"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

04/21/2024     General, Books & Autographs, DC / Mid-Atlantic

NEW YORK, NY --The Fred Rotondaro Collection of Americana offers a group of very rare works spanning three centuries. The collection focuses on efforts to abolish slavery first in England, then in England's North American colonies, and ultimately in the United States. The Federal and Antebellum periods are well represented by landmark works of law and literature. A special subset of materials relates to Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation succeeded in ending slavery in the United States and marked a turning point in the Civil War. The Collection gathers the diverse writings of Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and George Washington Cable as thinkers of the late 19th century grappled with the African American experience and post-Civil War reality. In the 20th century, the Collection explores the Civil Rights movement, again in law and literature, as pivotal Supreme Court decisions are represented alongside illustrated books of the Harlem Renaissance.

One stirring image is emblematic of the Collection. First created in late 18th century England to represent the abolitionist movement there, the famous image of a kneeling and shackled slave with the text "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" is one of the most haunting and thought provoking in history as it has been evoked in all eras. The image was first designed by the potter and entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, who was also an ardent abolitionist and great friend to Thomas Clarkson, the best-known abolitionist of the period. The image appears twice in the Collection: first, in a scarce example of the circa 1834 Wedgwood-designed painted reverse-glass plaque commemorating the abolition of slavery in England's West Indies colonies, here paired with the text "Britannia Set Me Free" (lot 229). This plaque corresponds chronologically with an interesting 1844 Thomas Clarkson autograph letter in the Collection debating the import taxes to be paid from England's recently emancipated West Indian colonies versus the imports of the slave-owning non-English colonies Brazil and Cuba (lot 235).

The second example of Wedgwood's image in the Collection comes in the unusual form of original carved woodblocks used in the printing of the American abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier's famous anti-slavery broadside of 1837 titled "Our Countrymen in Chains" (lot 228). For Whittier's work, the image is paired with the powerful question: "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" This question is at the core of both the English and American abolitionist movements, and its impact is undeniable. As Mr. Rontondaro's collection reaches the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it is germane to note that the motto "Am I Not a Man and Brother?" was stenciled onto signs carried by Detroit Sanitation workers on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This image and its long application help contextualize the Fred Rotondaro Collection and allow us now to explore the Federal, Antebellum and Civil War portion of the Collection.

Many interesting items in the Collection relate to the late colonial and Federal period. While the military and political career of first President George Washington is of endless interest, a late personal directive is one of his most impactful. Executed on July 9th, 1799, just months before his death that December, The Will of General George Washington, is remarkable for the order that all of Washington's slaves be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha. The Will was entered for probate in the Fairfax County Courthouse, where the manuscript remains today, and was first published in pamphlet form in Alexandria, Virginia in 1800. Offered in the Rotondaro Collection is a rare copy of the first printing of this important document (lot 239). Washington writes:

Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom ... And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first & second description shall be comfortably clothed & fed by my heirs while they live...

This act is one of the most important steps towards the abolition of slavery in the United States. We can only surmise what the long-term ramifications of other actions available to Washington at this time could have been.

Abolitionism existed in what became the United States well before the Revolution, and Anthony Benezet is the most important abolitionist in the colonies before 1776. A French-born Huguenot, his family faced persecution and left France for London where they joined the Quakers. Benezet arrived in Philadelphia in 1731 and early on became known for his abolitionist and other radical views for the time. A teacher, by 1750 he was offering classes to black slaves at night. In 1755, Benezet set up the first public girls' school on the American continent. In 1770, he founded the Negro School at Philadelphia and in 1775 he helped found The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage better known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society of which Benjamin Franklin was elected president. A towering figure in this realm before the Revolution, he died in 1784.

Offered is Benezet's vanishingly rare 1766 Philadelphia printed A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies about the "calamitous state" of slavery in British Dominions, including the North American mainland (lot 230). And while Benezet did not live to see his Pennsylvania Abolition Society thrive under the supervision of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine, present in the Collection is the rare 1787 Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society, also printed in Philadelphia (lot 236). This Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia just weeks before the Federal Constitutional Convention in the same city and greatly influenced that important event.

Despite 18th century efforts to abolish slavery, the cruel institution persisted in the United States and the population of enslaved people grew rapidly in the early 19th. In 1831, Nat Turner, a carpenter and preacher born a slave in Virginia in 1800, led a four-day revolt of both enslaved and free Black people which resulted in the death of approximately 60 white men, women and children. A very scarce pamphlet reporting on the events is offered in the Collection and includes a crude woodcut illustration of the events including the search for Turner, who as of the time of the publication had yet to be apprehended (lot 240). The sensationalist reporting of this rebellion stands in contrast to an exceptionally fine set of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the two-volume novel that humanized African Americans and introduced abolitionism to its largest audience in the decade before the Civil War (lot 244). On the international stage, Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America condemned slavery in the United States and maps out various paths for the country post-slavery. Mr. Rotondaro's set bears notes by William Cabell Rives, the U.S. Congressman, Senator, disciple of Thomas Jefferson, and the author of the famous James Madison biography (lot 242).

At the time of the Civil War, the Collection features an important group of works on 16th President Abraham Lincoln. The first Senate printings of Lincoln's first inaugural address, delivered on the eve of secession, is present with his grave warning to the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors" (lot 251). Following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which declared that "all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." The proclamation took effect on January 1st, 1863, when a final version of the text was issued. While early printings of the Emancipation Proclamation are exceptionally rare, present in the Rotondaro Collection is a complete set of the General Orders issued to Union Generals in 1862 and 1863 (lot 252). In the original bindings and heavily annotated, the present set provides remarkable insight into to the day-by-day experience of Union soldiers. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation:

Lincoln wrote therein “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."

The Proclamation was not only an important strategic move in changing tide of the Civil War but one of the most poignant moments in not only American but human history.

Regarding the years following the abolition of slavery, the Collection features works by important writers and thinkers such as Frederick Douglass’ scarce oration delivered at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument (lot 258), Booker T. Washington’s first book (lot 261), and an inscribed copy of social reformist George Washington Cable’s The Negro Question (lot 260). Cable was a close friend of Mark Twain and offered in the Collection is good copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the most enduring of 19th century American novels particularly as they relate to the interpretation of the antebellum United States (lot 259)

As to the 20th century, the most notable item is a complete typed copy of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education opinion ink signed by Chief Justice Earl Warren (lot 263). This decision, which desegregated schools in the United States, is considered the most important legal decision on the path to the Civil Rights Movement. A signed copy of Rosa Park’s My Story illuminates her important contribution to the movement (lot 265). Finally, among illustrated works is the fine Faith Ringgold interpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which features eight color serigraphs of King’s experience (lot 266).

Further selections from the Fred Rotondaro Collection on the Harlem Renaissance will be offered in the Stage & Screen auction on June 20, 2024.

Rare Books, Autographs & Maps

Auction Wednesday, May 1 at 10am
Exhibition April 27 - 29

Featured in the May 1 auction are 47 lots from The Rotondaro Collection.

Peter Costanzo

Peter Costanzo

SVP/Executive Director, Books, Autographs & Photographs / Estate & Appraisal Services