Letters of Note: To my old master

The link to this letter recently appeared in my twitter stream having been enthusiastically retweeted by many people. I read it and enjoyed its surprisingly modern sense of invective.

Then something about the letter kept nagging at me and I knew some things didn’t add up. As ever, in such cases, I thought through the imaginary story arc.

Firstly, amidst all the turmoil of the civil war aftermath, this emancipated slave, Jourdan, had moved away some five hundred miles from his former residence. How was his previous owner, Colonel Anderson, going to track down his address? Presumably, Jourdan, didn’t leave a forwarding address seeing as how Colonel Anderson once tried to shoot him. The other question is why would Colonel Anderson wanted to contact him in the first place? If it was just to offer him his old position of oppressed ’slave,’ how stupid did he think he was?

Unfortunately, we don’t see the original letter that Colonel Anderson wrote to Jourdan, so we’re not sure how he phrased this.

But let’s assume that somehow, Colonel Anderson’s letter found its way to Jourdan and that he considered Jourdan stupid. Being a slave, Jourdan would have more than likely been illiterate so writing him a letter would have been a waste of time. Presumably, there must have been a convention of ‘owners’ or employers reading letters to illiterate people.

So Jourdan gets the letter read out to him. He now knows his former owner (who once wanted to kill him) knows where he lives. Is he worried? No. Does he up-sticks and find somewhere else to hide himself? No. Instead he decides to dictate a sarcastic letter which will only serve to antogonise a powerful enemy.

As an emancipated slave, we can only assume, Jourdan’s pay does not go far, every cent will be precious to him and his family. He also probably works long hours. He would need to find the time, inclination and money to reply. I’m assuming he had to pay to have the letter transcribed for him by a literate person. Who would do this? Let’s assume a sympathetic educated person helped him out without pay (possibly the V. Winters mentioned in the letter).

The letter is dictated by someone who is clearly not stupid, so Colonel Anderson obviously didn’t know his slaves very well. Jourdan even has a grasp of finance as he demonstrates with his workings out of interest payments due on his back pay. Where did he get this knowledge when nearly all of his time would have been spent in the fields? Of course, whoever transcribed the letter could have suggested this line of attack, in which case, how much of the letter is consciously Jourdan’s and how much of it is the anonymous transcriber?

So the letter is completed and only needs posting. Presumably, this cost money. If every cent counted why would he spend money on a symbolic gesture?

My best guess is that his current employer (V. Winters?) did much of the composing of the letter and probably suggested the idea of asking for back pay with interest. He also paid for the postage if it ever got sent, because, finally, the letter had to get into the possession of the newspapers. How did they come across it? Was it kept by Colonel Anderson as a memento of an old slave full of spite and spunk ? Or was it deliberately held back by Jourdan and his helper to pass onto the newspapers as anti slave propaganda?

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