William Wells Brown, “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States,” 1853

William Wells Brown, “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States,” 1853

First published in London, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853) by William Wells Brown is considered the first novel by an African-American. Brown was born in slavery in Kentucky and escaped to freedom at the age of 20. Opening with the auction of Currer, the supposed mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. Jefferson indeed had a sexual relationship with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemmings, but this story does more to expose the horrifying realities of life under slavery than explain the particular experiences of Sally Hemmings and her children.  

…the following advertisement appeared in a newspaper published in Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia:–“Notice: Thirty-eight negroes will be offered for sale on Monday, November 10th, at twelve o’clock, being the entire stock of the late John Graves, Esq. The negroes are in good condition, some of them very prime; among them are several mechanics, able-bodied field hands, plough-boys, and women with children at the breast, and some of them very prolific in their generating qualities, affording a rare opportunity to any one who wishes to raise a strong and healthy lot of servants for their own use. Also several mulatto girls of rare personal qualities: two of them very superior.”

… Amongst the above slaves to be sold were Currer and her two daughters, Clotel and Althesa; the latter were the girls spoken of in the advertisement as “very superior.” … In her younger days Currer had been the housekeeper of a young slaveholder;… The gentleman for whom she had kept house was Thomas Jefferson, by whom she had two daughters…. Currer early resolved to bring her daughters up as ladies, as she termed it, and therefore imposed little or no work upon them. As her daughters grew older, Currer had to pay a stipulated price for them; yet her notoriety as a laundress of the first class enabled her to put an extra price upon her charges, and thus she and her daughters lived in comparative luxury. To bring up Clotel and Althesa to attract attention, and especially at balls and parties, was the great aim of Currer. Although the term “negro ball” is applied to most of these gatherings, yet a majority of the attendants are often whites…

As might have been expected, the day of sale brought an unusual large number together to compete for the property to be sold. Farmers who make a business of raising slaves for the market were there; slave-traders and speculators were also numerously represented; … The less valuable slaves were first placed upon the auction block, one after another, and sold to the highest bidder. Husbands and wives were separated with a degree of indifference that is unknown in any other relation of life, except that of slavery. Brothers and sisters were torn from each other; and mothers saw their children leave them for the last time on this earth.

It was late in the day, when the greatest number of persons were thought to be present, that Currer and her daughters were brought forward to the place of sale. Currer was first ordered to ascend the auction stand… The slave mother was sold to a trader. Althesa, the youngest… was sold to the same trader for one thousand dollars. Clotel was the last, and, as was expected, commanded a higher price than any that had been offered for sale that day. The appearance of Clotel on the auction block created a deep sensation amongst the crowd. There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful…. The auctioneer commenced by saying, that “Miss Clotel had been reserved for the last, because she was the most valuable. How much gentlemen? Real Albino, fit for a fancy girl for any one. She enjoys good health, and has a sweet temper. How much do you say?” “Five hundred dollars.” “Only five hundred for such a girl as this? Gentlemen, she is worth a deal more than that sum; you certainly don’t know the value of the article you are bidding upon. Here, gentlemen, I hold in my hand a paper certifying that she has a good moral character.” “Seven hundred.” “Ah, gentlemen, that is something like. This paper also states that she is very intelligent.” “Eight hundred.” “She is a devoted Christian, and perfectly trustworthy.” “Nine hundred.” “Nine fifty.” “Ten.” “Eleven.” “Twelve hundred.” Here the sale came to a dead stand. The auctioneer stopped, looked around, and began in a rough manner to relate some anecdotes relative to the sale of slaves… “The chastity of this girl is pure; she has never been from under her mother’s care, she is a virtuous creature.” “Thirteen.” “Fourteen.” “Fifteen.” “Fifteen hundred dollars,” cried the auctioneer… This was a Southern auction, at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold…

What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.

Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars…. Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! 

William Wells Brown, Clotel: Or the Presidents Daughter ; a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (London: Partridge & Oakey, 1853). 

Available through Documenting the American South from the University of North Carolina.