The events of Celia, A Slave occur against the backdrop of an increasingly untenable, increasingly violent debate over the future of slavery in America, which took place in the 1840s and ‘50s and paved the way for the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. For those determined to abolish slavery, or at least prevent its spread into Kansas and the other western territories of the United States, the question of how best to oppose the institution was a crucial one. On the one hand, many opponents of slavery tried to contain its spread and call for its abolition through legal pathways. In the first half of the nineteenth century, congressmen introduced over a hundred bills calling for the end of slavery, all of which were shot down.
There are many examples of similar (and similarly futile) attempts at peaceful reform within Celia, A Slave. The anti-slavery “free-soilers” in Kansas encouraged migrants to establish family-based farmsteads (without slaves) in the Kansas territory, hoping that the influx of likeminded anti-slavery farmers would create an anti-slavery majority in the territory, meaning that when Kansas applied for statehood, it would be admitted into the union as a free state. (An earlier bill, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had called for “popular sovereignty” in Kansas, leaving the question of whether the state should support slavery up to the people who lived there.) Similarly, Celia’s lawyers appear to have attempted to undermine the institution of slavery by arguing that Celia had a right to defend herself against sexual violence, and trying to instruct the jury to reach a verdict with that in consideration. Such an argument, if accepted by the judge and then confirmed by the jury, would have established the full personhood of slaves with unprecedented clarity, and would have, as a legal precedent, proved disastrous for the institution of slavery. When the judge did not accept the lawyers’ instructions, the lawyers then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, a last ditch effort.
Other opponents of slavery, seeing that trying to reform slavery from within the legal system was a losing game, resorted to more extreme forms of resistance. McLaurin notes the perennial violence in Kansas (which eventually became known as as “Bleeding Kansas”) committed mostly by proslavery “border ruffians,” but also by abolitionists. McLaurin also comments on the slave rebellions of the era, namely Nat Turner’s rebellion and the Haitian Revolution. In both instances, slaves took up arms against their masters (successfully so in Haiti).
On the “micro” level, McLaurin insinuates that Celia’s lawyers helped break her out of jail when they discovered the judge would not grant her a stay order (i.e. would not postpone her execution date, even though her case was awaiting consideration from the Supreme Court). While not violent, this act certainly constituted an illegal form of resistance. Then, there is Celia’s own personal act of resistance: her killing of Robert Newsom. While she did so in self-defense, and so likely did not consciously understand the act as political, the implications of the killing were unambiguously political. In killing Newsom, Celia stood up for her personhood and her right to consent—an act that by definition challenged the institution of slavery.
The impending Civil War looms heavily over the events of Celia, A Slave. In 1855, when the book is set, there were very few Americans who genuinely wanted to fight a civil war over their political convictions. But American slaveholders were so opposed to compromise that peaceful, legal attempts at reform did very little to improve the human rights situation for millions of black slaves. Slaves, and the free whites who supported their liberation, faced a difficult choice. They could either try legal, gradualist means of fighting slavery—means which were usually futile—or they could take the law into their own hands and opt for radical, often violent means. McLaurin suggests that the latter, radical form of resistance was the most moral approach, both during the events dramatized in Celia, A Slave and in the Civil War itself.
Reform vs. Resistance ThemeTracker
Reform vs. Resistance Quotes in Celia, a Slave
In this national crisis the desire to preserve the Union proved stronger than the sectional differences over slavery, and a compromise was negotiated. In 1821 Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery's expansion into the Louisiana Territory was limited to that area south of Missouri.
Afraid that an angered Newsom would harm her, Celia raised the club with both hands and once again brought it crashing down on Newsom's skull. With the second blow the old man fell, dead, to the floor.
The threat of slave violence and possible insurrection was a specter that constantly haunted the white population of the antebellum South, and the residents of Callaway County were no exception.
To enhance its chance of adoption, Douglas championed a bill that repealed the old Missouri Compromise and allowed the possibility of the expansion of slavery into the new federal territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which the proposed legislation would create.
Determined to retain his Senate seat, Atchinson immediately set about to enhance his reputation as Missouri's leading proslavery advocate by using his supporters to control territorial elections in Kansas. Border ruffians from Missouri had streamed into Kansas in November of 1854 for the election of the territory's congressional delegate.
Far from being the evil abolitionists claimed, slavery was "sanctioned alike by the Bible, the Laws of Nature, and the Constitution of the United States," and Congress had neither the authority nor the right to "impair a vested interest in slaves in the territories, the District of Columbia, or anywhere on earth."
"Unless the swelling tide of anti-slavery fanaticism be beaten back," Shannon predicted with prescient accuracy, the bonds of Union would break within five years.
Free state forces were prepared to draft a constitution and apply for entrance into the Union as a free state while the Pierce administration continued to recognize the proslavery territorial government.
Jameson's cross-examination quickly established a key element of a planned defense that became fully evident only after all testimony had been heard. He immediately focused on the sexual nature of the relationship between Celia and Newsom, forcing Jones to admit that Celia had told him that Newsom had raped her on the return trip from Audrain County immediately after his purchase of her, that he had continued to demand sexual favors of her throughout the years she resided on the Newsom farm, and that he had fathered her children.
The arguments of the defense threatened not only the social assumptions under which slavery operated but the economics of slavery as well. The fertility of slave women was of obvious economic value, since their offspring became assets of the mother's master. Although scholars contend over the degree to which owners interfered in the sex lives of their slaves to insure high fertility rates, that masters were concerned with fertility rates is beyond dispute. By granting slave women the legal right to use force to repel unwanted sexual advances, the defense's instructions would have interfered to some degree with what owners saw as a property right.
Those events also suggest that the psychic cost to whites of the defense of slavery, though paid, was high, just as they suggest that the psychic cost to blacks, though paid, was incalculable and enduring.