passes at the prescribed hour, takes up his meal in a wooden bowl, through an opening connected with the kitchen, and replaces it in the same spot on his return from his cell. Their dinner was composed of bread made of rye and Indian corn, potatoes, and a small slice of pork. Every ration was the same in quantity. This, with water, (varying occasionally the meat,) is all that is allowed them. Owing to the exercise they take, the good air they breathe during the day, their simple diet, and the absence of every thing calculated to produce any strong excitement in mind or body, it is found that the proportion of deaths is less than among men of the same class in ordinary life. I was told that habitual drunkards, so far from being injured by sudden and total abstinence from spirituous liquors, experienced from it a marked improvement in their health.

The wings of the building run down to the river, and contain the offices and workshops. The intermediate ground is occupied by the stone­cutters. The quarry from which the latter obtain their materials, is at the back of the prison, the whole of which is commanded by the hill where the stone is found. Here are posted eleven guards with fire arms to prevent escapes. In the course of five years two prisoners have been shot, while attempting to get off. At the time of our visit, there were 850 convicts. The establishment consists of an agent, with a salary of 1750 dollars per annum-a clerk, with 800;-physician and surgeon with, each, a salary not exceeding 500, the amount to be fixed by the inspectors, of whom there are three, appointed by the Governor of the State and the Senate;-a chaplain, not above 300, subject to the same regulation;-a deputy keeper, whose salary is not to exceed 1000;-and assistant keepers, with salaries not above 550 each.

The whole number of persons employed in the prison during the year which ended with September, 1832, was, one agent, one clerk, one deputy keeper, twenty­three assistant keepers, and twenty­nine guards. The latter receive eighteen dollars per month each, and the sergeant, who commands them, twenty­five. The inspectors, whose duty it is to visit the prison at least once every two months, and report annually to the Legislature, hold office two years, and are re­eligible. They receive the same pay, both for their services and for their travelling expenses as the Members of the Legislature,-three dollars (if I mistake not) a­day, and three for every twenty miles;-not payable, however, unless they are actually and necessarily engaged in their official employment.

A prison, without walls, and open to any one who chooses to enter it, would imply or require a popular government, as disaffection would here find ready-made instruments to work with. In Europe, high walls are built round similar establishments to prevent intrusion as well as evasion, and revolt without is more dreaded than revolt within the enclosure.

No instance has occurred at Singsing of assistance being given to the prisoners in their attempts to escape.

The profits derived from the convict labor already exceed the expenditure, and will probably leave a considerable surplus, if the system be not interrupted by the jealousy it has excited among the mechanics, whose interests are erroneously supposed to be injured by its continuance. With the increase of the city of New York will be an augmenting demand for its labor, and a commensurate addition to the value of its proceeds. In return, it is too certain, that that great emporium of commerce will supply it with inmates:-crime and luxury will thus feed each other, and the marble that now lies peaceably under Mount Pleasant, will be torn from its bosom by the outcasts of that city it is destined to enrich and embellish.

Having inspected the Penitentiary, the Governor took me with him to a gentleman's house in the village, where we found a small party assembled, and passed the remainder of the afternoon. Beds had been provided for us at the clerk's, about a mile from the prison, the pathway to which commands a noble view of the river. The next morning we breakfasted with the Agent.

Before our departure one of the convicts was discharged-his term of years (four) having expired. As he was from the same country as myself, I spoke in a friendly manner to him, and exhorted him to act honestly on his return to society. He appeared to be stupid and unfit for any thing useful or rational,-one of those exotics that are the worse for transplantation, uniting the bad qualities peculiar to each soil, and losing, or wanting, the virtues of both.

We returned by 6 P.M. to New York, and I took my leave of the chief magistrate, to accompany him on a visit he was to make to the City Penitentiary the following Monday.

As the executive of the State, the Governor has the power of pardoning and remitting punishment. This is called here, as elsewhere, the prerogative of mercy, though it is rather that of justice, since its exercise ought to be regulated not by feeling, but by principle, and is salutary in those cases only which imply extenuation of guilt or defect of conclusive evidence. Where there is no crime, compensation would be more appropriate than pardon. It is hardly, however, to be expected, that this distinction should be acknowledged by those who are most interested in not understanding it; or that the relatives of one who has brought ruin or shame upon them, should see clearly that pity to the individual is too often cruelty to society. Where an audience is so easily obtained, the chief magistrate is frequently exposed to solicitations which nothing but a strong sense of duty could enable him to resist. Those touching appeals to the passions, which the Roman orators of antiquity were used to practice, are sometimes made on these occasions; and it must be owned, that a wife in tears and a group of children on their knees are less out of place before the executive, than before the judge. These exhibitions are often amusingly characteristic of simplicity, both in the people and in their institutions. One anecdote of the kind created a laugh at the breakfast table. A poor woman, who had come a long distance with a petition duly attested in favor of her husband, presented herself before "his Excellency," and throwing the memorial on the table, exclaimed, when asked what she wanted, "that paper will tell you." The prisoner was a worthless fellow:-her request was firmly yet mildly refused. "Well then," said the applicant, "I suppose I must go home again;-but how am I to get back ?-I have not a cent in my pocket."-Pecuniary relief was given her, and she expressed her gratitude most warmly.- "If I thought my husband was not reformed," she said, "I would rather he should remain where he is." -She then left the room, repeating her thanks for the kindness she had received, when, suddenly returning, she put her head in at the door, and called out "I say, Governor, when I want him to be discharged, I'll let you know."

This prerogative was formerly exercised in a very improper manner.-Chief Justice Spencer, one of the delegates to the New York State Convention, in 1821, said in debate,- "In the increase of population crimes had naturally increased, until our State prisons had become thronged. Something, therefore, must be done, and the judges had found it necessary to recommend to the governor, from time to time, that the least criminal should be pardoned." Mr. P. R. Livingston observed very justly, in reply,- "If the governor had possessed no power to pardon, your prisons would never have been filled." And even so late as 1832, the governor of Ohio (M'Arthur) said, in his message to the legislature, "Many of the convicts have been pardoned more frequently for the purpose of making room for the reception of others, and to save expense to the State, than for any just claim they may have had on executive clemency." This is carrying economy to an excess that must necessarily end in augmenting the expenditure of the State, if direct encouragement to crime have any tendency that way. It is hardly worth while to apply to the chief magistrate for a friend's pardon, when you can serve him as well by putting your hand into your neighbour's pocket. By borrowing the governor's best horse, an associate may draw down his clemency upon a convict, while drawing down his vengeance upon himself. The kindness will be repaid in due time.

The school­commissioners not having completed their half­yearly visit, I again accompanied them to the schools and renewed my former gratification. The beauty of the penmanship in the specimens exhibited; the justness of the pronunciation and spelling; and the order observable throughout the different establishments we saw, again struck my attention. At one of the "African" schools was an Albiness. She had the features and crisped hair peculiar to the negro race; but her skin and eyes were of a light color; and her hair had the appearance of wool both in whiteness and consistency. Her sight was very weak, and I was told her intellect was defective.

During our rounds, I was introduced to a very gentlemanly man, whose son I had met on my excursion to Singsing. We conversed together a good deal about the schools, the interests of which he had exerted himself to promote both by his purse and his influence. His politeness led him a few days afterwards to call upon me; and I was indebted to him for an agreeable acquaintance with some of his friends and for some very pleasant days which I afterwards passed at his country residence.

The last place we visited on this occasion was the Catholic Orphan Asylum, which contains about 100 children, and is under the superintendence of the Soeurs de la Charite, who are sent hither from their establishment at Emmetsburg in Maryland. Though sectarian, this seminary receives part of the school­fund, a deviation from the general principles of the constitution that is said not to be universally approved of. The Friends support their own schools.

There were thirteen public schools (there are probably more now) in New York; and in addition, is one belonging to the Mechanics' Association, which receives an allowance for twenty scholars from the public fund; two orphan asylums; and about six "African " schools.

The superintendent of the common schools reported in January, 1833, that there were, by the last estimate, 508,878 children in the State between the ages of five and sixteen; and that of these 494,959 were receiving instruction in the district schools. The annual revenue derived from the school fund was 93,755 dollars, the capital, which was progressively increasing, amounting, at the date of the report, to 1,735,175 dollars. With the addition of a state tax and local funds, the whole sum available for the purposes of education, was 305,582 dollars. This, added to 358,320-raised voluntarily by the inhabitants of 761 towns or townships,-swells the aggregate to 663,902; the whole having been applied exclusively to the payment of the teachers, deducting about 60,000 for the city of New York. Thus, it appears, the State pays somewhat less than one­sixth of this part of the expenditure-comprehending not more than one­half of the annual cost of public instruction, which including school­houses, books, fuel, &c., was estimated at about 1,126,482 dollars; less shall one­eleventh of which was paid by the public treasury, its share having become less than it had ever previously been. These beneficial results, contrasted with what had been experienced in Connecticut, where the voluntary principle has been rendered inoperative by a large permanent school fund, afford matter for serious reflection on this important subject, and lead to a conclusion, the correctness of which is supported by a striking fact mentioned in the Report. In seven counties of the State, where the local funds amounted to about 12,795 dollars, the average contribution of each inhabitant was thirty­four cents six­tenths; while in seven counties, where there were no funds at all, the same average was thirty­seven cents one­tenth. The superintendent recommended that the teachers should receive better instruction and higher salaries. The former suggestion has since received the attention it deserves; it is to be hoped that the latter will not be neglected, and that the services of those who are as usefully and as honorably employed as any in public or private life, may be adequately remunerated. By the superintendent's report in 1834, there were 512,475 children, between the ages of five and sixteen, receiving instruction in the public schools, while the whole number of that age in the State amounted to 522,618. The teachers had received for the last year 677,429 dollars, in addition to 100,000 from the public fund. The annual expenditure for education, private as well as public, was supposed to be about one million of dollars. The principle alluded to in the former report, is still further confirmed as the system is developed in its details. "Experience in other States has proved," says the superintendent, "what has been abundantly confirmed by our own:-that too large a sum of public money, distributed among the common schools, has no salutary effect. Beyond a certain point, the voluntary contributions of the inhabitants decline in amount, with almost uniform regularity, as the contributions from a public fund increase. In almost every case in which a town possesses a local fund, the amount paid for teachers' wages, above the public money, is about as much less, compared with (that of) other towns having no local fund, as the amount received from that source. "The State advances nineteen cents three fourths for each pupil per annum, while the remaining part of the cost (more than a dollar) is paid by the parents or friends. In Connecticut, a dollar has been drawn for the same purposes, from the school fund, for each scholar;-and the result has been great remissness on the part of the teachers and superintendents, and the refusal from many districts to support, by the attendance of their children, a system so defective.

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