By Dena Marks
The term “emancipator” might conjure the image of a saintly champion of justice who crusades against those in power to selflessly promote the liberation of oppressed persons. The McDonogh papers and Bauer collection challenge that caricature as they offer a more complex depiction of one person who liberated slaves, John McDonogh. A wealthy plantation owner, land speculator, and business person, McDonogh (1779-1850) liberated his slaves but did so from within the system of slavery.
From his plantation near New Orleans, McDonoghville, he enacted a plan to provide vocational and religious training to his slaves, pay them for their work, and then eventually emancipate them, when they could purchase their freedom. Also active in the American Colonization Society, he sent about eighty of his former slaves to Liberia in 1842. Evidence of McDonogh’s position on slavery, can be found in a memorandum he wrote to the executor of his will, where he recommends that his estate continue to purchase slaves, train them, and then resettle them in Africa every fifteen years. At the fifteen-year point, the estate could acquire a new round of slaves to renew the cycle. The memorandum indicates that McDonogh, in a seeming contradiction, advocated both for the emancipation of slaves and the perpetuation of slavery.
Also of interest in the memorandum, McDonogh vouches for the character of his friend Andrew Durnford, a free person of color and a debtor to the estate. Andrew Durnford (1800-1859) was the son of Rosaline Mercier, a free woman of color, and Thomas Durnford, a white merchant. When Thomas died, the curatorship of his estate fell to McDonough, who subsequently acted as Andrew’s business associate, mentor, and friend. McDonogh also lent Andrew money to establish the St. Rosalie sugar Plantation in Plaquemines Parish. Based on their shared personal history, a reader of the memorandum might expect that, near his death, McDonogh would forgive the debts of his friend. Indeed, David O Whitten notes in his book, Andrew Durnford—A Black Sugar Planter in the Antebellum South, that students of John McDonogh have often wondered why McDonogh did not retire Durnford’s debt. Instead, McDonogh recommends that the estate give Durnford adequate time to repay the loan at 6% interest. That fact perhaps provokes interest because it complicates pure notions of friendship just as McDonogh’s emancipation system troubles pure visions of emancipation.
Presumably, McDonogh’s activities were informed by the ideology of self-interest that pervaded the nineteenth century. Perhaps in his view, the forgiveness of a debt, even to a friend, would deprive the estate of its earned income. Moreover, the education and payment of slaves would simultaneously foster the slave’s ability to live independently and the slave-owner’s need to benefit monetarily from his original investment. The documents in the Bauer and McDonogh collections, then, disrupt the cultural imagination of emancipation by chronicling the story of a person who was simultaneously a slave owner, liberator, money maker, and benefactor.