The value of one’s self

From John Hennessy (with thanks to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for providing us with this copy of the letter):

Click to enlarge

Though only a few words, and though at first blush entirely common, this is a remarkable document. It is from the collections of the Fredericksburg Area Museum–in fact it is on display in their present exhibit, “These Old Walls.”  It consists of an exchange between a 24-year-old Stafford County Doctor Augustine S. Mason and Fredericksburg’s dominant slave trader before the Civil War, George Aler (whom we have written about here).  Mason was an 1855 graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School and had been married just six weeks before he wrote this note. He would soon be a surgeon in the Confederate army. In the note he expresses his intent to sell an enslaved man named Thomas to Duff Green of Falmouth, but before doing so wants to know what Thomas is worth, and so he goes to the man who would know–Aler.

What makes this document compelling and ironic is this: Thomas himself carries it to Aler, and presumably returns the answer, which declares him to be worth “no more than 500 dollars.” Aler also asserts that there would likely be few persons willing to buy Thomas “in his present condition.”

We do not know what afflicted Thomas, and we cannot know if Thomas knew the nature of the message he carried between Mason and Aler (odds are Thomas could not read). We do not know either if the sale was ever consummated (it probably was, because the 1860 slaves census shows Mason owned five enslaved people, none of them an adult male). But we can grasp the essentials of the moment: a man subjected himself to and carried to his owner a stark assessment of the value of his own self to the white-dominated world in which he lived. 

Falmouth Dec. 30th 1858

Dear Sir-

I have agreed to let D Green Scott have the bearer Thomas but what would you value him at today.

Respectfully   A.S. Mason

Frdg Dec 30th 1??

Dear Sir-

I think in his condition he is not worth more than 500 dollars. 

It is almost impossible to come at the true value in the market as very few persons would by him in his present condition.

Respectfully   George Aler

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The value of one’s self

  1. This note reminds me of my recent trip to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum for which I blogged about here (http://interpretivechallenges.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/poignant-disturbing-object-in-the-kinsey-collection/).

    Thomas and Frances both (likely illiterate) carried the very note that sealed their fates to the hands of a slave trader. It’s not clear in Mason’s letter about why the sale is taking place or what Thomas’s job was. Frances has a bit more biographical details and more poignant is the justification her owner makes.

    Sorry to plug here but I just thought it was an interesting connection in the ways of slavery.

  2. Pingback: Check out Fredericksburg Remembered | Interpretive Challenges

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