Rebellion 1840s & 1850s     
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Detail from the Death of Waxehadjo, from The Exiles of Florida
Detail from the Death of Waxehadjo, engraving on the frontispiece of The Exiles of Florida, by Joshua Reed Giddings. Author's collection.
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Exiles offered readers a florid but gripping account of Black Seminole history, and it remains fascinating today as both history and artifact. As artifact, the book captured the melodramatic style of antislavery rhetoric at its mid-century peak. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Giddings was able when necessary to paint with bold strokes, focusing the attention of his readers on their shared humanity with his subjects. Also like Stowe, he kept the narrative flowing. While as an author Giddings made his fair share of direct moral appeals to readers, he cluttered Exiles with less high blown moral rhetoric than most of the antislavery writing of the day. Exiles was in fact more restrained than much of the American historical writing of the period, which tended to combine sectionalist philosophizing with mawkishly rendered Romanticism.

The book was nonetheless a polemic. On evidence that was flimsy or nonexistent, Giddings was quick to project noble antislavery motives to many of the “oppressed” figures in his history. Osceola, he alleged, “hated slavery, and those who practiced the holding of slaves, with a bitterness that is but little understood by those who have never witnessed its revolting crimes.” In fact, history leaves no record of Osceola’s feelings on the subject. In describing his book’s villains—those public figures whose actions thwarted the Black Seminoles—Giddings was more cautious.* Ever the politician, he saw no point in alienating readers with personal attacks on Andrew Jackson or other southern Democrats, preferring instead to let the Black Seminoles’ adversaries speak for themselves through voluminous citations to official documents.

Some of the book’s factual errors stemmed from Giddings’ understandably limited access to information on the maroons, but most resulted from his overt antislavery bias. Like other radical Whigs, Giddings tended to view all extensions of U.S. territory as machinations of the slave power; as a result, he viewed the acquisition of Florida strictly as an effort to capture land and negroes for slavery, without considering the geopolitical imperatives of securing the country’s borders or even more mundane explanations, like the country’s push for economic expansion. Eager to find common cause between oppressed blacks and Indians, he romanticized African-Seminole relations, projecting abolitionist principles where enlightened self-interest, and even greed, held sway. Likewise he neglected to consider the political tensions between blacks and Seminoles. Exiles also contains scores of routine factual mistakes, like Giddings’ assertion that Abraham led the maroons to Mexico, when in fact, there are no reports that he ever joined the exodus.

Despite these shortcomings, the book remains singularly impressive for both its narrative strength and for all the historical facts that its author did get right. Giddings' thorough citations continue to point the way for contemporary scholars; and, while they are often polemical in nature, the citations built a strong case for the book's central argument that the maroons had been dispossessed of their freedom in contravention of the core principles of liberty on which the American republic had been founded. Moreover, if the argument appeared polemical in 1858, it is widely accepted as valid today.

The book was equally singular for taking on the subjects of African-Indian relations and black resistance in a forthright manner. Perhaps its greatest achievement was Giddings' willingness, based on historical fact, to ascribe agency to militant African Americans. This was particularly evident in Giddings’ chronicle of the Second Seminole War, where he energetically described black efforts to fight for liberty. Giddings couched many of his descriptions in terms that connected the Exiles to the ideals of the American Revolution—the proper context, he believed, for understanding their struggles.

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Sources: Giddings Exiles v, 98. ©
*Writing about pro-slavery individuals who were not well known, like the Seminole subagent Marcellus Duval, Giddings did not hesitate to paint melodramatic villains. To his credit he allowed some human complexity to at least one figure in the narrative, General Jesup, who appeared as initially sinister but ultimately noble—a depiction in keeping with the historical roles Jesup played vis-à-vis the Black Seminoles.
Part 4, Freedom: Outline  l Images
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 Trail Narrative
 + Prologue
 + Background: 1693-1812
 + Early Years: 1812-1832
 + War: 1832-1838
 + Exile: 1838-1850
 - Freedom: 1850-1882
+ Cost of Freedom
+ Liberty Foretold
spacer spacer Renown in Exile
The War Power
Lincoln's Choice
Black Militants
+ Liberty Found
 + Legacy & Conclusion


Giddings and the Black Abolitionists

Atlantic Monthly review of Exiles, September 1858

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More on the book’s style, bias, and vision

The Exiles of Florida, complete digital text

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