What do Ain’t I a Woman and Address to the People of the Free States by the President of the Southern Confederacy tell us about the divisions between people in United States during the 1860s?
The 1860s were a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. Public discourse and debate centered on the economic, cultural and political divisions between the northern and southern states of the union. The two speeches in question were delivered in the context of an impending military implosion between the two sides. The speech titled Ain’t I a Woman was spontaneously delivered by Sojourner Truth – a slave woman from New York State – on 29th May, 1851. She makes a passionate appeal in her speech towards all Americans, to make a case for racial and gender equality for all black women. She implores the audience to think about the privileges and comforts enjoyed by white women and men that are not extended for blacks. When the speech got wider recognition during the Civil War, it caught the imagination of the general public and has since remained a classic piece of oratory. The rhetorical devices used by Sojourner Truth illustrate the condition of blacks in the country. By using poetic language, her oration captures the essence of inequalities beween the sexes and the races that existed during the Civil War. For example,
“I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.” (Truth, 1851)
In contrast, the speech by Jefferson Davis titled ‘Address to the People of the Free States’ was given in his capacity as the President of the Southern Confederacy on 5th January, 1863. In this speech, he condemns some of the decisions taken by Northern leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, for seeking the co-operation of blacks as well as promising them freedom if the campaign succeeds. As a counter response to Lincoln’s generous promises, Davis showed some reactionary tendencies as he relegated free blacks in the South to slave-hood again. He also declared that any black Union soldiers captured during the course of the war would be imposed chattel status as would any black American taken prisoner. His address was full of vitriol and spite as he went as far as to praise the virtues of a slave society. He justified this assessment by claiming that blacks are an inferior race and their proper role in American society is to serve the interests of the white man. The terrifying tone of the address perhaps indicates desperation in the Confederates’ cause, as they suffered critical defeats at the time this speech was delivered.
What Jefferson Davis’ speech undeniably reinforces is the deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination against African Americans. Sojourner Truth’s speech, on the other hand, is an effort to bring emancipation for blacks, especially women. Hence, the two speeches in discussion present opposing viewpoints on what the status of blacks should be. Both of them also represent the two camps in American politics during the time of the Civil War – those who are in support of granting blacks their freedom and those who are opposed to it.
Jefferson Davis (President of the Southern Confederacy), An Address to the People of the Free States, delivered on 5th January, 1863, retrieved from
Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a Woman?, delivered 29th May, 1851, retrieved from
Grace Hong’s essay titled ‘The Possessive Individual and Social Death: The Complex Bind of National Subjectivity’ offers numerous insights into historical social constructs. Focusing on the evolution of American history since the time of the Declaration of Independence, the author charts a cogent description of how the socio-polity resisted progressive changes. The book is focused on women of color feminism and the culture of immigrant labor. But prior to arriving at their specific discourse, a broader framework of understanding is laid out. Hereby, two important terms are introduced by the author.
Possessive individual traces its origins to the framing of the constitution, whereby, only the propertied white males of the new country were accorded citizenship. Not only were blacks (who were slaves at the time) were excluded, but so were women and a large section of white male population. The privileged minority of propertied white men enjoyed laws that .