Primary Resource

"Sketches in the Free and Slave States of America" by Eyre Crowe (September 27, 1856)

In "Sketches in the Free and Slave States of America," published on September 27, 1856, in the Illustrated London News, Eyre Crowe describes his travels in the United States with the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1852 and 1853. Paying special attention to the differences between the cultures of free and slave states, the article also includes illustrations by Crowe, including Slaves Waiting for Sale, Virginia, which Crowe would later paint.

Transcription from Original

The United States, affording as they do endless subject of contrast, might fairly be entitled the land of antithesis. It is not merely in the colour of the races, black or white, which are the main dwellers there, or in the nomenclature of North and South, Slave and Free, which serve to distinguish them from one another, that this discrepancy is noticeable; but in the habits and customs, which make almost two nations of the American Union.

Taking a hint from the migratory Yankee, we shall shift rapidly from one place to another, and endeavour to give in a succinct form a few of the salient features striking the traveller from the northern to the southern districts.

There are two courses generally open to the European, which he generally adopts, if we trust to books of travel, with monotonous regularity. The one is to land at Boston, and the next to make straight for the Fremont Hotel. We beg leave to introduce the reader to the very first personage we came in contact with in that hospitable caravansery, in the shape of a youngster whom we at once set down, and afterwards found not erroneously, as a fair type of "Young America"—engraved on the next page. Look at him as we sketched him, lost in the perusal of abstruse political metaphysics. You ask, Is he a Hunker, a Barnburner, a Hard or a Soft Shell, or is he simply a "Know-Nothing"—to which party you yourself had better at once confess to belong? Or is this juvenile smoker of a Havannah cigar perusing an article in which Cuba is threatened with being gulped and absorbed, after the fashion of one of its products? Of this we simply know nothing. We only se a dwarfish "fast man" sitting beside a very large expectorator of bistre-coloured earthenware, and, as we glance into the future, see a vision of boyhood dwindling in stature, whilst quid-squirting jars grow larger by his side—a prophetic glimpse into after generations, which knowing ones inform you is speedily in course of realisation. Other subjects calling for immediate attention, we leave to others to deduce from these facts the truths they seem to inculcate. Meantime we like to gaze on this sample of precocity, and to watch his movements with the interest which we should attach to those of a youthful Paganini. The American organ is one upon which wonderful airs are now and then ground. Besides its ordinary Yankee Doodleism, quaint phases of party, utterly unintelligible to the uninitiated, are discusses with Delphic gravity of sentence. More intelligible, and, as it were, holding the middle ground between the First and the Fourth Estate, between the Church homilies and the State papers, may be placed the great order of lecturers—for in America, the lecture is militant as well as instructive. If there be a new cause to be advocated, or an old grievance to be assailed, both become themes for the evening discourse as inevitably as the journals take up the subject in the mornings of the week, or when dilated upon by Sunday preachers. It is thus the commonest topics of the day, whether they relate to Bloomerism or to spirit-rapping, are as thoroughly discussed as the non-adoption of the Maine Liquor Law or the abolition of Slavery.

Foremost amongst those who do battle against the evils of the "peculiar institution," as the Yankees call slavery, may be ranked Theodore Parker, a name favourably known in England as associated with works of theology, but which in America lays claim to that power which sound oratory and a good cause seldom fail to secure. Our Sketch was made at the "Tabernacle," a building erected in the Broadway, New York, where a select audience listened with evident pleasure to Mr. Parker's discourse. It was upon the fertile topic of slavery; and one passage we recollect particularly flattered the prejudices of the audience, where a striking contrast was drawn between the well-to-do dwellers in the Northern States, who had the antagonistic elements of granite and ice to contend against, whereas the Southerns managed to fare very indifferently despite of luxuriant vegetation and a favourable soil. So that, were not the division which we hinted at between North and South as apparent as it is on the surface, there are not a few ever anxious to let the eager listener into the secret, which Mrs. Stowe so ably dropped into English ears, of Northern supremacy. At every step we fancy we meet with that writer's hero, our friend "Uncle Tom," who, by some means, seems to have risen up from that last scene, so touchingly described by the authoress, to show himself alive, well, and free. That he is not altogether free from humiliation in so-called Free States we may corroborate the testimony of the authoress. We give as Sketch of poor "Uncle Tom," as we saw him turned out of the passengers'-car, at Philadelphia, by the conductor, for ensconcing himself and his little bundle of homely chattels in a seat reserved for his superiors. The conductor rudely beckoned him out, we recollect, and ordered him to the front car with as little ceremony (and, indeed, with no complimentary remonstrance) as if he had been one of the dogs who are penned together in one of our own railways. The utterly helpless look of submission of the poor fellow was as touching as the distressed look of the Quaker lady who sat near hugging her infant. Quakers have resolved never to hold slaves of their own; yet at their own doors they are compelled to witness daily such proofs of unhallowed serfdom.

It is pleasant to turn from this picture in the train from Philadelphia to Baltimore to one which may be seen any day by taking a ticket from the same town, but in the opposite direction, i.e., from the capital of Pennsylvania to New York. Between these two cities a sort of contention is, if we mistake not, still carried on as to which of them is to have the ultimate privilege of producing the coin of the Republican realm. Hitherto the Mint of the States has been "located" at Philadelphia; and New York merchants are loud in denouncing this as a mistake. Be this as it may, there can be no two opinions as to the relative amount of transactions in the aforesaid bullion in the rival monetary markets. The fever of speculation is at its height in Wall-street—one of the numberless offshoots from Broadway. A Sketch we give of "a glimpse of Change" affords a faint notion of the shrewd money-making community and of their "'cute"-looking physiognomies. The auctioneers, who have stalls all round the interior of the Exchange, decorated with printed advertisements of the property they are to dispose of, are bellowing at the top of their voice and taking the bid. We took this sketch on the sly, as the profane non-commercial man is not supposed to enter these precincts; we entered the place, however, utterly unconscious of the veto. Opposite to the Exchange is another large-sized building, of which we forget the name, but which evidently was no Castle of Indolence, if we may judge by the number of desks and counters, which, however, were now untenanted, it being close upon five o'clock. A solitary negro was sweeping away the dust, which, strange to say, in this neighbourhood, was not of a Californian hue; possibly that had been sifted from the dross in the earlier part of the day.

Fleeing from the dust of this negro's besom for refuge into Broadway requires no less hackneyed a simile than that of falling from Charybdis into Scylla. Broadway is a sort of human vortex—the whirl and bustle of life there is unlike that to be met with in any other capital. Whether the rush be that of capitalists going to or coming from business, at morning or at noon, or that of pleasure-loungers and fashionables filling up the intervals of time, the ebb and flow is at all hours the same. Hotels, some of them in a very inchoate state, are at the foundation stage of their brief existence, others have already revealed their marble veneering and shine in the sun with bridal whiteness—such is the St. Nicholas; others prefer the native brown free-stone coping—such is the "Metropolitan," its servants being also of the native brown free colour. Pavement is constantly being laid on, the difficulty being to find material which will resist the parching of summer and the terrific frosts of winter. The civic authorities prove themselves here not amenable to that arch despot "public opinion," which asks "Why the gutters are not cleansed?" You can see the faces of the passengers dimly mirrored in them, and not more flattered than in the daguerréotypes which line the shops from one end of Broadway to the other. Lord Stanhope's scheme of a national Portrait Gallery, should it hereafter be extended to modern worthies, might take a hint or two from the Broadway collection. Here, without trouble or further introduction, you become acquainted with all the notabilities of the Union—from the President to Barnum, from General Walker to General Tom Thumb. Gentlemen in clubs are displaying to the admiring gaze of those outside splendid arrays of boots of every shape, from the stout highlow to the trim patent-leather boot. But it is not the feet alone which are tilted and placed where the head ought to be; everything seems topsy-turvy. Even the retiring arts of music and painting are brought out in unexpected places. Brass bands are at work announcing astounding Exhibitions, such as would scare the habitués of Greenwich fair. The panels of omnibuses, which should wear the sober garb of business vehicles, are literally covered with paintings of the coloured lithograph style, suggestive of unlimited dissipation and gaiety. On the right of our sketch, by-the-by, is the supposed temple where the "upper ten thousand" resort to for the thousand and one accessories requisite for making one of that exclusive and mystical number. The latest fashions, the richest dyes, the most costly adornments are always to be had, freshly imported from Paris and London, at "Stewart's Store," and a really "smart," thriving concern does the said store look—a perfect emporium of "dry goods," to use the quaint Transatlantic phrase for the haberdasher's line of business. Well does the assertion of superiority of Free states over Slave, noted by Theodore Parker, find its response in this and hundreds of other similar marts in other branches of trade.

Turning now from the free state of New York to that of Maryland, we hardly expect to find material amelioration according to this criterion. Look at this sketch of a street in Baltimore, the chief city of Maryland; and in the matter of sewers it is notable worse off even than New York. Ever successive shower floods the streets, and renders them it may be more picturesque, yet hardly more healthy or more pleasant to the inhabitants. Stepping-stones of some size are placed at each crossing, over which the pedestrian strides as he or she best may; for horses and carriages the feat is perhaps more trying. The house on the right is, if we recollect aright, a house for the sale of lottery-tickets, such as are met with at ever turn in Rome. This reminds us that Baltimore is the stronghold of the Catholic part in the States. That is the Catholic Cathedral in the distance of the sketch, with the two quaint pinnacles placed with a symmetry which is somewhat a relief to the eye in the midst of much discordant architecture. Indeed, Baltimore is not a place where any one but a dealer in breadstuffs likes to linger. The atmosphere seems as little congenial to the visitor as does the mud in which are rolled the barrels of corn awaiting immediate exportation. We therefore hurry onward to Washington, where we take a peep at the Houses of Congress. When Mr. Dickens was at Washington, he has informed the world, in his "American Notes," he was asked whether he was not particularly struck with the countenances of the members of the House of Representatives, and those in the Senate-house. He pleads guilty to not having been amazed at any uncommon facial display; perhaps this arose from the general effect of disappointed expectation. We were not so primed for admiration, and consequently looked about in an unbiassed manner. General Cass would certainly be singled out anywhere as the possessor of a remarkable type of head. We do not mean in the sense in which either a phrenologist or a vender of macassar would call a head remarkable; we rather allude to the play of the physiognomy, and the character of intellectual pugilism evinced in his features, and have only to regret that his ebullitions should so frequently assume the shape of Anglophobia. We give a very faithful likeness of the General surrounded by documents, some of which are fixed by files to the desk-table allowed to

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every member of Congress, others strewing the table and the floor. The latter, however, is so besprinkled with moist tobacco as seriously to endanger any manuscript with obliteration. The fumes ascend and appeal not very pleasantly to the olfactory organs of people in the gallery, which must be our excuse for presenting only a single sketch from so remarkable an assembly.

Let us use the privilege of the romance-writer, albeit to delineate fact and not fiction, and leap at once from the great centre of quid-chewing to the chief manufacture for mastication. In this respect Richmond, Virginia, holds the foremost rank. Here it is that we take a bird's-eye view of the question, from the raising of slaves, to their occupation in the fabrication of the nicotine weed; from large stores, which are filled with barrels of "lugs" or inferior sort of tobacco, to the more unctuous leaf, which swells the cheek of both senator and representative. We are compelled by limited space to confine ourselves to two Sketches of Slave Auctions at Richmond. They take place in rooms on the ground-floor, which are taken in rotation, in order to suit the convenience of dealers. As no pen, we think, can adequately delineate the choking sense of horror which overcomes one on first witnessing these degrading spectacles, we prefer limiting ourselves to mere description of what we saw. Outside the doors are hung small garish flags of blood red, upon which are pinned small manuscript descriptions of the negroes to be successively disposed of. A philosopher might stop at the threshold to inquire by what sense of the fitness of things the standard selected by the slave auctioneer should be of such a sanguinary colour. As you enter you see what we have endeavoured to sketch in one of the accompanying designs. An eye-bepatched and ruffianly-looking fellow in check trousers, and grimy in every part of his person, with no hammer in his hand, as he is commonly depicted by those who have not seen this human or rather inhuman salesman, takes the swelling bids, thus with uplifted finger, calling out:—"Eight hundred, eight hundred"—"nine hundred, nine hundred"—"ten," "eleven," and even "twelve hundred, "twelve hundred"—which is generally the most a negro fetches. What may be called the "supernumeraries" in the scene are "got up" in a way worthy of the occasion, wearing as they do hats in every state of decomposition and of every colour. Their features are callous; and one gentleman we particularly noticed, who had a cowhide-looking weapon, which dangled between his legs in such way as to make one wonder whether his feet were cloven or not. There was an unmistakable look of devilry in this gentleman, which he had evidently caught by communion with dark spirits. "Spirits," however, is hardly a word which can with justice be applied to negroes in the plight now under notice. They may, in auctioneer's parlance, be "likely hands," but lively they certainly are not. We need, to prove this, only point to a sketch of "Slaves Waiting to Be Sold," which we took on the spot, and for which we narrowly escaped being what is termed "footed," or ignominiously expelled. A brood of young ones are seen sitting on a rude bench, nestling close to their mother, who clasps the youngest in her embrace. If those grown-up girls seated on the same row are her daughters, as we believe, this motherly negress must be looked upon as a fortune to her owner. Surely his conscience must be of the same material as yon rusty stove—round which the group mechanically clusters, though utterly fireless—to allow of this severance of family ties. The inexorable auctioneer hauls them up one after the other to his stand, and so are they daily consigned to an unknown fate. You cannot help secretly wishing that they may fall into the hands of a good task-master—as we believe there are many—in their search after one "down South." Very likely, in outward appearance he may bear an exact resemblance to the gentleman whom we have depicted as taking his "siesta," or after-dinner whiff—this figure being a prominent one in the porticoes of Charleston hotels at post-prandial hours. That the slaves of the aforesaid gentlemen will be kept with strictness we can vouch, for all negroes at Charleston must be under their masters' roofs at nine at night, and cannot emerge therefrom before six o'clock in the morning. At that early hour the fife and drum are heard sounding a merry réveillée, which we have made the subject of our last sketch.

E. C.