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MAGGIE SALE To Make the Past Useful: Frederick Douglass' Politics of Solidarity ? 7 November 1 84 1, enslaved rebels on boatd the slave brig Creole, heading from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans , rose upon the crew, took over the ship and directed it to Nassau in the British Bahamas where British authorities boarded the schooner. On 1 1 November all were allowed to leave except the nineteen who had been identified by the white crew and passengers as perpetrators of the rebellion. They disembarked among reportedly thousands of cheering dwellers of Nassau. The nineteen were jailed until they were released five months later for lack of evidence. At this point, all those who had rebelled or otherwise fled on the Creole disappear from the historical record in the US. The rebellion, however, received widespread coverage in the newspaper press in both southern and northeastern United States, and was the subject of legal, legislative, and diplomatic debate until 1855, when an international arbitration panel forced British authorities to pay reparations for the economic value of the lost "cargo." In 1853, Frederick Douglass took up the subject of the Creole rebellion in his only piece of fiction, The Heroic Shve. Douglass' claiming and rewriting of the historical coverage of the Creole rebellion challenged US Americans to imagine the action of the Creole rebels, especially Madison Washington, as being like those of the founding fathers. Upon the deck of the brig Creole, at the end of the novella, Washington proclaims, Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1995 Copyright €> 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 20Maggie Sale "Yt)U call me a bhck murderer. I am not a murderer. God is my witness that liberty, not malice, is the motive for this night's work. I have done no more to those dead men yonder, than they would have done to me in like circumstances. We have struck for our freedom, and if a true man's heart be in you, you will honor us for the deed. We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they." (66) Washington seeks to justify the rebels' actions by setting up an equivalence first between himself and the crew of the slave vessel—"I have done no more to those dead men yonder, than they would have done to me in like circumstances"; then between the rebels and patriots of the US Revolution—"We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they." Washington challenges his listener, the Creole's first mate, just as the text challenges Douglass' readers, to recognize this equivalence, arguing that any "true man" "will [do so by] honoring] us for the deed." For Douglass to talk about rebellion in these terms was radical, indeed explosive, not because he was invoking the memory of the Revolution —many writers and orators of the 1840s and 1850s—proslavery, free-soil, antislavery and abolitionist alike—did so as authorization for their causes—but because he was a former slave using that memory to justify slave rebellion. In order to understand why Douglass' assertion was so oppositional and disruptive, we first need to recognize that the abolition of slavery was never certain. The sure sense that slavery would end, that "a house divided cannot stand," today is common parlance because it was made part of US America's official story, first by Abraham Lincoln and later by Woodrow Wilson and other politicians and historians of the twentieth century. But in 1853, three years after "slavery ha[d] been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form" by the Fugitive Slave Law, and "the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women and children, as slaves, remains no longer a mere state institution btit is now an institution of the whole United States," abolition seemed—and was—far from inevitable.2 The first section of this essay illustrates the tenuousness of abolition by looking at the debate about the identity of the nation occasioned by the Creole rebellion. By examining this debate, 1 will show two things: Politics of Solidarity27 first, the extraordinary power...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 25-60
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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