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  • "The Land of Liberty":Henry Bibb's Free Soil Geographies
  • James Finley (bio)

In the years preceding the 1849 publication of the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Bibb was an active member of both the Liberty and Free Soil parties, speaking and organizing throughout the Old Northwest, Upstate New York, and New England, up until his emigration to Canada in 1851 following the passage of the revised Fugitive Slave Act. Comprising a genealogy of third-party antislavery coalitions including the Liberty Party, the Liberty League, the Free Soil Party, the Free Democrats, and ultimately the Republican Party, the Free Soil movement was, in large part, characterized by economic resistance to the Slave Power, which, Free Soilers claimed, was weakening the U.S. economy, devaluing northern labor, degrading the natural resources of the South, and threatening to expand westward so as to create a continental empire for slavery.1 Emerging from the labor and radical land reform movements of the 1830s, Free Soil articulated an agrarian antislavery message that critiqued the slave system in terms of labor while also resisting the expansion of slavery into the territories and even calling for public land to be made available to landless homesteaders.2 The Free Soil movement began, in large part, amidst support for the Wilmot Proviso, which stipulated that any lands incorporated into the U.S. following war [End Page 231] with Mexico would remain free of slavery. Its author, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, believed that containment of slavery would lead to its ultimate eradication.3 This emphasis on containment, I will suggest, reflects a faith in borders and limits that is belied by Free Soilers' fears concerning the expansive and contaminating effects of the Slave Power.

Bibb began lecturing and campaigning for the Liberty Party in Michigan and Ohio in 1844 before becoming a national figure in the latter part of the decade.4 In 1846 he spoke to overflow crowds at the North-Western Liberty-Convention in Chicago and in 1847 he addressed the Vermont State Liberty Convention as well as the Liberty Party Convention in Elgin, Illinois. In 1848, as the Liberty Party was transformed into the Free Soil Party, Bibb spoke to the Maine State Liberty Party Convention in February and provided a well-received speech at the first Free Soil Convention, held in Buffalo, where he was a registered delegate. And in 1849, the year his Narrative was published, Bibb spoke at a Free Soil convention in Ohio.5 Bibb's antislavery work was so thoroughly connected to the Free Soil movement that an 1848 editorial in the North Star expressed the fear that a "scandalous and libelous account" of Bibb, published in the Buffalo Courier, was in fact "a villainous attempt to injure the Free Soil movement, by damaging the character of Mr. Bibb."6 In addition to his activity on behalf of the Free Soil movement, the production of Bibb's Narrative was shaped by Free Soilers. The introduction was written by Lucius Matlack, a "strong supporter" of the Liberty Party and formerly the editor of the party's newspaper the American Citizen.7 The authenticity of his text was affirmed by a committee of Michigan Liberty Party men.8 The text of the Narrative also includes a letter to the Michigan Signal of Liberty attesting to Bibb's antislavery work, signed by Arthur Porter, a founder of the Michigan Liberty Party, Charles Stewart, a Liberty Party nominee for Congress, and Silas Holmes, secretary of the Detroit Liberty Association.9

Early in the Narrative Bibb has been re-captured in Cincinnati and is transported along the Ohio River back to what [End Page 232] he refers to as a "land of torment" (66). While on board the ship, Bibb explains,

I was permitted to gaze on the beauties of nature, on free soil, as I passed down the river, [where] things looked to me uncommonly pleasant: The green trees and wild flowers of the forest; the ripening harvest fields waving with the gentle breezes of Heaven; and the honest farmers tilling their soil and living by their own toil. These things seemed to light upon my vision with...


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