From John Hennessy:
As we look back on the history of our community and nation, we are fond of saying that people are a “product of their times,” and of course they are. But in the realm of public history that statement is often used to imply a simplicity that wasn’t real. It implies that the pressures of society and peers left no choice but to conform, or indeed that there was no choice to be had at all. The result is a public history that is reduced to simplicities, that’s monolithic, with little room for discussion of the motivations or decisions of participants –as if everyone was simply swept forward by an unseen force that rendered individuals powerless to resist.
We see this idea applied most rigorously to those subjects that make us most uncomfortable. In the Fredericksburg region, the looting of the town by Union soldiers is often seen in such simplistic terms. The existence and sustenance of slavery is another. But in fact, these topics (and many others we’ll discuss over the months) were a complex tangle of individual choices, knowingly made within a community (or army) that was acutely aware of the moral dilemmas that faced them. In making individual decisions on how to respond in such circumstances, some rationalized their way to what we would today label an immoral course. Most, though, were apathetic, and were indeed swept along by that unseen hand of history and collective morality or immorality. And a few recognized the choices that faced them and had the will to see the issues clearly and to decide accordingly.
Recognizing the range of personal choices in turn recognizes the richness, complexity, and dimension in our history. More than that, the rhythms of history demonstrate clearly from whence human progress emerges: from those who recognized and confronted the moral and practical dilemmas at hand.
Fredericksburg includes its fair share from all three categories (we’ll call them the rationalizers, the apathetic, and the confronters). We’re going to undertake an occasional series on here that looks at some of the dilemmas that faced this community (or in the case of the Union army, the community’s occupiers), with an emphasis on how people reacted to some of the great issues of the times–and what those decisions tell us about some of the broader themes of history. Which brings us to the subject of the day.
Few families in the town’s history had a more conflicted relationship with slavery than did the Minor-Blackford family of lower Caroline Street. Mary Berkeley Minor, born in 1802, was the daughter of John Minor of Hazel Hill and his wife Lucy Landon Carter Minor. In 1825, Mary married newspaper editor William M. Blackford, who for fifteen years edited Fredericksburg’s Political Arena. Mary and William Blackford took up residence with her mother and brother (John Minor Jr.) at what is today 214 Caroline Street. They owned slaves, but had an uncomfortable relationship with slavery–as she vividly chronicled in her journal, which she entitled “Notes illustrative of the wrongs of slavery” (later published in L. Minor Blackford’s, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, which you should all read). Mary’s perspective is perhaps best captured by this passage from her journal in 1835. This event occurred in the yard of her home:
We were at dinner when I heard that my cook’s husband had been sold, and he had come to take leave of his wife. I went out immediately to see about it. When I got into the yard he was standing there heavily handcuffed and leaning against the kitchen, his tears dropping upon the irons. Jane was engaged, as well as the agony of her feelings would permit, in collecting at a moment’s notice, his little wardrobe; some of his clothes she was wringing out of the tub. He had left her early in the morning to go to his work, which was driving a dray on the Street. The first notice he had that he had been sold was the Trader coming up to put handcuffs on. This was occurring almost every day. They feared to let them know beforehand that they were sold lest they should make their escape….I shall never forget the silent agony of his looks as he cast his eyes on the irons on his wrists: they seemed (to use Sterne’s expressive words) `to have entered into his soul.’
When all was ready and he had shaken hands affectionately with us all and had taken one more parting look at his wife, he turned and said in a steady voice to the white man, `Now, Sir, I am ready.’
The poor wife is almost heartbroken for, as he is sold to a Negro trader, there is no probability of their meeting again in this world. She says, `if he was prepared, I would rather have seen him die than going off with those handcuffs on.’
I offered to let Jane be sold to go with him that they might not be separated, but the young man who acted as agent for the Trader told me candidly that that would not secure the end I desired, for they would be sold wherever they got the highest price for them. The frequency of these sales and the high prices offered by the Traders and above all the deadening effects of Slavery upon the feelings have steeled the hearts of the people to its enormity.
This is a compelling passage, but one thing has always struck me: “I offered to let Jane be sold to go with him that they might not be separated.” While Mary Blackford could clearly see the wrong of slavery, she was still an active participant in the institution–she did not simply offer to free Jane, she offered to sell her. Was this hypocrisy?
In our next post on choices, we’ll take a look at how indeed the Minors and the Blackfords chose to ameliorate (if not confront) the evils of slavery within a community that was far more willing to brook dissent than we might imagine today.