Friday, December 23, 2011

Chains Shall He Break...

Just over a month ago, I was searching for a family's records in Cumberland County Kentucky when I came across the following entry from Chesterfield County Virginia, dated 1790:

"Know all men by these present that I John Baker of Chesterfield County do believe that all men by nature are Equally free, and from a clear conviction of the Injustice & Criminality of depriving my fellow creatures of their natural rights, do hereby Emancipate or set free the following men, women and children, towit,

Bob & Daniel, December 25th......1790
Grace and Amy(?), December 25th......1790
Barbara......December 25th......1790
Tom, to go out, December 1793
Sally, to go out October 1796
Betty & Polly, to go out December 1802
Oliver, to go out November 1805
Indy, to go out September 1806
Hannah, to go out January 1807
(??), to go out February 1808
Peter, to go out December 1809
Amy, to go out March 1811

      I do hereby relinquish all rights, title, and claim to the said people after they (??) arrive at the dates above mentioned and not before; In certainty whereof I have herewith set my hand and seal this 9th day of June, 1790.
John Baker (seal)"

Without knowing anything about John Baker or the slaves he freed in 1790, I was instantly moved by this lone document hidden among the general deeds of Cumberland County Kentucky. Just reading the strong language used in this document brought some goosebumps and tears. Despite his obvious role as a slave-owner, he eventually felt strongly enough to boldly let this group of slaves go. I am in no way romanticizing his part in this process, but the document itself made me stop and think what freeing slaves might have been like in the late 18th century. In Virginia, slave-holders were the norm. We of course think of Jefferson who resided only a couple of counties over and whose own history of slave ownership is still controversial. In 1790, slavery was a hotly debated subject, but not yet within the realm of unmendable discourse.

I believe my goosebumps moment came from the strength of the language used, coupled with the dates in which he chose to give some of his slaves their freedom. Setting a number of slaves free could have been no small task in 1790, let alone filing such a proclamation with his local county officials, who were more than likely, his slave-holding neighbors. And it is true that he did not free them all at once - keeping some of them for ten more years. In a vulgar consideration, he was also choosing to disregard the cost associated with such an action. We are not accustomed to putting a price or value upon another human being, but they evaluated cost and value everyday - which is another testament to his strong feelings concerning the injustice of slavery. But.....the truly beautiful part of this document is that for the first batch set free, he picked Christmas Day to begin their new life!

He did not construct this document in December, choosing instead to plan ahead, having it drawn up in June of that year. After the document was in place, did he tell them in advance to prepare them for their freedom in December, or did he leave it as a surprise - a gift presented on Christmas Day? In either scenario, what must that first Christmas of freedom have been like for those five men and women? I think it is safe to say the celebration had to have been the most memorable of their lives. It has also occured to me, that perhaps the delay in freedom for the others could have been due to their age at the time. Were they under age? Was he keeping them on the plantation while letting their parents go - a way to keep the parents working while earning a small living - or was it too dangerous to set a large number of slaves free? If the locals were not receptive to such an idea....perhaps he was protecting them in a way?

These were just some of the questions that floated around my brain for awhile. But when I hear that extra verse in "O Holy Night", I will forever remember how important that verse truly is. Our world has not changed all that much since 1790. There are still places where slavery is accepted, and there are various forms of slavery in our own country. Despite what our own neighbors think, and what our pocket-book says, how much would we sacrifice to secure the freedom of another? Those are the questions we must ask ourselves each Christmas. He did not come so we might open tons of gifts, stuff ourselves and throw perfect glittery parties. He came to set all men free. Yes, it is a wonderfully joyous occasion and spending time with those we love is a perfect way to celebrate this amazing eternal gift - as long as we take some time to remember why we celebrate. I know there was some serious dancing going on in that cabin on December 25th, 1790! Let us take a moment and dance, just for Him, in grateful celebration for the freedom He bestowed upon all of us - for we were all slaves until that Holy Night so long ago! Merry Christmas Everyone!

"Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease!"



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