Letters of Note: To My Old Master

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Here's a remarkable letter that was posted yesterday at the very interesting blog Letters of Note.

The letter was written in August of 1865 to Col. P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, by Jourdon Anderson, one of his former slaves. At the time, Jourdon was living in Ohio, where he had gone after gaining his freedom in 1864. Based on the letter, it's pretty clear he was not freed by Col. Anderson, but rather by Union forces, which controlled most of Tennessee by that time. (There are towns called "Big Spring" or "Big Springs" all over Tennessee, so it's hard to say where exactly this was.) Anyway, Col. Anderson had apparently written Jourdon to ask him to come back to work for him on his farm.

That may seem remarkable, but it was not too uncommon for freed slaves to do this, or at least to stay where they were after being freed. Although they were free, many of them unfortunately had no better options. But many went north, including Jourdon. His response to Col. Anderson's letter, according to the 1865 newspaper in which it appeared, was dictated by him but "contains his ideas and forms of expression."

If that's true, he was quite a guy.

The letter starts like this:

Dayton, Ohio

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

This is already a great piece of work. You aren't quite sure at this point how Jourdon feels. He does drop in the comment about Anderson going out of his way to kill a presumably wounded prisoner, and notes that Anderson took two shots at him personally, and yet he still says he's glad Anderson survived. That must be sincere, because he really has no other motive to say it, and that says something about his ability to forgive (at least a little).

The letter (I won't quote more of it, because it's very much worth reading the whole thing) goes on to ask what sort of deal Anderson is offering, and especially what wages he'd be willing to pay. (Funny, Anderson must have left that out of the letter.) Is he serious about going back? Probably not, based on the next paragraph, in which he says he and his family "have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you." Thirty-two years of back pay, he calculates (plus 20 for his wife), would come to $11,680. That's actually more than reasonable — it comes out to just under $170,000 in today's dollars. Anderson would have to add interest, of course, but could deduct what he had paid for their clothing and his three doctor's visits (in 32 years). Again, very reasonable.

Again, the whole letter is definitely worth reading, and has a fantastic closing line that I won't give away.

Letters of Note currently has 661 items posted, including some that are law-related (in case the legal content of the above was not sufficient for you). There's one from the makers of South Park to the MPAA, explaining what they had and had not agreed to cut from the first movie … well, I guess that's not really law-related either, but it is hilarious (but also filthy, be warned).

Okay, how about this one – it's the rejection letter that Harvey Wax got after applying to Princeton Law School in 1957:

Dear Mr. Wax:

In reply to your recent letter, I regret that we must inform you that Princeton University has no Law School.

     Sincerely yours,

     Joseph L. Bolster, Jr.

Despite this apparent evidence that he did not always do his homework, Mr. Wax did later manage to get into Harvard (which does have a law school). He even graduated (in 1967, with distinction) and is still practicing law today.

I will now deliberately avoid any attempt to tie things up here by making some analogy between the practice of law and slavery, which would be ridiculous, and will instead just stop.