(Re)writing Early America

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Around the year 1700, two white, Puritan men, Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, published their arguments for or against slavery in the American colonies, emphasizing how Puritan religious beliefs, as well as the Puritan people’s socioeconomic concerns, did or did not support the institution of slavery.

In the mid to late eighteenth century, two African slaves living in New England, Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, wrote publically of their opinions regarding slavery in the American colonies, emphasizing how their Calvinist belief system, as well as their civil rights philosophies, did or did not support the institution of slavery.

In today’s blog post I will attempt to discover how Hammon and Wheatley resisted the dominant white narrative of Early America regarding slavery, blackness, civil rights, and Christianity by (re)writing the narrative of the African American slave in the American colonies, which worked to challenge the transatlantic vision of black bodies as lesser-than white bodies, as shown in Mather’s and Sewall’s works.

For Cotton Mather, Christianizing African slaves was ‘good’ “revenue” for the Puritans, both for their spirits and their wallets (11). Spiritually speaking, Mather argues that the Puritans are presented with an “opportunity,” and this opportunity is to see whether or not they can Christianize “the most Bruitish of Creatures upon earth.” Specifically, Mather calls this opportunity a “trail.”  By using the word, trial, we can see that Mather argues that Christianizing slaves is an opportunity for Puritans to test their own souls, proving whether or not they are true Christians, thus able to convert “the Blackest Instances of Blindness and Baseness, into admirable Candidates of Eternal Blessedness.” If conversion is successful, Mather argues that, upon their death, God will take into account the actions of those Puritans who have converted heathens into servants of God; God would be pleased with these Puritan Converters of heathens because then “the Great God might have Revenues of glory from [African Slaves].” While Puritans believed that only those Christians who are predetermined to be elected to enter heaven will enter heaven, due to the Puritan belief in limited attainment, Mather seems to imply that the symbolic act of successfully converting heathens to Christianity could be an outward sign that said converters are the elected, and, at the very least, converting the heathen can’t hurt their chances of getting into heaven. Thus, he argues that Puritans should own slaves because it gives the Puritans an opportunity to convert heathen to Christians, allowing God to gain revenue from the institution of slavery.

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Puritans did not come to New England to be laborers: land and other natural resources were available to be taken, with the intention of significant monies being made. For many Puritans, and Mather in particular, the enslavement of Africans in America was the means by which natural resources could be cultivated cheaply, without putting Puritans to ‘work.’ Mather seems to have an acute awareness of how Christianizing African slaves could work to the Puritans’ advantage, by utilizing the Bible’s hierarchal, master/servant rhetoric. Just as the Puritans saw themselves dutiful servants of their master, God, Mather argued that slaves could become dutiful servants of their masters by extension, Puritans: “Were your Servants well tinged with the Spirit of Christianity, it would render them exceeding Dutiful unto their Masters… afraid of speaking or doing any thing that may justly displease you.” Here, Mather recognizes that to teach slaves the “spirit” of Christianity is to teach them the “spirit” of servitude, which means for monetary revenue in Puritan pockets. What I have shown here is the benefits Mather saw in Christianizing African slaves for monetary purposes.

For Samuel Sewall, a Puritan and peer to Cotton Mather, slavery was an affront to an emergent ideology circulating in Great Britain and the colonies regarding Christianity’s core principle—every man’s God-given right to liberty. Drawing from passages/narratives in the Bible, Sewall makes his argument against slavery: He that Stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death. Exod. 12.16” and “It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other comforts of Life.” Here, Sewall destabilizes the rhetoric of hierarchy that permeated European Christianity for centuries, and instead turns to the emerging rhetoric of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that argued for God’s gift of liberty on earth to men. As for the Christian duty of converting the heathen, Sewall counters Mather’s argument by claiming that the good deed of conversion does not ‘right’ the wrong of slavery. In summary, while Sewall is an abolitionist on the grounds of every man’s natural right to liberty, he has no interest in bringing African slaves to the colonies or Christianizing them. Sewall believes the “Welfare of the Province” would benefit more from employing “White” indentured servants, who “embody” British-Americanness, as a slave supposedly never could. In short, Sewall is an abolitionist, but he does not believe that Africans should not be interwoven into the American Colonies’ historical narrative.

Both of these writers show how two British-American white males saw the future (or lack thereof) of African peoples in the colonies. While these men do not represent the only way in which Early Americans envisioned slaves in the colonies, they are two powerful voices that undoubtedly had many followers.

Jupiter Hammon is a slave who is concerned for the souls of his fellow slaves in the after-life. While abolitionist sentiment was budding around him, Hammon’s focus was not on creating anti-slavery literature; rather, his works looked to build a Christian community of black slaves, his brethren, who focused not on their hardships of the terrestrial world, but instead served God in whatever capacity He saw fit while on earth, with the goal of making it to Heaven upon death through dutiful service, even if that meant being a slave. To put Hammon in conversation with Mather might, at first glance, seem that Mather’s dream came true: British-Americans have successfully converted the heathen, and the Bible is used as a means to make the slave dutiful and profitable for Euro-Americans. However, a close look at Hammon’s work reveals that he is also aiding in the growth of a community of Christian slaves who speak directly to each other on divine and civil matters, without the intervention of white males. In “An Evening’s Improvement,” an “Address to Miss Phillis Wheately,” and “An Address to the Negros of the State of New York,” Hammon uses print as a means of communicating his observations on the spiritual and civil well-being of the black community in the colonies. In “An Evening’s Improvement,” Hammon calls on his brethren to not take part in the war between the colonies and Great Britain (96), and in “An Address to the Negros of the State of New York,” he calls on his brethren to not partake in any form of civil disobediance, as these acts could hurt the chances of slaves ever attaining freedom. Basically, Mather was right in arguing that Christianity could be used to make some slaves more dutiful, but he did not realize that Christianity would also be used as a means of resistance against white intrusion into the slave community.

Sewall did not believe that Africans could ever be members of the British-American community, but Phillis Wheatley proved him wrong. Through her printed works, Wheatley fights for a Christian community in America, in which both the white British-American and the “ethiop” are all members. Unlike Hammon, Wheatley does not just write for her black brethren, she writes for the transatlantic world: her poem titles include, “To the Kind’s Most Excellent Majesty,” “On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell,” On the Death of a Young Gentleman,” “To Captain H – – – – – D, of the 65th Regiment.” As these titles suggest, her reach was extensive, and Wheatley found commonality in this multicultural and multiethnic community by using the language of Liberty in a similar mode as Sewall—Biblical rhetoric. She describes freedom as a “flame” that burns in the bosom of both Patriots and Africans, as both parties fight against the “iron chain” of “wanton Tyranny” (“To the Right HONORABLE WILLIAM, Early of DARTMOUTH, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America”). As liberty increasingly became viewed as a God-given right to man, Wheatley used Christianity’s (now) dominant rhetoric to argue against the enslavement of Africans on the grounds that Africans are capable of loving liberty alongside British and American lovers of liberty.

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As these readings show, the enslavement and Christianization of slaves evolved through time to produce an outcome that neither Mather or Sewall predicted. While Christianity is often viewed as a means of control, and is indeed used in this way often, Hammon and Wheatley prove that Christianity can also be used by slaves to resist institutionalized slavery and racism. Christianity allowed Hammon an avenue to form a community of slaves, where he could speak directly to his brethren on religious and civil matters. For Wheatley, the ideological principals of mid-to-late eighteenth-century Christianity allowed her to create a community of white and black transatlantic readers founded on a shared principle, Liberty. Thus, Hammon and Wheatley resist Mather and Sewall’s narratives of black peoples living as slaves in the colonies by writing their own histories.

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