American Slavery As It Is: The book that changed American attitudes

July 16, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, journalists, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké were tired of the spin — although they didn’t use that term back in 1838.

They were tired of people saying that black was white, up was down, and night was day. And they were tired of people believing the spin because that’s what they wanted to believe.

Americans needed a good, strong dose of reality, and those three abolitionists were determined to give it to them.

But Weld and the Grimké had a steep wall of lies and hardened attitudes to scale. Slavery was not so bad, Americans had been told. Slaveowners took good care of their charges. Instances of abuse were rare. Most slaves were very happy and would not accept their freedom if it was offered. Advocates of slavery and their apologists had spoken these lies so often and so loudly that people believed them.

They were believed because people wanted to believe them. Slavery was too woven into the economics of the nation that changing it would cause climatic disruption.

The abolitionists were determined to attack these lies with the truth, but the truth had to be irrefutable. It could not be dismissed. So, Weld and the Grimkés came up with a clever plan. Rather than railing against slavery (as they had done), they would gather eyewitness testimony — some of it from the slaveholders themselves.

The eyewitnesses began with the Grimkés. The sisters had grown up in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family that had owned slaves. But they did not stop with their own accounts. Weld then solicited descriptions of slavery from people who had lived in the South and could tell with credibility what they had seen. These descriptions came from ministers, businessmen, professors, and former slaves who were living and freedmen.

Then the abolitionist took things a step farther. Living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, they traveled to New York City and collected all of the Southern newspapers they could as they were being discarded from the library. For many months, they scanned these newspapers (20,000 by their own count) and copied any descriptions that slaveowners themselves had offered to fellow Southerners about how they handled their slaves. These people imagined that they were talking only to like-minded individuals; they never imagined that their words would have a wider audience.

The authors consulted many other sources as well: Congressional debates, court records, statements by foreign ambassadors, and legal documents — anything that they could claim offered credible, irrefutable evidence. Then they presented their “evidence” as they would in a court proceeding, labeling them as “testimony” and “statements.” They certainly sprinkled their own interpretations around liberally throughout the book, but the facts were there.

American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses was published in 1839. The authors were not named but a line on the title page asked that “additional testimonies” be sent to “Theodore Weld, 143 Nassau Street, New York.” The book is not easy reading. It describes the horrific treatment and conditions that slaves had to endure, and it shows that these conditions were commonplace. It showed that, indeed, as Abraham Lincoln would later put it, that slavery was a “monstrous evil.”

The book sold 100,000 copies during its first year in print — an enormous figure for a nation with a population of 17 million. It continued to sell at a substantial rate throughout the 1840s. One of the people who had a copy was Frederick Douglass, who was to become the most famous and respected freedman of his time.

Another customer was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was so affected by the book that she kept a copy “under her pillow.” Stowe used American Slavery As It Is as a sourcebook for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which would strike an even heavier blow against slavery. When it was published in 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sales soared past those of the Weld-Grinké book with 300,000 sold in America in its first year.

The efforts of Weld and the Gimké sisters, according to historian William Lee Miller in his excellent survey of the era Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress, was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism.

Although this book is loaded with, and shaped by, a quite explicit more outlook and conclusion — no book was ever more so — its essence is something else: a careful assembling of attested facts, to make a point. (p. 325)

America has pretty much forgotten about Weld and the Grimkés, but the nation still owes them a debt of gratitude.


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