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Reading, Writing, And History
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. … I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.
Douglass’ book is hard to read. It is written, to be sure, in unvarnished English prose, and there is nothing obscure or contrived about it, but it is still hard to read—simply because, more than one hundred years later, its account of the things men can do to those who are completely in their power is something to make the blood run cold. If there was a kindly, humane side to chattel slavery, this man who lived far outside of the cotton belt, who was for long periods a trusted house servant, who was even hired out (by his owner) to work in a shipyard, far from the eye of the man with the whip—this man, who should have seen that humane side if any slave could see it, never got a glimpse of it. “But for the hope of being free,” Douglass wrote, “I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself.”
In one way or another, while a pampered house servant in Baltimore, Douglass learned to read. He found books that discussed the problem of slavery and that told about what it was like to be free, and they made him all the more discontented—evidence of the practical wisdom of the cynical laws which made it illegal to teach any slave how to read and write. His condition, he felt, was worse after he became literate than it was before. Now he knew what he was missing; he had been taught, however imperfectly, to use his mind and to examine the thoughts of more fortunate men who had been able to use their minds to better advantage; and he put all of his anguish into the statement that this intensified all of his sufferings—“Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!”
Douglass finally made his escape. His book, to repeat, was published in 1845, and it is significant that he does not tell how he escaped, or who helped him, or what the mechanics of the business were—he might get somebody into trouble if he explained things, or at the very least he might make it harder for the next man to get away. Even when he lived in the North, a free man working for wages, enjoying a life of his own, the shadow hung over him. He could not draw a really easy breath until after the sun went down at Appomattox.
Possibly Fitzhugh was the prophet of the future: there are millions of people alive today who live in very much the sort of intelligently contrived bondage which struck this excellent propagandist as the proper way to organize human society. But Fitzhugh’s word has to go side by side with the word of Frederick Douglass, and this word from a man born under the lash is something to remember. Our generation might do much worse than to recall that America has bred men to whom liberty, however imperfect it might be and however hard it might be to come by, was quite literally worth dying for.
Gideon Welles came out of a very different stratum than either Fitzhugh or Douglass. He was a Connecticut Yankee, a one-time Democrat who turned Republican during the great ferment of the 1850*5, and he became Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, in which capacity he kept a diary which has been a source book for Civil War historians ever since; and the immense value of Welles’s diary has always been the fact that he saw what he wrote about and that he wrote with objective exactitude.
Or—did he? The original manuscript of his diary is in the Library of Congress. It was brought to publication in 1911, and an examination of the manuscript indicates that certain changes were made between the time the old Yankee put pen to paper and the time when the business finally appeared in print. How reliable is this diary, anyway? Was it edited so as to bring later knowledge and riper judgments into play, or can it stand as a faithful, trustworthy account of what one man saw of the things that happened after Fitzhugh and Douglass had had their own say?
Civil War historiography has needed nothing much more than a new edition of the Welles diary, with scholarly editing to show precisely what he wrote at the time and what he put in later when he began to reflect that what he had written was going to be an essential part of American history. This new edition is now at hand. Howard K. Beale has edited the threevolume work, going over the original manuscript with painstaking care, writing a preface that shows when and why the revisions were undertaken, and presenting the whole with notes that show the reader exactly what Welles wrote at the time and what he wrote in later years. This new edition of The Diary of Gideon Welles is something every Civil War scholar will want.
It is also something that the general reader can enjoy, for Welles was a good diarist. He had a waspish way about him, he gave way to certain prejudices, and he presented his contemporaries and fellow workers as he saw them, writing, in the process, one of the great books about the Civil War years and the years immediately thereafter. No one has given as graphic or as readable a picture of the Civil War period.