August 3, 2015By Toussaint Heywood
President Tyler and his son were being driven back from a funeral March 2, 1844 when "the horses attached to the carriage took fright, or started at the foot of the Capital, and galloped off at a most furious rate along Pennsylvania Avenue... The horses in the President's carriage continued their course at full speed, notwithstanding every effort of the driver, assisted by Mr. John Tyler, jr., to stop them. When the carriage reached a point opposite Gallabrun's European Hotel, a colored man fortunately succeeded in stopping the horses, and thus the President, Mr. John Tyler, jr., and the driver were most seasonably and happily rescued from their perilous situation."
The story made the rounds of the papers over the next few days, starting with the March 4, 1844 National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, as a minor item of interest and was then forgotten. It was an exciting but not uncommon bit of news; the main interest lay in the fact that it happened to the president.
But across the Atlantic, the British satirical paper the London Punch got hold of the news. Anti-slavery sentiment in Britain was ahead of the U.S., so Punch used the opportunity to mock the benighted former colonies.
The abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, published in Boston, reprinted Punch's article on May 17, 1844, titled "The President and the Negro." It began:
The life of President Tyler, we learn from the American papers, has been saved by a black man... We know not whether, according to American notions, we can courteously congratulate the President on his escape--seeing that it makes him a debtor for his life to a black--a mere human chattel--a thing of sale and barter... Heroes of the olden day have gladly preferred deather rather than owe their lives to acts or persons mean or infamouse; and animated by the like ennobling spirit, we must believe that President Tyler would have earned for himself a higher reputation with his countrymen, had he loudly and sternly rejected the succor of the black, and suffered himself to be whirled down the mortal precipice before him... He would, by his last mighty act, have proved to the sneering world that Americans sell black men like beasts really for the reasons that Americans give; that the negro is a creature only a little above the ape, a piece of mechanism of human seeming, but in no manner touched by the same sympathies, solemnized by the same affections, as the white man!...
As it is, the life of President Tyler is damnified, soiled, blotted; for he holds it only from the compassion of a black, who is most probably a slave.
However, President Tyler, in the overflow of his gratitude, may wish to reward his deliverer. May we suggest the mode? A white man is to be hanged in S. Carolina for aiding and abetting the escape of a black woman; let the negro who has saved the white President have a place at his execution, that he may see the punishment of the white who, touched by humanity, would save a black.
The scathing article used the incident to point out the obvious contradition in buying and selling slaves as mere property, while treating them under other circumstances as human beings. But the suggestion at the end referred to a real situation, the upcoming hanging of John L. Brown of South Carolina.
Others put a more neutral or even romantic spin on it. A period account described it: "It appeared in evidence that Hetty had hired her time for about nine years and had been allowed to 'do pretty much as she pleased.' John, her lover, said that he was going from Fairfield to Columbia, S. C., to obtain employment, and understanding that Hetty had leave to go there also, he, in open day, accompanied her. He positively declared that he had no intention of stealing her! On arriving there Hetty was apprehended and thrown into jail," and Brown of course was also charged.
The satire in Punch wasn't the only reaction. John Greenleaf Whittier even wrote a poem about the incident. According to the lurid introduction, "No event in the history of the anti-slavery struggle so stirred the two hemispheres as did this dreadful sentence. A cry of horror was heard from Europe. In the British House of Lords Brougham and Denman spoke of it with mingled pathos and indignation. Thirteen hundred clergymen and church officers in Great Britain addressed a memorial to the churches of South Carolina against the atrocity."
But, as it turned out, Brown did not die for his crime. The governor in a few days reduced the punishment to 39 lashes to be inflicted on April 26. O'Neall explained why: "The reason for appointing a day so distant for his execution was... to keep him in the solitude of a prison, with the terror of an anticipated dreadful punishment hanging over his head, in the hope that it might be the means of reforming him." But he escaped even the whipping. According to O'Neall, his neighbors asked the governor for a full pardon, and that was granted on March 29, and he left the jail a free man. ("Judge O'Neall's Letter," August 7, 1844 Charleston [South Carolina] Courier)
Following the historic trail of a runaway carriage and a paragraph of snark in Punch, leads to a story about a young man escaping death. It shows how interconnected the world was, and how both northerners and foreigners kept their eye on what was happening in the south.