"IN THIS BOASTED LAND OF CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, WRITHING UNDER THE LASH": IMPORTANT FIRST EDITION OF BLACK ABOLITIONIST LEADER AUSTIN STEWARD'S TWENTY-TWO YEARS A SLAVE, 1857, IN ORIGINAL CLOTH
STEWARD, Austin. Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1857. Octavo, original olive-green cloth. $3200.
First edition of the exceedingly scarce autobiography of the Black Abolitionist, born enslaved, who became a leader in New York as the state's Black Americans made a "turn toward radicalism" and spoke out against fresh laws restricting free Black voting rights, documenting the brutality of his life in slavery, his fight for Black rights in the North, and his role as leader of Canada’s Wilberforce colony, with engraved frontispiece portrait and four full-page illustrations, in original cloth.
Steward's Twenty-Two Years a Slave stands out as the vivid, unsparing autobiography of an enslaved, then free Black American whose life criss-crossed the South, the North and Canada. In his words, this is a "story of Slavery and its abomination… told by one who has felt… its scorpion lash." It is, as well, the chronicle of a man who spoke out against the North's attempts to chip away at Black enfranchisement in the 1820s and 30s, and one who, in Canada, led the Wilberforce colony as a site for reimagined Black lives. Born enslaved in Virginia, he was taken as a boy to upstate New York. There, hired out to a mill owner, he secretly taught himself to read but was discovered and brutally whipped. In 1814, convinced freedom was a legal option, he managed to escape and settle in Rochester, where he would become a community leader and successful merchant. Although he believed himself free, in 1818 he learned that his Virginia enslaver Helm filed suit, claiming the "right to Steward's property." As Steward and his lawyer prepared their court case, however, Helm died, as did his law suit.
Steward was at the forefront in the 1820s when there was "a turn toward radicalism among Black abolitionists," and the rights of free Black men "became intertwined with the abolition of slavery… In 1811 New York passed a law requiring African Americans to prove their freedom before being granted the franchise… [and] in 1821 the New York constitutional convention followed suit by raising the property-holding qualification for voting for Black men while eliminating it for white men" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 199-201). Featured herein is Steward's July 5, 1827 speech in Rochester, delivered on that day because Black Americans chose not to interfere "with the white population… celebrating the day of their independence." In that speech he bitterly wonders how any might be able to celebrate when thousands remain, in this "boasted land of civil and religious liberty, writhing under the lash and groaning beneath the grinding weight of Slavery's chain." Later, answering the fury of an 1829 riot in Cincinnati, "one of era's worse race riots," Steward was a delegate representing New York at the first national convention that also "promoted Canadian emigration throughout the antebellum period" (Sinha, 208-9). Decades later, the aging Steward would be honored as he sat alongside J.W. Loguen, Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet at an event in Auburn in the 1850s.
In 1831 Steward moved to Canada at the urging of settlers in a colony named after William Wilberforce. With the fight for U.S. citizenship increasingly "coupled with approval of emigration… free spaces like Canada… found acceptance among a growing minority. Starting with the colony at Wilberforce, emigrations to Canada received the support of abolitionists in the U.S. and Britain." Steward headed Wilberforce from 1831 until it closed in 1836. With that, "his vision of Black economic and political independence, plans of buying an entire township, and even sending 'one of our own race' to represent the colony as a member of [the Canadian] Parliament never came to pass." Returning to New York, he settled in Rochester, and in 1840 was president of the first state convention that met in Albany and "called for protests against disfranchisement in every corner and hamlet of the state" (Sinha, 331, 320). Continuing to preside over later conventions, he "devoted new energy to the antislavery, Black suffrage and temperance causes," and was a leading vocal opponent of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. "He wrote and published his autobiography, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, in 1857." Although he had hoped to go south and "teach Black contrabands during the Civil War," illness kept him in Rochester until his death in 1860 (Ripley, ed., Black Abolitionist Papers: V.II). First edition, first printing: title page verso with "A. Strong & Co., Printers," "Colvin & Crowell, Stereotypers." As issued without dust jacket. Blockson 10166. Sabin 91616. See Work, 313 (1861).
Interior generally fresh with light scattered foxing, minimal edge-wear to unrestored cloth. a handsome near-fine copy.