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Domestic Missionaries, Slaveholders, and Confronting the Morality of Slavery: Missouri v. James Burr, George Thompson, and Alanson Work, September, 1841 *

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For more content, please see Le Fait Missionnaire.

This article revisits the 1841 arrest, trial, and conviction of three U.S. abolitionist missionaries, James Burr, George Thompson, and Alanson Work, who were accused in Marion County, Missouri of attempting to “steal slaves.” All three were linked to the evangelical Quincy Institute across the Mississippi River in Illinois and were in Marion County to preach to enslaved persons and assist those who wished to run away to freedom. The article makes several linked arguments. First, local slave owners, who loaded the jury to assure a guilty verdict, spread the false story, which has previously been taken at face value, that the slaves themselves had voluntarily betrayed the abolitionists. Second, this story drew on a pro-slavery master narrative that depicted slavery as a benevolent, paternalistic institution and the enslaved as carefree children who loved their masters and spurned freedom. Further, the story enabled slaveholders to sidestep the moral condemnation of slavery on slave soil posed by the trial, national press coverage, abolitionist denunciations, and the Underground Railroad. Résumé Cet article revient sur l’arrestation, le procès et la condamnation, en 1841, de trois missionnaires abolitionnistes américains – James Burr, George Thompson et Alanson Work – qui ont été accusés à Marion County, Missouri, d’essayer de « voler des esclaves ». Tous les trois étaient rattachés à l’Institut évangélique Quincy, présent de l’autre côté du fleuve Mississippi dans l’Illinois, et étaient dans le comté de Marion pour prêcher devant les esclaves et aider ceux qui voulaient fuir vers la liberté. L’article met en lien plusieurs arguments. Tout d’abord, les propriétaires d’esclaves, qui ont truqué le jury pour assurer un verdict de culpabilité, répandent l’histoire mensongère selon laquelle les esclaves avaient eux-mêmes volontairement dénoncé les abolitionnistes. Deuxièmement, cette intrigue s’est appuyée sur un exposé pro-esclavagiste dépeignant l’esclavage comme une institution bienveillante et paternaliste, et les esclaves comme des enfants insouciants qui aimaient leurs maîtres et rejetaient la liberté. L’affaire a en outre permis aux esclavagistes d’éviter la condamnation morale posée par le procès, la presse nationale, les accusations abolitionnistes et l’Underground Railroad.

Affiliations: 1: Independent Scholar, 217 W. Louise St., Fayetteville, AR 72701, USA


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