by Dr. Michael P. Gallen
One of the highlights of my career in the humanities was teaching my first stand-alone course. The class, entitled The Civil War Era: 1848-1877: The Struggle and the Suffering, was a documents-based colloquium exploring the antebellum period, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction. Most of the assigned readings were primary sources, ranging from newspaper articles to chapters from memoirs. The experience proved memorable not only for being the first time I designed my own course, but also for the sources used. The readings offered students a window into the attitudes of antebellum Americans far more revealing than any textbook or work of scholarship could.
Although teaching a self-designed course is likely a formative experience for most professors, this course, in my mind, embodied the most appealing aspects of the humanities. I believe that one of the major purposes of the humanities is to expose students to new points of view, especially the views of minorities and other disadvantaged groups whose voices are often neglected. I chose the assigned primary sources for their ability to give students insight into nineteenth-century perspectives on society, race, and the world. Another important purpose of the humanities is to give better understanding of the world we inhabit by seeing the foundations on which it is built. The Civil War Era is a particularly useful period for such considerations, as it prominently featured racial division that continue today.
Two primary sources in particular fulfilled these course goals, giving students striking insights into the past while having relevance to the modern world. David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored People of the World was an impassioned call to resistance against slavery, a major black abolitionist work. The other source was an article from the Buffalo Medical Journal satirizing Samuel Cartwright’s concept of drapetomania, a supposed mental illness which caused enslaved people to run away from their masters. Through its sheer absurdity, the article revealed the depths of white racism in the antebellum era. Both of these sources helped me explore nineteenth-century world views regarding religion, race, and science. They also succeeded in provoking interesting discussions with my students.
The first source, An Appeal to the Colored People of the World, by David Walker, was one of the most forceful calls for the abolition of slavery ever written. Penned by a free African American, the Appeal argued for violent resistance against slavery. The pamphlet was extremely controversial upon its release, provoking fears of slave rebellions among white southerners. Consequently, many southern states instituted repressive measures to prevent its circulation, including banning the pamphlet and preventing black sailors who might distribute the pamphlet from coming ashore.
I selected this document as a reading for several reasons. First, I hoped to call more attention to black voices in the debate over slavery. Too often, educators focus on prominent white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, with discussion of black opponents of slavery frequently limited to Frederick Douglass. Including Walker’s work allowed me to introduce students to a different, more radical perspective on abolitionism. From its opening, Walker’s appeal was a passionate call to arms, beginning with a forceful declaration of African Americans’ plight under slavery: “We (colored people of these United States) are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began.” He argued that American slavery was worse than previous forms of enslavement because its racialized nature more completely divided the master and the enslaved: “How much lower we are held, and how much more cruel we are treated by the Americans, than were the children of Jacob by the Egyptians.”
Unlike the later Garrisonians, who were pacifists, David Walker endorsed violent rebellion against slaveholders. Discussing a case in which a group of enslaved people killed the white men transporting them to the Deep South after sale, he wrote, “What has the Lord to do with a gang of desperate wretches, who go sneaking about the country like robbers—light upon his people wherever they get a chance, binding them with chains and hand-cuffs, beat and murder them as they would rattle-snakes? Are they not the Lord’s enemies? Ought they not to be destroyed?” I felt this aspect of Walker’s argument would be especially provocative, forcing students to consider the morality of violent resistance in a desperate situation.
Unlike the later Garrisonians, who were pacifists, David Walker endorsed violent rebellion against slaveholders.
Walker’s Appeal also enabled me to highlight the religiosity of the nineteenth century and how Christian beliefs were incorporated into abolitionist and pro-slavery arguments. Walker grounded his entire pamphlet in a biblical world view, treating Bible stories such as the Exodus as historical examples and appealing to Christian morality as grounds for rebellion. He repeatedly warned that America would face divine retribution for slavery, writing “I tell you Americans! That unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!!!!! For God Almighty will tear up the very face of the earth!!!!!” At the same time, he condemned many white Christian ministers for endorsing slavery and owning slaves themselves: “I have known pretended preachers of the gospel of my Master, who not only held us as their natural inheritance, but treated us with as much rigor as any Infidel or Deist in the world.” I emphasized these passages in class discussion to give students a case study in how Christian discourse suffused antebellum political thought, as well as how widely different interpretations of the same religion can be.
My students found the religious elements of the Appeal particularly interesting. Most of the students came from secular backgrounds and were not used to such pronounced religious rhetoric. One student remarked that while he agreed with Walker’s call for rebellion against enslavers, he found the overtly Christian language uncomfortable to read. The reading sparked a successful class discussion about the difference in nineteenth- and twenty-first-century world views. At the same time, the pamphlet also facilitated an interesting discussion about protest and resistance in the face of injustice, an issue that remains relevant today. Without endorsing the violent tactics favored by Walker or endorsing any specific political viewpoint, I sought to guide students to think about how they should engage with social issues in today’s world.
Where Walker’s Appeal stood out for its passionate denunciation of slavery, S. B. Wright’s Buffalo Medical Journal article on drapetomania was memorable for its exposure of the absurdity of white racism. Drapetomania, first described by a pro-slavery physician, Samuel Cartwright, was a “disease of the mind” which “induces the negro to run away from service.” The article mocked Cartwright’s assertion that only mental illness would make an enslaved person want to escape his situation. The article was one of a number of readings which showcased the bigotry which suffused both Northern and Southern societies, ranging from racist essays by defenders of slavery such as George Fitzhugh to racist political cartoons from Northern publications.
Although the essay clearly treated drapetomania as nonsensical, it included a page-long excerpt from Cartwright’s original article that offered insights into his thinking. Connecting with the issues raised by Walker’s Appeal, the article showed how white interpretations of Scripture reinforced American racism. As part of his “scientific” argument, Cartwright cited the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—as evidence of African Americans’ supposed true nature. Drawing on the story of the Curse of Ham, in which Noah cursed the descendants of his son Canaan or Ham to serve the descendants of his other sons for all eternity, he argued that black people were descendants of the Canaanites, whose name he translated as “submissive knee bender.” (Canaan is generally seen as derivative of the Hebrew term for “to bend down, be low.”) He accompanied this Biblical testimony with pseudo-scientific evidence regarding African Americans’ knees: “We see genu flexit written in the physical structure of his knees, being more flexed or bent, than any other kind of a man.”
Cartwright used this scientific and religious argument to prescribe the proper treatment for drapetomania: “According to my experience, the ‘genu flexit’—the awe and reverence, must be extracted from them, or they will despise their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away.” Although Cartwright argued for “humane” treatment of the enslaved—mainly meeting their physical needs—he made clear that corporal punishment should be part of the course of treatment: “The experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it as a preventative measure against absconding or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.” Above all, black people had to be reminded of their place in the racial hierarchy: “If any one or more of them at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good require that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy in all after time, when their progenitor received the name of Canaan, or ‘submissive knee-bender.’”
Where Walker’s Appeal stood out for its passionate denunciation of slavery, S. B. Wright’s Buffalo Medical Journal article on drapetomania was memorable for its exposure of the absurdity of white racism.
Even with its attention to the religious elements of Cartwright’s argument, Wright’s essay exposed the scientific racism that gained prominence during the nineteenth century. He emphasized Cartwright’s creation of a medical justification for the corporal punishment of the enslaved, as well as African Americans’ subordinate position in society. In my class lecture, I framed the article in the broader history of scientific racism, tracing its origins back to the eighteenth century (predating Darwin by a hundred years, contrary to many popular accounts.) I also prompted discussion of modern science and racism using examples such as Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which argued that African Americans had lower IQs than other races. As with Walker’s Appeal, the article showed how historical sources can have modern day resonance.
Overall, the course was a success, with my students giving mostly positive feedback at the end of the semester. The primary sources were largely successful in engaging students and getting them to think about the past and the present. I would argue that their engagement testified to the power of the humanities. If taught correctly, history and other humanities disciplines can open windows into how people lived in other times and cultures. Studying them provides a type of human connection as we see into others’ minds.
Dr. Michael P. Gallen received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 2018. His dissertation, “The Spirit of Enterprise: Christianity and Capitalism in the Colony and Republic of Liberia, 1816-1928,” reinterprets the first century of Liberian history in light of the new history of capitalism and Atlantic World scholarship. He previously studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge University and La Salle University.
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 Robert Drews, “Canaanites and Philistines,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 81, (1998), 48.