David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books recently published their Catalogue 182 of Rare Americana. Lesser's catalogues focus on Americana from the 18th and 19th centuries, generally pamphlets, documents, and other less-than full book-length material. We note a particularly high number of items related to America's original sin, slavery. It rose from being a generally accepted, if not beloved, necessity at the time of independence to an institution abhorred by many, beloved by others, with little middle ground. No wonder it tore the nation apart. Here are a few selections from this latest Lesser catalogue.
The Compromise of 1850 probably unleashed the forces that made the Civil War inevitable, but it was during the previous two decades that docile acceptance of slavery in the U.S. turned to hostility in the North. It was too egregious a violation of human rights, and a violation of American ideals of freedom, to be tolerable any longer. Agitation grew. One such example is The New England Anti-slavery Almanac for 1841. It encourages establishing free schools for Black children, provides hints for anti-slavery debaters, provides an “Ecclesiastical Roll of Infamy” of northern Methodist clergy who voted for a resolution prohibiting “colored persons to give testimony against white persons,” and a “Congressional Roll of Infamy” for Northern Congressmen who voted for the Gag Rule, which prohibited Congress from accepting petitions concerning slavery. As for the still upcoming presidential election of 1840, it says “President Van Buren and General Harrison have both publicly taken the side of the oppressor against the oppressed and the God of the oppressed. Both of them glory in it.” Van Buren, in his post-presidential years, would become vehemently anti-slavery, running as the Free Soil presidential candidate in 1848, but unfortunately, during his presidential years, he showed little interest. One of the most noteworthy features of this almanac is that it provides substantial content on the Amistad incident, including portraits of Cinque and others. Item 84. Priced at $750.
Even free African Americans weren't always quite so free in antebellum America. Item 55 comes from the border state of Missouri in 1855. Slavery was legal in Missouri, but that state remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Its citizens were among the most divided in the country. It is a printed bond, securing the rights of Elizabeth Howard, a “free colored” woman, to reside in Missouri. For free Blacks, they had to have respectable White citizens post bond for them to live freely in the state. For a $100 bond, she was permitted to reside in Missouri, so long as she “shall be of good behavior.” No such requirement was imposed on Whites, as Jesse James could attest. Ms. Howard's guarantors were Dr. Charles Sebastian Hertich, a prominent physician, and Lt. Col. Joseph Felix St. James, a lawyer and mayor of St. Genevieve. The 1860 census shows Elizabeth Howard as a free Black woman with four children living in St. Genevieve County. $1,500.
Next we have an account of an army officer with a checkered history: Defence of Major Gen. Pillow before the Court of Inquiry at Frederick, Maryland, Against Charges Preferred Against Him by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott (1848). Scott was commanding American forces during the Mexican War. Pillow, a vain sort, took more than his due credit in a battle at the expense of Gen. Scott. Scott, also a vain sort, was not pleased. Pillow was court-martialed. Fortunately for him, he was a Democrat and former law partner of President Polk, and Polk despised the Whig Scott. Charges were first reduced and then dismissed, though the court of inquiry found that Pillow had “appropriated to himself more than a just share” of the credit. Pillow was the author of this self-defense. Now for the rest of the story – Pillow became a secessionist and a general in the Confederate army. His reputation eroded after some battle mistakes and retreats. His final battlefield command was removed after Pillow was found, when ordered to lead his troops forward, hiding behind a tree. He spent the remainder of the war at a desk job. Item 94. $350.
This is certainly a novel defense against a charge of murder. Men, don't try this. Item 35 is the Official Report of the Trial of Laura D. Fair for the Murder of Alex P. Crittenden... published in 1871. Mrs. Fair had been carrying on with married San Francisco lawyer Alex Crittenden. She wished him to divorce his wife and become Mrs. Fair's fifth husband. He obviously chose not to do so, nor to acknowledge their child. On a ferry he was taking to see his wife, Mrs. Fair shot him. She was convicted and sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned on appeal due to trial errors. Fair's attorneys then argued insanity. As they explained, her actions were the result of female hysteria caused by “scanty and retarded menstruation, a chronic disease of the womb.” Medical witnesses testified that this was a common condition among women and therefore she had followed an irresistible impulse to kill. This is a case where law and medicine intersected, and both were full of it. $175.
Perhaps the abolitionists had it all wrong. Victoria Clayton certainly thought so. Her book is entitled White and Black under the Old Regime. By Victoria V. Clayton (Widow of the Late Henry D. Clayton, Major General, C.S.A., Judge of the Circuit Court of Alabama, President of the University of Alabama). This was published in 1899, and the “Old Regime” to which she refers is the antebellum South. The Claytons went to Kansas in 1855 to oppose John Brown and the abolitionists, returning home in time for Mr. Clayton to serve the Confederate cause. According to Mrs. Clayton, things were wonderful in the Old South, although she does speak of problems maintaining a normal home life in Alabama and controlling servants. “Servants” was often a euphemism for slaves in the South. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clayton maintained that life was wonderful for everyone before the war, Blacks included. She explains, “Every slave family possessed a garden, truck patch, chicken house and a lot of hens, and, from those sources, always had something nice to present to us, their young 'misses.'” She was undoubtedly jealous she was one of those young misses, and not a slave herself. She said they “cherished” those presents. And then Lincoln went and ruined it all, for Blacks and Whites alike. Item 20. $275.