Edgar Allen Poe cynically dismisses Jonathan Ward’s “American Slavery and the Means of its Abolition” yet both leave their mark
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace —
Radiant palace — reared its head.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn! — for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate !)
Edgar Allen Poe, The Haunted Palace (1838)(from Project Gutenberg)
In the purples of our shadows
Where better angels of our souls
Reside — once a people riven by malice
Lucrative malice — rapine and slave patrols
Mounted up and rode down chattel -
They stood there!
Ushered into every house, a battle
And prophecy of despair.
The price to oust each ghoul and lich
Unpaid apart from artist pitch.
So evil things, in hoods of hatred
Arose, revived each barony
Demanded accounts which they inflated
Then otherwise buried all they see.
When mathematics prove blood profits
Their henchlings scream at haunting ghosts
Bind, blind the ivory and onyx
Then dine on goblins’ scrap compost.
© 2022, Tom Tordillo. All rights reserved.
Project Gutenberg published Jonathan Ward’s sermon, “American slavery, and the means of its abolition” on November 4, 2022. Meant for preachers to read before congregations, Ward rejected constitutional amendment and insurrection as viable approaches to abolition, and instead proposed moral suasion as the best means of ending slavery in 1840:
But, if slavery must be abolished by the action of the slave States, then it is an important question — How can they be brought to put forth this action? This they will not do till they are convinced that their duty, their interest, or their safety, or all these, demand the emancipation of their slaves. It is evident then, that arguments must bring them to the adoption of this measure. These may be addressed to their reason, their conscience, their interest and their fears; and more especially, to the two former.
Jonathan Ward, American slavery, and the means of its abolition (Project Gutenberg)
Was Ward naïve? People who commit rampant brutality and whose livelihood depends upon perpetuating that will defer ‘moral conversion,’ or deny the need. People seeking to control them will deploy hobgoblin hordes to muddy ‘reason’ — or plot separation outright if they cannot contain the costs.
Yet Ward’s proposals aren’t exactly foolish either. Reasoning with most slave owners might be futile, but non-slave owners hurt by competition with slavers? In every community, one might find such people — skilled workers threatened directly by slavers, or facing choked opportunities and grim prospects.
At the local level, coded transactions might favor slavers or non-slavers depending on the context.
Say Mr. Miller of Riverbend Village, owner of a choice plot of land with riverfront access to power his mill, wanted to sell the excess.
In the Deep South, he’d sell to Mr. Plantation, the local baron. Offending someone with tentacles in every social and economic institution would be perilous to his mill.
But in border states, Mr. Miller would probably prefer to sell to Mr. Merchant, a non-slave owner who might occasionally dabble in the ugly trade, but wasn’t particularly enthusiastic and perceived how it impeded his own business interests. Together, Mr. Merchant and Mr. Miller could set up businesses that drew more customers from further away, thus profiting together. Slavery retarded such collaboration, though it never could prevent it entirely.
Ward’s premise was naïve strategically, but potent tactically — on a local, community-by-community level. That’s part of why non-violent challenges to racism continued decades after the formal abolition of slavery.
But there is another way.
Edgar Allen Poe wrote “A Haunted Palace” around 1838 and incorporated it into his immortal tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Raised in Richmond, Virginia by a foster merchant family, Poe witnessed the collapse of estates and several ugly aspects of slavery.
When he wrote this poem, slavery haunted America more than any ghost. Perhaps Poe opted to avoid direct engagement with that story, instead focusing on macabre decay, death, and ‘demonology,’ turning out Gothic Horror for people seeking anything to dull the oppressive realities of brutality.
The Fall of Usher proposes a collapsing, ruinous house, where a dying brother and sister are being poisoned by some monstrous ambience (swamp gases?) — and perhaps they are trying to kill one another. Is this a metaphor for America, rotting away, haunted by sinister corruption in the air?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand” says the Bible, as numerous politicians would later apply to slavery, including Abraham Lincoln in 1858, but Poe’s readers, hearing that aphorism in Maryland, might hear something darker, resonances with a favorite campfire horror story widely disseminated by a prominent Maryland ‘technologist’ and publisher.
Some Marylanders probably heard Ward’s sermons. Others probably read or heard about Poe’s “House of Usher.”
Ward’s audiences probably frowned at the notion of secession. Poe’s readership probably felt a quaking horror: to leave the Union and strike their brothers, they would risk their lives dying to defend some slave owner’s ghastly, rotting estate. Why?
In the 21st century, we are born ‘in the purple’ — as royals. Few of us will starve to death, and while dread diseases may come, our plagues seldom obliterate towns and cities. We are wealthier than Ward and Poe could ever have conceived.
Yet we also despair — as though some ghostly gas spread rot and filth into the air. Where Ward deployed human goodwill, and Poe deployed human dread, someone — something dulls and distracts, assailing us with general sense of ruin.
Cinematic horror often uses the device of the “jump scare” — some thing emerges from off the screen that frightens us with its sudden discovery.
But we live in a world of mixed ‘goodwill’ hopes and loves along with manufactured toxicity. Someone profits from selling hatred and despair, from hiding what has occurred, from goading us to bury our brothers and sisters, rather than loving them.