The Impossible Moral Dilemmas of Slavery: William Wells Brown and the Slave Trade

The Death of ClotelThe Death of Clotel. (Photo: Z. Smith Reynolds Library)

William Wells Brown possessed immense and various talents. Born into slavery in Kentucky around 1814, Brown grew up in Missouri, fled enslavement in the early 1830s, and by the early 1840s had become a rising star of the antislavery movement. He spent several years traveling the abolitionist lecture circuit in the northern states, published a bestselling narrative of his life in 1847, and compiled an antislavery songbook in 1848 for use at abolitionist meetings. Brown left the United States for Europe in 1849 and spent the better part of the next five years in England, where he continued giving lectures, often concluding them with song and illustrating them with magic lantern slides and panoramas that brought his story to life for audiences. While in England, he also wrote a travelogue and became the first African American novelist with the publication of Clotel, a story loosely based on what were at the time only rumors about the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Brown continued lecturing and writing after returning to the land of his birth, churning out biographies, histories, a work about black Civil War soldiers, a second memoir, and a number of plays that he also performed and that made him the first black American playwright. In his later years, even as he continued to publish he became active in the temperance movement, studied homeopathic medicine, and opened a medical practice in the Boston area. Though often overshadowed in life and in historical memory by his contemporary Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown was a man of unparalleled energy, extraordinary drive, and deep conviction.

He was also a man haunted by a period of his adolescence that he recalled as “the longest year” he ever lived and that speaks to some of the most profoundly hopeless and cruel moral positions in which enslaved people could find themselves. In his youth, Brown labored at a number of different jobs both for his owner and for a series of white men to whom he was hired out. None of those jobs proved more nightmarish than his work as an assistant for a St. Louis slave trader named James Walker. Hired to Walker during what was roughly his eighteenth year, Brown found the prospect of working for a slave trader so horrifying that even decades later his famed capacity for expression failed him, writing that “no one can tell my emotions” and that he was “at a loss for language to express my feelings.”

It is not hard to understand why. Over the course of his year working for Walker, Brown helped escort three different coffles of enslaved people, several dozen at a time, from St. Louis down the Mississippi River via steamboat to Natchez and New Orleans. He rode horseback with Walker through the Missouri countryside, accumulating slaves for sale and walking them enchained for miles along roads worse than any he had ever seen. He witnessed Walker snatch a crying infant from one enslaved woman in a coffle, “as you would a cat by the leg,” and bestow it on an acquaintance because he found the noisiness of the child irritating. Brown saw an enslaved woman whom Walker had separated from her husband and children leap from a steamboat and drown herself rather than go on without them. He saw men and women kept in cages for days awaiting sale. He helped stow enslaved cargo in chains below decks and noted how “it was impossible to keep that part of the boat clean.” He followed orders to shave the beards of older enslaved men, pluck out conspicuous gray hairs, and blacken what remained to facilitate Walker’s fraudulent sales that disguised the true age of his merchandise. Brown made sure that the people Walker offered for sale were dressed in fresh clothing and then saw them forced to dance, often in tears, so that they might appear cheerful for prospective buyers.

Brown, of course, had no choice but to do as he was told. He never considered Walker an especially vicious man despite his actions and his occupation, but given that Walker also sent him to a jailer to be whipped because Brown accidentally overfilled some wine glasses of Walker’s potential customers, Brown knew Walker was not a man to be trifled with or defied. Still, we can only imagine how it all sat with him – the roles he played in destroying enslaved families, in humiliating those destined for sale, in creating despair so deep that death seemed a respite. Though Brown was a reluctant victim of the trade rather than a willing perpetrator of it, the terrible year he spent in Walker’s service plagued him for the rest of his life and surely fueled the fury of his efforts to end slavery for those left behind after he made his escape.

A number of years after he fled the South, Brown made his way to Cleveland, where he used his skills and experience working on steamboats to ferry fugitive slaves across Lake Erie to Canada. In 1842 alone, he conveyed sixty-nine people to freedom. Whether the dozens he saved eased his conscience for the dozens he had been forced to abandon is unknown. It seems unlikely. Nothing could wipe the things he had seen from his mind, even as nothing in his prodigious arsenal of language could enable him to convey those things properly and out loud to others. After all, as he would say to an anti-slavery society at a lecture in 1847, “were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented.” Brown was a man who made his mark in writing, but ultimately there were no words.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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