Exploring the original American sin: Documents on slavery

June 3, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 4, 2014

The other day, I collected a number of passages from American history rebutting conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s unqualified assertion that the United States was “founded under the premise that we are all created by God and we’re all created equal.” That may have been the spirit that motivated our Founding Fathers, but when it came to wide swathes of American residents — say, the nation’s African-American slaves — the principle was honored more in the breach than in the observance.

I’m not a serious student of history, but it was not at all hard to find numerous resources on American slavery. I ultimately pulled all of the historical texts in last week’s post from this resource page for “Africans in America,” a Public Broadcasting Service project. The page features nearly 250 illustrations and documents about what has euphemistically been labeled the peculiar institution.

Here are some other pages that inquiring minds can visit if they wish to delve deeper into the American experience of slavery:

• “Slavery and the Making of America”: These resources, evidently compiled for a 2004 project created by PBS’s New York City affiliate, Thirteen/WNET, cover a variety of topics. There are links to books for students, the texts of slave narratives, and audio clips of reminiscences of former slaves that were recorded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.

Primary source collections — slavery and abolition: This page, hosted by Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University, links to about three dozen different archives. Some collections document slavery in a particular place, such as Delaware or Texas; others feature images related to slavery. One link leads to a map that uses Census data to show the spread of slavery in the United States from 1790 through 1860. An Emory University initiative linked to here contains information on more than 35,000 slave voyages between the 16th and 19th centuries, including the names, points of origin, and places of disembarkation for more than 91,000 captured Africans.

• “The Constitution and Slavery”: This is the text of an 1849 essay by Frederick Douglass, the prominent black abolitionist and escaped slave, that examines how America’s foundational document treats slavery. The host site, Teaching American History, is a project of Ashland University in Ohio; it features links to “50 Core American Documents,” of which Douglass’s essay is one.

Notes on slavery: This is a lengthy excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia, which future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote after a term as governor. (I quoted part of this passage in my post.) While Jefferson opposed slavery, he felt that emancipation could be done effectively only if freed slaves were relocated to Africa. This page is part of an American history collection assembled by faculty at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

North American slave narratives: This University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill project “collects books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This collection includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. Also included are many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920.”

Our Documents — 100 Milestone Documents: The National Archives and Records Administration has compiled ten tens of texts from American history, spanning the years 1776 through 1965. One is the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery in the United States and its territories. I bet it’d be interesting to compare and contrast NARA’s selections with those featured in Ashland University’s “50 Core American Documents,” noted above.

• “The Debate Over Slavery”: This page features two sets of arguments — one for slavery, the other against. These resources comprise background material for an assignment for a George Mason University history course.

Digital Library on American Slavery: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro has created a searchable database with detailed personal information on slaves, slaveholders and free people of color. The information was gathered from documents submitted from 1775 through 1867 to legislatures and courts in the 15 slave-holding states.

Primary documents on American slavery: About.com guide Lisa Vox provides links to the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs (whom I quoted in my previous post); there’s also a link to the testimony of more than 2,000 former slaves collected by the WPA, which I mentioned above. (Vox lists a few other resources but does not provide any description.)

• “Primary Sources on Slavery”: This page contains the contents of a 2004 issue of History Now, a quarterly magazine published by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Renowned historian Eric Foner contributed an article on Reconstruction. There are also pieces discussing slave narratives, the physical artifacts of slavery and the evolving understanding of the relationship and familial links between Jefferson and his enslaved lover, Sally Hemings, among other material.

Documents on slavery: The Avalon Project at Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library has a page linking to various slavery-related documents. They include Up from Slavery, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, as well as federal and state laws on involuntary servitude and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

One could spend years examining just the highlights of these resources, and they represent only a fraction of what’s available on the web. (My search for “U.S. history slavery documents” turned up 11.4 million results.) They reveal an ugly, yet essential, component of the American experience.

It’s well and good to mouth platitudes about how America is and always has been a bastion of freedom. But saying such things doesn’t make them entirely true, no matter how often we say them or how fervently we believe in the sentiments we’re expressing.

Given that Rush Limbaugh has developed a successful sideline as the author of a burgeoning series of children’s books, I hope he’ll be moved to explore some of these records about the Americans who had no choice in coming and working here.


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