Celia, A Slave might be called a micro-history—that is, an historical account that covers the life of an ordinary person, someone considered inconsequential by both historians and her contemporaries. For McLaurin, this unconventional approach to history can prove particularly illuminating. He says as much in his introduction, writing, “the lives of lesser figures, men and women who lived and died in virtual anonymity, often better illustrate certain aspects of the major issues of a particular period than do the lives of those who, through significant achievement, the appeal of the orator, or the skill of the polemicist, achieve national prominence.”
Celia’s story is by most standards self-contained and highly personal. Her trial did not receive anything close to national attention. The verdict was expected, and though it seems her defense hoped to set a legal precedent that would undermine the entire institution of slavery in Missouri, they failed to win the case. The murder of Robert Newsom and Celia’s subsequent trial had almost no broader political repercussions, and the whole affair was quickly forgotten by those not directly involved.
However, the story demonstrates how the personal and the political are never quite separable. Celia’s utter powerlessness—first in the face of continual abuse by her slave owner, then in the face of the American justice system (she was forbidden by law to testify)—was a consequence of the political order in the antebellum American south, which was more or less based in the systematic oppression of black people.
Perhaps more importantly, McLaurin demonstrates how Celia’s story aligns with the broader historical trends of the era. Primarily, he points out that, around the time of Celia’s trial, Missouri and neighboring Kansas (then just a territory) were becoming the foremost battlegrounds for the increasingly contentious issue of slavery. He suggests that the tumultuous political climate led Celia’s lawyers to see her case as potentially influential in the ongoing debate about the future of slavery in America. Further, he suggests that everyone involved in the case—judge, jury, prosecution, and defense—made individual, personal decisions that were “also a judgment on the morality of the institution of slavery itself.”
While McLaurin’s account does not show that Celia’s case had any real lasting political repercussions, it does show that the political conditions of the day completely saturated Celia’s life. In this way, her story illustrates how the moral dilemma of slavery—which may today seem abstract—expressed itself concretely, in the lives of real people. For Celia, her lawyers, and her prosecutors, the personal was inevitably political, the political inevitably personal.
The Political and the Personal ThemeTracker
The Political and the Personal Quotes in Celia, a Slave
Many journeyed by foot, plodding mile after mile along widened footpaths that hardly deserved to be called roads. Seekers and dreamers all, they hoped to reach the western promised land, a land said to flow with milk and honey, a land such as their God had promised, and delivered, to the ancient Israelites.
Throughout the antebellum era, while Callaway County's promise to settlers such as Robert Newsom of a better life in a relatively egalitarian white society was fulfilled, it would have been obvious to Newsom and others that the promise was more amply fulfilled for those who held slaves than for those who did not.
A healthy sixty years of age, Newsom needed more than a hostess and manager of household affairs; he required a sexual partner. Newsom seems to have deliberately chosen to purchase a young slave girl to fulfill this role, a choice made the more convenient by the ability to present the girl as a domestic servant purchased for the benefit of his daughters.
Anger and resentment was a characteristic response of white women in slaveholding households when faced with the possibility of a relationship between a male in the household and a female slave. Frequently, however, southern white women were powerless to prevent the actions of male family members, a circumstance that sometimes led them to vent their anger at white males upon the slave. Certainly neither Mary nor Virginia was in a position to change her father's conduct toward his slave, even had she so desired. Mary was still an adolescent herself, totally dependent upon her father, and Virginia had three children of her own to consider.
[John Jameson’s] serious interest in religion raised the possibility that he might decide to mount something beyond the usual defense on behalf of a client, who, though a slave, appeared to be morally, if not legally, innocent of the crime with which she was charged.
While acknowledging that slave women were used by masters for sexual favors, state studies of slavery, including Missouri's, fail to record charges against whites for rape of a female slave. Of course, the lack of such charges merely reflects that the law provided no protection to slave women against rape. If the courts would not convict black males of raping slaves, then such a charge against a white male was ludicrous. Thus, in the antebellum South the rape of slave women by white men, if not expected, was condoned by the law or, more precisely, by the lack of it.
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.