Unapologetically Free: A Personal Declaration of Independence From the Formerly Enslaved


When John Jacobs escaped from slavery in Spring 1839, he packed two pistols in his suitcase, walked calmly out of the Astor Place Hotel in downtown Manhattan, and boarded a boat for New Bedford. Before taking his freedom into his own hands, he left a note on the bed of his owner, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a Congressman from North Carolina and the father of his sister Harriet Jacobs’s two children:

Sir—I have left you not to return; when I have got settled I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacobs.

The note is Jacobs’s, but he did not write it, at least not in 1839. Though it zings with meaning (does “settled” mean settling in the North? or settling the debt that his ex-master owes him?), Jacobs had been unable to write his own declaration of independence—the laws of North Carolina had prevented him from learning to read and write. In 1855, when he reproduced his note in his autobiography, The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots, he wrote it himself. And in doing so, he underscored both slavery’s “bitter sting” and just how far he had come under his own power. And for Jacobs, as for Frederick Douglass, William Cooper Nell, and so many ex-slaves who subscribed to the philosophy of Elevation, which would later be called uplift, the hallmark of this power was rhetoric.

[Swanson Jacobs] demonstrates the potential of unfiltered, uncensored, unapologetic Black writing to speak truth to power.

In passages like the one reproduced below, Jacobs showcases his talents as a writer and speaker to condemn American despotism—absolute rule over an unfree people—and to perform what it means to be free. Writing from Australia, beyond the reach of American law and outside the heavy hand of the white abolitionist editor, he demonstrates the potential of unfiltered, uncensored, unapologetic Black writing to speak truth to power.

Refusing to yield to pressures to represent Black pain in order to incite white anti-slavery sentiment, Jacobs draws up a revolutionary contract between text and reader, calling slaveowners out by name, exposing northern complicity, and arguing that the nation’s founding documents represent the bedrock of American slavery. “If [slaveowners] can be considered an evil,” he writes, “they are a necessary evil, and you can only remove the evil by removing the cause.”

–Jonathan D.S. Schroeder

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I know that the picture I have drawn of slavery is a black one, and looks most unnatural; but here you have the State, the town, and the names of all the parties. Prove it to be false if you can. Take one who has never felt the sting of slavery, he would naturally suppose that it was to the slaveholder’s advantage to treat his slaves with kindness; but the more indulgent the master, the more intelligent the slave; the more intelligent the slave, the nearer he approximates to a man; the nearer he approximates to a man, the more determinate he is to be a free man; and to argue that the slaves are happy, or can be happy while in slavery, is to argue that they have been brutalised to that degree that they cannot be considered men. What better proof do you want in favour of universal freedom that can be given?

You can find thousands of ignorant men who will lay down their lives for their liberty; can you find one intelligent man that would prefer slavery? These thousands are not men—they are only children to what they should be. I am yet a child; I can see the things that I want, but have not attained to the stature of a man; they are beyond my reach, though I would be ashamed of myself to offer these acts of wanton cruelty as a reason why slavery should be abolished. If they can be considered an evil, they are a necessary evil, and you can only remove the evil by removing the cause.

All the chains and fetters in North Carolina would not hold me if I was able to carry them off. God created me a freeman and with His assistance I will die one. If any man has a right to my limbs, he also has a right to use all necessary means to make them available to him. I deny the former; and declare it as an act of Christian duty, in regard to the latter, that the slaveholder who gets my labour shall pay as much as it is worth for it, and his life, if possible, with it.

The more intelligent the slave, the nearer he approximates to a man; the nearer he approximates to a man, the more determinate he is to be a free man.

The last thing that remained to be done to complete this hell on earth was done in 1850 in passing the Fugitive Slave Law. There is not a State, a city, nor a town left as a refuge for the hunted slave; there is not a United States officer but what has sworn to act the part of the bloodhound in hunting me down, if I dare visit the land of Stars and Stripes, the home of the brave, and land of the free. You can extort submission to the gratification of your lust from our wives—you can take our daughters, and sell them for the basest use that can be made of woman.

Yet you declare it to be a self-evident truth that all men are created by their Creator free and equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where are the coloured man’s rights today in America? They once had rights allowed them. Yes, in the days that tried men’s souls, they had a right to bleed and die for the country; but their deeds are forgotten, their swords and bayonets have been beaten into chains and fetters to bind the limbs of their children.

To your shame and disgrace, the first man that was seen to fall in the city of Boston, in the revolutionary struggle for liberty, was a coloured man; and I have seen one of his brethren, who had fled from his whips and chains, within sight of that monument erected to liberty, dragged from it into slavery, not by the slaveowners of the south, for they knew not of his being there—but by northern men.

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the united states governed by six hundred thousand despots

From The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots by John Swanson Jacobs, edited by Jonathan D. S. Schroeder. Copyright © 2024. Available from University of Chicago Press.



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