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Thomas H. Jones
The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, who was a Slave for Forty-Three Years
Boston: Printed by Bazin & Chandler, 1862.

Summary

Thomas H. Jones was born to slave parents near Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1806 but escaped to freedom in New York in August 1849. He originally published his memoir in order to raise money to purchase his son's freedom. The first edition of his narrative appeared in the mid-1850s—sources variably assert 1854 and 1855 publication dates—as an abolitionist pamphlet titled Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. After its initial publication, Jones continued to revise and reprint the narrative, and later editions appeared in 1855, 1862, 1868, 1871, 1880, and 1885. These publication dates, as well as the publishers that released the editions, remain a major source of critical conversation for Jones scholars. In each edition, Jones further develops the story of his time in slavery and capitalizes on popular abolitionist sympathies, promoting his cause and refining his image as a community and religious leader.

The edition of Jones's narrative summarized here appeared in 1862 and is an expanded version of the original 1850s memoir that begins with Jones's declaration of the emotional suffering that slavery imposed on men. A summary of this narrative is available here.

The 1862 edition of Jones's memoir includes significant changes to the first printed version. The most obvious of these is the title, which now includes Thomas H. Jones's full name rather than "Uncle Tom Jones." Jones also replaces a cartoonish cover sketch and the cabin image on the frontispiece with a portrait of a well-dressed African American gentleman (likely Jones himself). With these alterations, Jones moves the text away from its association with Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and establishes himself as a self-reliant individual with developing social authority. Further, this edition includes introductory letters of support and testimonials written by prominent members of the abolitionist and religious community. These letters not only attest to Jones's authenticity as an "honest and upright man" (p. 3), but they also emphasize the authority of his moral message by asserting that through "great courage, industry and perseverance . . . [he] fought his way to freedom of body and spirit, and has devoted himself with fidelity and success to the spiritual salvation of men" (p. 4).

While most of the experiences recorded in this new narrative are the same as those in the first edition, Jones's revisions to the original heighten the emotional tone of his text. In addition to offering new personal details to inspire the reader's sympathy, Jones uses these details to expound on the dehumanizing cruelties of slavery, emphasizing the extreme distress stemming from his mistreatment and his inevitable anger at the system that sanctions it. The description of his parting from his first wife, Lucilla, is expanded to include a declaration of his growing disillusionment with slavery's attempts to undermine his identity and happiness: "I found then that the agony of the terrible thought, 'I am a slave, my wife is a slave, my precious children are slaves,' grew bitter and insupportable" (p. 33). Further, Jones includes copies of letters that passed between him and his second wife while she waited for him to join her in the North. The letters highlight their planning and the precariousness of their scheme, but they also reveal the strength of the bond between Jones and his wife, as the letter-writers express heartfelt fear and care for their loved ones.

Jones also incorporates new meditations on his religious and spiritual development. In reasserting his view of Christianity as a distinctly anti-slavery ideology, he reflects on the hypocrisy of those who follow a faith "by whose sanction men and women are bound, branded, bought and sold" (p. 28). His spiritual awareness thus comes with a call to action, directly addressing the reader: "Can you be still inactive while thousands are drinking that potion of despair every year in this land of schools and Bibles?" (p. 33). Jones presses further, adding that this plight belongs not just to the enslaved, but also to African Americans who are technically free. He writes that because of racial prejudice, free blacks in the North are not truly "in a free land, for, even here, in the city of Boston, where I am told, is kept the old cradle of liberty, my precious children are excluded from the public schools, because their skin is black." (p. 34).

Another notable change to Jones's narrative is the inclusion of some details about his escape. He describes stowing away in the hold of a ship bound for New York and then— to avoid being returned to North Carolina after his discovery—building a small raft that enables him to float away from the ship and into the protection of nearby abolitionists. Jones's description of his escape is brief and anti-climactic, and it may have been included at the request of readers who asked for this information. Given that that the first narrative leaves out facts of his escape entirely, the spare details in this version seem to confirm Jones's interest in promoting his abolitionist moral message, rather than simply telling a sensational story. He focuses primarily on his development as a religious leader and on his "devoted affection" for the family he worked so hard to save (p. 47). Ultimately, Jones seeks moral and spiritual salvation—the literal saving of the body and soul from slavery and its degradations—and to continue his abolitionist ministry.

See also Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina [185-? edition].

See also The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones [1885 edition].

Works Consulted: Davis, David A., Introduction to The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones, in North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, & Thomas H. Jones, edited by William L. Andrews, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Jenn Williamson

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