Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jourdon Anderson's Letter to His Former Master

I adored this letter, which is spreading through the libertarian blogoshere as I write. I laughed out loud at the fine touches of irony, indirection and understatement, like "Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson)." Before I was done reading it, I thought "this is so good, it might be too good to be true." If it were produced as a work of art, it would have been a pretty good one. This alone would arouse suspicions.

From what I gather from this discussion page at, it seems the basic facts are these:
  • There was indeed a man named Jourdon Anderson who lived at this time; his grave is not far from the spot on which this letter purports to have been written.
  • It was printed in the Cincinnati Commercial and reprinted in two other papers at that time (click image to enlarge). So it is old.
  • According to one of the reprinting papers, the Cincinnati one declared it "to be a genuine letter from a freedman to his former master."
  • Copies of the letter in Anderson's hand evidently do not exist, nor do copies of the letter from Col. P. H. Anderson, to which he is purportedly responding.
  • I think that someone who has had the life that Anderson ascribes to himself would have been illiterate, or nearly so.
  • But I see another copy of it, from a book published in 1865, in which it is described as "[w]ritten just as he dictated it."
So, as others have said, the most likely hypothesis is that it was produced by Anderson himself, though no doubt with the help of others.

So you can circulate this marvelous letter with a clear conscience. At the very least, it is clearly a contemporary document, a far cry from the familiar version of "Chief Seattle's Speech," which was largely concocted by environmentalists more than a century after the event.

No comments: