The Universalist Quarterly and General Review
Boston: January 1855


Literary Notices.

  1. Ida May; A Story Of Things Actual and Possible. By Mary Langdon, &c. Boston:. Phillips, Sampson and Company, &c. 1854. 12mo. pp. 478.

  A STORY of Slavery. The heroine is the only surviving child of a widowed father, a gentleman of good fortune in Pennsylvania. At the age of five years, while walking abroad with her playmate, she is kidnapped, and hurried over the line. Having undergone the breaking-in, which is requisite in such cases,—having had her spirit crushed by the whip, her intellect and even her memory paralyzed, and being thus fitted for her doom, the child is taken to the South, and sold as a slave. She is first bought by a very good-natured master, who keeps his slaves fat and in a comfortable condition, and who sells them when he finds that they cannot be kept quiet, or when they grow old and unprofitable. He soon discovers that the stupefied, yet still interesting, girl is white, for the stain gets washed from her face; he suspects the truth, that she is some gentleman's daughter kidnapped from her home; but he has paid the price of the slave, and he cannot think of losing his bargain—good man! Property is


property; and if any wrong has been done, it was done by others, not by him; so that he is clear. Finding, however, that the presence of the beautiful though stunned and bewildered child occasions some uneasiness in his own family, he sells her to a slave-driver, to make up a coffle for the still further South. On her way thither, she is rescued, or rather bought, by the son of a Planter, is received to his father's home, restored by affectionate treatment to the use of her memory and to recollections of her family, and finally becomes the noble-spirited wife of her deliverer.

  Such is the tenor of a story, which, the author says, "embodies ideas and impressions received by the writer during a residence in the South." Of course, we have stripped it of all its interest, by thus giving it only in skeleton. We ought to say that it is well told, that it is rich in incidents, and that the scenes through which it leads us embrace almost every aspect of slave-life and Planter's life. The characters to which it introduces us are quite various. Among the blacks, we are made acquainted with nearly all grades between the stupid and the intelligent, the malicious and the affectionate, the stubbornly perverse and the religious. Among the whites the scale runs down the whole range from the secret friend of emancipation to the self-satisfied slave-holder, and thence to the bigoted advocate of "the peculiar institution," the jealous guardian of it, and finally to the slave-driver and breaker-in, along with his hounds. Some of these characters and scenes are, of course, such as to excite the most painful feelings. But even where the manner of describing them is a little stiff, or artificial, the scenes themselves are very naturally developed, and bear with them convincing evidence of their truthfulness. The author says that there may be brighter, and there certainly are darker, colors than any which she has here depicted; but that she has preferred to take the medium tones, and has been careful not to exaggerate, or "set down aught in malice." All candid readers, of good sense and of a tolerable degrees of information, will accord to her the praise of having adhered to the line of moderation which she proposed to herself.

  The most harrowing scene, after the kidnapping, is, we think, that in old Chloe's hut, where the yet uncrushed spirit of a free child is beaten out of Ida, and she paralyzed into a slave. The process, when once described, becomes perfectly intelligible; it is seen to be in perfect keeping with the laws of our nature. It is human nature in old Chloe to be fiendish, after an experience like hers; it is human nature in poor Ida to be transformed, under the circumstances, into a half-idiot, though her native powers are not irremediably extinguished by the temporary syncope. We hear people, even those who are otherwise sensible people, say, in excuse of our national abomination, that our blacks are an inferior race. We should like to be told when and where there ever was a race of chattel-slaves, black or white,


who were not inferior. It is the law of their condition. Old Homer said, more than twenty-seven centuries-ago, that the day a man becomes a slave, he loses half of his manhood; and the world has ever since regarded this as a striking instance of the poet's clear insight into our nature. Inferiority is the law of the slave's condition; a law of that ever-merciful, but ever-just, Providence, who has so ordained, that the sensibilities of the victim should be partially relieved by the stunning effects of the first blow, and who at the same time holds the perpetrator to a double retribution, for the wrong done to a follow-creature, and also for the stultification which enables the sufferer to endure that wrong. We know nothing of more fearful omen than to hear people, with a wise look and a complacent air, plead the greatest aggravation of their guilt as an excuse for the outrage they commit or defend.

  Another very suggestive scene is that of the Carolinian mob, which gathers to lynch Ida and her father, on suspicion of their being abolitionists, or at least of their having occasionally let drop expressions that savored of freedom. It is a vivid picture of the brutality and rage that characterize the poor rabble in a slave-holding community, while it still does liberal justice to the more orderly and prudent counsels of many Planters.

  But the scenes that we would select for special notice, multiply before us as we recall the tenor of the story. We therefore particularize no further. Can it be that such transactions as are here described are passing from year to year, and from age to age, in our own country, and in this nineteenth century of the Gospel of Christ? It seems like a dream of Pandemonium. And yet, when we rouse ourselves, we know that the whole is but a faint presentation of the reality,—that our chattel-slavery, from the nature of the case, involves all the atrocities here described, and others too that are beyond the power of fiction to exaggerate. People who do not like to have our national sore meddled with, may do in the case of "Ida May," as they did in the case of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They may loudly deny, before the tribunal of the world, that it is true; just as my neighbor, who sells rum, pleads "Not Guilty" before our judicial tribunals, and gets his hangers-on to swear him clear, when there is not a man in the town but knows that he does sell it, and that the charge against him does not embrace a hundredth part of his offences. In fact, we see by the papers, that the policy of swearing down the charge has already been resorted to. It is denied that free white children are kidnapped and made slaves. Free black children are treated in this way,—that is a thing of little moment,—but not free white children. What good will it do to deny this? Is it the wish of the advocates of slavery to call forth a "Key" to "Ida May," as they called forth a "Key" to "Uncle Tom's Cabin?" For there is not a well-informed person, North or South, but knows that free


white children are sometimes kidnapped and made slaves, and that there are such things as the mobbing of men and women suspected of abolitionism. Would that these were the worst of the evils that inhere in the system of American slavery! No unbiassed person, of good sense, can doubt that both the general picture in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and that in "Ida May," are essentially true; for he is conscious to himself that they are fair and candid expositions of the workings of human nature under the given circumstances. Neither work needs a "Key;" each bears its own verification in itself. The one has spoken home to the conscience of the whole civilized world; and the other has uttered a voice that will carry conviction on both sides of the Atlantic. Each of them holds up before our face a system of wrong among us, that no man can look at without turning sick at heart, and that no man has impudence enough to defend, or excuse, or in any way countenance, but by first denying its character.

  And this system of iniquity, in some respects unparalleled for atrocity by any other policy on the face of the globe, except in Cuba—alas, we know that this is the very system which the upshot of our Congressional legislation, for half a century now, has gone to strengthen and to spread abroad, and never with so high a hand as in the year just closed. We ask every lover of his country, whether in the North or in the South, to look steadily at this fact; for he knows it to be a fact. It is so terrible, that the larger part of well-meaning people turn away from the sight that troubles them, and desperately try to solace themselves by refusing to see it. But such a disposal of the matter is to the last degree foolish. It is criminal. Let them look steadily at it. Let them think seriously what chattel-slavery is—what it always must be, when held over a vast region, at the discretion of all kinds of masters; and then let them consider that all which our National Legislature has done for the last fifty years, with respect to it, has been to cherish and to extend it. Are they aware that its advances instead of abating have, for the whole of that period, been growing more and more rapid, and now more daring than ever; that in the last ten years its area has been nearly doubled; and that arrangements are now in contemplation, both at the North and at the South, to stretch its line down to the Isthmus of Panama, and around the West Indies. We do not affect to have any special foresight; but surely it is no presumption, it is only stating a self-evident case, to say, that these arrangements will be carried into effect, unless there be a radical change in the temper of our people, and this very soon. If our influential families refuse to take a stand against the encroaching power; if it continue to be the tone of "good society" to cry down all agitation of the subject, and to sneer politely at all earnestness in the matter; if our merchants and commercial men continue to plead for compromises with slavery, and to palliate its evils; if our older newspapers continue, some of them to


pander in the most desperate way to the slaveocracy, and others to tolerate it, except in some moment of exasperating insult; if the clergymen of city congregations continue to keep silence, or now and then come out in public excuse of the abomination; if our leading politicians are still allowed to whip-in, keeper-like, every straggler from the pack they hold in leash—if all this continue as hitherto, there is not a man of common sense but can calculate the horoscope of our country with moral certainty. The power that has been advancing with increasing strides for half a century, will make still greater headway. There may be flurries of indignation against her from time to time, but all ineffectual and temporary, as hitherto. The people may now and then rise en masse against her encroachments, but their keepers will whip them down once more. She will have her way, as she ever has had; for she is determined. In a few years quarrels will be successively picked with Mexico, Central America, and all the West India Islands; they will be "annexed," covered with slavery, formed into States, admitted to the Union, and, with the help of northern recreants, hold irresistible sway from the St. Lawrence and the British dominions, to the coast of South America,—the greatest and most terrible slave empire that the sun ever shone upon. The Northern States will be obliged to legalize slavery, on the principle, already begun to be acted on, that the master has a right to carry his chattels wherever he pleases to go; the prohibition once removed, there will not be wanting, among our own citizens, those who would like to have a few "servants" in permanent possession; the slave-trade will be opened anew, in spite of all compromises, the value of which we have now learned. The great Republic will be revolutionized into an Oligarchy of the haughtiest kind, presided over by men who have been educated from their infancy in the principles and habits of irresponsible Despotism. Here is the first stage in the coming career of our country, unless there speedily be, in the spirit of our people, a change, a radical change, of which we see no determinate signs at present.