Slave Poet's Lost Essay On 'Individual Influence' Resonates Through Centuries
George Moses Horton published a book of poetry in 1829, when he was still a slave in North Carolina. He went on to write several volumes, which never earned enough money to buy his freedom — though he became a frequent presence on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he wrote love poetry on commission for students. Horton was finally set free by the Union Army in 1865, moved to Philadelphia and continued to write until he died.
Jonathan Senchyne, a professor of history at the Information School of the University of Wisconsin, recently discovered an essay by Horton that shows another side of his intelligence — his political insights. "I was in the reading room at the New York Public Library at 42nd and 5th," Senchyne says, looking into the papers of 19th century bibliographer Henry Harrisse, "and as I was looking through his papers, getting used to reading his handwriting, I saw completely different handwriting ... I did not expect that they knew each other, or that Horton's work would have been known to Harrisse, but there it was."
Senchyne had found a two-page essay, titled "Individual Influence," with Horton's bold signature at the bottom.
On the essay's resonance today
The essay is contained in a scrapbook, and the rest of the material in the scrapbook has to do with the political controversy on the campus of Chapel Hill in 1856. There was a professor, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, who supported an anti-slavery candidate for president, John C. Fremont. Months after this essay was written, [Hedrick] was fired from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for holding his anti-slavery views, and one of the things that interests me is that the material that "Individual Influence" is preserved with focuses on the literal question of influence — did Hedrick have too much, or proper forms of influence over his students in matters of politics? Could a public university professor hold views that were unpopular in the state and even problematic for the economy of the state? And right now there are a number of debates about speech and influence on campuses around the United States, especially public university campuses.
On Horton's connection to the controversy
While Horton certainly wouldn't have thought in terms of academic or intellectual freedom, that is something that I think was present to his mind — the nature of his own freedom as a person, to move about, to have security in his body, but also to think and to speak. And it really intrigues me that he may have been in the circle of people involved ... and their own ideas about slavery and influence and intellectual and personal freedom may have derived from their relationship with Horton.
This story was edited for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Sophia Boyd, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.
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