Charles Dickens and American Slavery, 1842-52

Although the British Parliament began to debate the merits of abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire as early as 1789, only five years before Dickens's birth did the tide of public sentiment turn decidedly against slavery, despite the fact that its elimination would have severe economic consequences for Britain's West Indian colonies. By 1807 the abolitionist groups had a very sizeable faction of like-minded members in the British Parliament. At their height they controlled 35 to 40 seats. Known as the "Saints," the alliance was led by the best known of the anti-slave trade campaigners, William Wilberforce, who had taken on the cause of abolition in 1787 after having read the evidence that Thomas Clarkson had amassed against the trade. These dedicated Parliamentarians had access to the legal draughtsmanship of James Stephen, Wilberforce's brother-in-law. However, despite vigorous agitation by Romantic era writers, slavery remained legal in most of the British Empire, including the British West Indies, until the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. However, Victorian writers continued to use slavery as a recurring theme — the kindly Mr. Brownlow, for example, in Charles Dickens's 1838 Newgate novel The Adventures of Oliver Twist disappears from the narrative for a time in order to attend to his West Indian estates, although not a word does Dickens offer about slavery on West Indian plantations. In fact, until the publication of American Notes for General Circulation (1842) Dickens — despite his radical politics as a young parliamentary reporter — said nothing whatsoever in print about slavery. However, ten years after his first American reading tour, Dickens expressed the fervent hope that the United States would live up to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence by finally enacting Negro emancipation:

We believe that earnest and dispassionate inquiry among men experienced in all the details of the question, would lead eventually to a performance by America of the moral duty of emancipation in a way that might wipe out every reproach for the past treatment of the negroes, and reflect eternal honour on the stars and stripes. [Household Words, 18 September 1852, page 5]

Dickens’s article, written when he was forty, states his abhorrence of slavery as he had seen it on two occasions a decade earliee. As an adolescent reading such books as Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, like other schoolboys of the era Dickens would have been vaguely aware of the topic of slavery in the ancient and modern worlds. But Dickens, as the child of a middle-class civil servant who suddenly found himself in debtors' prison, in 1820 might well have commiserated with Defoe's protagonist when he bewails his loss of personal freedom: "At this surprising change of my circumstances, from a merchant to a miserable slave, I was perfectly overwhelmed" (Chapter 1, p. 17). The same blacking warehouse trauma of isolation and despair that shaped the writer's life-long aversion to prisons and sympathies for prisoners may have played a part in his equally strong aversion to slavery.

During the Commons debates on outlawing slavery throughout the British dominions Dickens, who prided himself in the 1830s on his radical views, acquired an acute awareness of the brutality of the slave trade and of the dire conditions under which slavers transported Africans to the Americas. The debates culminated in the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833 as its chief proponent, William Wilberforce, lay dying. Given his personal identification with the disadvantaged and oppressed, at age twenty-one Dickens must have held strongly abolitionist sentiments. Prior to his 1842 American reading tour, however, he had never trumpeted these as he was to do in the travelogue American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and the American episodes of the picaresque novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). A later work in which Dickens responded to the issue in Household Words (18 September 1852), an unsigned lead article entitled "North American Slavery," he co-wrote with journalist and staff-writer Henry Morley. The article begins as a positive review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's recently published Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, which had appeared first as a weekly serial in the previous year in The National Era on 5 June. Dickens also struck a glancing blow at the brutality of Southern slave-owners in "Frauds on the Fairies" in the 1 October 1853 issue of Household Words.

Dickens's Anecdotal Descriptions of Slavery in American Notes (1842)

My heart is lightened as if a great load had been taken from it when I think that we are turning our backs on this accursed and detested system. I really don't think that I could have born it any longer (I, 410). Dickens to Forster, 21 March 1842, regarding Great Britain's having abolished slavery in its own dominions nine years earlier. [Cited in Adrian, 317]

Thirty-year-old Dickens, the tourist, journalist, and celebrity in ante-bellum America, reacted with indignation about a matter that to Southerners seemed clear-cut, and upon which the economics of the entire plantation system depended: slavery. By "black and white" in Chapter IX, "A Night Steamer on the Potomac River. Virginia Road, and a Black Driver. Richmond. Baltimore. The Harrisburg Mail, and a Glimpse of the City. A Canal Boat," Dickens's narrator may imply "a matter of good and evil" in which the Black mother, bereft of her husband, virtuously struggles to protect her children, and her vile White owner oggles her. His condemnation of slavery, like his championing an international copyright for the United States, met with mixed reactions, even among Dickens's adherents/ According to Fred Kaplan,

Some of his English friends, like Macready, who thought the book mean-spirited, wished that he had never written it. To his New England friends, the Dickensian combination of humor, severity, and idealism were admirably and effectively used to denounce slavery and materialism. To radical abolitionists, the main targets were well chosen, the tone appropriately condemnatory though insufficiently serious. [152]

Sales of American Notes may not have reached the stratospheric heights that Dickens and his publishers, Chapman and Hall, who had underwritten the trip financially, had perhaps anticipated. However, although he had failed to bring the United States into an international copyright union, Dickens must have felt that through the somewhat unconventional travelogue he had exposed the seamier side of the America the Beautiful and Free, notably the solitary system in penitentiaries and slavery. Moreover, he had chastened America for the exploitative practices of its publishers in failing to recognize the copyrights of British authors such as Sir Walter Scott — and, of course, himself. Oddly enough, although he availed himself of a number of public occasions at which to denounce the American position on copyright, thereby alienating a number of Americans, he did not publicly state his feelings about slavery until after his return to England, in a chapter and an addendum in American Notes.

From Washington he and Catherine had travelled to Richmond, Virginia, where he wanted to see a tobacco plantation, and study the economics of slavery in action. The blight and apathy that he encountered so utterly shocked him that he vowed to avoid the South henceforth. But what little he had seen was etched into his memory, and took expression in "Black and White," an addendum on slavery in American Notes, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. Although Martin and Mark travel to Eden in the Mississippi Valley (probably Cairo on the Illinois shore), their direct encounter with slavery occurs, oddly enough, in New York, when they meet the former slave Cicero outside the offices of the Rowdy Journal, part of Dickens's attack on "yellow journalism" and America's stance against legislating some form of copyright protection for non-American writers.

As Logan Delano Browning points out in the Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens,

But his strongest animosity was reserved for slavery, not international copyright. He was so repulsed by the sight of slaves that he cut short his visit to the American south, returning north from Richmond rather than continuing on to Charleston, South Carolina, as planned. Some of the American newspapers which had been critical of Dickens before his first visit had anticipated that his antipathy to slavery would emerge in his speaking engagements. However, he seems not have uttered a opublic word on that issue during his visit, claiming merely that he would receive 'no public mark of respect in any place where slavery was; — and that's something' (to Forster, 24 February 1842), but reserving his expression of disgust for American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. [pp. 16-17]

In fact, as Slater notes, Dickens found his single direct experience of slavery so "hateful" (185) that he abruptly changed his itinerary and, instead of going south to Charleston, travelled two thousand miles west to see the Looking Glass Prairie outside St. Louis, Missouri. He did, however, visit a tobacco factory staffed by slaves, as well as an actual slave-owner's plantation en route to Baltimore, Maryland As Slater explains, Dickens merely consolidated rather than actually wrote the "addendum" dealing with slavery at the conclusion of the travelogue:

When it came to dealing with the unavoidable topic of slavery, which the manuscript of American Notes shows [Dickens] had originally fiercely broached in the first chapter set on American soil, the one dealing with Boston, he was disadvantaged by having spent such a short time in the South. In lieu, therefore, of incorporating into the narrative of his journey any first-hand 'sketch' of a scene in the slave states, or any account of the actual institution of slavery, Dickens deals with the subject in a chapter appended, as it were, to the narrative. This chapter is more of an anthology than anything else, consisting as it mainly does of advertisements for runaway slaves copied out by Dickens from an anti-slavery pamphlet by an abolitionist called Theodore Weld. These advertisements document the extreme brutality of the treatment experienced by such slaves, followed by a dozen extracts from Southern newspapers, supplied to Dickens by his publishers. . . . [Slater, pp. 200-201]

Although the illustrator who worked on the re-publication of the 1842 travelogue in the 1860s, Marcus Stone, as a child knew Dickens in the 1840s when his father Frank served as an illustrator for the Christmas Books, the great writer probably had not discussed such social issues as slavery with Marcus Stone until the young illustrator received Chapman and Hall's commission for the Illustrated Library Edition. At that point, in the years just after the Civil War, Dickens must have communicated his horror of slavery, and his great relief that the United States had at last outlawed the iniquitous practice in the midst of its Civil War.

Dickens's mining his experience of Slavery in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44)

Dickens communicated his abhorrence of slavery far more directly in 1843 in the American chapters of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Siding with the Abolitionists, Dickens again employs sharp satire and withering sarcasm, but this time in direct defence of the American Negro, a life-long prisoner in a Republic in which, supposedly, all people have been created equal, and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When the patriotic editor of a New York scandal-sheet, the Rowdy Journal, Colonel Divers, refers to the American fifth estate as "the Popular Instructor" in Chapter 16 of Martin Chuzzlewit, instalment VII, we have Dickens at his most sarcastic. However, the young author outdoes himself in dramatic irony when, in the same sentence, the "smart" Yankee journalist and his ultra-right "War Correspondent," Jefferson Brick, refer to the enslavement of the American Negro as "one of the ennobling institutions of our happy country" — a piece of American pre-Civil War jingoism to which neither Dickens nor his protagonist responds. In Martin and Mark's direct experience of slavery in the July 1843 instalment of Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens succinctly addressed the sheer inhumanity of Southern slavery in the treatment that the former slave, Cicero, had endured at the hands of his owners, making him literally a fit subject for abolitionist propaganda posters:

"And may I ask," said Martin, glancing, but not with any displeasure, from Mark to the negro, "who this gentleman is? Another friend of yours?"

"Why sir," returned Mark, taking him aside, and speaking confidentially in his ear, ‘he's a man of colour, sir!"

"Do you take me for a blind man," asked Martin, somewhat impatiently, "that you think it necessary to tell me that, when his face is the blackest that ever was seen?"

"No, no; when I say a man of colour," returned Mark, "I mean that he's been one of them as there's picters of in the shops. A man and a brother, you know, sir," said Mr. Tapley, favouring his master with a significant indication of the figure so often represented in tracts and cheap prints.

"A slave!" cried Martin, in a whisper.

"Ah!" said Mark in the same tone. "Nothing else. A slave. Why, when that there man was young — don't look at him while I'm a-telling it — he was shot in the leg; gashed in the arm; scored in his live limbs, like crimped fish; beaten out of shape; had his neck galled with an iron collar, and wore iron rings upon his wrists and ankles. The marks are on him to this day. When I was having my dinner just now, he stripped off his coat, and took away my appetite."

"Is this true?" asked Martin of his friend, who stood beside them.

"I have no reason to doubt it," he answered, shaking his head "It very often is."

"Bless you," said Mark, "I know it is, from hearing his whole story. That master died; so did his second master from having his head cut open with a hatchet by another slave, who, when he'd done it, went and drowned himself; then he got a better one; in years and years he saved up a little money, and bought his freedom, which he got pretty cheap at last, on account of his strength being nearly gone, and he being ill. Then he come here. And now he's a-saving up to treat himself, afore he dies, to one small purchase — it's nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that's all!" cried Mr. Tapley, becoming excited. "Liberty for ever! Hurrah! Hail, Columbia!" [Chapter XVII, "Martin enlarges his circle of Acquaintance; Increases his stock of Wisdom; And has an excellent Opportunity of comparing his own experiences with those of Lummy Ned of the Light Salisbury, as related by his friend Mr. William Simmons," page 213 in the 1844 edition]

The allusion that Mark Tapley makes to "picters in the shops" may well be to an abolitionist poster then current in the northern states; however, when Mark refers to Cicero as a "brother," he may as easily be alluding to one of the numerous anti-slavery medallions which Josiah Wedgewood issued from 1787 as his contribution to the abolitionist movement of Thomas Clarkson. One of the American recipients, Benjamin Franklin, may have translated the image of a kneeling African slave in chains into the celebrated poster produced in 1837 to incite American anti-slavery sentiment. Since Martin and Mark have just that morning landed in New York, it is unlikely that either of the young Englishmen has encountered the poster, however, so that Mark must be alluding to the motto on the Wedgewood medallion, "Am I not a man and a brother?" produced at his Staffordshire pottery works from a design by sculptor Henry Webber. Its appeal to both the reason and the sentiment of the late eighteenth century led to its becoming the basis for abolitionist posters distributed in British coffee houses, taverns, inns, reading societies, reading rooms, and assembly rooms — the various kinds of places in which Mark has apparently seen the iconic image:

The large, bold woodcut image of a supplicant male slave in chains appears on the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains." The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s, and appeared on several medallions for the society made by Josiah Wedgwood as early as 1787. Here, in addition to Whittier's poem, the appeal to conscience against slavery continues with two further quotes. The first is the scriptural warning, "He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. "Exod[us] XXI, 16." Next the claim, "England has 800,000 Slaves, and she has made them free. America has 2,250,000! and she holds them fast!!!!" The broadside is advertised at "Price Two Cents Single; or $1.00 per hundred. [Originally published by the New York office of the Anti-Slavery Society — "Am I not a man and a brother?" in the Library of Congress]

The illustrations in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) and the Illustrated Library Edition of American Notes (1868) remind readers of the twenty-first century that slavery, although outlawed in the British Empire in 1832, continued to flourish in the American South until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the American Civil War twenty years later, stipulating that "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." We should view the reception of the Phiz illustration in Great Britain and America in 1843, however, in the context of the U. S. Supreme Court's ruling that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was perfectly constitutional. In reaction, three Northern and anti-slavery States (New York, Vermont, and Ohio) had challenged the validity of the ruling by passing personal liberty laws which recognized former slaves as citizens, even as the Georgia legislature affirmed that it would never recognize Blacks as citizens. Therefore, in depicting Cicero in a positive light Dickens and Phiz were casting their lot with the Abolitionists as to whether the American Negro should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or whether he or she was merely some White American's personal property. For the next eight years, however, undoubtedly mindful of the firestorm of controversy that Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes for General Circulation had caused on both sides of the Atlantic, Dickens published nothing further about the failed "Republic of his Imagination."

Nevertheless, the travel book received some positive reviews in Great Britain, and through strong British sales made Dickens £1,000 in royalties. American reviewers savaged the book, however. For example, The New York Herald Tribune derided American Notes for General Circulation as the work of "the most coarse, vulgar, impudent and superficial mind." The American critics focussed, perhaps unfairly, on the addendum about slavery. And Edgar Allan Poe, a writer whose work Dickens much admired, labelled it "one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by an author." As a Southerner, Poe must have felt that Dickens's abolitionist posture would damage sales of Dickens's future works in America — but, then, Dickens at this point had no licensed American publisher and had received no royalties whatsoever from his American sales. In the last chapter of the book Dickens complained of the viciousness of the American press and the lack of moral sense among people who prized "smartness" above goodness. Ironically, in the two days following its publication in New York City, American Notes sold over 50,000 copies. Booksellers in Philadelphia reported that they had sold 3,000 copies in the first half-hour of its becoming available. Ironically, despite his avoidance of the South because of his views about slavery, during the Civil War, the Confederacy legislated an international copyright law that won Dickens's support.

Perhaps Dickens wrote far less than he may originally have intended about slavery, and took far fewer opportunities to express his pro-abolitionist sentiments in the first half of the serialised version of Martin Chuzzlewit because he had high hopes for brisk sales in America that might lead to lucrative agreements with American publishers. Once it became apparent to him that the new novel was not achieving the popularity which he had anticipated in either America or Britain, he may have felt freer to criticize Colonel Diver's "ennobling institution." With British sales plummeting — from 100,000 per number of The Old Curiosity Shop to around 20,000 per instalment of Martin Chuzzlewit and A Christmas Carol pirates, Dickens must have felt that even his British copyrights were not serving him well. Moreover, although pirated copies of American Notes had sold briskly in the United States as Americans clamoured to know what Dickens thought of them, Dickens received no royalties from sales of any of his books in the U. S. A. because as a "foreign" rather than a domestic author he received no copyright protection. Although he had railed against American publishers and petitioned the Congress, he had failed to persuade anyone in power of the advantages to America of recognizing the rights of British authors, and he had made himself some enemies among publishers. Eventually, he would adopt the practice of selling advanced proofs to American publishers, an initiative of the 1850s that eventually resulted in his signing with Harper's of New York for serial rights and Ticknor and Fields of Boston for volume rights.

Morley and Dickens on Slavery in Household Words (18 September 1852)

Our cousins are capable of great works, and a great work lies at their door. — Morley & Dickens, page 6.

Dickens did not often broach the subject of American slavery in either his fiction or his journalism, although until the outbreak of the Civil War he saw it as the defining issue of American society. The other significant British writer to comment upon the hateful practice, Harriet Martineau in Society in America (1837), had dismissed "slavery as an anomaly in an otherwise progressive nation" (Davis, p. 356). Notable exceptions to Dickens's post-American tour posture include an article which he co-wrote with journalist Henry Morley for Household Words in 1852, "North American Slavery," in which the editorialists express guarded optimism thatAmerica will ultimately "do what is right" and abolish the practice entirely, not merely in the northern states. The lead article in Household Words for 18 September reflects the popular British response to the recent volume publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (London:Cassell),with twenty-seven illustrations by George Cruikshank.

INTEREST in the subject of slavery has during the present year been re-awakened by an admirable book, in which its main features — as they exist in North America — are painted in the freshest colours. Uncle Tom's Cabin with all its faults (and it is not free from the fault of overstrained conclusions and violent extremes) is a noble work; full of high power, lofty humanity; the gentlest, sweetest, and yet boldest, writing. Its authoress, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is an honour to the time that has produced her, and will take her place among the best writers of fiction, inspired by the best and noblest purpose. Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, George Harris, and the other negroes with whom Mrs. Stowe has by this time made most ofus acquainted, are, no doubt, rare specimens of slaves; but, the details of the slave system among which they live have been carefully collected, and are represented, bright or black, fairly and with all due variety, so that they may be generally accepted as remarkable pictures of the every day truth. The subject thus re-introduced is one that itbecomes all men to discuss, since the extinction of slavery in America by any other than the old process that has held good since the world began, can take place only by the infection of slaveholders with the epidemic of a very prevalent opinion. ["North American Slavery," p. 1]

In the article, the writers attempt to show that slavery eventually will outlive it susefulness economically, and that therefore America will dispense with the practice as it requires more highly skilled and highly motivated workers. In the recently-founded weekly periodical Dickens and Morley devoted almost six pages to the issue at the beginning of the decade that would culminate in rising tensions between "Free" and "Slave" states in America, and subsequently in a bitter and protracted civil war between North and South over what Dickens rightly concluded would be the new nation's defining issue: slavery.

Relevant Illustrations, 1843-1872

Left: Hablot Knight Browne's depiction of an alderly former slave, Cicero, outside the offices of a New York paper, Mr. Tapley succeeds in finding a jolly subject for contemplation (Chapter 16, July 1843). Centre: Marcus Stone's illustration represents his underscoring Dickens's abolitionist stance in American Notes, Black and White (1868). Right: Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s cartoon-like treatment of a Negro wagon-driver as a species of Black minstrel, The Black Driver (1867). An American illustrator working on the travel-book in American Notes just after the Civil War, Eytinge offers no interpretation of either slavery or the American Negro in the novel for the Diamond Edition that coincided with Dickens's second American reading tour. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Above: Fred Barnard's realisation of the Martin's meeting Cicero, "You're the pleasantest fellow I have seen yet," said Martin, clapping him on the back, "And give me a better appetite than bitters" (Household Edition, 1872).

Related Materials


Adrian, Arthur A. "Dickens on American Slavery: A Carlylean Slant." PMLA. 67.4 (June, 1952): 315-29.

"American Anti-Slavery." "Am I not a man and a brother?" 1837. Online version available from Library of Congress. Web. 9 January 2019.

Browning, Logan Delano. "America, United States of." Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999. Pp. 14-18.

Davis, Paul. "Slavery." Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998. P. 356.

Defoe, Daniel. Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, including A Memoir of the Author, and an Essay on his Writings. Illustrated by Phiz. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1864.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy in Works. Illustrated by Marcus Stone. Illustrated Library Edition. London: Chapman and Hall: 1866, rpt. 1874.

_____. American Notes and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by Thomas Nast. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Bros., 1877.

_____. American Notes and Pictures from Italy. With eighteen illustrations by A. B. Frost and Gordon Thomson. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

_____. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman and Hall, 1844.

_____. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Junior. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

_____. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, with 59 illustrations by Fred Barnard. Household Edition, volume 2. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872.

_____. Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book, 1910. Vol. 7.

_____. A Tale of Two Cities, American Notes, and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 13.

Kaplan, Fred. Chapter 5: "The Emperor of Cheerfulness (1842-1844)." Dickens: A Biography.New York: William Morrow, 1988. Pp.122-160.

Masters, Kristin. "International Implications." WWW.Books Tell You Book Collecting Basics: Pirated Editions, 4 November 2014. Web. 9 January 2019.

Morley, Henry, and Charles Dickens. "North American Slavery." Household Words VI.130 (18 September 1852): 1-6.

Slater, Michael. Chapter 8: "America brought to book, 1842." Charles Dickens.New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 2009. Pp. 175-206.

Tavistock Books. "How the 'Dickens Controversy' Changed American Publishing." Tavistock Books. Web. 9 January 2019.

The Wedgewood Museum. "Josiah Wedgwood I (1730-95): The First Generation." Online version available from The Learning Archives: Slavery. Web. 9 January 2019.

Last modified 11 January 2019