Roundtable

Circulating the Facts of Slavery

How the American Anti-Slavery Almanac became an influential best seller.

By Teresa A. Goddu

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

From The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1842. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Lapham’s Quarterly is running a series on the history of best sellers, exploring the circumstances that might inspire thousands to gravitate toward the same book and revisiting well-loved works from the past that, due to a variety of circumstances, vanished from the conversation after they peaked on the charts. We are also publishing a digital edition of one of these forgotten best sellers, Mary Augusta Ward’s 1903 novel Lady Rose’s Daughter, with a new introduction, annotations, and an appendix. To read more about the project and explore the other entries in the series, click here.


From its outset, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) worked to establish the facts of slavery. Antislavery lecturers were instructed to make themselves “familiar with FACTS, for they chiefly influence reflecting minds” and to “make no random statements, prove all things.” Periodicals regularly offered facts or statistics about slavery: the headlines of Human Rights declared facts! facts!! facts!!! and still more facts while the Quarterly Anti-Slavery Magazine published statistics of the U.S. slave population.

By ceaselessly creating facts and linking them together within a reinforcing print system, the AASS forged a factual foundation upon which to build its arguments. Throughout the 1830s, the AASS was an information-gathering, knowledge-producing enterprise. Its most prominent genre—the documentary compendium—was the principal print form through which it compiled, constructed, and dispersed facts about slavery. Its most popular factual compendium in the 1830s was the antislavery almanac. Driven by data, the antislavery almanac deployed the genre’s modes of information analysis to produce antislavery knowledge in a legible and familiar form. Framing its facts through the genre’s customary conventions, it trained its audience to calculate slavery’s immorality. It was also a key node in the AASS’ consolidated print system and the primary pamphlet in many of its distributional plans. Crucial to the formulation of the society’s factual argument, it was essential to its institutional credibility and organizational growth.

Through the almanac, the AASS established its knowledge system as sound and its movement as legitimate.

 

As historian Patricia Cline Cohen argues, a cultural shift toward numeracy occurred in the 1820s and 1830s. Arising in conjunction with the market revolution and the emergence of mass society, this shift was marked by the explosion of numbers, the popularity of statistics, “a mania for quantification,” and the invention of what historian and literary critic Mary Poovey terms “the modern fact.” Numeracy was a crucial tool of U.S. nation building in the nineteenth century. The state solidified its power through what Oz Frankel calls “print statism”—the unprecedented production, accumulation, and diffusion of facts in and through official reports and policy documents. Through the authority of statistics and the uniformity of print, the federal government sought to manage a rapidly expanding nation and represent its own identity as commanding. Reform movements similarly turned to numeracy to quantify and enumerate social ills—and thereby make them visible and comprehensible.

In the 1830s the AASS turned to the almanac—the informational genre of its day—to authenticate its argument. A miscellany of diverse information, statistical tables, charts, and computations, the nineteenth-century almanac was constituted as a collection of facts. Associated with prediction and superstition in the seventeenth century, by the late eighteenth century almanacs had become more rational, serving as vehicles for Enlightenment thought. Their statistical role—collecting, organizing, and analyzing data—expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century as the genre responded to the market economy and an increased demand for useful knowledge.

Cover of The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1842.

The antebellum almanac managed and made comprehensible its mass of information by presenting it in a standardized form. Almanacs typically opened with a preface, followed by celestial phenomena: astronomical calculations, eclipses, phases of the moon, tide tables, signs of the zodiac. Calendar pages for each month, which included sunrise and sunset, location of the planets, tide times, useful information, important historical and religious dates, followed. Back matter included statistics, essays, moralistic or entertaining stories, anecdotes, and verse. Almanacs’ uniform and repetitive structures habituated readers in finding certain types of information in certain places.

Since everyone read—and knew how to read—an almanac, it was an ideal vehicle for propagandizing. “If you want to make converts,” The Emancipator advises, “circulate the Almanac.”

The American Anti-Slavery Almanac had two editors. The almanacs for 1836–38 were edited by the Boston minister Nathaniel Southard; the editor for the 1839–41 editions was Theodore Weld, a member of the executive committee and editor of the society’s publications. Southard’s almanacs were more religious in nature, focusing on slavery as a sin, while Weld’s were more political, calculating slavery’s criminality, but both used the almanac’s standard format to produce and disseminate antislavery knowledge.

A forty-eight-page pamphlet, The AAS Almanac included a neat, printed cover, an “elegant frontispiece on the title page,” front matter (a preface, astronomical calculations, tide tables, eclipses for the year), monthly calendar pages (tables of planetary positions, tides, and day length as well as historical dates and engravings), and miscellaneous back matter (census and demographic data, essays, testimonies, and stories related to slavery). It was advertised in The Emancipator as “rich in statistical facts and tables, bearing on the subject of slavery” and in The Liberator as “crowded with fine ‘pictorials,’ startling facts, valuable statistics, convincing arguments, and stirring appeals to the hearts and consciences of the people.”

The AAS Almanac made slavery’s influence strikingly visible. It trained readers in how to read statistically to decipher slavery’s growing power. The AAS Almanac for 1839, published under Weld’s editorship, provides a table of “Statistics of the United States”—“carefully prepared from the best sources”—that includes the populations for “free whites,” “slaves,” and “free colored” people alongside the number of congressional representatives for different time periods. Read horizontally, the table registers the nation’s population explosion. Read vertically—the chart groups Northern and Southern states separately so that their numbers can be added into sectional sums—the table encourages comparison of regional differences. A detailed analysis of the table follows. Titled “Statistics,” it tells the reader how to compare the table’s columns and calculate percentages and the rate of change in order “to see the comparative progress” of free and slave states. It also translates the table’s complex numerical data into simpler takeaways, such as the facts that the slave population has “increased faster since the slave trade was abolished” and that “slave states have nearly TWICE as much territory as the free.” Moreover, by comparing columns that “contrast the present apportionment of representatives with what it would be, if the present number were apportioned on the basis of the FREE population only,” the analysis compels readers to “see how large a part of [their] own JUST RIGHTS in the U.S. H.R. [they] have given to slavery.” Drawing a connection between population numbers and political power, the essay explicates for its Northern readers how the data affect them directly.

The AAS Almanac’s adaptation of the almanac’s knowledge systems extended to its calendar pages. The AAS Almanac for 1839 showed the weather’s impact on the enslaved and on antislavery activity. “Clear and cold” is followed by “Slaves suffer much”; “blustering weather” leads to “squalls in congress” and an “immense No. of petitions.” This predictive function is extended to the antislavery cause as the data in the almanac verify the calendar’s assessments that “abolitionism [is] spreading” and “the jubilee is at hand.”

Besides connecting antislavery principles to natural systems, The AAS Almanac also used the genre’s conventions to insert antislavery events into national history. In some editions, the daily calendar records antislavery occasions, such as the Monthly Concert for the Slave and the May Anniversary, to establish the rhythm of the antislavery year. In others, the list of important dates on the upper left-hand side of the page situates antislavery events in a national framework and asserts the movement’s inevitable progress: the dates of Columbus’ landing in America and the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock are side by side with those of William Wilberforce’s birth and the publication of the AASS’ Declaration of Sentiments. Juxtaposing the historical calendar to the daily calendar, which was often situated below it, underscored how everyday activism could produce noteworthy events. By integrating antislavery into historical systems, The AAS Almanac constructed its cause as significant and its success as certain.

 

The AAS Almanac was the society’s most widely distributed and consistently circulated text throughout the 1830s and crucial to many of its distributional plans. The Liberator calls it “one of the most valuable productions in the antislavery cause.” It was the movement’s best seller in the 1830s, steadily increasing its sales numbers each year. Its first two editions, The AAS Almanac for 1836 and 1837, sold a total of 70,000 copies; The AAS Almanac for 1839 sold 130,000. Printed by stereotype as early as the edition for 1838, it was the only text in the AASS’ catalogue of publications advertised as available by the thousands as well as the hundreds. It was promoted as “the cheapest Almanac in the United States” and marketed at a low price to ensure extensive circulation. Selling at 6 cents per single, 50 cents per dozen, $3.50 per hundred, and $30 per thousand, it was inexpensive enough, other advertisements noted, to be “purchased in large quantities for gratuitous distribution; and scattered like the leaves of the forest over the land.” Slated to be put in “every household in the free states,” it was also distributed in the West and carried abroad.

Cover of The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1843. Wikimedia Commons.

The AAS Almanac’s broad dissemination depended on systematic as well as ample supply. As a renewable resource—each year’s almanac was distributed until the next year’s took its place—it stayed in constant circulation. Readers are instructed to “be in season with [their] orders for the Anti-Slavery Almanac,” procuring supplies and furnishing the country before other almanacs glutted the market. “Now is the time, the seed-time for sowing Almanacs,” The Emancipator proclaims, “and a little effort now will be producing effects through the year.”

Local agents were urged to place an almanac in every household and to supply it for free to those who could not afford to buy it. The AASS’ “Plan of Labor” calculated that it would cost between five and eight dollars to flood a town with The Almanac, given its low price. The AAS Almanac was also available at bookstores and hawked on the street: The Emancipator asks “every merchant and bookseller [to] order a large package for their counters,” and Lewis Tappan wrote of New York newsboys crying “Anti-Slavery Almanac,” selling “ten thousand copies” in “two days!”

The AAS Almanac’s distribution supported the society’s growth. As agents disposed of the almanac, they propelled its other parts: they circulated the AASS constitution and its petitions, located subscribers for the Quarterly Subscription Plan and The Emancipator, and sold books. “Work for Abolitionists” on the inside back cover of The AAS Almanac for 1840 urges readers to plant libraries: “Reader! Will you not see that an Anti-Slavery Library is established and put into circulation in your district, and a copy of this Almanac put into every family without delay?” Just as the AAS Almanac’s intertextual form publicized the society’s larger print system, its circulation served as the catalyst for the society’s other initiatives.

 

Marking the commencement of the new society, The AAS Almanac formally began a second volume with its “for 1842” edition (published in 1841). Its first volume, composed of the for 1836–41 editions, was published as a bound set, underscoring the separate identity of the original AASS. The AAS Almanacs of the 1840s became less cohesive, often separating calendar pages from antislavery matter and compressing the numerical information on twelve successive calendar pages at the front in order to gain space for antislavery articles in the back. The later almanacs also contained fewer pictures (with none on the calendar pages) and were less spatially organized and thematically structured. The AAS Almanac developed unevenly in the 1840s. While the editions for 1843 and 1844, edited by Lydia Maria Child and David L. Child respectively, resembled the 1830s almanacs’ format more closely, The AAS Almanac never again achieved the internal coherence of the 1830s version. Disconnected from the regulated distribution system of the 1830s AASS, its circulation also decreased. Only thirty thousand copies of The AAS Almanac for 1844 were issued, because of the “state of the treasury.”

The appearance of competing antislavery almanacs in the 1840s replicated the split within the movement, while the dissolution of the pamphlets themselves into miscellaneous parts reflected the loosening of numeracy’s hold over the antislavery argument. Although facts remained central to antislavery’s case throughout the antebellum period, the years after 1840 witnessed the rise of more narrative-driven works, such as the antislavery novel and the slave narrative. Significantly, The Liberty Almanac for 1852, which marked the end of the antislavery almanac’s fifteen-year run, was advertised side by side with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era.

 

Excerpted from Selling Antislavery: Abolition and Mass Media in Antebellum America by Teresa A. Goddu. Copyright © 2020 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprinted by permission.