Category Archives: slavery

Thomas Day – “A Free Person of Color”

In my novel New Garden, p. 140, I make a brief reference to Thomas Day:

Ellen McAllister had selected all of the home’s furnishings with the exception of those in her husband’s study. Some came from her childhood home in southside Virginia, but most were made by Thomas Day, a free African-American furniture maker who operated a shop in Milton, North Carolina.

Statue of Thomas Day

Statue of Thomas Day (Source: NCPedia.org)

Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Day knows that antebellum wealthy citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, especially tobacco plantation owners in the Dan River Basin on the Virginia-North Carolina border, prized furniture manufactured by Day.

Day was born in 1801 in southern Virginia, the child of “free persons of color.” He learned his cabinet making skills from his father, who moved the family to Warren County in 1817. In 1825, Day moved to Milton in Caswell County on the Virginia border.

Day quickly acquired a reputation for excellence. Buyers sought not only his furniture, but also fireplace mantles, stair railings, and newel posts for their homes. His pieces were largely of the popular Empire style, but some details often deviated from the norm, giving them a unique sought-after Thomas Day touch. Demand grew to a point that by 1850, he operated the largest furniture factory in North Carolina. He used the latest tools of the period, including machinery powered by steam engines. His employees included slaves that he owned, who worked alongside white employees. In 1838, his white employees included five Moravians of German descent.

As was true in many other states in 1830, North Carolina law prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. Day had fallen in love with a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson. Day’s reputation within North Carolina’s elite was such that 61 white citizens of Milton signed a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception to the law be made for Miss Wilson. The exception was granted, allowing Thomas and Aquilla Day to live together as man and wife.

Milton Presbyterian Church

Milton Presbyterian Church (Source: LearnNC.org)

Day straddled two worlds. He catered to the white elite while negotiating the laws that restricted the movements of persons of color. He sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts for their education. He attended at least one abolitionist meeting in New York City in 1850. On the other hand, his shop built the pews for Milton Presbyterian Church, where his family sat among the white parishioners while slaves and other free persons of color sat upstairs. By 1850, he also owned fourteen slaves, but they likely were slaves in name only, as North Carolina law placed severe restrictions on manumission of slaves. New Garden, p. 202.

Like most American businesses, Day’s enterprise suffered from the economic downturn brought on by the Panic of 1857. Day died in 1861, but he had left an indelible mark on the North Carolina economy, an example of what a free African American could accomplish if given only the slightest chance to succeed.

Thomas Day's workshop in Milton, NC

Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton, NC (Source: LearnNC.org)

For more about Thomas Day, go to the following sources:

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Civil War Personalities – Simon Cameron

Cameron LOC

Simon Cameron (Source: Library of Congress)

One of the more colorful politicians of the Civil War era was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove.

Another politician, Edwin Stanton, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War, but before assuming that position in February, 1862, he served as legal adviser to his predecessor, Simon Cameron.

When Lincoln’s political managers worked for his nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, they made many promises, some overt and others subtle, to secure the delegates needed for the nomination. They desperately needed Pennsylvania’s delegates, and no one questioned U.S. Senator Cameron’s ability to deliver them, with the understanding that Pennsylvania would cast its votes for favorite-son Cameron on the first ballot and for Lincoln on subsequent ballots.

Stanton Library of Congress

Edwin Stanton (Source: Library of Congress)

The leading contender, Senator William Seward, thought he had secured Cameron’s support in a visit to the Pennsylvanian’s home in the spring of 1860, trusting the quote often attributed to Cameron that “an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” [Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 217]. But when the Republicans convened in May, many Pennsylvania delegates thought Seward was not electable.

While Seward waited at his Auburn, New York estate for word of his nomination, the anti-Seward forces were hard at work in Chicago. In exchange for Pennsylvania’s support, Cameron wanted Lincoln to give him the Treasury post and sole control of all political patronage in Pennsylvania. [Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 60-61 (1961) (2009 edition).] Cameron was known as the “Winnebago chief” for purportedly swindling the Winnebago tribe in a supply contract [McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 260 (1988)], and any suggestion that Lincoln would agree to give a reputed crook control of the government’s purse strings is disingenuous. But Lincoln’s men at least gave a wink and a nod of some sort assuring Cameron of a position in the Cabinet. Pennsylvania delivered its support and Seward would have to be satisfied with the State Department rather than the White House.

Interestingly, during the first year of the war, many military contracts went to manufacturers in Cameron’s home state of Pennsylvania. In addition, military supplies traveled inordinate distances on Pennsylvania railroads. There were also many complaints about the quality of materials furnished to the troops. The war added new words to the vernacular, including “shoddy,” charges of pressed scraps of wool used to make uniforms that fell apart after a few weeks’ wear. [McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, p. 183 (Third Edition, 2001)]

Because he received intense criticism for his poor management of the War Department, Cameron sought to secure his fragile position by kowtowing to the Radical Republicans in Congress. In the War Department’s December 1861 annual report, he advocated freeing and arming slaves who escaped into Union army lines. [Ordeal by Fire, p. 291] This early in the war, Lincoln was struggling to keep the slaveholding border states in the Union. Cameron’s report did not help.

In January, 1862, Lincoln let Cameron know his services in Washington were no longer needed. The President ultimately accepted Cameron’s letter of resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort. [Team of Rivals, pp. 410-412]

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The 1860 Democratic National Convention: Seeds of Self-Destruction

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

1860 DNC in Charleston, SC (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

It sounds outrageously preposterous today, a Democratic national convention held in Charleston, South Carolina. But the Democratic party of April 1860 was very different from the one of today.

Northern and Southern Democrats were fiercely anti-abolitionist, the primary difference being that Northern Democrats supported Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine, whereby federal law would not protect slavery in any territory where the people did not want it. Southern Democrats would hear none of it, demanding a government that supported the rights of masters to employ their slaves wherever, whenever, and however they wished. They were accustomed to a Southern-dominated Supreme Court, a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer in the White House, and an equally divided Senate that protected slave owners’ rights as new states were admitted into the Union. They feared the prospect of new states tilting the balance in the Senate as Americans settled territory not conducive to a slave-based economy.

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

Senator Stephen Douglas (Source: The New York Times)

The Democratic delegates expected Senator William Seward of New York to win the Republican nomination. Republicans accepted slavery where it was already legal, but opposed its further expansion. A unified Democratic Party could win the White House only by winning some states outside the South’s borders.

Many Southern delegates saw little difference between Seward’s position and that of Douglas if future states were likely to outlaw slavery anyway. The Southern “Fire Eaters” wanted more and were prepared to go their own way if they didn’t get it. They demanded a plank in the party platform providing:

. . . that the Democracy of the United States hold these cardinal principles on the subject of slavery in the Territories; First, that Congress has no power to abolish slavery in the Territories; Second, that the Territorial Legislature has no power to abolish slavery in any Territory, nor to prohibit the introduction of slaves therein, nor any power to exclude slavery therefrom, nor any right to destroy or impair the right of property in slaves by any legislation whatever.

It was too much for the Northern delegates to swallow. The Douglas forces won a hollow victory when the plank was voted down. But Douglas needed two thirds of the delegates’ support to win the nomination. The Fire Eaters walked out when they did not get their way and the chairman ruled a candidate had to win two thirds of the delegates including in that number the delegates who had walked out. The delegates agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in June.

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

Senator William Seward (Source: About.com)

In Baltimore the Douglas forces got a new chairman, new rules, and pro-Douglas delegates from the cotton states, thereby securing the nomination. The Fire Eaters held their own convention, nominating the sitting vice-president, John Breckinridge. The party had split, paving the way for Lincoln’s, not Seward’s, election. Six months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

Thus, although the first shots were not fired until April 12, 1861, the seeds of self-destruction were sown in the same city one year earlier.

For an excellent historical account of the Charleston convention, see chapter 1 of Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury (1961). For a fictional account (with the same results), see chapter 62 of my novel, New Garden (2013), where one of the principal characters serves as a North Carolina delegate.

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Quakers as Slave Owners

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Anyone who has studied the antebellum period knows that slavery violated Quaker principles and that some Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad. One of the most notable Quakers in the Underground Railroad was Levi Coffin, who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, but as a young man moved to Indiana and later to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served in the unofficial capacity of “president” of the Underground Railroad). But it was not always so. For well over one hundred years, slave ownership did not violate Quaker principles. Some Quakers owned slaves prior to the American Revolution and others retained that status even after the American colonists won their freedom from Great Britain.

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

In that most propitious of years, 1776, the Society of Friends made the purchase of slaves a disownable offense (i.e., a Quaker who persisted in violating that principle would be taken off the rolls of the Society). The issue then became how to handle those Quakers who already owned slaves or those who inherited slaves at a later date. The Society of Friends’ practice with respect to all Quaker principles was to persuade non-compliant Quakers to desist from actions inconsistent with those principles.

That was easier said than done in North Carolina, where state law forbade owners from freeing their slaves absent proof of some “meritorious” act, largely defined as some form of heroic conduct. The owner was also required to post bond with the court in an amount equal to the slave’s value – not easy when money was in short supply.

So how did North Carolina Quakers bring themselves into compliance with their religious principles if they lacked the wherewithal to post bond or proof of meritorious conduct? The North Carolina Yearly Meeting  (hereinafter “NC Society of Friends”) remedied the issue in 1808 by providing that Quaker slave owners could clear their consciences by transferring the slaves, in trust, to – drum roll please – the Society of Friends! Thus, the NC Society of Friends became one of the largest slave owners in the state.

In 1828, the NC Society of Friends owned more than seven hundred slaves. Of course, these African Americans were not treated as slaves, although they retained that status under North Carolina law. Over the years, the Quakers gradually achieved the slaves’ freedom by transferring the slaves to Quakers who left North Carolina to live in free states. Upon arrival in a free state, the Quaker “slave owner” would then set the slave free.

Thus, one should understand that although Quakers reached their anti-slavery principles almost ninety years before the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed the practice, they, too, took time to reject the institution as inconsistent with their moral principles and religious beliefs. Of course, they reached that conclusion without a bloodbath that took over six hundred thousand American lives.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Seth B. Hinshaw’s The Carolina Quaker Experience (Chapter 12, “Effects of Slavery in the South”), Thomson-Shore, Inc., Dexter, MI (1984).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Quakers, slavery, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad