Morality, History & Judgement

When I began researching family history my focus was collecting names. I did not realize I was about to stumble upon the stories behind some of those names. I wasn’t pleased when I found 20 year old Horton Howard on the 1790 census listed as head of family, with a free white male of under 16 years in residence (probably his brother, John) and 26 slaves.

Continued research revealed Horton’s role in exploring the Northwest Territory, and leading his group of Quakers to land that would soon become the state of Ohio. This migration was done to escape the tyranny of slavery. The Quakers thought slavery debased the slaves’ humanity and that it debased the slave-owner’s morality even if they were benevolent slave-holders. Laws at that time prohibited freeing of slaves, except under rare circumstances, making this move an attractive option.

When the Quakers left Craven and Carteret Counties in North Carolina, some of their slaves followed them to this land of new-found freedom. Others, especially if they were married to slaves on neighboring plantations, elected to remain behind. In recent conversation, a friend asked me what happened to the slaves of the Howard household. I did not know whether any of the 26 slaves had made it to the Northwest Territory.

Last week, I was working with a letter written in 1807, by Hannah Howard, to Horton when he was away on business. A couple of names in one letter looked familiar: Isaac and “Miner”. I looked back to the estate inventory of Horton’s father and found those same names. These men working for Horton were probably the Isaac and “Minor” listed on that inventory.

It’s challenging to research and write about a slaveholding ancestor – and not a comfortable situation to acknowledge. I’ve not yet found anything, and perhaps never will, to tell us how Horton treated the people who had once been his legal property. In Hannah”s letter we know that Isaac had been too sick to work, and hoped to be well enough on the following day, indicating some degree of autonomy. We don’t know how well he was paid, how long a work day he had or how strenuously he worked.

Perhaps it’s not important to know that much detail. I was glad to learn that Horton provided freedom for at least some of his slaves, and that he and his friends promoted abolition and were involved in other acts of social justice. By the standards of their time, they were progressive.

On our trip to Horton’s part of North Carolina in May, I purchased a book, Blackbeard the Pirate, by Robert E. Lee. He says “it is a common error of mankind to judge the historical figures of a past age by the moral standards of the present. One cannot understand history if one takes men and events out of their moral context and attempts to interpret them by present day values.” Perhaps the actions of men like Horton Howard and his friends provided a starting place that allowed the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of a black president to happen at later dates. I wonder what progress or regression we will continue to see in our lifetimes.


Religious Beliefs – Whose Rights Matter?

I’ve been busy, vacationing and trying to find some order in the mountain of historic facts I’ve accumulated about Horton Howard and his family. I was trying to find the reason for the Core Sound Quakers’ concern about church tax, when I found these words. These are timely words, considering the recent news about the Kentucky County Clerk and her religious beliefs.

“Early American churchmen and churchwomen soon discovered that if they wanted to practice their beliefs unmolested in a diverse society, they had to grant the same right to others. This wisdom did not come easily.”

from: Bonomi, Patricia. “Religious Pluralism in the Middle Colonies.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. 9/1/2015. <>

Working Together on the Hard Stuff

Quakers have kept thorough records of their members and of their meetings. The minutes of their meetings contain language that is stiff by today’s standards. After reading many pages of these minutes I suspect their choice of words was quite deliberate.

I have written before about the purposeful use of loving and affectionate terms of endearment. Recently I am impressed by the word “laboured.” When a member ceased attending meetings, exhibited bad behavior (such as fornication or excessive consumption of liquor) or were reluctant to manumit their slaves, others from the Society of Friends were appointed to labour with the transgressing Friend.

I love this concept. Use of the word “Labour”, with its acknowledgement that changing the attitudes and behaviors of individuals or of a community is hard work, and it’s accompanied by recognition that the support and influence of others in the community can make a difference in effecting that change.

[edited to add: based on reading minutes from 1773 to 1791 of the Perquimans, North Carolina Eastern Quarterly Meeting of the Society of Friends, or Quakers]

Liberal? or Conservative?

I’ve been reading the minutes from late 18th century Monthly Meetings of the Quakers of Carteret & Craven County North Carolina. I like getting a sense of who these people are. They had concerns about the conflict between Great Britain and America, especially wanting to avoid fighting on either side; they were increasingly anti-slavery; and they were very concerned with following their set rules of behavior and morality. I’ve found two instances of  members who were living with and fornication with women outside of marriage. For this Vile and Scandalous behavour, the men were disowned by the Society. This social liberalism is an interesting contrast to the moral conservatism.

Intentionality of Love

I’ve just found, through, original records of Horton Howard’s first marriage, to Anna Mace. The Quaker customs of 1791 were unlike most weddings my readers can remember. The couple had to appear before their congregations (or Meetings) over the course of several times and announce their intention to marry. Elder members of the congregation would interview the couple, and the parents would have to approve. If, after “mature and deliberate consideration” the couple passed these tests, they would go before the congregation to formalize their marriage with simple vows. A certificate of marriage was signed by the couple and by everyone present.

“They, the said Horton Howard and Anna Mace have appeared in a Publick meeting of the said People at their Meeting House on Club Foot Creek in Craven County aforesaid and the said Horton Howard taking the said Anna Mace by the Hand said Friends you are my Witnesses that I take this my friend Anna Mace to be my Wife promising through Divine assistance be unto her a True and Loving Husband until Death separate us, and she the said Anna Mace having him the said Horton Howard by the Hand said, Friends you are my Witnesses that I take this my friend Horton Howard to be my Husband promising through Divine assistance to be unto him a True and Loving Wife until Death separate us or words to that effect.”

I love the brevity and the deliberateness of these vows. Letters written by Horton and other Quakers of the period show that same intention to create loving relationships. Sadly, Anna Mace Howard’s marriage to Horton was not long. She died in March of 1797 – less than 6 years after her marriage. She was preceded in death by her daughter, Ruth who was 16 month old.