Sunday, November 1, 2009

J. William Harris' "The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah"

J. William Harris is professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of The Making of the American South: A Short History, 1500–1877; Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation (finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history); and Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta’s Hinterlands.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty, and reported the following:
The final paragraph on p. 99 reads:

As Bee and others wavered about what to do, Henry Laurens intervened. To Laurens, perhaps the most damning evidence against Thomas Jeremiah was, not the testimony of Jemmy and Sambo, but the testimony of his own character. Jerry was, in Laurens’s opinion, “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He may have reminded Laurens of his own boatman Abraham, “Sly and artful,” “active, alert and Strong,” a man who had given him much trouble. As a free man, Jeremiah could not be compelled to offer the “gratitude” Laurens expected, and felt he deserved, from his slaves. But although Jeremiah, as a “Free Negro,” was beyond the reach of a master, he was not beyond the reach of the Negro Act. When Laurens asked the investigating committee on what grounds they could simply whip and banish “one or two Negroes,” he got “the old answer, why they don’t appear to have been so guilty as to deserve death but must receive Some punishment for example Sake.” Laurens was appalled at this relaxation of the precise terms of the law. If the accused were innocent, very well then, let them go, but if they deserve any punishment at all, then “nothing less than Death Should be the Sentence.”

Page 99 of The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah does, I think, pass Ford Madox Ford’s test. A reader of this page would know that my book concerns an unequal confrontation between the “Free Negro” Thomas Jeremiah and a powerful white man, Henry Laurens; they would know that Jeremiah has been investigated, on the basis of dubious evidence, for a “plot” connected to an “insurrection”; they would learn something of the language and attitudes of Henry Laurens; they would learn, from the final quotation, that the stakes are very high.

What they would not know is that this is a tale of the American Revolution, taking place in 1775 in the fascinating physical and social setting of Charleston (then, Charles Town). The timing and the setting are keys to some of the multiple layers of irony in the story. Thomas Jeremiah, for example, was not only free and black, but a substantial owner of slaves himself. Henry Laurens–later to become president of the Continental Congress–won fame as an American “patriot” because of his defense of the Englishman’s right to fair trials. Readers also would not yet know about the third protagonist, Lord William Campbell, just about to arrive on the scene–indeed, on the very next page–and take up his post as Royal Governor of South Carolina. Campbell was the son of a Scottish duke, a former naval officer, and husband of a Charles Town heiress. He became passionately interested in Jeremiah’s case and tried to save him from the scaffold. Readers who keep turning the pages, then, will be introduced to a little-known drama that starkly exposes some of the contradictions built into the founding of our nation.
Read more about The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue