American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Variation on a Historical Theme

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I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music…

The front page of the sheet music (which amazingly misprints the title, giving “Beechee” for “Becha”) bears a dedication to “Mrs. Julia Gardiner Tyler,” the former First Lady, whose name is featured even more prominently than that of the eponymous “Aunt Harriet.”[1] The inscription is easily enough explained: Mrs. Tyler was a hero to the South, on account of her public rejoinder to the Duchess of Sutherland, whose anti-slavery “Address to the Christian Women of America” created a cross-Atlantic controversy in 1853.[2] Inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the “Address” denounced slavery on two principal grounds: its affront to “the sanctity of marriage,” and its denial to slaves of an “education in the truths of the Gospel.” The text was brief — four paragraphs — and took pains to say that the British were complicit in establishing slavery. But the emphasis was of course on abolition, placing responsibility for ending slavery on America, and — what rankled most — placing particular emphasis on American women:

We appeal to you, then, as sisters, as wives, and as mothers, to raise your voices to your fellow-citizens, and your prayers to God, for the removal of this affliction and disgrace from the Christian world.

The “we” here was initially a group of thirty-five women gathered by the Duchess at her London residence (the text they signed thus became known as the Stafford House Address). But signatures were gathered for a printed version that was given to Stowe when she visited England in 1853. A decade later, with the Civil War in progress, Stowe printed a reply in the Atlantic Monthly, in which she described the petition as

splendidly illuminated on vellum, … at the head of twenty-six folio volumes, containing considerably more than half a million of signatures of British women.[3]

While in England, by the way, Stowe also received, also from the Duchess,

a superb gold bracelet, made in the form of a slave’s shackle, bearing the inscription: “We trust it is a memorial of a chain that is soon to be broken.” On two of the links were inscribed the dates of the abolition of the slave-trade and of slavery in English territory. Years after its presentation to her, Mrs. Stowe was able to have engraved on the clasp of this bracelet, “Constitutional Amendment (forever abolishing slavery in the United States).”[4]

Stowe’s time in England received a lot of coverage in the press, which explains the reference to it in the song (a reference that reminded me a little of the Natalie Maines controversy, when the Dixie Chicks singer criticized George Bush on stage, while touring in England) … but I’ll return to this part of the song below.

Tyler’s rejoinder (published in the Richmond Enquirer and then in other papers in the U.S. and Britain) was far longer than the original address. There were three principal points: (1) slavery is bad, though it’s all England’s fault — and England only began to care, by the way, when the war of independence cut off the source of profit; (2) the slaves are much better off than England’s poor — so maybe England should mind its own business; and (3) America’s domestic institutions are its own affair — bud out.

Here are some representative excerpts:

Yes, you are altogether correct in ascribing whatever there is of immorality or crime, in the present condition of the Southern States, to your own England. The colonies remonstrated and remonstrated in vain until driven to desperation by her perseverance, they severed the bonds that bound them to England, and established their independence, and abolished the slave trade by their only resource — the power of the sword. The great slave market in which England had enjoyed a monopoly, was thus lost to her; and from that moment she began to discover that there was something rather immoral in the traffic.


Your … address … represents the Southern States as denying to their slaves all religious instruction — a calumny more false was never uttered. …  Your assertion could only have been derived from some dealer in, and retailer of, fiction. … One fact is incontrovertible, and I recommend it to the consideration of the Duchess of Sutherland and her compeers of high and low degree: that England, when she had the power to prevent the introduction of negroes into the United States, most obstinately refused to do it; but now that she is deprived of her authority, either to advise or dictate, she sighs and sheds tears, and complains over the injustice and the wrong.


If you wish a suggestion as to the suitable occupation of your idle hours, I will point you to the true field for your philanthropy; the unsupplied wants of your own people of England. In view of your palaces, there is misery and suffering enough to excite your most active sympathies. … Go, my good Duchess of Sutherland, on an embassy of mercy to the poor, the stricken, the hungry and the naked of your own land — cast in their laps the superflux of your enormous wealth; a single jewel from your hair, a single gem from your dress would relieve many a poor female of England, who is now cold, and shivering, and destitute. … Leave it to the women of the South to alleviate the sufferings of their dependents, while you take care of your own. The negro of the South lives sumptuously in comparison with the 100,000 of the white population of London. He is clothed warmly in winter and has his meat twice daily, without stint of bread.


I reason not with you on the subject of our domestic institutions. Such as they are, they are ours. … We are content to leave England in the enjoyment of her peculiar institutions; and we insist upon the right to regulate ours without her aid. I pray you to bear in mind, that the golden rule of life is for each to attend to his own business, and let his neighbor’s alone! This means peace, love, friendship. The opposite means hatred, ill-will, contention — it destroys the peace of neighborhoods, and is the fruitful cause of discord among nations.[5]

As with any successful lie, there is a tint of truth mixed in — slavery and poverty were indeed parts of a world system, a system regulated by profit, dependent on amicable relations between nations. Tyler, of course, was more interested in amicable relations than poverty; the world system suited her just fine. But her criticisms nonetheless found a point of agreement with Karl Marx, of all people, who criticized the Duchess in very similar terms. In a note on “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery,” Marx wrote:

The history of the wealth of the Sutherland family is the history of the ruin and of the expropriation of the Scotch-Gaelic population from its native soil.

And he then recounted this history, concluding:

The enemy of British Wage-Slavery has a right to condemn Negro-Slavery; a Duchess of Sutherland, a Duke of Atholl, a Manchester Cotton-lord — never![6]

But as to Tyler’s characterization of slavery, here her lies were of a purer sort, that is, undiluted by any qualifying factor except, perhaps, delusion. Incensed by the falsehood, Harriet Jacobs — who was just ending her first decade of freedom — was inspired to write her first public letter. Jacobs took particular offense at Tyler’s offhand dismissal of Stowe’s remarks about the family under slavery, what Tyler called “the highly colored picture of human distress, incident to the separation of husband and wife, and parents, and children under our system of negro slavery — a thing, by the way, of rare occurrence among us, and then attended by peculiar circumstances.”

The letter Jacobs wrote is well worth studying in detail. A whole epoch, undigested, lies engorged in its rhetoric, but the heart of the letter — if I can extend this gruesome metaphor — is the story of a girl’s coerced relationship with her master, under threat of having her mother sold, and under the same roof as the master’s wife (the girl’s mistress), with the end result that two children are born, and inevitably sold, along with the girl. “And this selling,” writes Jacobs,

appeased the mistress’s wrath, and satisfied her desire for revenge. … For there is a strong rivalry between a handsome mulatto girl and a jealous and faded mistress. … Such are the peculiar circumstances of American Slavery — of all the evils in God’s sight the most to be abhorred.[7]

“Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” was composed for blackface performance by Kunkel’s Nightingale Opera Troupe. The singer — or rather, the singer’s character — is a runaway slave, gone off to New York in search of Stowe, the arch-abolitionist (herself put in blackface by being called “Aunt,” a common form of address for older slaves). In a further twist of the knife, Uncle Tom is written into the song as a friend of the singer, a wise old slave who counsels against escape, and wisely mistrusts the abolitionist promises. This version of Tom is familiar from present-day popular culture, but it’s a far cry from the hero of Stowe’s novel. In the novel, Tom refuses to run away, but because the entire plantation would be broken up if he did, and because he gave his word to his master. He’s under no illusions about the mildness of slavery, and he doesn’t try to convince Eliza to stay after she learns that her son has been sold:

“No, no — I an’t going. Let Eliza go — it’s her right! I wouldn’t be the one to say no — ‘t an’t in natur for her to stay; but you heard what she said! If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold. I s’pose I can b’ar it as well as any on ’em,” he added, while something like a sob and a sigh shook his broad, rough chest convulsively. “Mas’r always found me on the spot — he always will. I never have broke trust, nor used my pass no ways contrary to my word, and I never will. It’s better for me alone to go, than to break up the place and sell all….”[8]

Contrast that with the song, which makes Tom a mere mouthpiece for the slaveowner:

Oh! when I was a picanin, Ole Uncle Tom would say,
Be true unto your Massa, and neber run away.
He told me dis at home, he told me dis at partin,
Don’t trust you de Ab’litions, for dey seem quite unsartin.

The abolitionists of the song are meddlers, like the Duchess of Sutherland in Tyler’s rejoinder.

That rejoinder to the Duchess is evoked directly in the third verse, in which the runaway — insane scenario! — decides to return home. Here’s how it looks in the sheet music:

And here’s a transcript:

Ole Massa’s very kind, ole Missu’s kind at home too,
And much I love my Dinah, in ole Virginny true,
Now I’ll go back and stay dar, and neber more will roam,
Lor bress de Southern Ladies, and my ole Virginny home,
But don’t come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your Country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pity in your prayer,
Oh! don’t forget de White slave, dat’s starvin ober dare.

It’s all there: the contented slave, the pious Southern lady, the stirring up of trouble in England, the forgotten poor of Europe. This is followed by a fourth verse with a spurious claim that Stowe was snubbed by Queen Victoria. (In fact, though Victoria’s advisors nixed an official audience, an unofficial meeting was arranged.)

What does it all mean? Primarily, that the song is propaganda, wholeheartedly so. One couldn’t even call this portrait of slavery idealizing, as one often does with minstrel songs; it’s too calculating a lie. Set side by side with “Old Folks at Home,” and the difference becomes palpable, a difference partly owing to the tinge of sadness linking Stephen Foster’s great song with the scene of parting in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Over the course of its long life, “Old Folks” has occasionally served as propaganda, but the song makes itself available to other readings. That is not the case with “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe.”

Why, then, listen to this song? I referred to it earlier as a kind of poison. Why risk swallowing this poison, even if the toxic element is now mostly harmless? What interests me, however, is not the poison, but the culture of poison that made a song like this seem like medicine, at least to someone. Listening to it, at least if we understand the context, we become as it were spectators at the medicine show, listening to the back and forth between rival acts, a debate in which Stowe, the Duchess, Tyler, Marx, and Jacobs all participated, along with many lesser figures, most notably the composers and performers of “Aunt Harriet.”[9]


1 [Back to text] American Memory holds three copies of the sheet music; two bear inscriptions to Tyler.

2 [Back to text] In fact, as Evelyn L. Pugh notes in her essay on the controversy, the address, though framed in Stowe’s matriarchal terms, was actually written by the Earl of Shaftesbury (who “read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was, as he wrote in his diary, ‘touched to the heart’s core'”). It was then given to the Duchess for distribution. See “Women and Slavery: Julia Gardiner Tyler and the Duchess of Sutherland,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88.2 (April 1980): 186-202.

3 [Back to text] See Harriet Beecher Stowe, “A Reply to the Address of the Women of England,” Atlantic Monthly 11 (January 1863): 120-34.

4 [Back to text] Annie Fields, The Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Riverside Press, 1898), 196.

5 [Back to text] The entire text can be read online in the Southern Literary Messenger (Feb. 1853): 120-26.

6 [Back to text] Karl Marx in The People’s Paper, No. 45 (March 12 1853) (from the Marx and Engels Internet Archive).

7 [Back to text] The letter is reprinted from The New York Tribune in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume IV: The United States, 1847-1858, ed. C. Peter Ripley et al. (University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

8 [Back to text] The passage appears in Chapter 5 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), “Feelings of Living Property.”

9 [Back to text] For simplicity’s sake I’ve avoided investigating the composers and performers — for now. As with all these posts, “the work is ongoing.”


2 Responses

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  1. This is an amzing post Ben.

    It’s funny how Marx pops up here as “the good guy”–seems like he often does that in discussions of the mid-19th. He always has the right opinion and is blameless as the snow, because he was more or less irrelevant then. I guess this “pure outsider” status gives his work its, um, “lasting appeal”?

    Stan Apps

    December 15, 2009 at 6:57 am

  2. Thanks, Stan. With Marx: I find it embarrassing, actually, that he adopts the same rhetorical stance as Tyler — how easily the cry of hypocrisy links radical purity with pure obfuscation. But I’ve got this old book, Marx and Engels on the United States, and it’s bracing how acute and detailed Marx’s analyses could be. It’s really impressive. (There’s also a funny letter from Engels from the Civil War, complaining that he can’t find a map that shows the battle sites.)

    Ben Friedlander

    December 15, 2009 at 8:37 am

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