William James: “A Pluralistic Universe” (1909)

The next in a series of William James’ late career works on radical empiricism is A Pluralistic Universe, another series of lectures published into a book in 1909. Of the works I have read, it is his more direct attack on rationalism and monism. As far as philosophy goes, A Pluralistic Universe, reads a bit like an argument against intellectual absolutism and homogeneity. As such, I am forced to appreciate it. The big problem with rationalism is that is posits a Truth that is external to our own experiences (at least in many cases). If truth is singular and all of us experience the world differently, most of us are then looking at the world falsely or as a delusional. That seems unlikely as a point of fact. (At least this is how I understand the core of his argument, with my soft non-philosophical mind.)

But one as we are in this material sense with the absolute substance, that being only the whole of us, and we only the parts of it, yet in a formal sense something like a pluralism breaks out. When we speak of the absolute we take the one universal known material collectively or integrally; when we speak of its objects, of our finite selves, etc., we take that same identical material distributively and separately. But what is the use of a thing’s being only once if it can be taken twice over, and if being taken in different ways makes different things true of it? (647)


See, there is an added value to looking at the universe pluralistically. We can actually take part in a more rich, playful, and diverse universe.

His most significant attacks on other philosophers come at Hegel. His questioning of Hegel is really an extension of his disapproval of idealism as absolutist. An rationally-determined position conquers and dismisses all other perspectives and eventually all evidence. “All facts lead to him [the idealist].” (688) Here we come to the crux of radical empiricism as I understand it. Idealism finds truth through reason and ideas alone and then (for James at least) voyages into near solipsism. At its most radical, the idealism would be willing to reject all other opinions as false, no matter how they were determined, if they do not fall into “Truth.” The typical empiricist (I suppose most scientists fit into this category) accept “Truth,” but realize that specific findings may be provisional or incomplete. Truth determined through observation, but constantly tests by other findings and observations. The radical empiricist rejects “Truth” finding value in all observations made by others as having truth. Going a bit farther he states that fact can be found in the process by which something is observed and realized needs to be taken into account as well, and those will be highly pluralistic. Each observation is a process, thus ultimately two people will observe the same event with different processes and therefore one cannot be rejected without exposing some absolutist position. I guess in practice this means that a scientist is more right in her observation of some phenomenon than an untrained spiritualist, just because ones process of observation is informed by training and the other by a belief in ghosts.

If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic,—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,—must not such thinness come either from the vision being defective in the disciples, or from their passion, matched with [Gustav Theodor] Fechner’s or with Hegel’s own passion, being as moonlight unto sunlight or as water unto wine.” (710)

So, is the point here that the typical John Locke style empiricist is a variant of idealism in that is does not understand the context of an observation?

Does this leave us with some anti-intellectualism? I suppose a degree of that is inevitable with radical empiricism, but that may not be bad in a highly technological democratic society, where scientists and engineers hold immense powers over our individual lives. Many historians of science have filled in this gap by looking at the context of this or that scientific discovery and showing how they were not the result of pure observation, but influenced by training, disciplinary standards, social expectations, religious values, culture, and much more. In this sense, perhaps James is rightfully questioning “Truth” as determined by thinkers, while also raising the standards of inquiry to include increased not just a finding, but how a finding was determined.

James explicitly states that he thinks his view of a pluralistic universe is more democratic than idealism or other absolutism philosophies. This suggests he was really seeing his ideas as an American alternative to the rationalist traditions of Europe. “The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.” (770)

I am not sure how much thought anarchists have given to epistemology, but I am convinced that the place to begin such an investigation would be a thinker like William James. At the very least, I am convinced that there are real conflicts between idealism and a libertarian worldview, but maybe others see it differently.

William James: “Pragmatism” (1906–1907)

William James delivered the lectures that make up the book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking in late 1906 and early 1907. They build on the conclusions of The Variety of Religious Experiences. Essentially, his perspective on religion was pragmatic and based on observably significant religious experiences. This collection of essays is a more general statement of these principals. It seems to be to be an essentially correct perspective, resting on the idea that what matters as true is what works. And what does not work should be rejected as false. A major reason to accept his position is that “Truth” actually matters little in the world as we experience it, even if it could be determined (which Kant already showed is not really possible).


He starts out by describing the “dilemma in philosophy” as between empiricists and rationalists. He shows his clear preference for the empiricists. He puts it quite nicely in the following. “You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.” (495)

He then approaches the basic philosophy of pragmatism, stating that what matters is the concrete consequences of a particular claim. What is so radically powerful about this perspective is that it makes truth (he is indifferent to Truth) “malleable to human needs.” (515) “Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they had practical consequences.” (522) This seems to me a democratic, fair-minded, and useful approach.

The rest of the lectures explore different ramifications of this position. One is that categories of substances (whiteness, combustibility, insolubility, etc.) are purely creations of pragmatic humans. This is about as clear a rejection of idealism as I can think of. Of course, that this can be immediately extended to character may be troubling to some. Of course, I am rather sympathetic to the idea that honesty or value or generosity be reflected in human interactions rather than the realm of abstract ideas. This is also James’ defense of free-will. While it may be “Truth” that free-will is an illusion, we act as if we have free-will and that assumption works fairly well in a host of questions in human societies.

He includes in the book a foundational argument to his next major work, The Pluralistic Universe.

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path. (556—557)


Let me attempt a pragmatic defense of anarchism. We certainly could accept an anarchist-communist principle like “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” on principal, but that is actually the least direct way to get there, and the path most likely to inspire resistance. It is much better to argue (as David Graeber did in a talk I saw) that this principle is essentially how we function in social relationships already. In the simple encounter of asking for direction, this principle is lived. When I ask from directions, I take from someone who owns knowledge freely from someone who is not capable (morally, most of us would agree) of refusing. In the workplace, the same principle usually applies. It would be a pretty inefficient workplace that did not accept at least the “from each according to their abilities” principal. To give a more difficult example, squatters rights (or the principal that ownership should derive from use) is simply a more efficient and just way to distribute housing. To rely on a hard principle of property rights in respect to housing is inefficient (requiring guards, banks, and all sorts of invasive legal proceedings) and unjust (ensuring that people with the need for homes will go without). Also, giving de facto ownership to occupants is basically how we see the world. When we visit a renter at their house, we act as if they were the owner. In every meaningful way that house (perhaps owned by an absentee landlord or a bank) is the moral domain of the one who lives there.

At the same time, it is may be a useful exercise to critique the state or capitalism using pragmatism. People may like in a democracy, while having little actually say over their lives. This actually seems to be empiraclly true for most people. In the same way, anarcho-capitalists may speak of free markets or free exchange, but have no empirical evidence that these exist or can exist. At the same time, pragmatically, we see that we can function without a state.

Well, I am sure a philosopher or a James’ specialist can set me right on this, but I find this a reasonable extension of what he was saying in Pragmatism. Capitalism seems to be an imposition of abstract principles (most significantly property ownership) over a more pragmatic perspective.

William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part Two

Those of us who are not personally favored with such specific revelations must stand outside of them altogether and, for the present at least, decide that, since they corroborate incompatible theological doctrines, they neutralize one another and leave no fixed result. If we follow any one of them, or if we follow philosophical theory and embrace monistic pantheism on non-mystical grounds, we do so in the exercise of our individual freedom, and built out our religion in the way most congruous with our personal susceptibilities. (459)


The second half of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences builds on the argument that religion creates experiences that have real results that cannot be so easily discarded as crazy or irrational. This is not so much an argument for the truth of various religious claims. James’ appears to be rather indifferent to this question, focusing more on what can be studied and measures: the religious experiences themselves as their ramifications in the world.

Throughout the second half of the book, which consists of a series of lectures James gave in 1899 and 1900, the focus is on the good acts that religion inspires in people (“saintliness”), the sometimes excessive behavior it inspires, mystical experiences, and religious philosophy. He ends the book with a proposal for a scientific approach to religion.

Starting with “saintliness,” James argues that religion seems to promote clearly positive behavior in people that cannot be accounted for from other sources. (At the very least, individuals claim religions origins for some of these behaviors.) There is something deeply individualistic about James’ approach that I find compelling. Maybe this is something now lacking in some of the discourse on religion. “Every individual soul, in short, like every individual machine or organism, has its own best conditions of efficiency.” (274) I am not a big fan of comparing humans to machines as he does, but I am going to choose to be open-minded that religious experiences can be one of the ways that people can reach “saintliness.”

James confesses in one of the lectures on “saintliness” that there are also a host of negative habits that a religious life and religious devotion can bring, although he seemed to think these are in the minority. However, these need to be looked at as part of the entire package of the mind. Here is another pitfall anti-religious types like me fall into. We assume that some negative characteristic, some hypocrisy, or some bad thought has its origin in what we do not like about another person’s mental universe. James seems to think that these components of someone’s mental universe is just as likely something else. “The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodsits, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and the eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators.” (308) Well, I do not know about the Hobbessian stuff in there, but I take his point.

To give much more summary may be pointless and I skimmed a fair deal. Toward the end of the book his focus is on religious mysticism and philosophical idealism rooted in religious experiences. The argument seems to me to be the same in both cases. From the individualistic perspective, these experiences are real (“absolutely authoritative”). They also should be taken seriously by outsiders because they are possible paths to truth.

What I think we should take from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is an argument for religious individualism. In this it can be very powerful. It can also be applied more broadly. I just got into a debate on Facebook with some scientists over whether the humanities have anything to teach science and the innovators of technology. Clearly I think people in the humanities do, but they were less certain and took what I was saying as a bit preachy. However, I think there is a value in coming out of our own skin and at least taking the perspective of outsiders seriously enough. At times these opposing ideas really do have little to add to our discussion, or are in the end reactionary or disgusting. But they are products of a mind, and therefore real. For good or for ill, they must be taken seriously.


William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. He can willfully turn his attention away from his own future, whether in this world or the next. He can train himself to indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible. He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs. He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries. He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires. Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane. He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. (48—49)


Psychologist and philosopher William James delivered the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1899 and 1900.  As I am working on a book on Philip K. Dick, I read this book with great interest. Dick’s religious experiences have become the center of scholarship and have been offered up as the key to understanding his work. I explored Dick’s works earlier in this blog from a more political and sociological point of view. But with James, I can appreciate the attraction that those religious experiences have for readers. James’ central argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experiences are historically real in that they seem to happen. What matters is the result of belief, not their origins. This is his pragmatism. James worked on this idea in some of his earlier writings as well (I looked at them before in this blog). For him, what matters in psychology is action when precedes thought and habits. (To be simple, one learns to play the piano by playing the piano, not by thinking about how to play the piano.) In the same way, it may be true that George Fox was crazy, but this does not make Quakerism theologically wrong or even factually untrue. It certainly does not make the good feelings and actions that Quakerism inspires delusional. In short: “Religious happiness is happiness.” (30)


I was raised Lutheran and I recall having religious experiences as defined by James (both the positive and negative aspects he mentions). I no longer have such experiences and am an atheist. But I accept James’ point that there are numerous experiences that I am not having, many feelings I may be missing out on, because of that choice. Is this not true of any lifestyle or intellectual choice one makes?


One important point James makes is that if what really matters is the religious experience rather than truth, religious can be studied scientifically through the regular tools of psychological, biological, and social scientific research. Since James day many—including many atheists—have embraced this approach. The controversial point is here. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connection spiritual values in general with determinante sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even out disbeliefs, could retain any values as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (22)

The first three lectures map out his general thesis about the nature of religious experiences, the definition of religion (which he defined quite broadly), its role in creating states of mind that are not “logically deducible from anything else,” and creating positive action in the world. This final point James summarizes under “The Reality of the Unseen.” He borrows from Kant the following idea. “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our life.” (56) One thing that is noticeable in leftist Internet culture is the willingness to attack thought (because what else can one discuss when we exchange ideas instead of actions) rather than action. I think something that we can learn from American pragmatism is that we should focus less on the thought that leads to good actions than we should focus on actions. In this sense, imagining prefigurative politics is less important than actually tearing down the institutions of power. There is some value when prefiguarative politics is acted out (as in Occupy Wall Street), but it is objectively a failure if it cannot undermine power. This is a bit off of James’ point, but seems to flow from his perspective on religion.

The next two lectures examine “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” which is general are religious belief that seem to creative positive emotions and healthy living in human beings. At this point in the lectures, James moves to giving quite a few case studies of various religious experiences documented in psychological practice and in history. If is of this type. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than the dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.” (79) Well, I can agree that the more religious thought promotes happiness, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and beauty the better. I am less certain it always does so, which brings us to the next set of lectures.

Lectures six and seven are titled “The Sick Soul.” Bad thoughts and bad actions can be as easily derived from religion as the positive “healthy-mindedness.” To the degree religion promotes obsessions on sin, guilt, death, and punishment they promote what James is calling the “sick soul.” Religious melancholy is very real in the world, James points out with several case studies. Significantly, James likens materialism and atheism to promoting the “sick soul.” I am not sure that can be empiraclly sustained now.

In the next three lectures, James looks at the experience of religious conversion. Conversion is yet another religious experience like the positive expressions of religious joy and the religious melancholy. Conversion allows a rapid and dramatic change in a person’s values and perspective on life. The actual role of some spiritual agent is irrelevant to the truthfulness of those experiences and emotions. “It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomenon occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession.” (211)

I will look at the rest of this book and try to reach some more conclusions in my next post.

Jacob D. Green: “Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky” (1864)

About ten o’clock I stole out to the stable when all was still; and while I was getting on one of my master’s horses I said to myself—Master was in here at six o’clock and saw all these horses clean, so I must look out and be back time enough to have you clean when he gets up in the morning. I thought what a dash I should cut among the pretty yellow and Sambo gals, and I felt quite confident, of course, that I should have my pick among the best looking ones, for my good clothes, and my abundance of money, and my own good looks—in fact, I thought no mean things of my self. (960)


Jacob Green, perhaps next to Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, is the most elusive of the authors of the slave narratives in this collection. Most of the authors were engaged actively in abolitionist work and therefore had fairly well-documented lives. What we know of Green comes from his escapes, which he documented in a short narrative. Despite coming at the end of a long tradition of American slave narratives, it is less politically conscious and seems to buck many of the conventions (such as an emphasis on hypocrisy or contradiction). Perhaps, for Green, these arguments had been made and defended. What strikes me, having read this the first time today, is that Green’s narrative is really an account of tricks, lies, schemes, and manipulation. If the background of his story was not so tragic it would almost work as a comedic adventure story. I kept thinking of England’s Jack Sheppard, the young working class man, who inspired the imagination of the English working class by escaping from Newgate a series of times before finally being murdered by the state. Both of stories of people in continual opposition to their situation and for that reason have a rightful place in folk mythology. I wonder why Green is not more well-known.

The schemes start from the first page, with a white boy stealing some corn and then trying to force some of the slave boys to take the blame. On the next page we see the lies of white religion. Here this is not presented as hypocrisy but rather as a vulgar attempt to deceive slaves. A page later we learn that Green’s mistress is an adulteress, keeping two lovers on the side, a situation that led to legal shenanigans when one put gunpowder into the other’s pipe. The first time Green was flogged, he was framed by his master’s son for firing a pistol. I could go on. These are just in the first few pages. They are building up to Green’s three major schemes, his escape attempts in 1839, 1846, and finally in 1848.

Although there is a rather playful side to Green’s narrative rooted in the mutual use of tricks, not far under the surface is the same descriptions of the horrors of slavery that define the slave narrative genre. One of the most memorable in this little book comes from Green’s experience in a slave auction. His was the closest I have seen in an original source describing how slaves were “packaged” during these auctions. He also dwells on the experience of an enslaved woman, Sally, who had to watch as her family was split up during one horrifying day at the auction. When she begged for her family to be sold as a unit, she was struck on the head and killed. Ruben, Sally’s husband then attacked his master, beating him to death, before being shot himself. Green later composed a long poem about Ruben’s death. In many ways, this is the true climax of the narrative. In comparison, Green’s final escape seems mundane. This climax is a reminder that violence was the reason slavery survived.

In a way, what Green is trying to say is that neither masters nor slaves were fooling each other. Both sides knew they were being scammed by the others. When the stakes were small (a night of freedom, stolen food) this could really appear to be a game. It was not a game, however. When the stakes were high, the brutal and tyrannical nature of the system came down on its victims, or in rarer cases the frustrations of those on bondage exploded. Green, the slave trickster, ends his tale with deadly seriousness.

Harriet Jacobs: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861)

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope around a man’s body, and suspend him form the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eight commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provide the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicious. . . . If a slave stole from him even a pound of meat or a peck of corn, if detection followed, he was put in chains and imprisoned, and so kept till his form was attenuated by hunger and sickness. (791–792)


The genre of the American slave narrative reached its apogee with Harriet Jacob’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, published when the Civil War had just begun but was still—for President Abraham Lincoln and most of the North—about the preservation of the Union. The Confederate leaders, in contrast, knew very well that the war was about slavery, the central institution of the South. Perhaps no document shows how integral slavery was to the psychological and intimate foundation of the South than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The narrative was put out by Lydia Maria Child, but it was actually Jacobs’ insistence that made the book possible. She has been writing it for almost a decade, around the time that friends of her purchased her freedom (apparently without Jacobs’ consent). She was a fugitive slave since 1835, spending seven years hiding in a crawlspace not far from her owners before she was able to escape. Some more facts of her life are revealing. Jacobs was born and lived in bondage in North Carolina. She was sent to the household of James Norcom when she was twelve years old after her owner died. She had two children (one when she was 16 the other when she was 20) with a local white lawyer. During her teenage years she was sexually harassed and intimidated by James Norcom while at the same time fending off intense feelings of hostility and resentment from James’ wife. She was around 22 when she went into hiding. Her immediate goal was to get Norcom to sell her children to their biological father. This worked. For much of her early life she lived with her brother, who also escaped from slavery. After arriving in New York she worked next to (I do not know if she worked with) Frederick Douglass, sharing the same building with him. She ran an anti-slavery bookstore and he ran the newspaper the North Star, in Rochester. Most of her income came from sewing at this time. Jacobs’ did some important work during Reconstruction around Washington D.C. She died at the turn of the twentieth century. As far as I know Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was her only published work, and this was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent.


The entire narrative is written with changed names, the most interesting of which was the use of “Dr. Flint” for Dr. James Norcom, suggesting her perspective on his character.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is rich in details about the lives of slaves in the South. Her descriptions of violence, religious life, celebrations (such as a charming look at the slave’s Christmas), the political influence of slave holders at the local level, the surveillance systems build up by slave holders after Nat Turner’s revolt, and most importantly the gender politics at the root of slavery are all expressed with the necessary moral clarity. While I do think that Jacobs is most important for her complex look at the experience of enslaved women and the domestic and sexual politics that the system seemed to make inevitable, readers should not miss some of the other themes she carefully documents. The response to Nat Turner’s revolt by the planation South is required reading for anti-authoritarians because it shows a surveillance state being created almost overnight.


Jacobs’ narrative is also the most clear in this set about the experience of enslaved children. The vast majority of her time as a slave was during her childhood. Of course, like all slaves, she grew up fast, but she was still amazingly young when she escaped. So she had some very sharp memories of childhood in slavery. In this she may be like the Great Depression-era slave narratives collected by Works Progress Administration writers. Most of those oral histories are from people who were still quite young when slavery in the United States ended. I rather enjoyed this passage:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her life has been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning. How have those years dealt with slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (775–776)

While slave narratives are full of these contradictions, this passage reminds us that the color line had to be learned and taught. (Readers will know that this blog is a big fan of children for their libertarian spirits, belief in justice and solidarity, and their Promethean spirit.)

In lieu of a full analysis, I will point out that chapters 12 and 13 are the most relevant for an analysis of power in the South, dealing first with the changes to the militia and the security systems on plantations after news of Nat Turner’s revolt horrified the Southern ruling class. These chapters also describe the use of Christianity as a defense against slave insurrection. In both cases, however, Jacobs documents the possibility of resistance, either through taking advantage of expectations or—as in the case of the church—forming competing vernacular religious traditions.

As for the sexual politics of slavery, no one (as far as I know) is clearer than Jacobs. I suppose any patriarchal slave society (Are there any other kind?) would face these tensions. The nature of the color line made sexual transgressions by masters more conspicuous I suppose. Wives of planters had to live with their husband’s illegitimate children nearby and clearly noticeable. Jacobs was stuck between Norcom’s violent harassment and constant threats and her mistress’s jealousy. In turn Jacobs was able to use her sexuality to resistant and ensure freer future for her children. Her relationship with a well-off white man was likely well-thought out (perhaps not unlike Sally Hemmings).

Jacobs tries to get her readers to emphasize with long-suffering white wives. Much of the power of her propaganda comes from her skill at shattering the myth of the family.

I am telling you the plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den, “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Nay, more, they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what disappointments are they destined! The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. (781)

William and Ellen Craft: “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes. (742)


The story of William and Ellen Craft is a fascinating look at Atlantic history. This couple were born as slaves in Georgia but they ended their lives active in the suppression of international slavery, working in Africa and England, even starting a school in Africa. Later they became active in the Reconstruction South before their efforts to start up an industrial school in their home town, before it was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, agents of the post-Civil War counter-revolution. They eventually started a cooperative farm. Their life forms a nice circle of Atlantic currents.


The narrative has no byline and is written from William Craft’s perspective, but I will assume that they were shared authors since they shared the experiences that led to the publication of the narrative. It seems that the two of them were together on all of their travels and labors. For all we know, the inspiration for this narrative was Ellen Craft but the voice was given to William to meet the expectations of a patriarchal audience.

The main story of Ellen and William Craft’s narrative is the means of their escape from slavery in the Deep South. Most of the slave narratives came from slaves who escaped from the Border States. It was rare for slaves from Georgia to escape. The Crafts’ method involved Ellen—a light skinned woman—posing as an invalid with William posing as his personal servant. The plan worked fairly well, with only a few snags. The train station in Baltimore was the most troublesome, which was on close lookout for escaping slaves.


The narrative begins with a point essential to the Crafts’ escape: the flexibility of the color line in the United States. The Crafts discuss how even whites could be enslaved, mistaken for biracial people. White parents even sold some of their children into slavery. They discuss at length a case of a German girl who was enslaved until she was properly identified. This same ambiguity helped Ellen and William Craft escape slavery, but the Crafts want to go father and use it to suggest an internal weakness of the logic of slavery, at least among those who argued that slavery was a good system because it was based on race. (This is a common thread in antebellum pro-slavery thought, which argued for the system from a position of natural law.) In an interesting way the Crafts hacked the system of slavery, including the tendency of masters to move slaves around the country.

The Crafts’ main audience seems to be English readers, so they spend quite a bit of time describing the system of slavery in the United States, going over things that would have been obvious to readers in the United States. I wonder how much impact slave narratives like this one had on the Civil War era diplomacy, which led to the effective isolation of the Confederacy despite the economic ties between England and the South. I would like to know more about this history of reading slave narratives around the world. And of course, it was not strictly a U.S. genre.

The Crafts are also a useful introduction to the dilemma of free blacks in the antebellum South, or more precisely the reasons for the intense hatred toward free blacks shared by the white Southern planting class. “They have no mercy upon, nor sympathy for, any negro whom they cannot enslave. They say that God made the black man to be a slave for the white, and act as though they really believed that all free persons of colour are in open rebellion to a direct command from heave, and that they (the whites) are God’s chosen agents to out upon them unlimited vengeance.” (701–702) They follow this with a description of legal efforts to make freedom impossible for blacks in the South, by expelling such people.

Although not one of the most well-known slave narratives, it is one of the best to explore the subtle line between freedom and slavery and the flexibility of the color line, which is itself a major theme of post-war black writing. I think we can also look at the Crafts as a couple of Atlantic radicals and use them to articulate the international dimension of their struggle.