The Magazine

Literary Minority

The quest for a modest immortality may be genetic.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Soon William discovered the recently established public library in Greensborough, and from there his education began in earnest. He read every book he could borrow, and within about two years he became sufficiently literate to teach school and join a debating club called the Polemic Society. In 1823, aged 21, William delivered a speech to this club on the subject of reforming the constitution of North Carolina. In itself, the speech holds little interest. That it was written by a young man who had been illiterate a few years before is astonishing. The speech's arguments are not spectacular, but its diction is sophisticated and its sentences are clear.

"Let us approach the subject, then, at once and with firmness," William concludes. (He thought the legislature should call a convention to amend the constitution.) "Let us give our Constitution that honest investigation which its importance demands; and let us select a convention of delegates from among ourselves, to make such alterations as time, experience, and change of circumstances have shown to be essential to the future happiness and prosperity of the entire State."

A few months later William traveled to Baltimore to take on an apprenticeship with an antislavery paper called the Genius of Universal Emancipation, owned by the antislavery crusader Benjamin Lundy. The North Carolina Swaims were mostly Quakers, and William had been taught to loathe the slave system; his cousin Moses had been president of the Manumission Society of North Carolina, of which he himself had been a member since 1824. Almost immediately William was put in charge of the Genius, as it was called, so complete was Lundy's satisfaction with his work.

When he was forced to return home six months later owing to his father's death, William was approached by the proprietor of a local newspaper called the Patriot with an offer to purchase it. He bought it and, at the age of 27, became (in his own words) "a bona fide member of the fourth estate."

Over the next six years the Greensborough Patriot became a respectable newspaper with genuine intelligence relayed from North Carolina cities and northern newspapers. What made the paper famous, though, was its editor's refusal to avoid subjects many of his readers felt would be better left alone--chief among them slavery. A majority in the South believed slavery should be ended; disagreement arose over how to achieve that end. William saw that a consensus was forming that the subject should be treated with silence in the hope that it would go away.

"We belong not to that outrageously cautious few," he wrote, "who discuss the subject [of slavery], four hours at a heat, and then conclude by saying--'The question is too delicate for discussion!' "

William did not allow the Patriot to become a one-issue paper. He editorialized in favor of statewide public education, feeling as he did (and for understandable reasons, given his biography) that it was folly to let masses of poor farmers raise their children in ignorance. He aligned himself generally with the emerging Whig party and inveighed against Andrew Jackson's successful attempt to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, as well as Jackson's inhumane policies towards Indians and generally high-handed use of executive power.

But William's paper became best known for its editorial stance on slavery--so much so, indeed, that he frequently received threats. Once, a paper returned to his office with the words scrawled around the edges, "Reform your manner, friend, or faith keep your paper and your principles to yourself. Tar and feathers are plenty here, and any man who aims at abolition, under however specious disguise, is entitled to a coat of it .  .  . Look out." William pleaded with his readers time and again not to treat the subject of slavery as unmentionable: "So far as we have been able to understand the laws of the state," he wrote, "it has become an indictable offense to dream on the subject of slavery; and much more so to write or speak on a subject so exceedingly 'delicate.' " When a bill intended to prevent "seditious publications" from inciting insurrection among the black population was debated in the General Assembly, legislators spent an entire day debating whether the Greensborough Patriot would fall afoul of the law. The bill, which passed, made this crime punishable by one year in prison on the first offense; on the second, death "without benefit of clergy."