Quid pro quo?

May 8, 2009 at 6:21 pm (By Randy)

Ran across a reference to this interesting letter on Hit & Run today:

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson
Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, Them colored people were slaves down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost Marshal General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly—and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die if it comes to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

(The letter appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial and the New York Tribune before being published in The Freedman’s Book in 1865. As Anderson lies buried in Dayton, Ohio, one presumes he and his old master did not reach an amicable agreement.)




  1. mileslascaux said,

    I’d be curious to know the full history of this remarkable letter. It is dated Aug. 7 and the accounts of it say it was published in the New York Tribune (Horace Greeley’s abolitionist newspaper) of Aug. 22, having, supposedly, already run in the Cincinnati paper.

    It’s unlikely the addressee (Col. Anderson) sent it to the papers. Perhaps a copy of it was sent to them. Was it ever sent to the addressee? Is there a handwritten original anywhere? Has anyone identified Col. P.H. Anderson, or determined if there was a Col. P.H. Andesron in any Tennessee regiment (or, rather, if he was a “colonel” in the casual sense).

    It is a remarkably cogent document to have been written by someone who was, until the previous year, the lifelong slave of the sort of master who seems unlikely to have taught his human property to write and read.

    I’m just sort of skeptical of something that seems too good to be true. This letter has been widely reprinted and cited, but I don’t seem to ever find an original source for it or an account of how it ended up in print. Which makes me a bit skeptical.

  2. Randy said,

    Don’t have answers to all your questions, but the link to the 1869 edition of The Freedman’s Book clearly states at the beginning, “Written just as he dictated it.”

  3. mileslascaux said,

    Ah, OK, well, that answers part of it. I suppose they calculated the interest for him, too.

  4. amba12 said,

    Can we ever know whether it’s real or a Piltdown skull?

  5. Randy said,

    I imagine that the letter was cleaned up a bit, don’t you? (I suspect the referenced attorney.) As to the interest: he didn’t compute that. $11, 680= 32 years @$25/month ($9600) + 20 years @ $2/week ($2,080). He left that to the ex-master to calculate.

    If the letter was a total fraud, like the Piltdown skull, that fact would most likely have been discovered and publicized at the time, don’t you think? Anderson was a real person and his whereabouts well-known after publication. Whether or not the letter is an accurate representation of the facts is however virtually unknowable.

  6. Richard Lawrence Cohen said,

    And the point of trying to discredit the intelligence of a black man and the genuiness of his testimony is what?

  7. callimachus said,

    “And the point of trying to discredit the intelligence of a black man and the genuiness of his testimony is what?”

    Ah, well, that had to be coming, didn’t it? Some questions never should be asked, should they?

    I am questioning the document. To question is to test, not to discredit. It is my custom with documents, especially ones that seem to invite questioning.

    As a historian, I am very interested in documents and their provenance, because they are the bricks of my work. And I spend time trying to determine if the ones I want to use are sound.

    I do that with ones I wish to be true and authentic, because if I use them as evidence of something, I need to be sure the evidence withstands scrutiny. I do it with documents which seem to go against what I expect to be true, to see if the problem is with the document or with my model. It becomes a habit.

    I do it with newspaper and magazine articles, too. Even ones written by people I am told to believe “without question.”

    I recommend the habit.

    It is not unusual for the sources that have a hedge of sanctity around them to be most in need of questioning.

    A letter written by an abolitionist is a different thing than a letter written by an ex-slave. It may be no less genuine. But it is a different thing. A document that presents itself as one thing and is really something else is open to suspicions. In this case, it seems the original presentation took care to make the distinction of who was writing and who wasn’t, but subsequent citations of it have tended to elide that.

    It is also slightly odd, to me, that this has been in circulation for so long and has been so often cited and no bored graduate student or professor in need of an article in print to bolster his tenure has bothered to track down the particulars of it. It sounds like a good story. But until someone does, the accuracy of it can’t be judged.

    A small matter, but not an uninteresting one to a historian of the period. If one who had spent his life in bondage really was composing like that, off his head, it would be a notable thing. I have seen an awful lot of slave testimony and recounted narrations, by white writers of many degrees of sympathy with their subjects.

  8. callimachus said,

    A little digging never hurt anyone. What do you bet this is the “V. Winters” in the letter? If so, he is an ancestor of the comedian Jonathan Winters.

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