Domestic Missionaries, Slaveholders, and Confronting the Morality of Slavery: Missouri v. James Burr, George Thompson, and Alanson Work, September, 1841

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This article revisits the 1841 arrest, trial, and conviction of three U.S. abolitionist missionaries, James Burr, George Thompson, and Alanson Work, who were accused in Marion County, Missouri of attempting to “steal slaves.” All three were linked to the evangelical Quincy Institute across the Mississippi River in Illinois and were in Marion County to preach to enslaved persons and assist those who wished to run away to freedom. The article makes several linked arguments. First, local slave owners, who loaded the jury to assure a guilty verdict, spread the false story, which has previously been taken at face value, that the slaves themselves had voluntarily betrayed the abolitionists. Second, this story drew on a pro-slavery master narrative that depicted slavery as a benevolent, paternalistic institution and the enslaved as carefree children who loved their masters and spurned freedom. Further, the story enabled slaveholders to sidestep the moral condemnation of slavery on slave soil posed by the trial, national press coverage, abolitionist denunciations, and the Underground Railroad.

  • 2)

    July 17, 1841. The abolitionist community believed the slaveholders had used the slaves to entrap the abolitionists in Marion County. See Thompson, Prison Life, 22, 67; Henry Asbury, Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois (Quincy, 1882), 73; William H. Collins and Cicero F. Perry, Past and Present of the City of Quincy and Adams County, Illinois, Part I (Chicago, 1905), 88; W. G. Burroughs, “Oberlin’s Part in the Slavery Conflict,” Ohio Archaeological Historical Quarterly 20 (1911), 282; James H. Fairchild, “The Underground Railroad,” Western Reserve Historical Society, Tract No. 87, vol. IV (1895), 103; Frances J. Hosford, “The Age of Heroes: St. George and the Dragon,” The Oberlin Alumni Magazine 27 (February 1931), 137; Henry Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America Vol. II (Boston, 1874), 70-72.

  • 3)

    Oleta Prinsloo, “The Abolitionist Factory:” Northeastern Religion, David Nelson, and the Mission Institute near Quincy, Illinois, 1836-1844,” JISHS 105 (Spring 2012), 36-66; Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (NY, 2005).

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  • 10)

    Harrold, Abolitionists and the South, 105. On how these cases focused the nation’s attention on the morality of slavery, see Leo Alilunas, “Fugitive Slaves Cases in Ohio Prior to 1850,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 49 (1940), 10; Wolf, Freedom’s Altar, 3-4.

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  • 11)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 264; Thompson, Prison Life, 44. Also see Mary E. Seematter, “Trials and Confessions: Race and Justice in Antebellum St. Louis,” Gateway Heritage 12 (Fall 1991), 38.

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  • 12)

    Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 11, 100, 334-337. Also see James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom (New York, 1990), 15; Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York, 1993), 161; Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, (New York, 1963), 7.

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  • 13)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 256-259; Benjamin G. Merkel, “The Abolition Aspects of Missouri’s Antislavery Controversy, Missouri Historical Review (MHR) 44 (April 1950), 247; Hagood and Hagood, Hannibal Too, 104.

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  • 19)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 249.

  • 20)

    Ibid., 274; Hagood and Hagood, Hannibal, Too, 106.

  • 22)

    Kuhn, History of Marion County, 151.

  • 27)

    Hagood and Hagood, Hannibal, Too, 53.

  • 29)

    Kuhn, History of Marion County, 151.

  • 35)

    Antislavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 6; Thompson, Prison Life, 22.

  • 36)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 257. Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that lynching person who violated the community values was a means for southerners to restore the honor of “insulted citizens.” Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, (New York, 1982), 437, 486. Slavery supporters believed lynching was an appropriate response to threats to white supremacy. James Elbert Cutler, Lynch Law (New York, 1905), 124.

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  • 40)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 23; Holcombe, History of Marion County, 257. On the tendency of slaveholders to identify abolitionists as “slave-stealers” to deflect the implied ideological attack, see Fairchild, “Underground Railroad,” 99.

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  • 42)

    Ibid, July 24, 1841.

  • 44)

    July 24, 1841.

  • 46)

    July 30, 1841.

  • 47)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 14; Thompson, Prison Life, 58-59.

  • 48)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 3, 6-7, 11, 13; Thompson, Prison Life, iii. On Missouri criticism of the book, see Holcombe, History of Marion County, 259; Benjamin Merkel, “The Antislavery Movement in Missouri, 1819-1865,” (PhD diss., Washington University, 1939), 91-92; McCandless, History of Missouri, vol. 2, 165, 167.

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  • 50)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 29.

  • 51)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 5. On radical abolitionists imagining themselves as the enslaved, see James B. Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (New York, 1976), 49.

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  • 52)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 17.

  • 53)

     Ibid., 16; and see Thompson, Prison Life, 24-27.

  • 54)

     Ibid., 20; also see Wolf, On Freedom’s Altar, 2, 63.

  • 56)

    Thompson, Prison Life, vi.

  • 59)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 10-11; Thompson, Prison Life, 41, 72-73.

  • 60)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 9; Thompson, Prison Life, 25.

  • 61)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 12-13.

  • 62)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 10.

  • 63)

     Ibid., 12. Also see Thompson, Prison Life, 30-31, 45; Larry Gara, “The Underground Railroad in Illinois,” JISHS 56 (Autumn 1963), 515.

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  • 64)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 52, 67.

  • 67)

    September 14, 1841.

  • 68)

     Quoted in Thompson, Prison Life, 75.

  • 72)

    State Treasurer Reports, 1832, 1836-39, folder, 17359, Missouri State Archives; State Treasurer Tax Receipts, 1840-1841, folder 17365, Missouri State Archives, copies at WHMC; Kuhn, History of Marion County, 11; Work Projects Administration, Inventory of the County Archives of Missouri, No. 64 Marion County (Palmyra), (St. Louis, 1941), 15; Bates-Gash Records, 25; Population Schedules, Marion County, Fifth Census, 42; Moses Bates obit in Palmyra Weekly, August 8, 1857.

  • 74)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 18.

  • 75)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 258; Population Schedules of 1840 Census, 57; Primm, Lion of the Valley, 238.

  • 76)

    Sosey, “Palmyra and Its Historical Environment,” 363-364.

  • 78)

    Twain, “Villagers of 1840-1843,” in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (Berkeley, Ca., 1989), 102; Twain, Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894; repr., New York, 1964), 24; Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Pudd’nhead Wilson on Democratic Governance,” in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson: Race, Conflict, and Culture, eds. Susan Gillman and Forrest G. Robinson (Durham, NC, 1990), 184; Fishkin, Lighting Out for Territory, 56.

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  • 82)

    Hagood and Hagood, Hannibal, Too, 1.

  • 83)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 82, 90.

  • 85)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 91.

  • 87)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 83.

  • 94)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 7. Thompson claimed witnesses had been bribed to testify against them. Prison Life, 24, 81.

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  • 95)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 84.

  • 97)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 85; McCandless, History of Missouri, vol 2, 58. In Hawkins v. State of Missouri, 1841, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a conviction of a white woman for murder based on the testimony of an enslaved woman. The court ruled that such testimony was permissible when a white witness could prove it. See Emil Oberholzer, “The Legal Aspects of Slavery in Missouri,” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, 6 (January 1950), 541. Although it was against slaveholding principles to permit such testimony, exceptions were allowed in cases where it was deemed in the community interest. See Roll, Jordan, Roll, 40; Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 194-195.

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  • 98)

    Holcombe, History of Marion County, 258.

  • 100)

    Ibid; Thompson, Prison Life, 85-86; Wolf, On Freedom’s Altar, 64.

  • 105)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 97, 111.

  • 107)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 3. Also see Wilson, Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, 71; Hosford, “Age of Heroes,” 138.

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  • 108)

    Anti-Slavery Concert, Narrative of Facts, 26.

  • 110)

    September 16, 1841.

  • 113)

    Thompson, Prison Life, 120-121.

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