Monday, 22 June 2020

The Lynching of Thomas Jeremiah

In the spring of 1775, as South Carolina moved towards rebellion against British rule, frantic rumors swirled through the colony and its capital, Charleston. (Image: View of Charlestown in 1768, by Pierre Charles Canot, LOC)

Hysterical Carolinians accused the British government of plotting a rebellion of enslaved Africans against their masters. The hypocrisy of slaveholders demanding freedom from "royal tyranny" was palpable, but is often overlooked even today. 

The very idea of slave rebellion aroused panic: the enslaved constituted the majority of South Carolina's population, the only American colony where this was the case.   

In June, the Charleston authorities arrested several slaves and a free black, Thomas Jeremiah. At the time, Jeremiah was one of only about five hundred free blacks in the colony. He was also one of the most prominent. Many people called him "Jerry." 

Jeremiah had a successful fishing business and also earned money as a harbor pilot, guiding ships through the treacherous sandbars at its entrance. His net worth of over £1000, more than $200,000 in today's money, meant he was a wealthy man. 

On the basis of the testimony of two slaves he had allegedly tried to recruit, the authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting a slave uprising to benefit the British. He was tried under the Negro Act of 1740, which the colonial assembly had passed after a slave revolt in 1739, the Stono Rebellion.

Under the Negro Act the accused were tried in special slave courts, which denied the accused the judicial rights of the regular courts. There was no jury, only a tribunal of five white men that functioned as prosecution, judge, and jury. In contrast to traditional English courts, the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. Lacking defense counsel, the accused was unlikely to prevail. 

The evidence against Jeremiah was exceedingly flimsy. The testimony of the two slaves was highly suspect, probably extracted under threat. One of them, Jemmy, was Jeremiah's brother in law. Jemmy later retracted his testimony before Anglican minister  Robert Smith, future Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina.   

By then the court had found Jeremiah guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging and burning. As an act of "humanity" the court allowed that he could be hanged until death before being burnt.

The royal governor, Lord William Campbell, judged the proceedings a farce. He tried to get Jeremiah pardoned, but found that he no longer had any authority in the colony. Campbell's life was threatened because he had tried to help Jeremiah. He fled South Carolina a few weeks later, effectively ending British rule. By then, the court's sentence had had been carried out. (Image: Lord William Campbell, by Thomas Gainsborough)

On August 18, 1775,  Jeremiah was brought to the place of execution, a green across from the Sugar House, the house of correction for "unruly slaves." In front of a large crowd of whites and blacks, he was hanged and his dead body was burned to ashes. 

Jeremiah seems an unlikely person to have led a slave rebellion. He owned several slaves himself. His rise to wealth and prominence may have been his undoing. It was a living reproach to the white elite's claims that Africans were fit for nothing but slave labor. He had once been put in the stocks for allegedly insulting a white ship captain. 

His work as a ship pilot also told against him. Fearful whites pointed out that no one knew the harbor as well as he, and worried that he would guide British navy vessels into it. Jeremiah had served the city as a volunteer fireman, but even that hurt his cause. People said he knew so much about putting out fires that he was likely setting them. Among his accusers was a member of the tribunal that tried Jeremiah, the city's fire master, Daniel Cannon.  

One of the people Governor Campbell had appealed to on Jeremiah's behalf was Henry Laurens, then serving as President of the Provincial Congress. Laurens was also one of the richest men in South Carolina. He had made a vast fortune in the slave trade. With the profits, he bought several plantations and hundreds of slaves. (Image: Henry Laurens, painted by John Singleton Copley while Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London)

Laurens refused Campbell's appeal, claiming he was helpless to stop Jeremiah's execution. That may have been true at that point, but Laurens' private correspondence shows that he disliked Jeremiah. Laurens wrote that Jerry "is a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by luxury and debauchery and grown to an amazing pitch of vanity and ambition." In more colloquial terms, he was "uppity" and needed to be taught a lesson. 

Laurens denied that as a free man, Jeremiah should be accorded the rights of one and tried by a jury. English law was designed for whites. As an African, Laurens argued, Jerry had no claim to its benefits. The only option was to try him as a slave.

Reflecting on Jeremiah's fate, Campbell described the event as a "judicial murder" and his executioners as "barbarians." After nearly 250 years of similar events, it is difficult to disagree. Thomas Jeremiah may have been given a "trial" but the whole proceeding was in effect, a lynching.

Further Reading: 

J. William Harris, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty (Yale University Press, 2009)

William R. Ryan, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2010)


Thursday, 18 June 2020

Why are People Seldom Buried in Churchyards Anymore?

When we visit old churches in Europe and the Americas, say older than the mid-19th century, we usually find cemeteries attached to them. People were buried in churchyards and in the churches themselves, under the floors, in crypts, in the walls. The two medieval parish churches below are an example. The first is in Eyam, Derbyshire, the other in Beddington, South London.

In the Crypt CafĂ© in St. Martin in the Fields, London, you can walk and even dance to jazz on the graves of the dead. None of them have woken to the beat, as far as I know. 

Modern churches seldom host the dead. Instead we find them in large cemeteries, usually well away from the old centers of towns and cities, if they are "buried" at all.

Why is this? In part, the shift occurred to the rapid growth of population, especially in urban areas. During the industrial revolution, urban populations grew exponentially. New cities mushroomed where once there were mere villages or small towns. Many old cities expanded enormously. London grew from about 600,000 in 1700 to over 4 million by 1900.      

Another development that promoted the change in burial practices was increasing acceptance of the miasma theory of disease from the late 18th century. This was the idea that disease spread through bad air, or unpleasant smelling miasmas. 

The main source of miasmas was decomposing organic matter. Swamp and marshes were a major source of bad air (Italian: mal'aria) and many doctors attributed fevers to the gases that arose from them. That idea survives in our name for one of the greatest killer diseases even today, malaria. 

The color lithograph below, by Robert Seymour (1831), imagines cholera as a death bearing giant cloud.

In the case of cholera and many other infectious diseases, the major source of miasmas was believed to human and animal wastes, which became a bigger problem as urban areas and population density grew. And they grew extremely rapidly. As historian Stephen Marcus wrote of 1840s Manchester, "people were literally living in shit." 

Miasma theory contributed to demands for urban sanitary reform. Although they knew nothing of the role of germs, advocates of the theory campaigned for the cleaning up of noxious streets and privies, removal of human wastes through sewage systems, and the provision of clean water to houses. 

They also targeted something else: churchyard burials. The growth of urban populations outstripped the burial space in the church cemeteries. As they became more crowded, the churchyards overflowed with bodies whose decomposition often produced foul smells, especially during killer epidemics. 

The solution, Miasmatists believed, was to ban church burials and create large, parklike cemeteries on the outskirts of towns, well away from densely populated areas. The idea produced a lot of opposition from people who believed that burial near the church placed them closer to God. In the end, however, the sanitary reformers won the debate. For good or evil, cities relocated the dead and altered the urban environment in a significant way. 

Below are a few examples of early ex-urban cemeteries.

Highgate Cemetery, North London

Putney Vale Cemetery, Southwest London

Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina



Sunday, 7 June 2020

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism holds that the USA is fundamentally different from other countries, usually with the implication that it is also superior. The idea stems from the belief that through its revolution, America broke free from the chains and constraints of the “Old World.”  It had embarked on a new path. It had a duty, a mission, to spread the benefits of its institutions to the rest of humanity, benefits like individual freedom, republicanism, democracy, equality before the law, a free market economy, and religious freedom.

None of these institutions or ideas originated in the United States. All can be traced to earlier history, from the Greco-Roman world and European history from the Middle Ages to the 18th century Enlightenment. The Patriots appealed to “Anglo-Saxon Liberty,” Magna Carta (1215), the English Revolutions and British philosophy, to justify claims to individual freedom and legal equality. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson drew heavily on the ideas of John Locke.

American’s Founding Fathers admired and were influenced by the Roman Republic. The Netherlands, Venice, Genoa, and the Swiss Confederation were or had been republics for hundreds of years by 1776. Even Britain had been as well, though for only eleven years (1649-1660).

Ancient Athens was famously a democracy of sorts, but the makers of the Constitution were not enthusiastic about that system, which is why Presidents are elected by the Electoral College, not the voters.* Their distrust of democracy also partly explains why the Senate is a thoroughly undemocratic body. The USA embraced democracy as an ideal well after its foundation, slowly and reluctantly, kicking screaming. The process entailed Civil War, suppression of Manhood and then Women's Suffrage, denial of Civil Rights on the basis of race.

As for free market economics, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith published the founding text in 1776, The Wealth of Nations. His concern, however, was with the good of consumers (everybody) not employers and traders, who he viewed as a conniving, dishonest lot. He was far more sympathetic to workers, who he recognized as being in a weak position. Not surprisingly, American capitalists seldom go into detail on that part of Smith’s work, or indeed his condemnation of monopolies and government subsidies.

The idea of religious freedom in Western countries arose out of the Wars of Religion that followed the Protestant Reformation. The Dutch introduced religious toleration in the late 16th century, the British by the late 17th. Most Enlightenment thinkers advocated complete religious freedom.

The view that the USA is morally superior to other nations is belied by its history of slavery and segregation, horrific treatment of Native Americans, and discrimination against immigrants of “inferior races," including the Irish, Asians, Jews, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Hispanics.

Nowadays, the US is all too exceptional in its insistence on other countries obeying international laws and moral standards while failing to observe them itself. 

The US national anthem ends with “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!” Those words of Francis Scott Key have been hard-wired into American brains, including my own. If the words are true, one must feel sorry for the rest of the world, those sad lands of slaves and cowards. 

*Some Southern slaveholders argued that white democracy was possible, but only with a large population of slaves to do the physical work, freeing the white elite to handle governance.