Horton was a clear example of black Americans’ “nation within a nation,” contributing to wider American life while retaining unique experience.
A Nation Within a Nation
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Since W.E.B. DuBois’s conflict with Booker T. Washington in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, historians have debated the position of African Americans in the country’s larger culture and history. The “Integrationist” school argues that African Americans have always been an integral and fundamental part of wider life in America. Black and white Americans all share a common culture and history right the way back to the beginning of New World settlement. The “Black Nationalist” school argues, however, that slavery and racism have ensured that black and white Americans have always had fundamentally different experiences and therefore occupy distinct national spaces. And then there are the “synthesizers,” like Eugene Genovese, one of the most important historians of the slave (and planter) experience there has ever been. Genovese suggested that southern slavery produced a curious situation in which African Americans became parts of “a nation within a nation.” Neither truly part of (white) America, nor entirely separate and distinct, African Americans can lay important historical claims to membership in both.
As Genovese masterfully showed throughout his career, the planters and the slaves were never actually separated from one another so far as the law might make it seem. White Americans took (and borrowed) a great deal of African American culture, right down to the slaves’ folk Christianity, but they maintained to the legal fiction that their slaves were mere property whenever necessary. Slavery, however merely theoretical, was still an important dividing line between Americans of one color and Americans of a different color. It ensured that though a person like George Moses Horton was capable of interacting in meaningful and culturally generative ways with the white community, he would always have to return to his master’s field whether he liked it or not. Slavery meant that though Horton could sell his poetry across the extended marketplace and print it for a (conceivably) global audience, he had to go through the formality of explaining that all credit belonged to God and the author retained his humility. He could at once express himself artistically in a way that no other black southerners had ever been able to do, while the legal fact of his slavery ensured that the full extent of his talents went either unexplored or remained known only to his fellow slaves. White southerners may have purchased his books or commissioned a poem from Horton, but they never really shared his life as a slave, its frustrations and limitations, or the sense of togetherness shared by others condemned to a similar existence as foreigners and suspects in the very country they built.
Ha, tott’ring Johny, strut and boast, But think of what your feathers cost; Your crowing days are short at most, You bloom but soon to fade; Surely you could not stand so wide, If strictly to the bottom tried, The wind would blow your plume aside If half your debts were paid. Then boast and bear the crack, With the sheriff at your back; Iluzza for dandy Jack, My jolly fop, my Joe.
“The Creditor to His Proud Debtor.”
The blue smoke from your segar flies, Offensive to my nose and eyes; The most of people would be wise Your presence to evade; Your pocket jingles loud with cash, And thus you cut a foppish dash, But, alas! dear boy, you would be trash, If your accounts were paid. Then boast and bear the crack, &c.
My duck bill boots would look as bright, Had you in justice served me right; Like you I then could step as light, Before a flaunting maid; As nicely could I clear my throat, And to my tights my eyes devote; But I’d leave you bare without that coat, For which you have not paid. Then boast and bear the crack, &c.
I’d toss myself with a scornful air, And to a poor man pay no care; I could rock cross-leg’d on my chair Within the cloister shade; I’d gird my neck with a light cravat, And creaning wear my bell‐crown hat; But away my down would fly at that, If once my debts were paid. Then boast and bear the crack, With a sheriff at your back; Huzza for dandy Jack, My jolly fop, my Joe.
“Regret for the Departure of Friends.”
As smoke from a volcano soars in the air, The soul of man discontent mounts from a sigh, Exhaled as to heaven in mystical prayer, Invoking that love which forbids him to die.
Sweet hope, lovely passion, my grief ever chase, And scatter the gloom which veils pleasure’s bright ray, O lend me thy wings, and assist me to trace The flight of my fair one when gone far away.
When the dim star of pleasure sets glimmering alone, The planet of beauty on life’s dreary shore, And th’ fair bird of fancy forever is flown, On pinions of haste to be heard of no more.
Hope, tell me, dear passion, thou wilt not forget, To flourish still sweetly and blossom as gay, Expelling like morning the gloom of regret, When the lark of affection is gone far away.
If hurried into some unchangeable clime, Where oceans of pleasure continually roll, Far, far from the limited borders of time, With a total division of body and soul.
Hope, tell me, dear passion, which must earth survive, That love will be sweeter when nature is o’er, And still without plain though eternity live, In the triumph of pleasure when time is no more.
O love, when the day‐light of pleasure shall close, Let the vesper of death break on life’s dusky even; Let the faint sun of time set in peace as it rose, And eternity open they morning in heaven.
Then hope, lovely passion, thy torch shall expire, Effusing on nature life’s last feeble ray; While the night maid of love sets her taper on fire, To guard smiling beauty from time far away.
“Farewell to Frances.”
Farewell! If ne’er I see thee more, Though distant calls my flight impel, I shall not less thy grace adore, So friend, forever fare thee well.
Farewell! forever, did I say? What, never more thy face to see? Then take the last fond look to‐day, And still to‐morrow think of me.
Farewell! alas, the tragic sound Has many a tender bosom torn; While desolation spread around, Deserted friendship left to mourn.
Farewell! awakes the sleeping tear, The dormant rill from sorrow’s eye, Express’d from one by nature dear, Whose bosom heaves the latent sigh.
Farewell! is but departure’s tale, When fond association ends, And fate expands her lofty sail, To show the distant flight of friends.
Alas! and if we sure must part, Far separated long to dwell, I leave thee with a broken heart, So friend, forever, fare thee well.
I leave thee, but forget thee never, Words cannot my feeling tell, “Fare thee well, and if forever, Still forever fare thee well.”
“The Retreat from Moscow.”
Sad Moscow, thy fate do I see, Fire! Fire! In the city all cry; Like quails from the eagle all flee, Escape in a moment or die.
It looks like the battle of Troy, The storm rises higher and higher; The scene of destruction all hearts must annoy, The whirlwinds, the smoke, and the fire.
The dread conflagration rolls forth, Augmenting the rage of the wind, Which blows it from south unto north, And leaves but the embers behind.
It looks like Gomorrah; the flame Is moving still nigher and nigher, Aloud from all quarters the people proclaim, The whirlwinds, the smoke, and the fire.
A dead fumigation now swells, A blue circle darkens the air, With tones as the pealing of bells, Farewell to the brave and the fair.
O Moscow, thou city of grace, Consign’d to a dread burning pyre, From morning to ev’ning with sorrow I trace The wild winds, the smoke, and the fire.
The dogs in the kennel all howl, The wether takes flight with the ox, Appal’d on the wing is the fowl, The pigeon deserting her box.
With a heart full of pain, in the night Mid hillocks and bogs I retire, Through lone, deadly vallies I steer by its light, The wild storm, the smoke, and the fire.
Though far the crash breaks on my ear, The stars glimmer dull in the sky, The shrieks of the women I hear, The fall of the kingdom is nigh.
O heaven, when earth is no more, And all things in nature expire, May I thus, with safety, keep distant before The whirlwinds, the smoke, and the fire.
“Imploring to be Resigned at Death.”
Let me die and not tremble at death, But smile at the close of my day, And then, at the flight of my breath, Like a bird of the morning in May, Go chanting away.
Let me die without fear of the dead, No horrors my soul shall dismay, And with faith’s pillow under my head, With defiance to mortal decay, Go chanting away.
Let me die like a song of the brave, And martial distinction display, Nor shrink from a thought of the grave, No, but with a smile from the clay, Go chanting away.
Let me die glad, regardless of pain, No pang to this world to betray; And the spirit cut loose from its chain, So loath in the flesh to delay, Go chanting away.
Let me die, and my worst foe forgive, When death veils the last vital ray; Since I have but a moment to live, Let me, when the last debt I pay, Go chanting away.
“On the Pleasures of College Life.”
With tears I leave these academic bowers, And cease to cull the scientific flowers; With tears I hail the fair succeeding train, And take my exit with a breast of pain. The Fresh may trace these wonders as they smile; The stream of science like the river Nile, Reflecting mental beauties as it flows, Which all the charms of College life disclose; This sacred current as it runs refines, Whilst Byron sings and Shakspeare’s mirror shines. First like a garden flower did I rise, When on the college bloom I cast my eyes; I strove to emulate each smiling gem, Resolves to wear the classic diadem; But when the Freshman’s garden breeze was gone, Around me spread a vast extensive lawn ‘Twas there the muse of college life begun, Beneath the rays of erudition’s sun, Where study drew the mystic focus down, And lit the lamp of nature with renown; There first I heard the epic thunders roll, And Homer’s light’ning darted through my soul. Hard was the task to trace each devious line, Though Loc ke and Newton bade me soarand shine; I sunk beneath the heat of Franklin’s blaze, And struck the note of philosophic praise; With timid thought I strove the test to stand, Reclining on a cultivated land, Which often spread beneath a college bower, And thus invoked the intellectual shower; E’en that fond sire on whose depilous crown, The smile of courts and states shall she renown; Now far above the noise of country strife, I frown upon the gloom of rustic life, Where no pure stream of bright distinction flows, No mark between the thistle and the rose; One’s like a bird encaged and bare of food, Borne by the fowler from his native wood, Where sprightly of the sprung from spray to spray, And cheer’d the forest with his artless lay, Or fluttered o’er the purling brook at will, Sung in the dale or soar’d above the hill. Such are the liberal charms of college life, Where pleasure flows without a breeze of strife; And such would be my pain if cast away, Without the blooms of study to display. Beware, ye college birds, again beware, And shun the fowler with his subtile snare; Nor fall as one from Eden, stript of all The life and beauty of your native hall Nor from the garden of your honor go, Whence all the streams of fame and wisdom flow; Where brooding Milton’s theme purls sweet along With Pope upon the gales of epic song; Where you may trace a bland Demosthenes, Whose oratic pen ne’er fails to please; And Plato, with immortal Cicero, And with the eloquence of a great Ainsworth, Who sets the feast of ancient language forth; Or glide with Ovid on his simple stream, And catch the heat from Virgil’s rural beam; Through Addison you trace creation’s fire, And all the rapid wheels of time admire; Or pry with Paley’s theologic rays, And hail the hand of wisdom as you gaze; Up Murray’s pleasant hill you strive to climb, To gain a golden summit all sublime, And plod through conic sections all severe, Which to procure is pleasure true and dear. The students’ pensive mind is often stung, Whilst blundering through the Greek and Latin tongue; Parsing in grammars which may suit the whole, And will the dialect of each control. Now let us take a retrospective view, And whilst we pause, observe a branch or two. Georgraphy and Botany unfold Their famous charms like precious seed of gold; Zoology doth all her groups descry, And with Astronomy we soar on high; But pen and ink and paper all would fail, To write one third of this capacious tale. Geography presents her flowery train, Describes the mountain and surveys the plain, Measures the sounding rivers as they grow, Unto the trackless deeps to which they flow: She measures well her agriculture’s stores, Which meet her commerce on the golden shore, Includes the different seasons of the year, And changes which pervade the atmosphere; Treats of the dread phenomena which rise In different shapes on earth, or issue from the skies; She points in truth to Lapland’s frozen clime, And nicely measures all the steps of time; Unfolds the vast equator’s burning line, Where all the stores of heat dissolve and shine; Describes the earth as unperceived she rolls, Her well‐poised axis placed upon the poles. Botany, whose charms her florists well display, Whose lavish odours swell the pomp of May. Whose curling wreaths the steady box adorn, And fill with fragrance all the breeze of morn. Through various means her plants are of applied, Improved by art, and well by nature tried; Thro’ her, the stores of herbage are unroll’d, All which compose the vegetable world; Even the sensitives, which feel and shrink, From slightest touches, though they cannot think, Nor yet rejoice, void of the power to fear, Or sense to smell, to see, to taste, or hear. Zoology, with her delightful strain, Doth well the different animals explain From multipedes to emmets in the dust, And all the groveling reptiles of disgust; She well descries the filthy beetle blind, With insects high and low of every kind; She with her microscope surveys the mite, Which ne’er could be beheld by naked sight; Thence she descends into the boundless deep, Where dolphins play and monsters slowly creep; Explores the foaming man from shore to shore. And hears with awe the dshing [sic] sea bull roar; Traces enormous whales exploding high Their floods of briny water to the sky; Describes the quadrupeds of ever shape, The bear, the camel, elephant and ape, And artful monkey, which but lack to talk, And like the human kind uprightly walk. Astronomy, with her aerial powers, Lifts us above this dreary globe of ours; Throughout the realms of ether’s vast expanse, Her burning wings our towering minds advance; Measures her tropic well from line to line, And marks her rolling planets as they shine; Describes the magnitude of every star, And thence pursues her comets as they roll afar. But nature never yet was half explored, Though by philosopher and bard adored; Astronomer and naturalist expire, And languish that they could ascend no higher; Expositors of words in every tongue, Writers of prose and scribblers of song, Would fail with all their mathematic powers, And vainly study out their fleeting hours. Sir Walter Raleigh, Pen and Roberson, With Morse and Snowden, who are dead and gone, They all were, though mused their lives away, And left ten thousand wonders to display. And though the fiery chemists probe the mine The subterraneous bodies to define; Though melting flames the force of matter try, Rocks mix’d with brass and gold to pieces fly; And those who follow the electric muse, Amidst the wilds of vast creation loose Themselves like pebbles in the swelling main, And strive for naught these wanders to explain; Galvin himself, the monarch of the whole, Would blush his empty parchments to unroll. These different branches to one ocean go, Where all the streams of life together flow, Where perfect wisdom swells the tide of joy, A tide which must eternity employ; A boundless sea of love without a shore, Whose pleasure ebbs and flows forever more; Volume Divine! O thou the sacred dew, Thy fadeless fields see elders passing through, Thy constant basis must support the whole, The cabinet and alcove of the soul; It matters not through what we may have pass’d, To thee for sure support we fly at last; Encyclopedias we may wander o’er, And study every scientific lore, Ancient and modern authors we may read, The soul must starve or on thy pastures feed. These bibliothic charms would surely fall, And life grow dim within this college wall, The wheels of study in the mind would tire, If not supported by thy constant fire; Greatest of all the precepts ever taught Maps and vocabularies dearly bought, Burns with his harp, Scott, Cambell, and their flowers, Will shrink without the everlasting showers; Theology, thou sweetest science yet, Beneath whose boughs the silent classics sit, And thus imbibe the sacred rays divine, Which make the mitred faculty to shine; O for a gleam of Buck, immortal muse, With elder Scott and Henry to peruse; These lines which did a secret bliss inspire, And set the heads, the hearts, the tongues, on fire. Such is the useful graduate indeed, Not merely at the bar in law to plead, Nor a physician best to heal the flesh, But all the mystic power of soul and flesh; On such a senior let archangels smile, And all the students imitate his style, Who bears with joy the mission all divine, The beams of sanctitude, a Paul benign; Whose sacred call is to evangelise, A gospel prince, a legate of the skies, Whose bright diploma is a deed from heaven, The palm of love, the wreath of sins forgiven.