Fugitive Blacksmith

Publication Year: Published 1849, reprinted 1971

Pennington, James W.C. The Fugitive Blacksmith: Or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States. Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1971 [originally published 1849]
PHS call number: E 444 .P41 1971

Source note

James W.C. Pennington (1807-1870) was a minister, abolitionist, author, renowned orator, and the first African American to attend Yale University. Born James Pembroke to enslaved parents in Maryland, Pennington was trained as a blacksmith at his master’s bidding. At age 19, Pennington made a harrowing escape from slavery, living first with one and then another Quaker family until he made his way eventually to New York City. In addition to writing the first history of African Americans, The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), he wrote a gripping account of his escape from slavery, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1849). In this account, Pennington describes his upbringing as a slave in Maryland, and strongly emphasizes the immorality and brutality of what he calls the “chattel principle”: the idea that human beings can be owned just like livestock or farm equipment. This autobiographical work is the main source of information available to historians about Pennington’s early life.

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Reading questions
  1. Who is the author of this source? Who is their audience? 
  2. How long after the events described in this account was it written down? How does this timing relate to the reliability of the source? 
  3. In the preface, the author makes it clear that he feels compelled to share his experiences as an enslaved person and then as a fugitive “on account of the increasing disposition to overlook the fact, that the sin of slavery lies in the chattel principle, or relation” (page iv). What exactly does he mean by the “chattel principle”? Why do you think people tended to overlook this fact about the system of slavery at the time he wrote this? 
  4. What specific events induced the author to plan his escape from slavery (pages 5-9)?
  5. What is the “great moral dilemma” that Pennington faces as he escapes from slavery? How does he resolve the issue, and what is his reasoning (pages 21-22)?
  6. What is the “one sin that slavery committed against me, which I never can forgive” (page 56)? How does Pennington himself attempt to right this terrible wrong? 
  7. Why does Pennington abruptly shift from telling his personal story of enslavement, escape, and educational attainment, and focus on the general conditions of slave life in Maryland (Chapter VII, pages 65-73)? What purpose does this chapter serve in the larger narrative? 
  8. Given Pennington’s potential audience for this book, why might he include a discussion of the degradation not just of slave families, but of the planter class families that owned slaves as well (pages 69-73)?
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Source type
History Topics
Abolition and Anti-slavery
African American History
Presbyterian History
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)