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An old manuscript with yellowed pages and slightly torn edges, accompanied by an elegant quill pen with a feather, an ink bottle, and a pair of worn iron shackles on a rustic wooden table.
Uncover the powerful 1855 narrative of fugitive slave John Swanson Jacobs whose manuscript reveals the harsh realities of slavery and a scathing critique of Americas founding document

Rediscovered 1855 Slave Narrative Offers Scathing Critique of U.S. Constitution

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

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A previously unknown slave narrative, The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots, resurfaced after nearly 170 years. This narrative sheds new light on the horrors of slavery and the complicity of America’s founding documents. (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

Fugitive Slave’s Powerful Testimony Published in Australia

In the summer of 1855, John Swanson Jacobs, a fugitive slave from North Carolina, entered a Sydney, Australia newspaper office seeking a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Two weeks later, he returned with a 20,000-word manuscript. This manuscript recounted his life story and harshly criticized slavery and the Constitution. (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

The newspaper published Jacobs’ narrative anonymously in two installments, attributing it only to “A Fugitive Slave.” The first portion describes his experiences as a slave, daring escape, time on a whaling vessel, and eventual departure to the Australian gold fields. Subsequently, the second half furiously critiques the country he left behind, especially the Constitution. He referred to the constitution as “that devil in sheepskin” and “the great chain that binds the north and south together, a union to rob and plunder the sons of Africa.” (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

Historian’s “Fluke” Discovery Brings Narrative to Light

Historian Jonathan Schroeder recently rediscovered the narrative by “fluke” while researching 19th-century African American literature. Consequently, Schroeder has now published Jacobs’ story in a new book titled The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story of Slavery. (SOURCE: How a ‘fluke’ uncovered a rare autobiography, giving a narrative on slavery new life)

“It was just that little fluke that led me to switch, and very quickly, there it was in all caps. ‘The United States Governed By Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story Of Slavery,'” Schroeder said. (SOURCE: How a ‘fluke’ uncovered a rare autobiography, giving a narrative on slavery new life)

Jacobs Family’s Remarkable Abolitionist Legacy

Jacobs was the brother of writer Harriet Jacobs, famous for her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. His narrative, considered the first fugitive slave autobiography published in Australia, sheds new light on their family’s story. Moreover, it highlights the global reach of American slavery and resistance. (SOURCE: The Lives of John Swanson Jacobs – American Antiquarian Society)

Exposing the Constitution’s “Guilt” in Protecting Slavery

This rare manuscript offers a scathing critique of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, it highlights the document’s role in perpetuating slavery. (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

Jacobs Condemns Constitution as “Devil in Sheepskin”

In his 20,000-word narrative, Jacobs refers to the Constitution as “that devil in sheepskin.” He also calls it “the great chain that binds the north and south together, a union to rob and plunder the sons of Africa.” Jacobs argues the document was designed to protect slavery despite its virtuous language. (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

“The second half of Jacobs’ manuscript focuses on a furious critique of America. It reserves particular ire for the Constitution as a cherished founding document that in reality supported slaveholders’ interests,” writes historian Jonathan Schroeder. (SOURCE: The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots)

Unmasking the “American Caste System”

Jacobs sought to expose the “moral and social complexities of the American caste system.” He aimed to “compel the devil to wear his own garments” rather than hide behind the Constitution’s noble rhetoric. Jacobs published his unsparing attack in Australia, beyond the reach of American censorship. Furthermore, his views align with hardcore abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. (SOURCE: The Lives of John Swanson Jacobs – American Antiquarian Society)

Rejecting the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause

Garrison similarly condemned the Constitution as a “covenant with death” due to provisions like the Fugitive Slave Clause. This clause required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. Jacobs’ narrative provides a rare, direct critique from someone who experienced slavery firsthand. Moreover, he rejected the Constitution’s complicity. (SOURCE: How a ‘fluke’ uncovered a rare autobiography, giving a narrative on slavery new life)

A Voice Long Silenced Speaks Truth to Power

The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots is a remarkable historical find. It amplifies the long-silenced voice of an enslaved person fearlessly speaking truth to power. Jacobs’ words strip away the Constitution’s veneer of righteousness. Consequently, they reveal a document that bound the nation to the sin of slavery. Nearly two centuries later, his scathing rebuke still resonates as America grapples with the living legacy of its “peculiar institution.” Consequently, its rediscovery adds an important new voice to the historical record. (SOURCE: A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years)

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.