The letter Jourdan Anderson wrote in the summer of 1865 to the Tennessee man who had once enslaved him and his family became an instant legend. Published before the year was out in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, the New York Tribune, and in abolitionist Lydia Maria Child’s The Freedmen’s Book, Anderson’s letter remains widely read and has long since become a staple assignment in many undergraduate courses on slavery, emancipation, and the Civil War.
It is not hard to understand why. Written in response to a plea for Anderson to leave the home he had made in Ohio after being liberated by Union forces in 1864, return to Tennessee, and work the harvest season, the letter is a masterpiece of sarcasm. After expressing surprise that his former owner had not been hanged by Union troops, wishing the owner well despite his having shot at Anderson twice as he left the plantation, and remarking that he might have returned for a friendly visit had he not been warned by a neighbor that the owner’s son intended to shoot him on sight, Anderson wrote that he was willing to hear his former owner out. In Ohio, Anderson observed, he was well paid, his three children went to school, and people called Mandy, his wife, “Mrs. Anderson.” But perhaps his former owner had better terms to offer. There was certainly at least one way for him to prove his good intentions. If his former owner really wanted to “make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future,” Anderson argued, it only seemed fair that he pay the back wages he had never given Anderson and his wife while he kept them in bondage. Calculating thirty-two years of labor for himself and twenty for his wife, Anderson set the bill at nearly twelve thousand dollars. He reminded his former owner that, of course, interest would have to be added to the amount but also that he was willing to deduct what had been paid for his clothing over the years, for three doctor’s visits, and for the time his wife had a tooth pulled. The balance, which Anderson was sure his former owner would agree would “show what we are in justice entitled to,” could be sent to Anderson in Ohio by express mail at his former owner’s earliest convenience.
Brilliant in its biting commentary on the presumptuousness of former slaveholders and in its forceful assertion of the significance of freedom for the economic opportunity, dignity, and family security of freedpeople, Anderson’s letter is marvelously audacious. And there is undeniable comedy in it. Utterly deadpan yet unmistakably taunting, one cannot help but laugh at Anderson’s final line, where he asked his former owner to “say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.” Moreover, that laughter is mixed with cheers. This is the letter of defiance and contempt that every slaveholder deserved, and surely many readers take some satisfaction in knowing that Anderson’s former owner was so crushed by debt that he sold his plantation to his lawyer for a fraction of its former value just months after begging Anderson to return. He was dead less than two years after that, while Anderson himself lived to the age of eighty-one before passing away in 1907.
Yet we should not let our laughter and triumphalism blind us to the profound bitterness of Jourdan Anderson’s letter. For every wry and cutting “I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this,” Anderson made sure his former owner knew that he believed “there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire,” that there was great injustice in whites having made black people “toil for you for generations without recompense,” and that he had not forgotten that in the days of slavery “there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows.” Perhaps most important, we should not forget that Jourdan and Mandy Anderson never received the wages they were owed. Nor did millions of other enslaved people who worked under the lash in a nation where payment for one’s labors was supposed to signify basic fairness and point the way toward social advancement. Indeed, our commemorations of the Civil War will be for naught if we remember that Jourdan Anderson successfully staked a claim to his freedom but we lose sight of the fact he did not receive justice.