The Scottish Presbyterian minister Reverend David Macrae, who sometimes engaged in theological discussions with Charles Dickens and who much later in life was deposed for heresy, visited the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War and wrote of his experiences in a two-volume study he called “The Americans at Home: Pen and Ink Sketches of American Men, Manners, and Institutions.” In it he wrote of his long journey from one end of the battered republic to the other, where he met with doctors, servants, academics, religious leaders, politicians, veterans, and various grade-A American nutjobs of both the good and bad sort. Along the way he also apparently ate a lot of pie. “I have strong convictions on this subject of pie,” he wrote. “I don’t see how they can reconcile it with their notions of what is due to the laws of nature, to live to the age they do, considering the amount of pie they eat, and the rapidity with which they generally eat it.”
On his travels he finds much to love about America: its grandeur, its energy, its attractive women and charming children. He finds much to criticize, too: its arrogance, its greed, its spoiled children and women who can’t stop feeding him pie. “Americans can stand the prohibition of intoxicating drinks; but I believe the prohibition of pie would precipitate a revolution.”
Tucked away in his book, during his visit to Richmond, is a short interview with a former slave. It is part of a larger discussion wherein he examines the postwar attitudes on slavery. He is in Richmond in 1867, when the city is still badly scarred by the recent fighting. Already the fictitious narrative has begun to form that the war had been an unnecessary act of northern imperialism; that the South had always planned on emancipating its slaves and was only looking about for the best and most mutually beneficial way to do that; and that events had proven that this sudden emancipation was a mistake, and that the slaves had been happier in bondage. This story would gain traction in the decades that followed until many came to accept it as fact–especially since the only stories considered came from the whites who railed against Reconstruction and did everything in their power to roll it back once it ended. It would take nearly a century for historians to dismantle this story and convince Americans that slavery was not a relatively benign paternalist system–excepting, of course, a few bad apples–but was instead a genuine horror, a dark chapter in all of human history. It would take a lot of very graphic imagery to drive this point home, and even still there are those, I am told, who aren’t convinced.
Macrae’s account of his conversation, though, I find worth reading and considering, for both its clarity and profundity.
Going up the next morning to see the Normal School, I met a tall, powerful-looking negro dressed in an old light-blue Federal cloak, striding down the street He had a retreating forehead, but a quick, intelligent eye, and a bold front. I stopped him to ask the way.
He said proudly, ‘I will show you, sir,’ and, turning, walked with me to the end of the street.
I asked him if he had been in Richmond during the time of the war. He said he had.
‘The Confederates began to arm the negroes, I believe, before the war ended?’
‘Yes, sir. They armed me.’
‘And you would have fought for the Confederacy?’
‘Not except to be free. We demanded that if were to fight for the South we must be allowed equal rights with the white people.’
‘Were you cruelly treated in slavery?’
‘No; I was never whipped much. There was no reason why I should. I did my work.’
‘How were you cruelly treated, then?’
‘I was cruelly treated,’ said the man, ‘because I was kept in slavery.’
David Macrae’s The Americans at Home, like many books in the public domain, is available for free online.