J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Jupiter Hammon’s “Essay on Slavery”

In the Yale Alumni Magazine, Prof. Cedrick May of the University of Texas’s English Department reported on how his research team identified a previously unpublished poem by Jupiter Hammon (1711-before 1806) of New York. Hammon was enslaved to the Lloyd family of Long Island, who had a few relatives in Boston.

Here’s an image of the first page of the manuscript, and a transcript of the whole poem, which begins:

An essay on Slavery, with justification to Divine
providence, that God Rules over all things
Written by Jupiter Hammon


1
Our forefathers came from Africa
Tost over the raging main
To a Christian shore there for to stay
And not return again.

2
Dark and dismal was the Day
When slavery began
All humble thoughts were put away
Then slaves were made by Man.

3
When God doth please for to permit
That slavery should be
It is our duty to submit
Till Christ shall make us free
I can’t help hearing those lines sung as a hymn.

Prof. May explains the finding this way:
In the fall of 2011, I gave my graduate students the assignment of acquiring scanned images of Hammon’s writings from libraries and archives I knew to hold copies of his works. A librarian at the New York Public Library helpfully pointed one student toward a Yale Libraries finding aid for the Hillhouse Family Papers, which listed a poem by Jupiter Hammon. A Yale librarian e-mailed the title of the poem to us, and when I saw it was called “An Essay on Slavery,” I realized it might be a new discovery. I purchased a scanned image of the poem, and when it arrived I knew right away I was looking at a never-before-known poem by Jupiter Hammon.
Of course, this “never-before-known poem” was known to the New York librarian who guided Prof. May and his student, and before that to the archivist at Yale’s Manuscripts & Archives Department who had created the finding aid listing it. [Full disclosure: I worked in that department in 1984, in a much less important capacity.]

I’m not convinced by May’s analysis of this poem and how it fits into Hammon’s work:
We know from his writings that his masters raised and educated him under devout Calvinist principles that advocated the compatibility of slavery with Christianity. (His masters later became connected by marriage to the Hillhouse family of New Haven, which is how the poem ended up at Yale.) In his previous publications, Hammon suggests a predestinarian belief that since slavery existed, it had to be part of God’s will, and therefore slaves were bound to obey their masters. But “An Essay on Slavery,” written in 1786, declares unambiguously that slavery is a manmade sin, not the will of God, and then proceeds to celebrate the eventual end of the institution of human bondage. . . . Clearly, Hammon has changed his mind about the theological soundness of slavery’s compatibility with Christianity.
But Hammon’s third verse above precisely repeats the “predestinarian belief” that May describes. The verses describe an end of slavery in the next world, it seems to me, or after the Second Coming. Hammon was still echoing the argument that slaveowners used to convince their human property to obey them for life. Was adding a promise of future supernatural liberation really a change?

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

The Jeffersonian approach to labor, alive and well in Texas!