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Impact of Narratives from Slave on Political Rhetoric of Abolitionism

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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (ca 1818- 1907) was born as an enslaved person in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, to Agnes Hobbs and George Pleasant. Keckley experienced harsh treatment under slavery, including beatings as well as the sexual assault of a white man, by whom she had a son named George. She was eventually given to her owner's daughter, Ann Garland, with whom she moved to St. Louis. There she became a dressmaker and supported Garland’s entire household for over two years. She married James Keckley around 1852, discovering only afterward that he was not a freeman. Prior to her marriage, Keckley had negotiated with the Garlands to purchase her freedom and that of her son, but she could not raise the required $1,200 because of the strain of supporting her dissipated husband and the Garland household. Sympathetic customers loaned Keckley the money to purchase her freedom and that of her son in 1855. In 1860, she left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking shop. Keckley’s clients were the wives of influential politicians, and she eventually became the dresser and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

After President Lincoln's assassination, Keckley made several attempts to raise money for the former first lady, publishing Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House in 1868, partly to help Mrs. Lincoln financially and partly to counter criticism of Mrs. Lincoln. Keckley did not foresee the overwhelming public disapproval for publishing personal details about Mrs. Lincoln and White House private life. It led to the end of her dressmaking career as well as condemnation from the Lincoln family. She left Washington in 1892 to teach domestic skills at Wilberforce University, but ill health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish. She died there after a stroke in 1907.

Though the verifiable facts in Behind the Scenes have affirmed the text's authenticity, speculation remains about the level of involvement of Keckley's editor, James Redpath. Lincoln scholars have quoted extensively from Keckley’s text for its details about White House domestic life, anecdotes. When Elizabeth had first arrived in Washington, she had no money, no friends, and no place to call home, but she had soon found work as an assistant seamstress for two and a half dollars a day and took a room in a boarding house. Before long she decided to strike out on her own and she had a sign and business cards made. She advertised herself as a skilled mantua maker, capable of sewing the complicated, snug-fitting bodice of the style that well-dressed ladies most desired. Slowly but surely, she acquired a few patrons, who recommended her to their friends and acquaintances. One generous lady, a friend of the mayor, persuaded him to waive the fee for the license that, like all free Negro females over the age of fourteen, Elizabeth was required to obtain within thirty days of her arrival if she wished to remain in the city. And she had already decided that she did wish to stay, even though the daily sight of slaves in chains being led through the muddy streets from shipyard to auction house and the restrictions upon freedmen like the license and curfews sometimes made her feel as if she were not truly free.

The slave narratives’ political purposes also contributed to their shape and content. Written to serve the abolitionist cause, the narratives quickly developed a set of rhetorically effective conventions with great political resonance in antebellum America, based on significant, systematic political ideas. The political character of abolitionism was itself a complex matter. The movement’s roots, and those of the slave narrative, lay in efforts to oppose slavery that had appeared both in Britain and its American colonies by the 1680s. During the eighteenth century, and into the era of the American Revolution, such former slaves as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon) and Olaudah Equiano recounted their experiences in order to further that opposition. Still, both in Britain and the United States, the development of the slave narrative as a form were closely connected to the rise of American abolitionism as an organized force. Formally marked, beginning in 1833, by the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), led by William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Purvis, and others. The slave narrative not only flowered with the growth of abolitionism, but also simultaneously shaped and was shaped by the movement's goals and the political environment within which it operated, an environment marked by conflict and change.

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Politically, slave narratives tended to look in three distinct directions. First, as contributions to the abolitionist movement, they played a critical role in antebellum debates over slavery. With the growth of abolitionism, there developed a large body of proslavery writing defending the institution and creating an array of arguments on its behalf. Slave narratives countered proslavery arguments by undermining the ideas and images on which those arguments were based, and did so explicitly through the special role that African Americans and former slaves claimed in the debate.

Secondly, the slave narratives participated in larger processes of democratization taking place in the antebellum United States. Built on ideas and values going back to the American Revolution, democratic rhetoric and practices became dominant modes in the nation’s politics, especially after the mid-1820s, Imperfectly realized, these modes were nevertheless widely embraced as standards against which political processes were judged. Slave narratives both drew on and helped to shape this process. Finally, this was an era in which the idea of freedom itself was increasingly both valued and contested.


The objectives of this research are: to obtain a more accurate account of the institution of American slavery and its impacts on African men, women and children with the help of the selected narratives, to record their progression of change (assimilation) and the psychological adaptation (annihilation) during their captivity, to record the perils and hardships they have undergone during their captivity, and to record their loss of identity in the new social setting.


It is assumed that the dehumanizing effect of slavery and cruelty would have in turn led to the rise of humanitarianism. Gearld A. Foster in American Slavery: the Complete Story points out “even though slavery may have officially ended with the civil war, racism perpetuated the slave-master mentality for another one hundred years” (3). And so the human and cultural degradation of blacks in the Americas would have made the nation to institute laws, policies, norms, and daily practices that engendered the deep self hate in blacks that persists to this day.


Given the focus of abolitionism, it is not surprising that the narratives should have played a specific role in this discussion. In the above chapter the ideas of freedom brought together with the abolitionist ideology by the narratives that had evolved out of the distinctive experiences of African Americans, especially people who had lived in bondage, in a way that had particular political resonance for antebellum American readers have been discussed. The detail account of traumas caused by the dislocation of slaves across the Atlantic world, the perils and hardships they have undergone and the rise of humanitarianism as a result in the further chapters would give the deep insight about the dehumanizing effects of African American slavery.

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Impact of Narratives from Slave on Political Rhetoric of Abolitionism. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
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