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  • Feeling Animal: Pet-Making and Mastery in the Slave’s Friend
  • Spencer D. C. Keralis (bio)

Abolitionist Sentiment and the Animal Metaphor

In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society planned a series of periodicals intended to extend the reach of the abolitionist message throughout the nation.1 One of these was a juvenile reader, the Slave’s Friend, which ran from 1836 to 1839. A single-signature, sixteen-page monthly, published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society, the Slave’s Friend was edited by New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan and printed by R. G. Williams.2 The editor placed great hopes in the power of children to create change. In one vignette, he describes this episode:

A few months ago, two gentlemen were traveling in a stage coach. One was a slaveholder and the other an abolitionist. The abolitionist gave the slaveholder some anti-slavery pamphlets to read. One of them was a Slave’s Friend. The slaveholder turned over the leaves, looked at the pictures, and read some of the stories. He then said, “Now I begin to fear. If you make children abolitionists slavery must come to an end.”3

The editor goes on to declare that “slavery will come to an end if the children read, talk, and act about it,” suggesting that children “may have some influence with your parents, and persons who are older than you.” And in a list of “a few things that you can do,” he admonishes children to “be very kind to colored people. Treat them as well as you do white people. Above all, pray for colored people, whether bond or free.”4 Kindness and prayers were intended to create a sense of sympathy for the slave in the middle-class child readers of the tract. The tract also included numerous representations of children with animals and allegorical vignettes featuring animals, which provided another model of kindness and the moral exercise of power for the periodical’s child readers.

The ethical equation between slavery and animal cruelty was common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century representations of slavery. Slaveholders [End Page 121] deployed a dehumanizing metaphor in describing slaves as brutes, and under chattel slavery—which involves the outright ownership of slaves and their posterity and was historically often racially based—slaves were reduced to living property, in legal status little more than animals. As Markman Ellis describes it, “Slaves, like animals, were degraded to the status of things, considered as property, and as such, not human—or at least, not human in the same way as the master.”5 Later, as Stephen Michael Best points out, in response to abolitionist challenges, “Slavery’s apologists narrowed their claims to property rights in slaves to a claim to their labor, and a right to labor for the most part warranted a further right to obedience.”6 This logic, according to Joanne Pope Melish, “alienated the enslaved from their humanness along with their freedom” because, as property, the enslaved “had value only in relation to ownership, use, and exchange by persons,” and under the law the ontological status of the enslaved was defined as property, and a slave’s existence had meaning only when owned, used, and exchanged.7

Animal imagery is ubiquitous in abolitionist writing, in general, but is particularly prevalent in texts marketed to children. Abolitionists, who drew a moral equivalency between the torture of animals and the abuse of slaves by their masters, also used animal metaphors in describing slaves. Slave children in particular were described using animal metaphors, and both domesticated pets and wild animals often appeared as allegorical figures in abolitionist literature, representing slaves and free blacks. These allegorical animals were deployed in an attempt to create sympathy for the enslaved, suggesting that the feelings produced by witnessing representations of animal suffering, and from observing animals’ behavior toward humans, could stimulate sympathies that would lead to abolitionist sentiment. This practice exploited a continuum of anti-cruelty thought that, while creating sympathetic identification with both the suffering slave and the suffering animal, dehumanized slaves by placing them metaphorically in the same status as animals. Allegories of pet-making in abolitionist writing provided white children with a model for...


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pp. 121-138
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