Contributing Editors for this page include Mary Beth Donnelly
#46 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
“A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together.”
On This Date
HD Daily Report, September 27, 1841
The Lincoln Log, September 27, 1841
Mary Beth Donnelly, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), September 30, 2013
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How Historians Interpret
“It was a scene that would have provoked fury and outrage in the writings of any abolitionist we know of. Yet Lincoln first said that Nothing of interest happened during the passage’ and commented on how well the Negroes seemed to take the horror they were facing. ‘Amid all these distressing circumstances … they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board.’ A slave who had been sold away from his wife played the fiddle, and others ‘danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played cards’ every day. ‘How true it is that ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,’ or in other words, that He renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.'”
—Phillip Shaw Paludan, “Lincoln and Negro Slavery: I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Society 27, 2006.
“Lincoln said that he grew up hating slavery, and his few recorded reactions to seeing actual slaves reinforced his professed revulsion. In this letter to Mary Speed, the half sister of his best friend, Joshua, Lincoln depicted his experience of seeing a coffle of slaves in St. Louis. The slaves recently had been purchased in his home state of Kentucky and were destined for the owner’s farm somewhere in the South. Lincoln imagined how it would feel to be ‘separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, probably going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where.’ Yet he believed that the poor slaves endured their misfortune with laughter and song, God’s or nature’s way of permitting a person to endure hardship.”
“AL to Mary Speed in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., and David Yacovone, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 9
NOTE TO READERS
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Bloomington, Illinois Sept. 27th. 1841
Miss Mary Speed
Having resolved to write to some of your mother’s family, and not having the express permission of any one of them [to] do so, I have had some little difficulty in determining on which to inflict the task of reading what I now feel must be a most dull and silly letter; but when I remembered that you and I were something of cronies while I was at Farmington, and that, while there, I once was under the necessity of shutting you up in a room to prevent your committing an assault and battery upon me, I instantly decided that you should be the devoted one.
I assume that you have not heard from Joshua & myself since we left, because I think it doubtful whether he has written.
You remember there was some uneasiness about Joshua’s health when we left. That little indisposition of his turned out to be nothing serious; and it was pretty nearly forgotten when we reached Springfield. We got on board the Steam Boat Lebanon, in the locks of the Canal about 12. o’clock. M. of the day we left, and reached St. Louis the next monday at 8 P.M. Nothing of interest happened during the passage, except the vexatious delays occasioned by the sand bars be thought interesting. By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect ofcondition upon human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together. A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from, the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparantly happy creatures on board. One, whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,” or in other words, that He renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.
To return to the narative. When we reached Springfield, I staid but one day when I started on this tedious circuit where I now am. Do you remember my going to the city while I was in Kentucky, to have a tooth extracted, and making a failure of it? Well, that same old tooth got to paining me so much, that about a week since I had it torn out, bringing with it a bit of the jawbone; the consequence of which is that my mouth is now so sore that I can neither talk, nor eat. I am litterally “subsisting on savoury remembrances”—that is, being unable to eat, I am living upon the remembrance of the delicious dishes of peaches and cream we used to have at your house.
When we left, Miss Fanny Henning was owing you a visit, as I understood. Has she paid it yet? If she has, are you not convinced that she is one of the sweetest girls in the world? There is but one thing about her, so far as I could perceive, that I would have otherwise than as it is. That is something of a tendency to melancholly. This, let it be observed, is a misfortune not a fault. Give her an assurance of my verry highest regard, when you see her.
Is little Siss Eliza Davis at your house yet? If she is kiss her “o’er and o’er again” for me.
Tell your mother that I have not got her “present” with me; but that I intend to read it regularly when I return home. I doubt not that it is really, as she says, the best cure for the “Blues” could one but take it according to the truth.
Give my respects to all your sisters (including “Aunt Emma”) and brothers. Tell Mrs. Peay, of whose happy face I shall long retain a pleasant remembrance, that I have been trying to think of a name for her homestead, but as yet, can not satisfy myself with one. I shall be verry happy to receive a line from you, soon after you receive this; and, in case you choose to favour me with one, address it to Charleston, Coles Co. Ills as I shall be there about the time to receive it.
Your sincere friend