Kin dis po’ slave se’ve yo’ up some nice sahcasm, massa?

Not clear which is harder to believe: that an ex-slaveowner would have written a letter inviting a former slave to return to the plantation, or that the freedman had the patience to compose a literary masterpiece instead of a howl of rage. I wish I could have done a tenth as well. Note the exquisite piling-on of detail: even the specific express company to which back wages should be sent.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

30 thoughts on “Kin dis po’ slave se’ve yo’ up some nice sahcasm, massa?”

  1. That is a funny letter. Of course, racist clowns (as opposed to people who think that they are racist clowns because of their unhappiness with political correctness) will continue to hate black people, say that black people are stupid, and say that anything that challenges the racist clowns is irrational rage. “He was just reading off the teleprompter!” etc.

  2. The closing line of that letter is pure brilliance.

    The Internet has improved many things, but unfortunately not correspondence as an art form.

  3. There, now who says the colerds don’t show gratitude? And you can tell he has no hard feelin’s.
    I wonder if he ever got his back pay.

  4. I think it’s funny how this letter is making the rounds of the internet now. One has been able to download David Blight’s lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction for free on iTunes for some time. Teach yo self.

  5. Of course, this is well known among scholars as an early piece of what we’d now call astro-turf. (It first appeared in a strongly-Abolitionist newspaper.)

    1. So, Sam, I presume you have persuasive evidence that this letter was not in fact written by ex-slave Jourdan Anderson; that it was in fact manufactured by some PR flack or other in the pay of Big Abolitionism (for that is what “astro-turf” would mean); and that you are therefore not in fact the despicable conservative racist slave-power-apologist swine your comment would otherwise reveal you to be?

    2. As Seth notes below, it has been authenticated to the time and place. I assume you are calling it astro-turf because it was published, and that the publishers might have liked the message. (Alternately, perhaps you are complaining that the author apparently had someone take dictation.) So are we to infer that you dislike the message? if so, can you explain what you dislike?

    3. Sam, can you name some of those scholars, or share the sources of their knowledge with the rest of us?

      1. I’m at work, and can’t access disqus comments, but the comment thread on the Ta-Nehisi Coates thread about the letter here had a bunch of discussion and sources.

        Key point, though, is that it’s agreed and verified that both Jourdon Anderson and Colonel Anderson were real people, lving in the right places, and so forth. It’s also agreed that Jourdon did not write the letter.

        Maybe astroturf is the wrong word; it’s the 1860’s version of one of those email forwards about how President Barack Hussein Obama insulted Master Sergeant so-and-so.

        1. I don’t see any agreement that Jourdan didn’t write the letter in that thread. A couple of people make a plausible claim that he dictated the letter rather than actually wrote it, but:

          1) There isn’t any sort of consensus, and not a whole lot discussion of it, even. No one ever even addresses the point that there were often disclaimers that something was dictated by a former slave in cases where it’s pretty clear that they actually wrote it;
          2) There is exactly zero evidence suggested that it is in any way like a chain email recounting a wholly false incident. Even if it were dictated, it still remains the actual thought of a specific, known individual relating his own personal experiences. There isn’t any valid comparison between the two.

        2. I cannot for the life of me fathom why I (or, for that matter, any decent or even half-decent person) should do someone like Sam a kind turn, be it ever so small, yet here we are: Sam, you would do well at this point to recall the 1st Law of Holes.

        3. Sam, “It’s agreed that Jourdan did not write the letter” is true only in the sense that Jourdan dictated the letter. You can choose to believe that the person taking dictation shared authorship, but there is precisely no evidence either way on this point. The comparison to a viral email about a phony transaction is far-fetched. The next time you tell us something is “well-known among scholars” I’ll make sure to have a salt-shaker handy.

          1. I’ll just note that we’ve a quote in this thread, and a link to a snopes thread, and a link to a Ta-Nehisi Coates thread, all giving the letter’s provenance–dictated (at most–it seems plausible, though not certain, that the reporter co-authored it, given the “containing his ideas and forms of expression”), and published in numerous Abolitionist newspapers.

            And somehow, stating that it’s well-known that Jourdon Anderson did not write this letter and highly probable that Colonel Anderson is most likely not the intended audience is still controversial.

          2. Mark, at this point Sam stands condemned out of his own mouth as an intellectually dishonest hack, and rather a dim one at that*, and all you’re bringing is a salt-shaker? I gave Sam the benefit of the doubt for years, and for far longer than he deserves; but at this point what he merits is not being taken with grains of salt so much as being diligently ignored in the hope that he will at some point grow bored and bugger off to FreeRepublic or VDare or some other such sight more congenial to people of his beliefs.

            * Indeed he’s still doing it in his reply to this comment of yours, conflating “did not hold the pen” with “did not say these words”, and hoping that nobody will notice.

  6. I read the letter this morning upon viewing Greta Christina’s tweet. It had a highly-apocryphal tone, to my ear.

    The introductory sentences that were published above the letter suggest it should be approached with considerable skepticism:

    “The following is a genuine document. It was dictated by the old servant, and contains his ideas and forms of expression.”

    The document is displayed on the top of page 7 here:

      1. I found the headline to be a bit off-putting too. Why use a Stepin’ Fetchit stereotype dialect as a header about a well-written (or possibly well-edited) letter? All the irony necessary is in the letter itself. I don’t call the header racist, but I think it was not really thought through and doesn’t underline the message.

  7. “..Not clear which is harder to believe: that an ex-slaveowner would have written a letter inviting a former slave to return to the plantation, or that the freedman had the patience to compose a literary masterpiece instead of a howl of rage..” I’m going to bet on the former owner’s letter, as easier to believe. He was having fun, his life was good, in the old days. Perfectly plausible that he would want to bring the good times back. And even that he’d have some notion that the slave’s life had been okay – he went to church and was told that his life was virtuous. That the guy who had gotten loose from this Hell on Earth would want to put this kind of effort into taunting his old owner – seems unlikely. I have had bad bosses before (nobody shot at me, or whipped me) and I have no urge to find them and taunt them. Move on, that’s my view. I would guess it would be Jourdan Anderson’s, too.

    1. Amazing that a ‘Prof’ should not understand high-school level English usage :)”I have had bad bosses before (nobody shot at me, or whipped me) and I have no urge to find them and taunt them. ”

      The point is that you (and I) have never had a master, only bosses. What he went though was way worse than what we’ve been through.

      As for ‘moving on’, this letter is in reply to somebody who had the big brass **lled gall to ask a liberated former slave to return to his master.

  8. Just to make it clear: I did not intend to cast any doubt on the authenticity of the transaction; I was merely expressing my astonishment at the effrontery of the Rebel colonel and the eloquence of his former property. That said, I don’t have any evidence, either way. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

    Update The letter was certainly from a real person, to a real person, and it was certainly published in 1865. It appears to have been dictated rather than physically written by the sender. The open question is the extent to which the composition is due to whoever acted as amanuensis. But of course by that standard any contemporary politician’s speeches and letters are also of uncertain authorship.

  9. It’s interesting to note that the back pay Jourdan requests is $25.00/Mo for himself (~$7.50/week)and only $2.00 for his wife. It seems some things really haven’t changed in 150 years.

    1. Oops. Too early for posting. Of course $25/mo is ~$6.25/wk not $7.50/wk. The general point is still the same.

    1. It’s certainly of Mark Twain quality, and reflects Twain’s attitudes. But what’s the evidence that he wrote it? If it was published in 1865, that would tend to rule out Twain as the author. That was the year of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog,” and Twain was out West and not at all politically involved.

      1. Of course, you are right, Mark. I was trying to be ironic about the various claims that letter being discussed was faked. Plus, the voice of the letter did remind me of Twain even though there is no reason to believe Twain wrote it.

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