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Eloquence And Abolition

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 8, 2011

Eloquence And Abolition

The escaped slave told a white theologian that if slavery was to exist to the end of the world, whites should take their turn.

By SARAH RUDEN

In 1827, a 19-year-old slave named James Pembroke escaped from his owner’s Maryland farm but in a panic mistakenly fled deeper south instead of toward Pennsylvania and freedom. He was cornered and accused of being a runaway slave even before notice of his escape and the reward for his return could circulate. Protesting to his captors that he was a free man, Pembroke played for time as the group dwindled—and then escaped again.

But he was soon caught. This time Pembroke admitted that he was a slave but said that he had been abandoned in a locality that smallpox had ravaged. The ruse worked: Captors became even scarcer; within a few hours, a single young minder was assigned to him, and the runaway soon slipped off—eventually making it to a Quaker community in Pennsylvania, where he began work as a free man. And he would exercise his liberty by taking a new name: James W.C. Pennington.

Christopher Webber recounts the series of escapes early in "American to the Backbone," a luminous portrait of Pennington that amply makes good on the author’s observation that biographies "provide a means of expanding our lives by entering into the lives of others."

Pennington was a blacksmith and carpenter by training, but in the North he did whatever was useful to a series of patrons. In his spare time and with their help, he began the intensive studies that were to take him from illiteracy to an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1849. Along the way, in the late 1830s, he studied at the Yale Divinity School, where he was permitted only the status of silent auditor. He later worked as a schoolteacher and parish minister but also became a respected classical and biblical scholar and a stunningly productive and protean abolitionist orator and author. "Those who argued that black people could never equal white people in accomplishment," writes Mr. Webber, "were silenced simply by James Pennington’s witness."

In the mid-19th century, a popular idea proposed sending blacks "back" to Africa, but Pennington insisted that the U.S. was their home—if he himself was "American to the backbone," so must they be. Opening Mr. Webber’s book to almost any page is to gain a window on U.S. history during a tumultuous era. Pennington didn’t just maintain his own stop on the Underground Railroad; he sheltered the newly escaped Frederick Douglass, solemnized the young man’s marriage and shared invaluable Northern contacts with him. Pennington knew everyone in the abolitionist movement, including the early British campaigner Thomas Clarkson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown. He won deep respect—and some nasty sniping—through his writing and oratory.

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American to the Backbone

By Christopher L. Webber
Pegasus, 493 pages, $29.95

How is it that such a vital figure has faded from prominence? Part of the explanation: That’s as Pennington would have wanted it. He regarded his work as sacrifice, not to be commercialized or institutionalized for his benefit. For instance, when he wrote a popular autobiography—in "The Fugitive Blacksmith" Pennington revealed the secret of his runaway-slave past—he did so to raise money for paying off his church’s debt. Only slightly acquainted with Christianity before his escape, he associated his freedom strongly with the Quakers and Presbyterians who took him in.

As noted by Mr. Webber, who is an ordained minister, Pennington also embraced a concept of "Gods’ moral government" while studying at Yale. Slavery was evil not because it had injured, thwarted and humiliated him and his family; it was evil as a cause of sin. It allowed masters to break Commandments without hindrance, especially the one against adultery; it kept human beings, born for salvation, in ignorance and moral darkness; it made a mockery of all the biblical commands to do justice.

Pennington was not, however, a hell-fire preacher or a tedious moralist but a constant source of empathy, practicality and good humor. He once replied to a white theologian that if slavery was to exist to the end of the world, whites should perhaps take their turn. His American backbone held up through all the hardships, frustrations and provocations that even the relatively enlightened North offered him.

Among these was the frequent exclusion of blacks from public conveyances. Pennington lost a lawsuit after he was manhandled while resisting ouster from a New York tram. But he made significant progress against the relegation of blacks, including visiting clergy, to a sort of isolation pen in nominally liberal churches. On a larger political scale, he helped marginalize the white Northern "philanthropists" who in effect pandered to Southern slaveholders through the colonization movement, trying to arrange for the export of all free African-Americans—and former slaves, if the "peculiar institution" should end—to Liberia.

Over time, the constitutional compromise leaving decisions over slavery with the states, and counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for Electoral College purposes, skewed the federal government’s concerns sharply toward slaveholders. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act forced active cooperation with slave hunters and placed an official gloss on the kidnapping of blacks, slave and free. Pennington and his family were subject to prolonged terror in a country where, for blacks, there was little effective difference between policemen and free-lance thugs.

For decades, Pennington was committed to nonviolence, but slavery, as it turned out, could only be dislodged by war. With lectures and writings, he helped to recruit blacks for Lincoln’s army and after the war spent time in the South ministering to freed slaves. He died in Florida in 1870, at age 61. Mr. Webber’s vivid account resurrects this astonishing figure, conveying all that he endured and achieved during America’s longest, most harrowing trial.

Ms. Ruden is the author of "Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time."

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, In

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