In 1885, Boston Publishers Cupples, Upham, and Company would print THE STORY OF ARCHER ALEXANDER FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM March 30, 1863, BY WILLIAM G. ELIOT A MEMBER OF THE WESTERN SANITARY COMMISSION OF ST. LOUIS, MO. Too many historians today take this book as absolute factual history when the research of primary documents reveals a different story of the life of Archer Alexander. Iver Bernstein, is a professor of history and African and African American studies at Washington University and is co-teaching the course Rethinking Wash U’s Relationship to Enslavement: Past, Present, and Future. Earlier, this year, Wash U joined Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of more than 80 colleges and universities. Just as they have examined the life of the author William G. Eliot its’ also about time we re-examine Eliot’s book about Archer Alexander. On February 20, 1863 Eliot gave refuge to this fugitive slave, endangering his own life and the safety of his own family. On March 30, 1863, Eliot would address a letter to Archer’s owner Richard H. Pitman asking to purchase him, as he wanted to see Archer Alexander emancipated. In his book, The Story of Archer Alexander, Eliot would later write …
THE following narrative was prepared without intention of publication; but I have been led to think that it may be of use, not only as a reminiscence of the “war of secession,” but as a fair presentation of slavery in the Border States for the twenty or thirty years preceding the outbreak of hostilities. I am confirmed in this view by the fact, that, on submitting the manuscript to a leading publishing-house in a Northern city, it was objected to, among other reasons, as too tame to satisfy the public taste and judgment. But, from equally intelligent parties in a city farther south, the exactly opposite criticism was made, as if a too harsh judgment of slavery and slave-holders was conveyed, so that its publication would be prejudicial to those undertaking it.
I therefore asked the opinion of several friends, who, like myself, had lived all those years under the shadow of the “peculiar institution,” in one or other of the northern tier of the slave States, and who labored faithfully for its abolition, giving the best service of their lives to the cause of freedom, “possessing their souls in patience” while contending against what seemed to be an irresistible power. Their concurrence has confirmed me in the opinion, that, however feebly drawn, a true picture, so far as it goes, is given in these pages of the relation between master and slave, and of the social condition of slave-holding communities. Without claiming to be more than a plain story plainly told, it shows things as they were, and how they were regarded by intelligent and thoughtful people at the time.
Only those who lived in the border slave States during that eventful period from 1830 to 1860, can fully understand the complications and difficulties of the “irrepressible conflict,” and how hard it was fully to maintain one’s self-respect under the necessities of deliberate and cautious action; to speak plainly without giving such degree of offence as would prevent one from speaking at all. Yet it was in these States that the first and hardest battles for freedom were fought, and where the ground was prepared upon which the first great victories were won.
It is a subject upon which I speak with deep feeling; for I have known many cases in which those who worked with faithful and self-denying energy have been severely censured for their “temporizing, time-serving policy.” Perhaps, upon mature thought, it may appear that the man who stands at safe distance from the field of battle, though he may have a better general view of the conflict, is not always the best judge of the hand-to-hand fight of those to whom the struggle is one of life or death. No city or State in the Union has greater reason to be proud of its record in the late war of secession than St. Louis and Missouri.
Gradually the mists of partial knowledge clear away; but it will be many years yet before the North and South will thoroughly understand each other, either as to the past history of slavery or the present relations of the negro and white races. Meanwhile mutual forbearance may lead to increasing mutual affection and respect.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson recently interviewed a team of Washington University students and faculty who recently uncovered this long-forgotten history while exploring Eliot’s legacy. “Many people view William Greenleaf Eliot as an abolitionist. History books highlight his role in co-founding Washington University as paramount, but they don’t question his anti-slavery views. Eliot was a pre-Civil War-era man, but the long-held belief that he was an abolitionist is nothing more than a myth that Eliot’s own writings disprove. Eliot was opposed to abolition, and he supported the idea of colonization. [https://news.stlpublicradio.org/culture-history/2021-12-22/washington-university-has-portrayed-its-co-founder-as-an-abolitionist-he-wasnt]
Iver Bernstein: Looking at the label from the present day, it really does seem that having that label serves some obvious function. It makes Eliot sort of a founding father you can be proud of — of Washington University. It’s a simple label. And it seems to put him on the side of morality and the angels. So there’s no question that the branding of the university as a kind of progressive enterprise, which of course in so many ways it is. But to have Eliot’s abolitionist imprimatur attached to that has been something that the university has been happy to have. But the question of when over the last 100-150 years, the mythology of Eliot as an abolitionist came about is something that I think is going to be a subject of future research.
In all fairness, future research must consider our country’s laws in which these people’s lives were spent, and not judge them by those of today. Archer Alexander was born enslaved in Virginia, he bravely reported the treasonous actions of his owner to the Union Army and earned his place on the Emancipation Monument in Washington, D.C. which still stands today. Its’ time we get the story right.
Archer Alexander – The Untold Story of an American Hero is a forthcoming biography of Archer Alexander, as revealed by original documents of his lifetime from 1806 until 1880. For more about Archer Alexander see https://archeralexander.wordpress.com/