Petitioners’ Language

As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln majoring in History and Psychology, I am working on Civil War Washington for my Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience project. For Civil War Washington I help with digitizing petitions for compensated emancipation (discussed in an earlier blog post) from the microfilm purchased from the National Archives, and I also transcribe and then encode some of the petitions. As a McNair Fellow, I’ll also be writing a research paper on the development and impact of compensated emancipation in Washington, DC, utilizing the petitions among other primary and secondary sources.

In transcribing more than sixty petitions, I’ve become interested in the language the slaveholders used in describing their slaves. The individuals for whom the slaveholders seek compensation are variously labeled as slaves, servants, slaves for life, persons, and persons of African descent. The most frequently used terms are “slaves” and “persons.” Petitioners refer to the slaves as either this/these “slaves” or one/these “persons,” when listing the slaves they are claiming. In reference to the slaves’ services or labor, the most frequently used term is “servant.” The labor or services most often described are waiters and farm hands for the males, whereas the females were employed as nurses, cooks, cleaners, and ironers. The physical descriptions used are also illuminating. Most of the physical descriptions focus on skin color, age, and height. Interestingly, petitioners who used more basic and shorter descriptions were also more likely to label the people as slaves. When the petitioners used more personal language in describing their slaves, such as “part of the family” and “like family,” they are also more likely to give more detailed descriptions about physical appearance and quality of workmanship.

Multiple factors probably contributed to how the petitioners described their former slaves. The petitioner’s specific language and diction may be indicative of how valued a slave was as a person and how he or she was treated. There are many petitioners who seem to present themselves as friendly and caring towards their slaves. (None of the petitions that I have encountered have alluded to any physical abuse of the slaves, but it is unreasonable that abuse would be mentioned in the petitions, since it would impair the slaves’ value.) Another factor in how the petitioners described their slaves might in part have to do with each petitioner’s desire to receive the highest amount for each of his or her claims. Although the maximum amount each petitioner could receive for each slave was $300, the petitioners often applied for much more. Most petitioners received the full $300 per slave, but the language they used to describe their slaves was probably helpful. Although I have only come across a couple of petitions that mentioned certain defects or disabilities of their claimed slaves, it seems reasonable to assume that in some cases these defects/disabilities were either deemphasized or deliberately left out. Including such information would potentially have greatly depreciated their claim. The more petitioners ingratiated themselves to the committee by appearing more invested in their slaves, the better the committee probably assessed their claims.

In all, there is a great deal to be learned from the petitions about the petitioner, the slaves, and emancipation. With further research, the specific language and diction of the petitions may prove informative and enlightening.

–Brittany Jones

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