I didn’t write this. It’s a by a man named Jordan Anderson, who with one letter achieved more for blistering satire than an entire bookshelf of Hitchens or Vidal. It’s a blast of sarcasm so well-contained it could give you goose bumps. I love it.
It’s a simple setup. Former slave owner Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson returned to his farm after the Civil War and found, like so all the other farmers in the devastated South, that everything was destroyed, his livestock was dead, and his 32 pieces of human “property” had gained independence and made hasty use of it.
The clueless P. H. Anderson, like so many Southern farmers, had no Plan B if he lost the war. Without slaves to make the economy run, the South was a ravaged backwater. All he could think to do was write his former prize slave, Jordan, who had decamped to Ohio.
Jordan received the plea, and he sat down to dictate his response to a friend. This friend, gigglingly named Valentine, instantly recognized the brilliance of the answer—few letters by former slaves to their masters were so slyly chastising—and so he gave a copy of the Cleveland newspaper, which published it. It became a national sensation. I can only imagine what Colonel P. H. Anderson did with the original.
Different versions of the letter bear various spellings of the writer’s name, which at the time was new to pen and ink. Until he was a Freedman, Jordan’s name was never recorded in the slave schedule—just his gender and age. He was about 40 when he wrote this, the prime of his life having been spent in bondage, and his name being both borrowed and new.
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. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy — the folks call her Mrs. Anderson — and the children — Milly, Jane, and Grundy — go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Jordan Anderson spent the second half of his life in Dayton and died in 1907. Today, Big Spring, Tennessee, where he was kept, is a ghost town near Lebanon, southwest of Nashville.
Jordan’s letter is taught in history books. Colonel Anderson had to sell the estate for far less than it was worth just to get out of debt, and died just two years later at age 44.
I love when small, throwaway moments become big history. Did you do something today that might accidentally illuminate an age?