Blood of a Nation Divided by E.C. 2008

A canvas and a country all begin devoid of color, devoid of structure, and devoid of vision; a fresh slate awaiting the molding of a man’s inspiration. That inspiration will soon render the canvas a work of bold slashing colors, and the country like the canvas, will soon have its first layers—a settling, a building, and a growing of a civilization. The transformation of both will not be without hardship and missteps—the painter’s mistake will be painted over, and the civilization will grow over theirs; yet the wrong will always be there—permanently etched beneath newer surfaces.

A nation is built upon the inspired heart and mind of man—and America in particular is a nation founded on potential; the belief that there is always something greater to aspire to, that man can always do better, be better, dream bigger. Still though, man is an imperfect animal, and he is prone to loosing track of higher ideals, and it is up to better men than he to set a nation back on the right path again. American history is filled with great men, men who stand up before tyrants and peculiar institutions to lift up to the light a suffering people, that they may be released from the bondage of their subjugation and live free in the pursuit of that which makes them happy.

The stain etched beneath the surface of America’s glory is the stain of an enslaved race. It is the denial of basic human rights and dignities given by both God and law; it is the hypocrisy of fighting a revolutionary war to gain the freedom of a nation, only to turn around and deny that freedom to men of that nation because of the color of their flesh. “All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Thomas Jefferson), words of freedom, and dignity, and hope. Crafted into the Declaration of Independence, the document that founded the birth of a nation. Yet, Jefferson did not set slaves free with those words, he had neither the reason nor the conviction to carry such an effort through—he did however set the stage for someone to do what he could not. He knew in time, a better man would set them free. And it would take nearly another century of cruelty before another pair of eyes turned towards the plight of the slaves in an effort to enlighten an indifferent nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe was not the only anti-slave activist of her time, though she may have been one of the most influential. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 in an attempt to reach the multitudes of people who perpetuated the slavery cycle not through their possession of slaves, but through their indifference to the institution. She created characters that whether loved or hated, revered or reviled, they have become synonymous in American literature as standards for the darkest time in American history. Her novel excited a nation to awareness, through the sheer controversy of its content. One of the most lucid scenes in the novel is a conversation between two background characters, Stowe writes:

O, there’s a great deal to be said on both sides of the subject,” said a  genteel woman, who sat at her stateroom door sewing, while her little girl and boy were playing round her. “I’ve been south, and I must say I think the negroes are better off than they would be to be free.” “In some respects, some of them are well off, I grant,” said the lady to whose remark she had answered. “The most dreadful part of slavery, to my mind, is its outrages on the feelings and affections, –the separating of families, for example.” (p. 121)

Like the country, the ladies themselves are of divided interest and opinion. Stowe truly cements the divide when she continues their dialogue:

We can’t reason from our feelings to those of this class of persons,” said the other lady. “Indeed, ma’am, you can know nothing of them, if you say so,” answered the first lady, warmly. “I was born and brought up among them. I know they do feel, just as keenly,–even more so, perhaps, –as we do.” The lady said “Indeed!” yawned and looked out the cabin window(p. 121)

Stowe’s belief in the rights due to slaves, that they themselves are humans deserving of the same dignities of their white brethren, that they deserved the chance to better themselves, and that they deserved to pursue their dreams is as apparent in the dialogue between the ladies as it is through the rest of the novel.

Fictitious characters in fictitious novels can open eyes and incite passion; however, it is real men of real life that can change a nation. Abraham Lincoln is one such man. It is certain that he himself read Stowe’s novel, and found himself further enlightened, found his compassions further aroused, and his convictions further involved. While Stowe alludes to the nation’s conflict through fiction, Lincoln addresses the nation directly in his House Divided Speech when he writes, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” This is a warning to the nation before the start of the war, and later when the war came and losses were heavy on both sides of the fight he addressed the nation again in his Second Inaugural Address when he wrote, “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” For the first time since the war began, he overtly spoke of its underlying cause, and he continued his address with, “He gives both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came… and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash be paid by another drawn with the sword…the judgments of the lord are true and righteous altogether.” First, he admits to the true cause of the war, then he places blame not only on the Southern slaveholders, but on the indifferent North as well. Here he evokes the religious guilt of a nation, and reminds that nation of God’s will; and surely it is God’s will that this war be fought ‘til its last day when blood for blood has been repaid. Lincoln would not live to see the wars end, though it is to be assured that had he his writing would have continued on with as much impact as it had ever had. Lincoln believed heart and soul in the country that he watched over; he believed that come the war’s end the country would heal its wounds and learn from its mistakes; he believed in the dream that was America. Lincoln believed in the words he so eloquently paraphrased in his Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” These are words first heard in the nation’s birth, revamped for the rebirth of a new and stronger nation, baptized in the blood of its children.

Through the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a nation learned of the stain painting America’s surface, through the words of Abraham Lincoln a nation learned their culpability for that stain, and it is through the words of Harriet Jacobs that the nation will learn why the price was paid for in blood. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, Jacobs writes the story of growing up a slave, specifically a female slave. She paints a painful picture when she writes:

“Heaven!” retorted the mistress. “There is no such place for the like of her and her bastard.”  Her sufferings, afterwards, became so intense, that her mistress felt unable to stay; but when she left the room, the scornful smile was still on her lips. Seven children called her mother. The poor black woman had but the one child, whose eyes she saw closing in death, while she thanked God for taking her away from the greater bitterness of life. (p. 897)

This bitter scene witnessed by Jacobs as a child, taught a lesson no child should have to learn, and that is her utter lack of value in society—perhaps not so completely understood as it was felt. It also displayed another danger, that of the white male owner of a female slave—the baby that died with its mother in birth was white. This danger became a part of daily living for Jacobs as she matured into womanhood, her owner hunted her, stalked her; until in desperation she gave that which she prized the most to another white man, simply so her master could not take it—her chastity. Perhaps that would not have happened had it not been for the most hidden of dangers, that of a wife scorned. There was no refuge, no safe harbor living in the home of a lecherous husband and his bitter wife; there is no understanding for a slave girl who wants nothing more than to be left alone to the sanctity of her god given rights.

Inalienable rights given by God, and echoed within the emancipation of a nation. Rights forsaken to an entire race, because of the heritage of their birth, and the line of their blood. A lesser country may have let continue the enslavement of a people for an untold eternity, but this country bathed the land in the blood of its own sons in a war that was as much an atonement for its sins as it was a preservation of unity. This is a nation molded by the hands of man, and man is an imperfect animal—but it is the beauty of this country’s ideals, that man can make mistakes and be forgiven because there is always the potential to do better, be better, and dream bigger.

 

 

 

References:

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. American Literature Volume 1. Ed. William E. Cain. Boston; Penguin Academics Pearson Longman 2004.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. American Literature Volume 1. Ed. William E. Cain. Boston; Penguin Academics Pearson Longman 2004

Lincoln, Abraham. The House Divided Speech. The History Place. 22June2008. < http://www.historyplace.com/lincoln/divided.htm

Lincoln, Abraham. Second Inaugural Address. American Literature Volume 1. Ed. William E. Cain. Boston; Penguin Academics Pearson Longman 2004

Lincoln, Abraham. Gettysburg Address. American Literature Volume 1. Ed. William E. Cain. Boston; Penguin Academics Pearson Longman 2004

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York 1981

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *