Trappings of Nationalism in Frederick Douglass's the Heroic Slave

By Walter, Krista | African American Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Trappings of Nationalism in Frederick Douglass's the Heroic Slave


Walter, Krista, African American Review


The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstitions in regard to the past. (Karl Marx, Eighteenth 18)

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. (Frederick Douglass, "What" 366)

As Frederick Douglass indicates in the well-known opening chapter of his 1845 Narrative, most masters were deeply invested in keeping their slaves thoroughly ignorant. To maintain their socioeconomic power, mid-nineteenth-century slaveholders made it difficult if not impossible for slaves to develop a sense of themselves as subjects in and of history, often merely by refusing to grant them access to information about their birth dates and paternal relationships. For those masters who were also biological fathers to their slaves, the tacit disinheritance had double significance. Etienne Balibar and Emmanuel Wallerstein describe what many slaveholders already seem to have understood: that having a sense of history "is a central element in the socialization of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity, in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimation" (78). Denied the facts of paternity, and often forced to relinquish ties to any specific familial and cultural past, slaves were rendered coll ectively powerless to challenge their masters. Ignorant of America's revolutionary history, whether factual or mythic, slaves were in no position to comprehend the full political significance of their existence within the nation from which they were paradoxically excluded. Or so the master class hoped.

Obviously, the perpetuation of the slaveholding system during and after the American Revolution implicated every white citizen in the outrageous hypocrisy of a "republican slavocracy," but because many slaveholders believed that the republic (politically comprised solely of white gentlemen of property, despite its inclusive rhetoric of "all men") was divinely sanctioned or destined to prevail, it was fairly easy to rationalize the institution as a "peculiar" but necessary phase in a developing democratic state. Slaveholders often defended their practices by aligning themselves with the nation's glorified past. As the political descendants of the slaveholding revolutionaries of 1776, they could argue they were merely carrying on a tradition and way of life sanctified by America's holiest historical documents. After all, the unassailable Founding Fathers had themselves been slaveholders, and, many felt, the birth of this great democratic nation owed a debt of gratitude to the economic system and way of life fr om which it had emerged.

Nevertheless, slaveholders needed to circumvent another collective rebellion--a repetition of an heroic past they coveted only for themselves. Not surprisingly, Southern masters were often particularly interested in refusing slaves access to the history of the American Revolution and the ideologies of liberation that fueled it. But while national pride served many functions during the ante-bellum period, not the least of which was to conceal the atrocities of slavery behind a rhetorical facade of progress, it was also a powerful weapon in the oratory of abolitionists, who drew heavily on the familiar phrases of Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine to generate a sense of outrage in loyal Americans. Fear of insurrection prompted Southern planters to caution one another on the importance of keeping slaves away from Fourth of July orations and other patriotic events where they might be inspired by the defiant glory of the nation's beginnings. One Southern minister instructed the slaveholder to treat his slaves to a ma gnificent Independence Day dinner, and even to encourage the social mingling of blacks and whites, but to make the celebration "strictly a negro family affair.... Instead of singing 'Hail Columbia' let them sing 'Walkjaw-bone. …

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