“Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”

by Tedra Osell on February 5, 2012

If you haven’t come across Jourdon Anderson’s 1865 letter “To [his] Old Master” yet, do read it; it’s marvelously pointed, far more rhetorically adept than its recipient deserved. Jason Kottke did a little digging–wait, is this some of that digital humanities stuff all the kids are doing nowadays?–and found out <a href=”http://kottke.org/12/02/what-happened-to-the-former-slave-that-wrote-his-old-master”>what happened to Jourdon Anderson</a> and his family. The short version seems to be that they lived happily ever after.



chris y 02.05.12 at 9:40 pm

I love Jourdon Anderson and if we were playing the game of “which three historical characters would you like to have dinner with?” he’d probably be on my shortlist. But surely this letter was all over the internet about three years ago. I don’t understand how everybody can have missed/forgotten it.


Tedra Osell 02.05.12 at 9:48 pm

Well, I did. I think they reposted it because of BHM, and anyway, I’m pretty sure that Kottke’s research is new. SO THERE.


ckc (not kc) 02.05.12 at 10:19 pm

… all I can think is “Aw, man! Look what you got all over the internet!”


Meredith 02.05.12 at 11:29 pm

If this letter is genuine, then it sounds to me to have been written by the lawyer guy (an abolitionist?), who let Anderson’s voice guide him and even take over at certain moments. The letter certainly hits all the standard points, which could be an argument for its authenticity but equally for its being a forged hoax.
I certainly hope it’s genuine. It’s very funny (about not at all funny things). Waiting to learn more.


Barry Freed 02.06.12 at 12:42 am

I share Meredith’s nagging worry that’s it’s just too good to be true. But I really hope it is.


joy 02.06.12 at 12:53 am

It is true and was originally published in Lydia Maria Child’s The Freedmen’s Book (1865)
h/t to Delia Christina’s twitter


Yarrow 02.06.12 at 1:35 am

Ta-Nehisi Coates has mentioned the letter several times since 2009. When he quoted it in full in 2010 he pointed people to a Snopes discussion. Someone there quotes the New York Daily Tribune quoting the Cincinnati Commercial as saying “The following is a genuine document. It was dictated by the old servant, and contains his ideas and forms of expression.”


Barry Brenesal 02.06.12 at 1:41 am

I’d read it a while back, but had forgotten it. Thanks, Tedra, for pointing it out again: linked to it on FB. The letter’s certainly dictated, but the tone is much more down-home than even a provincial lawyer would have used at the time, and there’s more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek irony running through the thing. I’d like to think that genuine Jourdan Anderson, but of course, there’s no way to really know.


Pohranicni Straze 02.06.12 at 2:49 am

Well, isn’t this fun… turns out Mr. P.H. Anderson is a cousin of mine. My Andersons were planters in Arkansas, so that isn’t exactly a surprise.

Here’s another example of an ex-slave who did very well for himself:
Robert Ball Anderson fought for the Union and then became a successful businessman in Nebraska. He married late in life to a much younger woman, who lived a very long time and was, so far as anyone is aware, the last surviving widow of an American slave and one of the last three Civil War widows. Here’s her obituary from the LAT:

Robert Ball Anderson’s former owner, Robert Ball, was my 4th-great-grandfather. A journalist cousin of mine corresponded with Mrs. Anderson, who sent him a copy of her husband’s memoirs.


Bloix 02.06.12 at 4:02 am

The letter is written in a popular 19th century literary style, known to us through Mark Twain, Petroleum V. Nasby ,and Artemus Ward, but with many practitioners throughout the country. It’s clearly written for the entertainment of the newspaper audience. Whatever the involvement of Jourdan Anderson in its production, it seems virtually impossible to me that this was written as an actual response to a letter from a former slaveholder to a former slave.


djw 02.06.12 at 4:21 am

This is cool–I bike by the Anderson home at 60 Burns Ave in Dayton on my way to work every day. I’ll stop and check out the house; that area still has quite a bit of 19th C houses still up and in decent shape.


mds 02.06.12 at 4:24 am

I share the concern that the tone of the letter is a little too “on the nose” for the unvarnished dictation of a Negro ex-slave. I can tell by some of the pixels and from having seen some ‘shops in my day. The left internet keeps circulating it enthusiastically, but what if it turns out to have been elaborated upon by someone at the office of V. Winters, Esq; or to have been fabricated entirely by an enterprising journalist; or even to be of modern provenance, and mentioned in contemporary newspaper accounts only due to the same time travelers who planted Barack Obama’s Hawai’i birth announcement? Ask Dan Rather what “fake but accurate” can do to one’s credibility. Decades of progress on civil rights could be swept away.


Bloix 02.06.12 at 4:29 am

PS= Twain wrote a short essay called “The Humorous Story, an American Development – Its Difference from the Comic or Witty Story.” As he says there, the humorous story is the product of careful artifice that gives the appearance of naturalness. This letter is a perfect example of the humorous story: an apparently innocuous narrator who turns out to be someone different from what he first seemed; the use of misdirection and understatement to devastating effect; the apparently artless yet carefully placed revelations of crucial facts and telling detail. Look at the quote that serves as the caption for this blog post: “Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.” That line is high art. Twain himself couldn’t have done better.

It’s not impossible that a former slave wrote it, but a former slave who could write that line could have had a literary career to rival any 19th century humorist.

PS- I’m not saying that the letter is a hoax. I’m saying that it appears to me at least to be satire, and that the newspaper audience of the day would have understood it as such.


Meredith 02.06.12 at 6:05 am

I recommend the Snopes discussion for which Yarrow@6 provides the link. Read through it all — much being discussed here is well settled there. Bloix’s comments here round out the Snopes discussion well.

Pohranicni Straze — great stuff!


Pohranicni Straze 02.06.12 at 1:50 pm

I found a copy of my cousin’s newspaper article- “Black history is everyone’s history”


“In 1989, nearly a decade before Daisy Anderson’s death, I sent her a letter asking for a copy of her husband’s memoir. It was the hardest letter I’ve ever written. In the expansive protocols of Southern etiquette, there’s no advice on how to introduce oneself to the relative of a man your ancestor once enslaved.

Several weeks later, Daisy Anderson sent along a copy of “From Slavery to Affluence” in a recycled Sears-Roebuck envelope, along with a small note wishing me well.

Anderson’s book sits on my living room shelf, a daily reminder that black history and white history are but parts of the same American story. It’s a truth worth remembering each February, and every other month of the year.”


straightwood 02.06.12 at 2:03 pm

How smug we are in our delight at reinforcement of settled opinions. I wonder how well the CT crew would receive a similar “letter” written by a professor purged in the Red Scare in response to the offer of getting his old teaching job back. American academics have learned to keep their heads down and their voices muted, and they certainly don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

The betrayal of the elites in America has been comprehensive, and the guardians of truth and morality in the university community have failed just as badly as their counterparts on Wall Street. The only difference is that they sold themselves for a pittance. Apart from a few brave lonely voices, the silence from American academia regarding the Forever War, the abridgement of civil liberties, and the rise of Plutocracy is deafening.

By all means, let us celebrate the slaying of past dragons. It helps us keep silent about the monsters now at our door.


tomslee 02.06.12 at 2:09 pm

How smug we are in our delight at reinforcement of settled opinions.

Reading through the comments, #14 is the one that comes across as smug.


Tim Wilkinson 02.06.12 at 2:21 pm

#14 is the one that comes across as smug

I think you’ll find it’s #15 that is the smug one. I know about this kind of thing, you see.


Salient 02.06.12 at 2:43 pm

I think you’ll find it’s #15 that is the smug one.

No no, it’s comment #18 that’s really the epitome of smugness, here.


Ethan Hoddes 02.06.12 at 2:54 pm

Huh, could have sworn I remembered commenting on a post about the Anderson letter at Bitch PhD a while back, guess I remembered wrong though (he said smugly, I guess). “Late to the party” is an odd concept to apply to a document that was published more than a century ago, when measured against the period since it was published, all comments ever made about the Anderson letter on the internet have been made almost simultaneously.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 02.06.12 at 3:06 pm

No no, it’s comment #18 that’s really the epitome of smugness, here.

So’s your mom.


Tim Wilkinson 02.06.12 at 3:11 pm

#17 Au contraire – you really do seem to have got that rather badly wrong, don’t you. As you are probably at a loss for words, may I suggest the expression ‘touché’?.

I would just add that – as dsquared has learned to his rather considerable cost – I consider it pretty damned important that this kind of error should be picked up, so I think I can afford to feel rather pleased with myself for having pointed this one out.


Tim Wilkinson 02.06.12 at 3:43 pm

The curse of the comment numbers strikes again


Barry 02.06.12 at 3:44 pm

straightwood 02.06.12 at 2:03 pm

“How smug we are in our delight at reinforcement of settled opinions.”

Yes, aren’t we all PC and multiculti to regard slavery was wrong.

” I wonder how well the CT crew would receive a similar “letter” written by a professor purged in the Red Scare in response to the offer of getting his old teaching job back. ”

The sheer reversality of this is stupifying.


straightwood 02.06.12 at 4:45 pm

Yes, aren’t we all PC and multiculti to regard slavery was wrong.

Were it not for the tireless and courageous efforts of American academics, our nation could easily backslide into the revival of this dreadful practice. By keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the vanquished problems of the past, we avoid the distractions of insignificant current events, such as endless war, extrajudicial killings, and indefinite detention without due process. Self-congratulation is definitely in order.


tomslee 02.06.12 at 4:48 pm

straightwood – am I allowed to congratulate myself even though I’m neither American nor an academic, because I do really like to congratulate myself? Plus, I don’t even watch Roman Polanski films, so I’m pretty much fixing that problem too.


Watson Ladd 02.06.12 at 4:55 pm

straightwood, there is no party anymore. We don’t have the conditions to have a Left worth joining today: the Occupy movement is inchoate, Bernard Harcourt’s efforts to support it as an academic more tragical then heroic. Do you propose we forget about the battle cry of freedom, the advent of free labor and equal rights, the time when the Left was very much alive? Also, where were you when JQ was posting about inequality, most of CT about the defense bill, etc, etc?


geo 02.06.12 at 5:01 pm

Watson @27: We don’t have the conditions to have a Left worth joining today

Such as … ?


Ethan Hoddes 02.06.12 at 5:04 pm

Goddamnit, bumped out of the smug reserved spot I thought I had by moderation.


Barry Freed 02.06.12 at 5:25 pm

straightwood, you bore me. Is that smug enough for you?


Meredith 02.06.12 at 5:36 pm

PS @15, thanks for that link to your cousin’s article. A counter-balance to the inclination to avoid engaging Tedra’s post.


straightwood 02.06.12 at 5:54 pm


I expect teachers to take risks to speak the truth because they are charged with forming and guiding the minds of the young. This is a concept of academic responsibility as old as Plato’s academy. I vividly recall some of my college instructors speaking out against the Vietnam war. I do not ask carpenters and plumbers to address current events in their work, but I do expect history, economics, and philosophy professors to communicate their views on egregious government policies and outrageous current events.


marcel proust 02.06.12 at 6:41 pm

Tim Wilkinson wrote: The curse of the comment numbers strikes again

Yes indeedy. If people would just use the comment number’s url rather than its number, we would not get comment number rot, the equivalent of link rot.

(Smugly, he wrote) Take a gander at the source for this here comment to see how it is done. (And let me hope that I’ve not overlooked anything!)


tomslee 02.06.12 at 7:04 pm

straightwood (marcel-link). That’s a fair enough expectation, but you are generalizing about CT commenters, and it seems unreasonable to expect those who are history, economics, and philosophy professors to communicate their views to the exclusion of all other actions, which is what comes across to me.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 02.06.12 at 7:05 pm

The curse of the comment numbers strikes again.

We are all comment #18.


StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 7:14 pm

Straightwood- where is it written that reminding ourselves of one historical injustice prevents us from studying other injustices? Because your claims aside, the academy has hardly been silent on neoliberalism/financial crisis, civil liberties, and war for the last decade.

You know what’s really smug? Loudly proclaiming oneself to be the purest of them all by denouncing the imagined shortcomings of others.


straightwood 02.06.12 at 7:31 pm

where is it written that reminding ourselves of one historical injustice prevents us from studying other injustices?

So much to do! Reminding ourselves of historical injustices is quite a chore, and would benefit from some organization. How to begin? Perhaps we should start with safe, comfortable topics that don’t make anyone uneasy. Our current President is living proof of the importance of the triumph of the civil rights struggle, so reminding ourselves of the evils of slavery is a great feel-good issue that reinforces our admiration for our WAR LEADER.

By contrast, the signing of the bill enabling military detention of US citizens without trial, a revocation of human rights respected since Magna Carta, would be a very awkward topic. It would be downright rude, if not unpatriotic, to challenge the supreme authority of our intelligent, eloquent, and inspiring minority President. Why remind people of inconvenient injustices when there are so many convenient ones available?


tomslee 02.06.12 at 7:55 pm

Why remind people of inconvenient injustices when there are so many convenient ones available?

Why indeed?


tomslee 02.06.12 at 7:57 pm

Well I screwed that one up. I meant this.


Watson Ladd 02.06.12 at 8:06 pm

geo, the Sparts are always correct, but are a marginal group. It isn’t because of ideological failings but the fact that consciousness of the Left’s history and aims has been vanishing. The 1973 New Left created more problems then it solved. Today the student interested in social issues is much more likely to hear that it’s just a problem of consciousness, to be solved by token redress like affirmative action, then he was in the heyday of liberalism when it was clear that social issues are systemic and demand a systemic response. At best you can, like me, try to keep your hands clean of particularly gross Stalinism while promoting awareness of this sad condition of the left.

Straightwood, I’ve addressed this misconception a few times on here. US citizens were never exempt from treatment as Prisoners of War, and there is a war against al-Queda. So the blame should lie with Congress in fall of 2001, who passed a much broader declaration of war then was necessary.


straightwood 02.06.12 at 9:19 pm

there is a war against al-Queda

This “war” is not the “War against Al-Qaeda;” it is the “War Against Terror,” a ridiculous, but highly successful, invention justifying the continuation of Cold War era defense spending. The definition of “terrorist” is so elastic that it can be extended to include any activist considered dangerous by the US Government and its corporate owners. Like the “War on Drugs” there is no foreseeable end to this conflict.

The notion that the United States is effectively under indefinite wartime rule by Presidential decree, with the President empowered to arrest, torture, and kill at will is so profoundly repugnant and surreal that Obama apologists must be functioning under some kind of self-hypnosis.

We have been stripped of our liberties and we are told that it is all just a misunderstanding about some silly formalities. We are told that only THEY will be arrested, tortured, and killed without trial. Trust the Dear Leader; he would never do anything wrong to one of US.


StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 11:57 pm

So, back on topic: one of the many things to love about this letter is how well it punctures a favorite Ron Paul, et al. argument that the Civil War was a needless war, evil Federal government yadda yadda. Even assuming the fiscal capacity to raise the money required to buy all the slaves in the U.S, slave owners would never have been willing to compensate the slaves for slavery.


Salient 02.07.12 at 12:28 am

Another thing to love about this letter is the final paragraph’s balancing the question “if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane” with an expression of his desire “to have them form virtuous habits.”

I’ll be raising my children to be better people than your children can ever hope to be.


Bloix 02.07.12 at 2:20 am

#43- the last paragraph is a reference to rape. The words “good looking” and “shame” and “would rather starve” and “wickedness” and “young masters” are there to make sure that even the dimmest reader doesn’t miss the point.


Salient 02.07.12 at 11:18 pm

I’m grateful for about 99% of the things I’ve read you write, Bloix, but… nah, nevermind, I should just say thank you also for your concerns for my possible lack of inner luminosity; for the record, I certainly was perfectly well aware of that, and was taking it as presumed understood and moving on to say that the point of the latter half of the paragraph, talking about education and virtue, is to draw the starkest possible contrast with the first half, talking about rape and exploitation, and the contrast is quite well-constructed, IMO, and a properly devastating way to end the letter.


Rob in CT 02.08.12 at 5:31 pm

I saw this a while back, via Ta Nehisi Coates’ blog. Very cool, but it just has to have been created specifically for publication. No way it’s a real letter to the old master, in response to a real request to return. That does not diminish its essential truth.

straightwood is taking a really hard line here, but he’s got a point in there somewhere: it’s all well and good to remind ourselves of this (really, it is), but what are the great moral struggles of *our* time, and what are we doing about them? Sure, it’s off-topic. But I share his frustration sometimes (often with myself, rather than laying it on academia).


mds 02.08.12 at 5:51 pm

but what are the great moral struggles of our time, and what are we doing about them?

At least in the US? One possibility is securing the right of African-Americans to vote in the face of a massive push to once again disenfranchise them. One might want to push back against those who claim that there’s no more discrimination in this country, or to underscore how the failure of Reconstruction is still polluting our political process. The era in which the letter was composed hasn’t completely left us.


Rob in CT 02.08.12 at 6:26 pm


Yeah, the past isn’t really past. Fair enough.

Though I confess foreverwar worries me as much as the attempts at disenfranchisement. It seems to me that there is less effective resistance to foreverwar, which I guess is why piped up.


jim, examiner of kernings 02.09.12 at 3:17 am

A lovely little epistle indeed.

I find the presumption that a former slave could never have been so, er, articulate to be more than a little patronizing. A keen wit is not dependant upon either income or literacy – in fact, some might argue that it is more of an impediment than an aid to its development.

As for its harmless irrelevance, well … you’ve got an awful lot of people of colour in prison for drug offenses which are just as common among whites (who miraculously seem relatively immune to police attention), one in four African-American children is living in poverty today, & Tom Tancredo can still get a huge round of applause from the Good Ol’ Boys by fondly yearning for a return to means-testing at the polling stations.


Bloix 02.12.12 at 3:41 pm

@49 – well, I did my best to defuse the inevitable comment that any speculation about the letter’s not being written by a former slave would be racist, but as I expected, the comment was inevitable. Look:
1) the letter as we have it comes from its appearance in a newspaper with the comment that it was “dictated” by a slave. Therefore the original source reports to us that it was not written by a former slave.
2) the letter is expertly written in the style of a highly stylized comic literary form that is not likely to have been known to a slave.

Imagine a modern-day refugee from southern Sudan. We can imagine him writing a searing, compelling memoir of his experiences. We cannot imagine him doing the monologue on the Daily Show.


mds 02.13.12 at 3:30 pm

It seems to me that there is less effective resistance to foreverwar, which I guess is why piped up.

If it makes you feel any better, the resistance to disenfranchisement isn’t currently all that effective, either. It’s the Whack-a-Mole problem that occurs when dealing with a political system where, amongst the ruling class, the leftmost acceptable point is neoliberalism, the median acceptable point is vicious psychotic theocratic Randian dumbshittery, and the rightmost acceptable point is CPAC’s fascism-in-waiting. And a touch of the same effect as has gone on with the contraception issue: it’s actually possible to budge the needle on that one, while senators from both parties stampede to vote for keeping Guantanamo open or the NDAA. Perhaps it’s partly weariness that keeps the focus on things where it’s previously been possible to get some agreement, such as that slavery was morally abhorrent, or that violence against women is a bad thing.**

**I bring that up because the latest target of US Senate Republicans is renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. See “vicious psychotic theocratic Randian dumbshittery” above. So yeah, it gets harder to find time to push for revocation of AUMFs.

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