Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Slave Revolts

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Southern Ideas of "Liberty"

"Southern Ideas of Liberty." Lithograph printed in Boston (c. 1835). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slave insurrections were a constant worry for slaveholders and southern authorities. (A worry, ironically, that severely undercut the fable of the "obedient and contented" "premium" slave articulated by the historian U. B. Phillips in his 1918 study, American Negro Slavery.) Not only slaves, however, lived under the heel of oppression. The system of forced servitude despoiled the lives of anyone living within it, including non-slaveholding whites and free blacks. For the system to function everyone had to abide it; fortunately for slaveholders, the courts, police, and local militias all obliged. Consequently, slave states made instructing slaves in any activity seen as potentially empowering illegal. As the above drawing depicts, free or not, white or black, if a person taught a slave to read, or treated him as a fellow human, he or she had better be prepared to pay. The drawing, which was likely created in Boston around 1835, portrays a judge sentencing an abolitionist to death by hanging. The judge, who is drawn with "ass's ears" and a whip, sits on a bale of cotton, his foot resting squarely atop the Constitution. To make the point even blunter, the caption reads: "Sentence passed upon one for supporting that clause of our Declaration viz. All men are born free [and] equal."

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