From the Stacks: American Slavery As It Is

Title page of American Slavery As It Is, 1839.

Title page of American Slavery As It Is, 1839.

In rare books terminology, the term “association copy” is used to describe “a copy…which once belonged to someone connected with the author or someone of interest in his own right…or someone particularly associated with its contents.” The copy of Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is housed at the Amistad Research Center fits this criteria as an association copy. Formerly owned by abolitionist Lewis Tappan and containing annotations in his hand, it is the association between Weld and Tappan that makes Amistad’s copy all the more interesting.

Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895) came from a family of Congregationalist ministers and was one of the leading architects of the abolitionist movement in the United States. He was also responsible for converting Lewis Tappan and his brother, Arthur, into the abolitionist cause. Known as a magnificent orator, Weld lectured widely and often on the topic of slavery until, at the age of 33, his voice gave out. He married the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Angelina Grimke in 1838.

Having lost his oratory skills, Weld turned to publishing as a way of spreading the abolitionist cause. He, along with his wife and her sister, Sarah, began work on a project that would result in the 1839 publication of the compendium work American Slavery As It Is. The trio combed through over twenty thousand copies of Southern newspapers to compile first hand accounts and narratives from slave-holders, freedmen, and others. The book described not only the conditions of slavery, but on the daily aspects of slaves’ lives, such as diet, clothing, housing, work hours, etc. Accuracy was of the utmost importance to Weld and the Grimke sisters; so much so that a committee of prominent abolitionists was selected to verify their materials and work.

Priced at 37 and a half cents, the book sold a hundred thousand copies in its first year and became one of the most influential anti-slavery tracts. It also was used as a source by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (see our previous blog entry on Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin). However, American Slavery was published anonymously, as were many of Weld’s works.This anonymity is perhaps one of the reasons that Weld’s name is less known than other abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison.

As mentioned above, Amistad’s copy of American Slavery is an association copy that contains not only Lewis Tappan’s ownership signature, but a small number of interesting annotations in his hand. Descriptions of Tappan’s annotations follow below:

Page 4 annotation reads: “Nov 23/49 J. D. Weld stated to me that with the exception on p 174 he has never heard that any statement in this book has been brought in question.”

On page 174, Weld wrote: “It is also well known that President [Andrew] Jackson was a ‘soul driver,’ and that even so late as the year before the commencement of the last war, he bought up a coffle of slaves and drove them down to Louisiana for sale.”

Tappan wrote two separate annotations regarding Weld’s statement, which read:

“Mr. Weld informs me (Nov 23/49) that the above was stated to him by J. S. Birney who received it from Mr Kingsbury, missionary among the Choctaws; but he has since learned that Gen. Jackson went down the river after a number of slaves, whom he had sold to a person who had not paid for them & who were returned to him.”

“Mr. Weld told me Nov 7/63 that this statement about gen. Jackson is the only one in the book that has ever been denied, to his knowledge.”

Dated ten and twenty-four years after the publication of the book, Tappan’s annotations provide evidence of his association with Weld long after their early communications and work together for the abolitionist cause. They also provide insight into a little know aspect of the public reception accorded to American Slavery following its publication.

Posted by: Christopher Harter

(Images may not be reproduced without permission.)


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