Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was a talented seamstress, dressmaker, and businesswoman who became the personal dressmaker and close friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln during the Civil War. The story of Keckley’s rise to such a prominent position is remarkable. Born a slave in Virginia, she experienced the worst horrors of the institution during her formative years. Her earliest recollection of slavery was witnessing a seven-year-old boy being stripped from his mother’s arms and put into a slave auction to be sold away for profit. Her father was also sold away during her childhood, and Keckley herself was subject to whippings and sexual abuse during her childhood. While living in North Carolina she was the victim of a rape that produced her only child, a boy only referred to by Keckley as “Garland’s George.” While living in St. Louis in the 1850s Keckley managed to earn enough money through her seaming and dressmaking to purchase her freedom in 1855, and shortly thereafter she made her way to Washington, D.C. to start a very profitable dressmaking business before being hired by Mrs. Lincoln at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
In 1868 Keckley published a memoir of her life entitled Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The book is part autobiography and part analysis of the Lincoln White House. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination Mary Lincoln had run into financial difficulties and a poor reputation among the public. Keckley hoped to raise money for Mrs. Lincoln and counter criticisms against her by publishing details of the Lincolns’ inner family life, but circumstances took a sad turn following the book’s release. Behind the Scenes was roundly criticized as the public disapproved of Keckley’s publishing of Mary Lincoln’s private letters, and Keckley’s clients for her dressmaking business quickly ended their patronage. She closed her business, became destitute, and in later life lived in a home for the poor.
Readers of Behind the Scenes–both then and now–often focus on Keckley’s recollections of the Lincoln White House, and several theatrical plays about the Lincoln-Keckley relationship have been written in recent years. But her life trajectory from enslavement to prominent free person of color by the outbreak of the Civil War is gripping literature, and it is this story that I want to briefly focus on with this post. Historians, biographers, and other scholars, of course must proceed with caution when analyzing the words and themes embedded in a person’s autobiography or memoir. Statements that may at first come off as factual and self-evident are in many cases subject to uncertainty and interpretation by scholars assessing a person’s life story. Any reasoned interpretation requires a scholar to put a writer’s words into context and to understand the world in which that person inhabited, lest they turn themselves into armchair psychologists. I will try to avoid that here.
“How warm is the attachment between master and slave”
Keckley’s description of life as a slave in Behind the Scenes is simultaneously riveting and complex. In the book’s preface she takes pains to warm readers that “if I have portrayed the dark side of slavery, I have also painted the bright side. The good that I have said of human servitude should be thrown into the scales with the evil that I have said of it.” She casts blame for slavery’s continuation and expansion in the United States not on the South, but on “the God of nature” (which is never clearly defined) and the Founding Fathers. In a later chapter Keckley recalls a conversation she had with a Northerner after the Civil War who expressed disbelief in the idea that she would be interested in the welfare of her former enslavers. Keckley responds that “you do not know the Southern people as well as I do–how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”
These are curious statements to make. Throughout the book the only “goods” of enslavement that she alludes to are her sense of industry and the relationship she maintained with her mother, two things she could have obtained in freedom. Certainly the relationship between master and slave wasn’t warm enough to prevent Keckley from working to purchase her freedom in 1855, nor would she have consented to reestablishing this relationship at any point after obtaining her freedom. After all, she herself paradoxically argues in the aforementioned preface that “a wrong was inflicted upon me; a cruel custom deprived me of my liberty, and since I was robbed of my dearest right, I would not have been human had I not rebelled against the robbery.” Indeed, who wouldn’t detest a system that sells your father away for cash and makes your body susceptible to rape and sexual assault without consequence to the aggressor?
Mercy for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy
Keckley had been briefly employed by Varina Davis, wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, prior to being hired by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Davis had attempted to bring her South as the Davis family prepared for the secession crisis, but Keckley rejected this offer, stating that her allegiances were with the United States. Nevertheless Keckley speaks very highly of the Davis family and calls for Northerners to bestow mercy on Jefferson Davis, who was still imprisoned by U.S. forces when Behind the Scenes was published: “The years have brought many changes; and in view of these terrible changes even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, ‘Peace! you have suffered! Go in peace’.” What these “terrible changes” are that Keckley refers to remain a mystery to readers. Yet again a reader today can easily find these statements quite odd coming from a free woman of color who had been enslaved for the first thirty years of her life.
In a later passage Keckley recalls Abraham Lincoln saying on the day that he was assassinated that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “a noble, noble brave man.” According to Keckley, “Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature, and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him. His soul was too great for the narrow, selfish view of partisanship. Brave by nature himself, he honored bravery in others, even his foes.”
An important theme in Behind the Scenes
As the aforementioned quotes suggest, one of the driving themes of Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs that might be overlooked sometimes is her argument in favor of sectional reconciliation between North and South, which in turn is informed by her identification as a proud Southerner. While Keckley strives to assure readers that she suffered under slavery and that she values her freedom, her hesitance to lay any sort of blame for the continuance and growth of slavery on pro-slavery Southern politicians or the South more generally reflects a desire to avoid what she describes as a “sweeping condemnation” of the entire region, a region that she calls home. While Keckley is not convincing in her efforts to point out “the bright side” of slavery, it is clear that she is anxious to demonstrate to readers that she refuses to play the role of victim, no matter how heinous the crimes committed against her during the days of slavery. And by pleading mercy for Jefferson Davis and portraying Abraham Lincoln as an admirer of Robert E. Lee and the valorous conduct of the Confederacy, Keckley suggests to her reading audience that sectional reconciliation is the correct path towards future prosperity for the United States. It was the path paved by Lincoln before his death, and it was the correct path going forward in Keckley’s eyes.
These are just a few observations I made after reading Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs, which are truly fascinating. Any nineteenth century historian would benefit from reading them.