Our old friend Father Pitt, looking for descriptions of Pittsburgh by eighteenth-century travelers, ran across this very interesting description of the state of the Northern free blacks in the late 1700s.
It takes a Frenchman to show Americans their true faces. In the 1790s, the time of the Revolution, there was a mania in France for descriptions of the newly independent United States. This one is a Nouveau voyage dans les Etats-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788, par J.-P. Brissot (Warville), Citoyen Français; that is, New Voyage to the United States of North America, Made in 1788, by J.-P. Brissot (Warville), French Citizen. The book was published in 1791, and the name of the author was Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, which sounds suspiciously aristocratic; thus, doubtless, his head-preservingly ostentatious adoption of the title Citizen.
Father Pitt, of course, was interested in the footnote that happened to mention Pittsburgh (and an abduction by pirates!); but Dr. Boli thought his historically minded readers might find the rest of the description interesting as well. This is, as far as he knows, the first appearance of this passage in English. No apology is offered for the dated racial terms, by the way, since a book has every right to be dated after 228 years, and the author is a vigorous champion of absolute racial equality.
In the four states of the North and in those of the south, the free blacks either are domestics, or keep little shops, or cultivate the land. You see some of them on ships bound for the coastal trade. Few dare to risk themselves on ships that take long-distance voyages, because they fear being transported and sold in the islands.—Physically, all these blacks are generally vigorous,* of a strong constitution, capable of the most punishing labor; they are generally active.—As domestics, they are sober and faithful.—This portrait applies to the women of that color.—I have never seen any distinction made in that regard between them and the white domestics, though these latter always treat them with contempt, as if they were of an inferior species.—Those who keep small shops live at a middle level, never increasing their business beyond a certain point. The reason for this is simple: though the blacks are treated everywhere with humanity, the whites who have money are not disposed to advance it to the blacks in such a way as to put them in a position to undertake business on a large scale. Besides, for that kind of business one must have certain prior knowledge: one must make a novitiate in a banker’s office, and reason has not yet opened the doors of the bankers’ offices to blacks. They are not allowed to sit there beside the whites.—If, therefore, the blacks here are restricted to small retail commerce, let us not accuse their impotence, but the prejudice of the whites who put fetters on them. The same causes prevent the blacks who live in the country from having extended plantations; those they do cultivate are restricted, but generally fairly well cultivated: good clothes, a loghouse or house of wood in good order, and fairly numerous children make them notable to European travelers, and the philosopher’s eye is pleased to consider these habitations, where tyranny brings forth no tears. In this part of America, the blacks are certainly happy; but let us have the courage to admit it, their happiness and their talents are not yet at that state to which they might attain. —There yet exists too great a gap between them and the whites, especially in public opinion, and that humiliating difference retards all their efforts to elevate themselves. This difference is visible everywhere. For example, blacks are admitted to public schools, but they may not cross the threshold of a college. Though free, though independent, they are still accustomed to regard themselves as beneath the white; he has rights that they have not.† Let us thence conclude that we should judge poorly of the extent and capacity of the blacks, if we took for our basis those of the free blacks of the northern states.
But when we compare them to the black slaves of the southern states, what a prodigious difference separates them! In the South, the blacks are in a state of abjection and brutishness that is hard to paint. Many are naked, malnourished, living in miserable huts, making their beds on straw. They are given no education, instructed in no religion; they are not married, but bred; thus they are degraded, lazy, without ideas, without energy. —They put no effort into having clothes or better provisions; they would rather wear rags than mend them. —They pass Sunday, which is the day of rest, entirely in inactivity. —Inactivity is their sovereign happiness; thus they work little and indifferently.
We must do justice to the truth: the Americans of the South treat their slaves well, and that is one of the effects produced by the general extension of ideas of liberty: the slave works less everywhere; but there we stop. He is no better off, either in nourishment, ot in clothing, or in morals, or in ideas; thus the master loses, without the slave’s acquiring; and if he followed the example of the Americans of the North, both would gain by the change.
When we depict the blacks of the southern states, we must make a distinction between those who are attached to the cultivation of the plantation and those who live in the house. The picture I have just given applies only to the former; the others (but they are less numerous) are generally better dressed, more active, and less ignorant.
It was generally believed until recent times that negroes had less moral capacity than whites; even reputable authors have published that opinion.** This prejudice is beginning to vanish; the northern states may furnish examples to the contrary. I shall cite only two striking examples. The first will prove that, with instruction, the blacks can be rendered capable of all the professions; the second, that the head of a negro is organized for the most astonishing calculations, and consequently for all the sciences.
I saw, during my sojourn in Philadelphia, a black named Jacques Derham, a doctor who works in New Orleans, on the Mississippi; and here is his history, such as it was attested to me by several doctors. This black was brought up in a family in Philadelphia, where he learned to read and write, and was instructed in the principles of Christianity. In his youth, he was sold to the late Dr. John Kearsley, Jr., of that city, who employed him in mixing medicines and administering them to the sick.
On the death of Dr. Kearsley, he passed through different hands, and became at last the slave of Dr. George West, surgeon of the sixteenth regiment of England, under whom, during the late war in America, he fulfilled the least important functions of medicine.
At the end of the war, Dr. West sold him to Dr. Robert Dove, of New Orleans, who employed him as his assistant. In that condition he rose so well in the confidence and friendship of his master, that the latter consented to free him two or three years later, and on moderate conditions. —Derham had brought himself to such perfection in medicine, that at the time of his liberty, he was in a condition to practice with success at New Orleans. —He is about 26 years old; he is married, but has no children; medicine brings him 3,000 dollars, or 16,000 l. in iron per annum.
“I have spoken with him,” Dr. Wistar told me, “on the maladies of fever and the epidemics of the country where he lives, and I have found him well versed in the simple method, used by the moderns in the treatment of these maladies. —I thought I might point out some new remedies to him; but he was the one who pointed them out to me. —He is modest, and has very engaging manners; he speaks French fluently, and has some knowledge of Spanish. —Though he was born in a religious family, they forgot, by some accident, to have him baptized. Consequently, he applied to Dr. Withe to receive baptism; he conferred it upon him, after having judged him worthy of it, not only by his knowledge, but also by his excellent conduct.”
Here is the other fact as it was related to me and published by Dr. Rush,†† the celebrated physician and author established at Philadelphia; and several details have been confirmed to me by the wife of the immortal Washington, in whose neighborhood this negro has lived for a long time.
His name is Thomas Fuller; he was born in Africa, and can neither read nor write; he is now seventy years old, and has lived all his life on the plantation of Mrs. Cox, four miles from Alexandria. Two respectable inhabitants of Pennsylvania, Mr. Hartshom and Mr. Samuel Coates, who were traveling in Virginia, having heard of the singular aptitude this negro had for the most complicated calculations, sent to find him, and posed various questions.
First. Asked how many seconds there were in a year and a half, he replied in two minutes, 47,304,000, counting 365 days in a year.
Second. How many seconds would a man have lived at the age of seventy years, seventeen days, and twelve hours? He replied in a minute and a half, 2,210,500,800.
One of the Americans who interrogated him and verified his calculations with the pen told him he was mistaken, that the sum was not so considerable; and that was true: it was because he had not paid attention to the leap years; he corrected the calculation with the greatest celerity.
Another question. Suppose a laborer has six sows, and that each sow bears six others the first year, and that they multiply in the same proportion up to the end of the eighth year: how many sows will the laborer have then, if he does not lose any? The old man replied in ten minutes, 34,588,806.
The length of time was occasioned only because he had not at first understood the question.
After having answered all the questions satisfactorily, he recounted the origin and progress of his talent in arithmetic. —He counted at first to 10, then to 100; and he imagined then, he said, that he was a pretty smart fellow. After that he amused himself by counting all the grains in a bushel of wheat, and soon he was able to count the number of rails or pieces of wood necessary to enclose a field of a certain extent, or the number of grains necessary to seed it. —His mistress had gained many advantages from his talent; he never spoke of her but with the greatest gratitude, because she never wished to sell him, in spite of considerable offers that had been made to her to buy him. —His head was beginning to nod. —One of the Americans having said that it was a pity he had received no education, he said, “No, master; it is better that I should have learned nothing, for plenty of wise men are nothing but fools.”
These examples doubtless prove that the capacity of the negroes can be extended to anything; they need nothing but education and liberty. —The difference that is noted between those who are free and educated and the others, is shown again in their labors. —The lands that the whites and blacks inhabit under this regime are infinitely better cultivated, produce more abundantly, and offer everywhere the image of wealth and happiness; such, for example, is the aspect of Connecticut and Pennsylvania. —Pass into Maryland or Virginia one more time, and you are in another world. There are no more well-cultivated plains, neat and even elegant country houses, vast barns well distributed; there are no more numerous troupes of fat and vigorous cattle: no, everything in Maryland and Virginia carries the stamp of slavery; burnt soil, ill-understood cultivation, dilapidated houses; small and few cattle; walking black cadavers; in a word, you see real misery side by side with the appearance of luxury.
It is beginning to be understood even in the southern states that to malnourish a slave is poor economy, and that the funds invested in slavery do not pay their interest. It is perhaps more to that consideration, and still more to the pecuniary impossibility of recruiting; it is more, I say, to these considerations than to humanity that we owe the introduction of free labor into a part of Virginia, in that part along the beautiful river Shenandoah. Thus, in seeing that part, you would think you were seeing Pennsylvania again.
Let us hope that such will be the fate of Virginia when she is no longer soiled by slavery, and that time may not be far away.
*The married blacks certainly have as many children as the whites, but it has been remarked that, in the city, more of the black children perish. This difference has less to do with their nature than with the lack of resources and care, especially of doctors and surgeons.
†Were there nothing other than the aversion of the whites to the marriage of their daughters with the blacks, that sentiment alone would suffice to degrade the latter. There are, however, some examples of these marriages.
There exists at Pittsbourg on the Ohio a white woman of French origin, brought up in London, and taken, at the age of twelve years, by pirates who made a living by taking children and selling them in America to work for a fixed time. —Certain singular circumstances caused her to marry a negro who bought her freedom, and who took her out of the hands of a white man, a barbarous and libidinous master, who had done everything he could to seduce her. —A mulatta produced by that union married a surgeon from Nantes who had established himself in Pittsburgh. —This family is one of the most respectable in that city; the negro runs a very good business, and the mistress of the house makes it her duty to receive and give good treatment to foreigners, and especially to French people whom chance has brought that way.
But there is no notion of such a union in the North; it would be shocking.—In the establishments along the Ohio, there are many negresses who live unmarried with whites. —I was assured, however, that this union is regarded in an ill light by the negroes themselves. If a negress has a quarrel with a mulatta, she reproaches her with being of mixed blood.
**I have already several times refuted this opinion, and especially in my Critical examination of the Voyages of M. Chatellux. It has moreover been demolished in a host of excellent works.
††This doctor is also famous in America for his good political writing. He is an indefatigable apostle of liberty.