Nineteenth-Century Abolitionists and the Databases They Created

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American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, produced through the collaboration of Angelina Grimké Weld, her husband, Theodore Weld, and her sister, Sarah Grimké, had a tremendous impact on the abolition movement when it was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1839. The book offered abolitionists new ammunition for their spoken and written war against slavery. It is not well known, however, that American Slavery As It Is was the product of a new way of using media, one that is now familiar to us through our computer-based keyword and Lexis/Nexis searches. The book combined personal testimony from those who lived, or who had lived, in the South, elicited via a form letter—a questionnaire of sorts—with evidence gleaned from a vast archive of newspapers. Here, I will focus on that innovative use of newspapers, for in writing American Slavery As It Is, the Grimkés and Weld reconceptualized the press and mined it as a database. Angelina and Sarah Grimké were born into a slaveholding family in South Carolina but rejected that life to become ardent abolitionists, traveling New England as strong, effective speakers, testifying to their direct experience of seeing the effects of slavery on both slaves and owners. When Angelina Grimké married the abolitionist and reformer Theodore Dwight Weld in 1838 and settled in Fort Lee, New Jersey, with her husband and sister, the two sisters retired from public speaking. Abolitionist friends were dismayed at losing such convincing orators. (Weld, himself an inspiring orator, had ended his speaking career in 1836 due to health problems.) The work the three next embarked upon, American Slavery As It Is, was, according to Thomas C. Leonard, the most widely read antislavery publication until Uncle Tom's Cabin—and Harriet Beecher Stowe reportedly slept with it "under her pillow while writing" her pathbreaking novel (121). American Slavery As It Is included testimony from those who had lived in the South and from former slaveholders like Angelina and Sarah Grimké themselves. It relied heavily on materials from the southern press, particularly advertisements for runaway slaves. Republishing these ads was not in itself an innovation, however. Abolitionists had already discovered that they could reconceptualize the information from such ads so that they functioned no longer as respectable, conventional notices of slaveholders seeking lost property, addressing other likeminded readers, or, if brought to a nonslaveholding readership, as exotic or troubling announcements, news from some other world. For example, William Lloyd Garrison's Boston-based paper the Liberator, beginning with its sixth issue in 1831, reprinted ads for runaway slaves and slave auctions in a section called "Slavery Record." This reprinting turned the slaveholder's voice against himself. As Dan McKanan observes, when these ads were recontextualized, "[t]he slave owner became a witness against himself, testifying that violence was intrinsic to the property relation of slavery." Soon, other journals took up the practice of using such "self-subverting quotation[s]" (135). Using such ads was attractive because it removed abolitionist discourse from the abstract realm of rhetorical defense or opposition and crucially used the slaveholders' own words, spelled out in the brass tacks language of commercial speech. The Grimké-Weld collaborative, however, shifted from treating these ads as anecdotes to reinterpreting them as data about the brutality of slavery. The marks, scars, and shackles that slaveholders noted as a means of identification became indictments of the treatment of slaves. American Slavery As It Is represented data mined from an enormous number of papers. Forty-five years later, Weld recalled, After the work was finished, we were curious to know how many newspapers had been examined. So we went up to our attic and took an inventory of bundles, as they were packed heap upon heap. When our count had reached twenty thousand newspapers, we said: "There, let that suffice." Though the book had in it many thousand facts thus authenticated by the slave-holders themselves, yet it contained but a tiny fraction of the nameless atrocities gathered from the papers examined. Weld noted that the sisters had "spent six months, averaging more than six hours a day"—the good daylight hours...

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