Thursday, April 26, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 26: a lesser-known story about Andrew Jackson and slavery

Reading about utopian theories and utopian experiments has a continuing fascination for me. John Egerton did a little book on three 19th-century utopian communities in Tennessee: Visions of Utopia: Nashoba, Rugby, Ruskin, and the "new Commmunities' in Tennessee's Past (1977).

The first community named in his subtitle, Nashoba, was founded in 1825 by a woman named Frances Wright (1795-1852). Born in Scotland and educated in England, she achieved fame in the United States:

Beginning in 1818, Fanny Wright had propelled herself to prominence in the United States and Europe, and for almost twenty years she was an outspoken advocate of democracy, abolition, women's rights, and the working class. She was a beautiful and charming individual, a radical reformer, a brilliant and controversial public fugre who alternately inspired and outraged a generation of Americans.
Someone very much in the best Jacksonian tradition, in other words.

Fanny met the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought on the rebels' side in the American Revolution, in 1821. She moved in to his house along with her friend Camilla. Egerton is a Southern gentlemen about the personal aspect of her relationship with Lafayette, noting that she was "in all likelihood his lover, though on that point her biographers - and his - are discreetly silent." In any case, it was an "extraordinary friendship" that "was to be the deepest emotional relationship of Fanny's life, more by far than a passing love affair."

Fanny and Camilla accompanied Lafayette on a famous tour his made in the United States. Egerton gives us a glimpse of American slavery at the time Fanny experienced it first hand:

On the estates of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, she saw slavery practiced by otherwise liberal men, and heard them speak about it apologetically. They acknowledged that it was a dreadful calamity, but said they could find no way to end it. Fanny was disturbed by the chasm that divided the ideal of freedom from the reality of slavery, and by the general acceptance of it. The foreign slave trade had been outlawed in 1808, and slavery was unlawful in all but those states that were economically dependent upon it. It was in many respects an involuntary system, not only for the blacks who suffered under it but also for many farmer who owned them. Manumission was widely discused, and in several Southern state legislatures, including Tennessee's, laws calling for the freeing of all slaves had been introduced. But the counter argument always prevailed; the fear of economic and social disaster tightened the grip of the slavery advocates. [my emphasis]
This was the 1820s, just before Fanny established Nashoba, and open discussion over the desirability of the institution of slavery was still possible in the slave states of the future Confederacy. That situation or so would change drastically over the next 10-15 years.

Egerton writes that developing an alternative to slavery in the South was a primary aim of his new community:

Fanny's vision was to form a community in which whites and blacks, working together, could educate and elevate the former slaves to full equality and freedom, in the hope that their example would hasten the abolition of all slavery. The more radical of the abolitionists, she felt, had "much zeal but little knowledge." The reactionary defenders of slavery, on the other hand, were perpetuating "a sin against humanity" and threatening the survival of the new nation. Fanny sought a middle solution, a way to assure freedom and independence for blacks and to allow the agricultural South to find another base for its economy. If slaves could be freed without loss to their owners, she reasoned, it would be a double gain for society. Her plan was to buy land in a Southern tate, acquire a number of slaves by gift or purchase, charge each individual the amount of his purchase price, apply his work in the colony to the payment of his debt, and eventually resettle the former laves in a colony outside the United States. She estimated that the cycle would take five years to complete, and her plan included schooling and industrial training, special care for children, and a careful effort to keep families together. [my emphasis]
Fanny's Nashoba experiment endured only five years. Utopia often turns out to have a limited shelf life.

But I was struck by Egerton's description of the support she received in Tennessee:

Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and others also reviewed it [Fanny's proposal for Nashoba], and all of them gave their enthusiastic approval. Fanny asked Jefferson to take an active part in the venture; he declined, citing his age and his university duties, but he was warmly encouraging and wished her well. Lafayette, who was preparing to return to France, put her in touch with Andrew Jackson, the war hero who soon would be President, and at Jackson's invitation, she went to Tennessee to seek a site for her colony. ...

She went to visit the Rappite colonies in Pennsylvania and Indiana, and met Robert Owen, a fellow Scot, and was inspired by his new cooperative community at New Harmony, Indiana. And then, with $12,000 of her own money, she rode on horseback from Virginia to Tennessee with George Flower, a young emancipationist and friend of Lafayette's, arriving in Nashville in September 1825. With the assistance of Andrew Jackson, they journeyed on to Memphis to meet John Overton, a friend and business associate of Jackson's, and there, in October, Fanny bought the first 300 acres of what was to become a 2,000-acre estate. The price was nine cents an acre. [my emphasis]
Overton leaves the reader to speculate about Old Hickory's reasons for assisting Fanny in this explicitly abolitionist project. Was it out of respect and gratitude to Gen. Lafayette? Did he have a particular attraction to this democratic-minded project? At the very least, we have to assume that Jackson knew the basic intentions and plans for her utopian community, including its abolitionist nature. And it didn't prevent him from supporting her in setting it up.

This is one incident in Old Hickory's life that I'm very curious to know more about.

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1 comment:

Muller said...

Thank you for your blog, very classic!