Vaucluse's Servants: "Not Slaves of Ours"-A Nineteenth-Century Southerners's Anti-Slavery Narrative Strategy

Article excerpt

Constance Cary Harrison, nineteenth-century author of over thirty-five novels and numerous articles, garnered the readership of both the North and South through the use of conciliatory prose (1) while presenting progressive characterizations of African Americans (2) in several of her works, particularly the short story "Leander of Betsy's Pride." (3) Her advanced insights possibly resulted from her family's conflicting attitudes toward African Americans at her childhood home, Vaucluse, Virginia, and her familiarity with enlightened French racial perspectives. As followers of Swedenborg, Harrison's family were among the first Virginians to manumit their slaves, and yet, they hired replacement slaves to work as servants. In her autobiography, Recollections Grave and Gay, (4) Harrison discloses the incongruities of a non-slave owning environment immersed in a slave-owning state by rationalizing, "our servants were hired black people, good and faithful souls, but, thank Heaven! not slaves of ours" (22). She expounds on the contradiction of her family's beliefs and their actions in her article, "A Virginia Girl in the First Year of the War," (5) stating that the "people who served us [were] hired from their owners and remain[ed] in our employ through years of kindliest relations" (606). This statement relates the strong inconsistencies within her life at Vaucluse, where, instead of hiring freed African-Americans or servants from other races, the family hired slaves from neighboring slaveowners, a practice which contradicted the Swedenborgian ideal of freedom. (6)

Consequentially, the effects of living with the failure of her family to absolve themselves from the responsibility and guilt of slavery produced within Harrison a unique ability to examine both the pro- and anti-slavery viewpoints. In "Leander," Harrison explores her family's fractured stand on racial equality at Vaucluse by presenting both revolutionary characterizations of African Americans as well as revealing the hypocritical racial attitudes of white Americans based on degrees of color. She reveals an example of the tension created by her family's failure to resolve the slavery issue, even in the limited arena of Vaucluse, by referring to herself in her autobiography as a "budding secessionist," who read Uncle Tom's Cabin (R43). As Harrison once observed:

   In some mysterious way I had drunk in with my mother's milk--who
   inherited it from her stern Swedenborgian father--a detestation of
   the curse of slavery upon our beautiful Southern land. Then, of
   course, omnivorous reader that I was--I had early found and devoured
   "Uncle Tom's Cabin." "that mischievous, incendiary book," as some of
   our friends called it. When the thunderbolt of John Brown's raid
   broke over Virginia I was inwardly terrified, because I thought it
   was God's vengeance for the torture of such as Uncle Tom. (R42)

Harrison mentions her family's ancestral stance on slavery, without discussing their practice of hiring neighboring slaves as servants; however, she acknowledges her fear that John Brown's raid "was God's vengeance for the torture of such as Uncle Tom." Harrison also presents the conflicting perspectives of the family who viewed slavery as "the curse" and the friends who deemed Stowe's work as "that mischievous, incendiary book."

As Harrison "devoured" Stowe's work, she may have internalized several stylistic strategies (7) with which she examined her divided perspectives through her own writings, particularly in "Leander." In this work, Harrison asserts that slavery existed in large part because of hereditary and economic obligations, a point reflected in Stowe's observations in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Furthermore, in these works both authors secured the diverse readerships of North and South by presenting perspectives favorable to widespread audiences, while blending in the volatile message of slavery. However, she foresaw African Americans as more autonomous than did Stowe, possibly as a result of the benefit of time and the outcome of the Civil War. …