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“My Dear Master”: An Enslaved Blacksmith’s Letters to a President

An unusual letter arrived in the mail for the Tennessee planter James K. Polk shortly after he won the 1844 presidential election. Written from Carrollton, Mississippi, and dated November 28, 1844, the letter began “My Dear Master” and was signed by “Blacksmith Harry.” Here’s what Harry wrote:

Suffer your faithful survant Harry to say a fuw words to you by letter written by one of your best frinds in this Country to inform you that I am doing the best I can. I have been so over Joyed at the newse of your Elevation that I have hardly Known what I was and some of the whigs call me President to Plage me and to ridicule you but this I know that I have hardly Eate drank slep or worked any since I heared the Glorous newse. You may be assured my dear Master Jimmy that I have done all in my Power for you though an humble negro. I made some votes for I have ben betting and lousing on you for the last several years but I have made it all up now. I must tell you whate I have won on your Election & I have got near all in hand cash $25 and 11 Par Boots 40 Gallons Whiskey 1 Barrel flower & Lotts of tobacco but you must not think that I will drink the whiskey my self. No sir for I have Treated it all out in Electionaring for you through my friends who stood by me in Electionaring troble. I tell you Master Jimmy that I made some big speaches for you and though an humble negro I made some votes for you. I am in hopes that you will come to this State befoure you go to the white house & let me see you once more before I die for I am in fear that I will never injoy that Pleasure. If you do come down to your Plantation & dont come to Carrollton Please write to me or to Mr Kimbrough the man that has me hired and I will come up & see you. I am getting ould & my Eye sight getting so bad and I am so badly afflicted with the rheumattis Pain that I cant do as well as I would like to do and I do not Know whose hands I may fall into the next year as Mr Kimbrough sayes that he cant hire me any more if he has to give near the Price that he has had to give heretofore. I would like to live with him if the Price is so as to Jestify him in hiring me but let that be as it may my dear master I axspect to serve you faithfull as long as I live let my condition be what it may. I have nothing more but remain your faithfull & loving survant during life. Give my best love to my old mi[ ]. When you write Please let me know how she is also Mr Walkers family. I have 12 Children all living. Give my love to all the rest of my frinds & relations.[1]

This document is the rarest of items in the vast manuscript collections of the Library of Congress: a letter written by an enslaved person. Thanks to the digitization of the James K. Polk papers, an image of the original is now available online.

Law and custom, enforced by violence, kept most enslaved people from learning to read and write. Slaveowners feared that literate slaves could access antislavery ideas, forge free passes, and slip their bonds. Despite these dangers, some slaveowners taught their slaves to read and write so that they could study the Bible or perform their jobs. And other slaves secretly learned to read and write without their owners’ permission or knowledge, as Frederick Douglass famously did. For Douglass, literacy was a key to freedom. For Harry, though, literacy was more like one of his blacksmith’s hammers, which he used to forge his life as a slave.[2]

A scan of Harry's letter to James K. Polk. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, James K. Polk Papers.

A scan of Harry’s letter to James K. Polk. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, James K. Polk Papers.

Harry was Polk’s property. He had belonged to Polk’s father, and then to Polk’s brother Samuel, and when Samuel died in 1839, power over him passed to James as the executor of Samuel’s estate. Harry’s skill as a blacksmith made him especially valuable to the Polks. James hired out Harry on an annual basis in Mississippi, earning as much as $400 per year. Harry somehow kept a portion of that money for himself, but most of it went to his owner, which must have rankled him as it did other hirees like Douglass.[3] Harry’s goal in this letter was to convince Polk to let him remain with his current employer, a Mr. Kimbrough. Times were hard. Harry’s eyesight was failing. Kimbrough was grousing at how much he cost to hire, and Harry was anxious: “I do not Know whose hands I may fall into,” he worried. “I would like to live with him if the Price is so as to Jestify him in hiring me.”[4]

The rest of the letter was meant to butter up Polk. Harry professed his loyalty, friendship and even love for Polk and his family (“your faithfull and loving survant”). Remarkably, Harry bragged he had actually campaigned for Polk in the run-up to the election. “I tell you Master Jimmy that I made some big speaches for you and though an humble negro I made some votes for you.” The letter is precious evidence that enslaved people were aware of the political world around them and found ways to participate in it even though they were denied citizenship. Local Whigs teased Harry for his political activity by calling him “President,” but after years of gambling with his neighbors on Polk’s electoral fortunes, Harry joyfully cashed in on his master’s victory. He bet on the dark horse and won.

Harry was more than a faithful slave and a skilled blacksmith; he was also a family man. “I have 12 Children all living,” he boasted to Polk toward the end of the letter. One of the reasons why he wanted to stay with Kimbrough in Carroll County was to be close to his wife and children, who lived nearby. In Harry’s only other surviving letter to Polk, written two years earlier, Harry listed eleven of his children by name: “1 Daniel 2 Morcel 3 Ben 4 Elis 5 Carrell 6 Charles 7 Eleshee 8 David 9 Morning 10 Carline 11 Opheelia.”[5] This list of names bespoke a precarious emotional world of paternal love and duty that Harry was trying to protect by currying favor with Polk. By the time of Polk’s death in 1849, though, Harry had been recalled to Polk’s Yalobusha County plantation, and eleven years later, Polk’s widow Sarah sold him along with half her estate.[6] We do not know as yet whether Harry lived to see emancipation, nor what happened to his family. Nevertheless, Harry’s letters give us a rare glimpse of one man’s life between the anvil and the auction block.

Notes

[1] Wayne Cutler, Robert G. Hall II, and Jayne C. DeFiore, eds., “Correspondence of James K. Polk, Vol. 8: Sep-Dec., 1844” (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), pp. 370-371. I would like to thank Professor Amy Greenberg of the Department of History at Penn State University for alerting me to this letter.

[2] On slaves’ literacy, see Janet Duitsman Cornelius, “When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South” (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991); Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African-American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), chap. 1.

[3] Information on Harry’s biography is drawn from William Dusinberre, “Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 83, 103, 110-115. Dusinberre suggests that Harry’s letter was “perhaps written by a white amanuensis” but the first-person voice, erratic spelling, lack of punctuation, and signature suggests he wrote the letter himself (110).

[4] Harry’s desire to stay with Kimbrough was contradicted by a letter written by Thomas Clark a few weeks later. Clark informed Polk that he had become acquainted with Harry, and that Harry had asked him to tell Polk that he did not want to stay with Kimbrough any longer because Kimbrough was a Whig and did not allow Harry to communicate with Polk. See Thomas Clark to James K. Polk, Dec. 19, 1844 [misidentified as 1834], Polk Papers, Library of Congress.

[5]Wayne Cutler and Carese M Parker, eds., “Correspondence of James K. Polk, Vol. 6: 1842-1843” (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1983), p. 59.

[6]John Spencer Bassett, “The Southern plantation overseer as revealed in his letters” (Northampton, Ma: Printed for Smith College, 1925), 275.

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