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The Material Culture of Abolition – Law, Memoirs

The Material Culture of Abolition – Law, Memoirs


Law-making in the long era of abolition might be thought of as the purview of legislatures, assemblies, courts, and other duly constituted bodies. However, the implementation of such laws was in the hands of local clerks, colonial commissioners, academic writers, and sometimes presidents. Emancipation’s many legalities are evident in the complex scenes where law was produced.  The edicts of legislatures and assemblies mixed with the views of bureaucrats, administrators, soldiers, slaveholders and enslaved people themselves, through which it was determined whether slavery was permitted, who might be a slave and who was free, and indeed who had the authority to answer such questions.

“Record of Slaves”
Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, 1788–1825
Clerks of the Peace:
Alexander Graydon (1752–1818)
Obediah Fahenstock (1770–1840)
Jacob Boas (1786–1815)
Manuscript ledger and loose documents
State of Pennsylvania, An Act to Explain and Amend an Act, Entitled, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery
Philadelphia: Printed by T. Bradford, 1788

Broadside, adhered to the inside front cover of above volume

A county clerk administered the terms of Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law by having slaveholders record the births of children born to enslaved mothers in a collective register. These records proved that slave owners had complied with the terms of the gradual abolition law and served as a form of freedom papers, providing African Americans in Pennsylvania evidence of their free-born status.

Étienne Polverel (1738–1794)
Léger Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813)
Proclamation. Nous, Étienne Polverel & Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, Commissaires Civils que nation Française voyé dans pays-ci, pour mettre l’ordre et las tranquillité tout par-tout.
Au Cap Français [Cap-Haïtien, Haiti], l’Imprimerie de P. Catineau, au Carénage, près la Commission Intermédiaire
Broadside, letterpress

The process of France’s first abolition of slavery began in the summer of 1793 as a series of military measures in colonial Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti). This July 1793 broadside proclamation is written in Haitian Creole rather than French. It states that colonial commissioners would extend liberty to the wives of men who had been freed weeks earlier in exchange for their service in the French military. Only later, in February 1794, was colonial abolition ratified by France’s National Convention.

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
“By the President of the United States of America
A proclamation”
[25 July 1862]
Manuscript document, unsigned
Courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia

Abraham Lincoln issued his “Proclamation of the Act to Suppress Insurrection” in July 1862 even though its terms had been provided for days before by Congress’s Second Confiscation Act.

Francis Lieber (1800–1872)
A Code for the Government of Armies in the Field, as Authorized by the Laws and Usages of War on Land. Printed as Manuscript for the Board appointed by the Secretary of War [Special orders, No. 399.] “To Propose Amendments or Changes in the Rules and Articles of War, and a Code of Regulations for the Government of Armies in the Field, as authorized by the Laws and Usages of War.”
[Washington, DC]: United States War Department, February 1863

Columbia University political philosopher Francis Lieber reinterpreted the laws of war in the midst of hostilities. The result is this 1863 book-length treatise that Lincoln then signed into law without consulting Congress.


Memories of slavery’s demise shifted over the decades following emancipation. Impressions began with former slaves, soldiers, and others on the front lines of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, those memories were not fixed. Over time stories of emancipation were written and rewritten, and by the 1890s the Civil War memoir enjoyed a wide readership. But with the rise of a Jim Crow social and legal order, the important roles played by African American soldiers were being erased from the nation’s public memory.

Stanton P. Allen
“Down in Dixie,” Vol. 4
ca. 1890s
Scrapbook with watercolor and ink drawings and clippings

Stanton P. Allen
Troy Daily Times clippings from “Down in Dixie”
ca. 1880s
Scrapbook page

Stanton P. Allen (1849–1901) of Berlin, New York, enlisted at the age of fifteen (concealing his age) and served in the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and 1865. Nearly thirty years later, Allen began to record his experiences. First was a column for the Troy Daily Times, “Down in Dixie.” There Allen described his encounters with African-American soldiers and civilians for his Upstate New York readers. Allen then clipped his columns, pasting them into a scrapbook that interwove his writings with images. He embellished his column with a set of vivid drawings that featured African-American figures, such as the Union soldiers shown here. The scrapbook permitted Allen to expand upon and even reorganize his memories.

Stanton P. Allen
H.G. Laskey, illustrator
Down in Dixie: Life in a Cavalry Regiment in the War Days from the Wilderness to Appomattox
Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1893

Finally he returned to publishing when, in 1893, he authored a book-length memoir: Down in Dixie: Life in a Cavalry Regiment in the War Days, from the Wilderness to Appomattox that relied upon his scrapbook, but the illustrations changed. Gone were Allen’s striking drawings. In their place were twenty-one sketches by an experienced artist, H.G. Laskey, that did not include black figures. This erasure of African Americans from Allen’s book parallels a more general forgetting of the roles black Americans played in the Civil War era. A turn-of-the-century spirit of national reunion, premised in white supremacy, minimized the significance of slavery, emancipation, and the role of African Americans in the war.