How a slave narrative is used to promote the ideas of religion and moral superiority


“Fredrick Douglass the famous abolitionist fights a mob in Indiana.” 

By Joao Cunha

This slave narrative describing the life of John Quincy Adams a former slave who is eventually freed. In the narrative Adams highlighted the lack of opportunities given to him and other slaves by the Calomese family. They used examples of the slave’s autonomy being restricted by the southern families.

As John explained, “When an election was going on they did not want the negro to know anything” (6).

Adams and his family weren’t allowed to learn about events in the world by slave owners, they weren’t taught to read or write because the slave-owners feared them gaining autonomy. In fact the only information that Adams got was when he secretly listened in on to the family’s conversations. (4-6) This structure of the narrative was used to show how the Southerners devalued the slaves by not allowing them to read or write, things that the Abolitionists felt was vital for freed men to govern themselves. This restriction of freedom was not only “blasphemous” for the abolitionists but proved that they held the moral high-ground overall. In addition to having this moral superiority, the narrative was constructed in a way to teach lessons. When Adams talked about how “strict” his parents were, he mentions how that the world needed more parents like his to prevent the ‘disspaled men” that were around during this time. (8)

He explains the importance of his parents by stating, “I was not allowed from a child to drink whisky, nor smoke segars, nor do any of those things, and I thank my father and mother for it to-day, and will always think enough of them to never do it” (8).

This is used as a teaching moment to show the “proper” conduct of a citizen, to not drink or smoke, and act in a moral fashion. These acts fit the pro-abolitionist audience that believed in temperance and living a life of free of vice. However despite the focus on morality and lessons, the slaves were given sufficient agency in this narrative. Not only does Adams listen on the Calomese family’s conversation, but a good amount of slaves learn to read and write. (4-10)

As the narrator noted, “That is the way many poor slaves learned to read and write. My father could read, but I do know how he learned. He never went to school, but just listened to others when they were reading, and that was all the chance he had to learn. He was very glad and happy to have a chance to learn to read the Word of God” (10).

The slaves had learned to read by themselves and this was a great example of their individual agency. (4-10) For abolitionists literacy was vital to freed slaves because it allowed them to read the Bible and have the correct moral standings to conduct themselves properly. In addition the Bible was used as the main justification why slaves should be freed. As Adams explains, “While man says we should be slaves, God said we should be free” (11-12) Adams says that his duty is to “serve God”  so it is beneficial for the Abolitionists and Protestant organizations to free slaves. (12)


“This is from page of 27 of a book titled Through the Looking Glass about the life of a black clergyman Daniel H. Peterson. Webster in seen preaching in the picture. It is important to note how religion is able to give Peterson autonomy an importance even prior to the civil war. He is so important that he writes a book about his experiences in his life from 1812 to 1854.”

The “agency” of the slaves is used by abolitionists to promote and exert a moral and intellectual superiority over anti-abolitionists, immoral people, etc. The primary reason why slaves had this agency was to promote God’s will, and to show how a former slave can be “civilized.” In this sense even Adams and other African-Americans are seen in a condescending light, as instead of men “civilizing” them, God does the work to the abolitionists. So this complicates the idea that abolitionists were so much more evolved on the ideas of race as anti-abolitionists.

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