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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



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1 Beaverton African American Studies- Slavery and Reconstruction

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America

by

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter One

An Evil Without Remedy

The Negro Business is a great object with us. It is to the Trade of the Country as the Soul to the Body.
— Joseph Clay, slave owner

Josiah Henson's earliest memory was of the day that his father came home with his ear cut off. He, like his parents, had been born into slavery, and knew no other world beyond the small tract of tidewater Maryland where he was raised. He was five or six years old when the horrifying thing happened, probably sometime in 1795. "Father appeared one day covered in blood and in a state of great excitement," Henson would recall many years later. His head was bloody and his back lacerated, and "he was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering."

Henson was born on June 15, 1789, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, on a farm belonging to Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. His mother was the property of a neighbor, Dr. Josiah McPherson, an amiable alcoholic who treated the infant Henson as something of a pet, bestowing upon him his own Christian name. In accordance with common practice, McPherson had hired out Henson's mother to Newman, to whom Henson's father belonged. Newman's overseer, a "rough, coarse man," had brutally assaulted Henson's mother. Whether this was an actual or attempted rape, or the more mundane brutality of daily life, Henson does not make clear. Perhaps he didn't know. Whatever the cause, Henson's father, normally a good-humored man, attacked the overseer with ferocity and would have killed him, had not Henson's mother intervened. For a slave to lift his hand "against the sacred temple of a white man's body," even in self-defense, was an act of rebellion. Slaves were sometimes executed, and occasionally even castrated, for such an act. Knowing that retribution would be swift, Henson's father fled. Like most runaways, however, he didn't go far, but hid in the surrounding woods, venturing at night to beg food at nearby cabins. Eventually, hunger compelled him to surrender. Slaves from surrounding plantations were ordered to witness his punishment for their "moral improvement." One hundred lashes were laid on by a local blacksmith, fifty lashes at a time. Bleeding and faint, the victim was then held up against the whipping post and his right ear fastened to it with a "tack." The blacksmith then sliced the ear off with a knife, to the sound of cheers from the crowd.

What the real sentiments of the slaves watching this punishment might have been no one can say. Perhaps they cheered in a desperate effort to reassure their masters that they, unlike Henson's father, were docile and trustworthy, and harbored no thoughts of rebellion. Or perhaps with relief, seeing a "troublemaker," whose deed had caused their masters to become more vigilant and harsh in an effort to forestall further rebellion, now getting his just deserts. Or perhaps, to people so brutalized by their own degradation, the cruelty may even have seemed a form of gruesome entertainment. Afterward, Henson's father became a different man, brooding and morose — "intractable," as slave owners typically described human property that no longer responded compliantly to command. Nothing could be done with him. "So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his after fate neither my mother nor I ever learned."

Following his father's disappearance, Henson and his mother returned to the McPherson estate. Even after years of freedom, Henson would remember the doctor as a "liberal, jovial" man of kind impulses, and he might well have lived out his life in passive oblivion as a slave had not it been for another stroke of fate that abruptly changed his life yet again. One morning, when Henson was still a small child, McPherson was found drowned in a stream, having apparently fallen from his horse the night before in a drunken stupor. McPherson's property was to be sold off, and the proceeds divided among his heirs. The slaves were frantic at the prospect of being sold away from Maryland to the Deep South, where it was well known that overwork, the grueling climate, and disease shortened lives. Even sparing that, an estate sale commonly meant that parents would be divided from children, and husbands from wives, lifelong friends separated from one another, a relatively benign master suddenly exchanged for a cruel one. For female slaves, the future might mean rape and permanent sexual exploitation. The only thing that those about to be sold did know was that the future was completely uncertain, and that they had not the slightest power to affect their fate.

In due course, all the remaining Hensons — Josiah's three sisters, two brothers, his mother, and himself — were put up at auction. The memory of this event remained engraved in Josiah's memory until the end of his life: the huddled group of anxious slaves, the crowd of bidders, the clinical examining of muscles and teeth, his mother's raw fear. His brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while his mother, holding his hand, looked on in "an agony of grief," whose meaning only slowly dawned on the little boy as the sale proceeded. When his mother's turn came, she was bought by a farmer named Isaac Riley, of Montgomery County, just outside the site of the new national capital at Washington. Then young Henson himself was finally offered up for sale. In the midst of the bidding, as Josiah remembered it, his mother pushed through the crowd, flung herself at Riley's feet, and begged him to buy the boy as well. Instead, he shoved her away in disgust...

Product Details

ISBN:
9780060524302
Subtitle:
The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
Author:
Bordewich, Fergus
Author:
Bordewich, Fergus M.
Author:
by Fergus Bordewich
Publisher:
Amistad
Subject:
History
Subject:
United States - Civil War
Subject:
Slavery
Subject:
Social history
Subject:
United States - 19th Century
Subject:
Underground railroad
Subject:
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - Histor
Subject:
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - General
Subject:
Abolitionists
Subject:
Antislavery movements -- United States.
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Hardcover
Publication Date:
20050329
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
560
Dimensions:
9.48x6.40x1.39 in. 2.00 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » African American Studies » Slavery and Reconstruction
History and Social Science » US History » 1800 to Civil War

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America Used Hardcover
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$7.95 In Stock
Product details 560 pages Amistad Press - English 9780060524302 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated — and much more remarkable — than is usually understood. As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment — a detail, a vignette, a description — that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "A vivid reconstruction of abolitionism?s most daring act of rebellion....Rich in detail and solid storytelling: sure to awaken interest in the peculiar anti-institution."
"Review" by , "A rich, spellbinding, and readable narrative."
"Review" by , "Rich in detail, [and] its ability to evoke the emotions, sights and sounds of these clandestine ventures."
"Review" by , "Dramatizes a shining moment in American history — a book filled with unsung heroes and revolutionary acts of trust."
"Review" by , "Bound for Canaan recaptures this grand history with the insightfulness, comprehensiveness, and narrative vigor the subject demands."
"Review" by , "Bound For Canaan reveals in stunning detail and beautiful prose the inner workings of this clandestine system." Kate Clifford, Ph.D. author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
"Review" by , "This fast-paced narrative is the best account we have of the network known as the Underground Railroad."
"Review" by , "A masterful story — a deeply American story."
"Review" by , "An excellent book...as close to a definitive history as we're likely to see."
"Review" by , "A profoundly American tale."
"Review" by , "All in all, it's a part of American history that everyone should know — and great reading, too."
"Review" by , "Readers interested in learning about historical figures in the Underground Railroad other than Harriet Tubman will enjoy this work."
"Synopsis" by , An important book of epic scope on America's first racially integrated, religiously inspired political movement for change: the Underground Railroad, a movement peopled by daring heroes and heroines, and everyday folk. 16-page insert. Map.
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