Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

A Forgotten Abolitionist, Death, and the Arbitrariness of Public Memory

with 2 comments

By Wiz

For some time now I’ve been meaning to write more about this character who I found in the archive, an abolitionist named Daniel Foster, about whom I’ve found almost nothing published (Wikipedia has entries for Dan Foster the West Virginian politican, Daniel Foster, the Nigerian DJ, and Danny Foster, the British Football star). I was telling myself I should wait for something relevant to happen that might make his story meaningful, but couldn’t really find anything, and doubt that I would. I don’t think I’ll use him much in my dissertation, but I really just wanted to write about him, for reasons I wasn’t quite sure of at first.

I found Foster’s papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, where they ended up sometime in the early 20th century. Foster was born in New Hampshire, educated at Dartmouth, and ended up in Concord, MA, as the Congregationalist minister. Rare for an orthodox minister, he was drawn both to the anti-slavery fight and the Transcendentalists. Emerson, generally no fan of Congregationalists, spoke warmly of him, writing that he “respected certain heroic traits which appeared in him” and that Foster “was a brave good pastor, & took care of the outcast & forgotten.” Among the “outcast & forgotten” who Foster aided were a number of fugitive slaves, including Thomas H. Jones, whose memoir Foster helped publish.

Foster served as Jones' patron in Concord

During the crisis around the rendition of Thomas Sims, Foster distinguished himself. Sims, a 17 year old from Georgia, was captured under the terms of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act. Taken to prison, his freedom quickly became a cause célèbre among Massachusetts radicals, who had taken pride in their (erroneous) belief that no slave could be captured in Boston. In his journal, Foster obsessed about the case, writing that he was “hardly been able to think of anything else all day,” and eventually traveled to Boston in order to attend Sims’ trial and participate in the activity of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which was plotting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to free Sims. When the 17 year old was finally deported, it took, according to Foster’s diary, “500 thoroughly armed [soldiers] assembled around the Boston Bastille” to carry him to the dock. A crowd of abolitionists followed, and when Sims was finally put aboard the ship to bring him south, Foster was called on to read the prayer. Thoreau, whose family was friends with Foster’s, wrote in his journal that when he read that “the man who made the prayer on the wharf was Daniel Foster of Concord, I could not help feeling a slightly pride because, of all the towns of the Commonwealth, Concord was the only one distinctly named as being represented…”

Throughout the 1850s he wrote for The Liberator before moving to Kansas in 1858, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state. According to a friend, he was a “bosom companion” of John Brown, while in Kansas. When the war broke out he volunteered first as a chaplain with the 33rd Massachusetts, and then asked to be transferred to a black regiment, the 37th U.S. Colored Volunteers, and serve as a soldier. The US Army only began arming black soldiers in late 1862, and even then, demanded that the officers be white. Foster became one of these officers, a particularly dangerous position. Not only, of course, did skin color make it much easier for the enemy to identify, and therefore target, officers, but Confederates considered white officers who led black troops to be inciting slave rebellions, a crime punishable by death. Agreeing to lead a black regiment was generally a sign of strong commitment to the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, and a faith in black equality. At Chapin’s Bluff, in Northern Virginia, Foster was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter while warning his troops of enemy movement.

Certainly there are more remarkable lives, but Foster, by any standard, lived a life worth admiring. Like any great social movement, the anti-slavery fight drew on thousands of unrecognized and forgotten men and women, only a few of whom we recognize in public memory.

But I think the reason I wanted to write this blog post came from something different, and perhaps some of the other historians reading this will understand what I mean. It was not so much Foster’s extraordinary life, but his absolute ordinariness. There is a very strange and poignant feeling when you open up a folder or a box in an archive that contains the entire life of a long-dead person. The first couple of pages, normally letters from their grandchildren who are submitting the collection to the archive, then a yellowed journal, perhaps a short collection of letters, maybe a momento from an organization, some official documents, likely a will, etc… In this case, a letter written to Foster’s wife by an army companion after his death. Most of the material, of course, is mostly unusable from the perspective of the historian. Take Foster’s journal. Like everyone, Foster only rarely mentioned political or social affairs. Instead he was mostly concerned with his daily life: he misses his wife, who must stay with her mother, is touchingly anxious before her childbirth, is devastated when his infant daughter dies. The basic struggles of anyone, repeated, no doubt, millions of times over by people both famous and forgotten.

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts

I think I found Foster’s story poignant partly because his journal, which seemed so honest and believable, made him seem like such a knowable person, and partly because he illustrates so well the profound unfairness of historical memory. I’m sitting in the library of the Boston Athenaeum, one block away from the famous statue of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Commons. Shaw, of course, was another white abolitionist who died leading black troops. If anything, Shaw did far less for the anti-slavery fight than Foster did, and yet there he is in one of the most famous Civil War memorializations ever. They made a Hollywood movie about him, and in Robert Lowell’s 1960 poem For the Union Dead, Shaw serves as the symbol of submerged New England idealism buried by a plastic modernism.

Why will Shaw remain forever famous, while Foster is completely forgotten? All Shaw did was be born rich and then die in battle. Foster’s family was not wealthy, he came from New Hampshire and not Boston, he was overshadowed by famous contemporaries, and, likely, his papers were not deposited in an archive for years after his death. I suspect, as well, the commonness of his name makes him forgettable. But if it seems that Foster was treated unfairly, think about how many more people didn’t even have his privileges, because they were illiterate, or peasants, or black or brown, or women, or gay, and so no archivists ever took them seriously.

This is not to say, of course, that Shaw doesn’t deserve memorialization. And regardless of his own merits, as David Blight has shown, the memory of Shaw and the 54th served as a powerful counter-discourse to the racist Lost-Cause ideology of the late Nineteenth Century. But it is to say that the celebration of Shaw, instead of Foster or any other equally heroic figures, is more or less random and arbitrary.

I think there is an element of history, if I could get absurd and existential for a second, that is motivated by our anxiety towards death and existencelessness. Telling someone’s history is, in a way, a manner of keeping them alive, fighting that nagging sense that we’re pushing that boulder up a hill for reasons that can’t possibly matter in some truly ultimate way, that death will wipe all our petty accomplishments away. Certainly I think this is true of millions of Americans who study their own family history. There is just this strong desire to believe that all of the little struggles and triumphs of our life, and of our family, matter. That it matters to history that Daniel Foster’s 2 year old daughter died in 1853, in some way approaching how he felt it mattered. It’s a bit like that Smiths song: “ So we go inside and we gravely read the stones, all those people all those lives where are they now? With the loves and hates and passions just like mine, they were born and then they lived and then they died. Seems so unfair and I want to cry.”

The positive aspect, though, of being forgotten, is that you avoid being sainted. You remain a person. Shaw, after all, must always remain that bronze statue (or the stuffy horrible performance by Matthew Broderick), more symbol than human. Foster, on the other hand, still seems like a real person with real loves, and struggles, and fears. I guess I liked him because he’s a reminder that people can be, well, just normal everyday forgotten people, and still have done amazing things worthy of the highest praise. And that, in fact, most of the best things ever done are probably totally forgotten.

So, perhaps, read correctly, there is democracy in the arbitrary absurdity of the archive. Yes, most of us won’t end up like Shaw, praised for centuries to come. But that doesn’t at all mean that those who end up in statues and movies have a monopoly on heroism or good lives. In fact the arbitrariness of it is the exact proof that there is no link between fame and good deeds. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that we shouldn’t look at great movements as the products of its famous heroes (your Abraham Lincolns, Eugune Debs, etc…) without remembering that there are countless people who made those things happen who will never be remembered.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 10, 2011 at 14:51

2 Responses

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  1. […] and value judgments, and you may have seen me post on them here. I found Wiz’s post on the Forgotten Abolitionist lovely and moving, but I can’t claim to have myself felt that poignant feeling upon opening a […]

  2. I have an ancestor named Daniel Foster who was born somewhere in NH in 1778. We married into a Canton, Maine family and lived most of his adult life in that area. He lived to be at least 92-years old.
    I cannot find any information about his place of birth or anticedents. Any information about eitehr Daniel Foster’s genealogy would be helpful

    Larry Roberts

    February 15, 2013 at 09:39

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