Commemorative language in abolitionist landscape texts: New York's "burned-over district"

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Date: Nov. 2008
From: Southeastern Geographer(Vol. 48, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Report
Length: 6,300 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Using the words of Frederick Douglass as an integrating guide, this paper reviews the use of commemorative language in abolitionist landscape texts. Abolition, like Reconstruction, is an unfinished project in the United States. The first national museum to commemorate abolition is being established in Peterboro, New York. Peterboro is in the heart of New York's "Burned-Over District," an area known for its support of social reform in the early 19th century. It was also the hometown of Gerrit Smith, a well-connected and influential abolitionist. Reformers of all causes regularly visited Smith in Peterboro. Thus, Peterboro was not only a fairly typical rural agricultural village, but also a cultural hearth for important social movements. A holistic community interpretive program focused on this village in the 19th century attempts to utilize landscape texts in recreating the "ecology of social reform" for visitors to Peterboro.

KEY WORDS: abolition of slavery, landscape texts, commemorative language, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Peterboro, New York


In August of 1880 Frederick Douglass spoke in Elmira, New York at a ceremony celebrating West Indian emancipation. He noted that he was speaking to a later generation than his own, a generation that would need to carry on the unfinished work of American emancipation. Not surprisingly as he neared the end of his career, his remarks made liberal use of self-reference and took a long-term view. He said that individuals of African descent were a "still oppressed people" (Douglass 1881, pg 503) fifteen years after successful completion of a war meant to end slavery. His summation of the situation is as follows (Douglass 1881, pgs 513-14):

History does not furnish an example of emancipation under conditions less friendly to the emancipated class, than this American example. Liberty came to the freedmen of the United States, not in mercy but in wrath, not by moral choice but by military necessity; not by the generous action of the people among whom they were to live and whose good will was essential to the success of the measure, but by strangers, foreigners, invaders, trespassers, aliens, and enemies. The very manner of their emancipation invited on the heads of the freedmen the bitterest hostility of race and class. They were hated because they had been slaves, hated because they were now free, and hated because of those who had freed them. Nothing was to have been expected other than what has happened, and he is a poor student of the human heart who does not see that the old master class would naturally employ every power and means in their reach to make the great measure of emancipation unsuccessful and utterly odious. It was born in the tempest and whirlwind of war, and has lived in a storm of violence and blood. When the Hebrews were emancipated, they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians. When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A191766461