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Our Undying Past

The Slave As 'Crushed Vegetable'

In researching the Underground Railroad past of my hometown, Waverly, Pa., I came across a fascinating explication of the abolition mission, at least as it was understood by white participants in the 1830s. I’m at the point in my book manuscript when the quote fits in---when white Waverly was helping to set up its own settlement of fugitive slaves—and I recently shared the lengthy quote with a key supporter of my work. I want to share it with you, too.

They are the words of John Mann, president of the Anti-Slavery and Free Discussion Society. On July 4, 1836, Mann gave a keynote holiday address at the Montrose Presbyterian Church. Montrose, thirty miles north of Waverly, was a haven of abolitionism, and its newspaper, The Spectator and Freeman’s Journal, proudly printed the text of Mann’s speech. Here’s his message for you to savor:

Emancipation, Mann said, “is not what many of its enemies would have you believe. It does not mean the uncaging of a menagerie and letting out a force of wild beasts, to ravage the country and commit depradations on society. ... It means to restore the oppressed children of Africa to that niche in the architecture of society which the Great Founder designed, or in other words, which they are qualified to fill. It means, in short, to make men and women of slaves.

“But, says goggle-eyed prejudice, you cannot do it. They are so degraded they can never rise to your beau of moral excellence and self-respect. To this we reply, that to doubt of success is to distrust the moral government of God. The two and a half millions of slaves in the United States are descendants from the same original stock with ourselves. Climate and local causes have produced the difference of complexion, and circumstances have produced the difference in condition. They have been crushed by the lever of power. Remove the pressure, and they will rise as naturally as the crushed vegetable regains its upright position whenever the rubbish that keeps it down is removed. If, however, the plant may have remained in an unnatural position, so long, as to have acquired a deformity, the careful husbandman will stake it up, and assist it to regain its proper form. If the moral powers of the slaves have been so long and so cruelly crushed that they cannot, unaided, acquire they proper direction, it is our duty to lend the helping hand. We are morally bound, first to remove the burden, and then to assist the crippled sufferer in rising, and to support him in his feet, till he can sustain his own weight.”

So there you have it. Mann knew how to turn a phrase, didn’t he? “Goggle-eyed prejudice” is my favorite. And his imagery about the husbandman carefully staking up a deformed plant was fitting for the farmers of his day. But still, I told the friend with whom I shared Mann’s quote, while the empathy is laudable the ideology behind it is more than a little patronizing. Who wants to be compared to a deformed plant in need of trussing?

My friend wasn’t so bothered by that. He was struck by how Mann was promoting a pseudo-scientific belief that “climate and local causes” affected racial complexion, and doing it decades before Darwin came out with Origin of Species. Also, he was enthralled by Mann’s lofty language, which he said is so beyond the reach of most students today.

What do you think? Patronizing? Laudable? Lofty? Over the top?
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