Primary Source Report
February 14, 2005
What is it? Form and Contents:
The Anti-slavery Tracts are a series of published essays printed by the American Anti-Slavery Society. There are two separate series. Bowdoin has 6 different tracts in print - First series numbers 1, 2, and 4 and new series numbers 5, 14, and 15. Three of the tracts are in the original pamphlet-like form with little to no binding. These three come in labeled envelopes. First series No. 1 and new series No. 15 are bound together in a book. New series No. 5 is also bound between some cardboard. Bowdoin also has on Microform No. 20 of the first series.
The essays vary in length from less than 10 pages to 150 pages for No. 15, the Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims, which is a history of the fugitive slave law and an account of the suffering of many different fugitive slaves who escaped to the north and were forcibly returned to the south. The other titles for the tracts are No. 1 The United States Constitution, No. 2 White Slavery in the United States, No. 4 Does Slavery Christianize the Negro?, No. 20 A Ride Through Kansas, New Series No. 5 Daniel O'Connell Upon American Slavery with Other Irish Testimonies, New Series No. 14 Southern Outrages upon Northern Citizens, and New Series No. 15 Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims.
When was it made? By whom, why?
The Anti-slavery Tracts is a series of essays and publications made by the American Anti-Slavery Society. The first group, from which Bowdoin has numbers 1,2, 4, and 20 was published in 1855 and 1856. The second group, of which Bowdoin has 5, 14, and 15, was published in 1860 and 1861. At the end of most of the tracts the phrase "published for gratuitous distribution" is written. However the Fugitive Slave Law tract, No. 15, was for sale for 12 cents per copy, or 10 dollars for 100 copies. Perhaps this is because of the length of the essay. The tracts may have been meant to be distributed in the north as well as the south, but the anti-southern sentiment of No. 14 leads me to believe that at least that specific tract was probably just aimed at an audience of literate northerners. The underlying motive for each tract is obviously to argue against slavery by characterizing it as horrific, immoral, or anti-American. No. 14, called Southern Outrages upon Northern Citizens argues against slavery, but also attempts to arouse fear on the part of northerners to travel in the south, and anger towards southern whites who foster a society of "worse than savage barbarism."
Who appears in it?
The essays represent the voice of the American Anti-Slavery Society. However, some of the essays do not list a specific author. This may be because the works were edited and written in collaboration by several members of the society, or perhaps because individuals did not want to take the risk of putting their name alone on such inflammatory material. The only tracts that Bowdoin has with a specifically listed author are No. 4 Does Slavery Christianize the Negro? and No. 20 A Ride Through Kansas, both written by Rev. T.W. Higginson.
How is it organized?
The individual tracts, some of which are very short, are either presented in their complete form in separate envelopes, bound volumes, or microform. They are organized like pamphlets, with a simple title page and followed by the essay, and then brief publishing information.
How do you use it?
Because the source is not very extensive, it is relatively easy to use. The average reader would be very capable of reading all of the tracts in one or two sittings, possibly with the exception of the 150-page tract No. 15. That specific tract, which is bound with No. 1, has an index that would help the reader find some specific piece of information within the text.
How do you get access to it?
Bowdoin's print copies of the Anti-slavery Tracts are under call number E449.A63. These can only be used on the third floor of Hawthorne Longfellow Library in the Special Collections Room. If you wish to see the documents, you must fill out a short request form and show a photo-identification. The Special Collections room is only open Monday-Friday, 9 AM - 5 PM. You are only allowed to bring a pencil and paper to take notes on into the special collections room. There is a staff member at the door who can answer any specific questions you have. After you fill out the request form for the Anti-Slavery Tracts, a staff member has to travel down to the basement to retrieve them. Tract No. 20 is call number Film 0175. It can be found in the Main Microform room at the backside of the first floor of Hawthorne Longfellow Library. Neither the print copies nor the microform are allowed to circulate.
What kinds of questions can it answer?
The Anti-slavery Tracts and be used to analyze some very interested characteristics of the Anti-slavery movement in America. A close reading of the material, in conjunction with other primary and secondary source research, could lead one to discover to what extent the abolitionists and the American Anti-Slavery Society was a propagandist organization. The tracts were obviously written to exact a strong reaction and to change minds, but a close study of the tracts would be useful in determining what role the truth played in arriving at those ends.
Anti-slavery Tract No. 2 White Slavery in the United States offers some interesting pieces of information about how the abolitionists felt about race. The abolitionists' view of slavery is quite clear, but whether or not they believed in complete racial equality is a different question. This particular tract discussed how a person is classified as either white or black in the Southern states. There are incidents of slaves who had escaped from bondage, and in the advertisements for their capture placed by the owner, the slaves were described as being almost white. The author of the tract is intending to arouse anti-slavery sentiment by creating sympathy towards people who are enslaved but also happen to be what he considers technically white. The implication is that the reader should care more about and be more astonished by enslavement of whites. It would be very interesting to look for other examples of that implication in abolitionist literature.
The tracts are also interesting because they display the full array of the tactical arguments used by abolitionists to argue against slavery. There are religious arguments, attacks on the Constitution, and attempts to arouse fear and anger among northerners. Another tactic that is used in New Series No. 14 Southern Outrages upon Northern Citizens is a very open attack on white southerners and descriptions of their whipping, tarring and feathering, hanging, and arresting of innocent northerners traveling through the south simply on the suspicion that those northerners were anti-slavery. This tract would also be useful in explaining the origins of some of the hostility and tension between the north and the south that led to the Civil War and the regional hostility and anger that further complicated Reconstruction efforts.