Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave and American Abolitionism
Dr. Margaret Malamud
As the nation embraced democracy over the course of the 1820s and during Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829-37), Americans increasingly felt a special affinity with Greece as the cradle of democracy. Aesthetically, Americans viewed Greek antiquity as the source of great cultural achievements, and Greek art and literature set the ideal standards of beauty and excellence by which later artistic endeavors were measured. In contrast to the tumult and rapid industrialism of American society in the antebellum era, Greek antiquity was idealized as the home of beauty and culture, of all that was noble and timeless.
The elevation of Athens as the birthplace of democracy and Greece as the home of true beauty and art occurred during the Greek War for Independence against Ottoman rule (1821-1832), a struggle that had inspired some Americans and a number of Europeans to fight on the side of Greece. Sympathy for modern Greece ran high in Europe and in America where money was solicited in cities and villages in large public meetings convened to raise funds for the revolutionaries. Diplomate Edward Everett and politician Daniel Webster’s passionate speeches in support of the Greek Revolution, with their descriptions of the 1822 Ottoman massacre of Greek men and subsequent enslavement of women and children at Scio (modern Chios) were widely read and frequently quoted. Mordecai Noah’s popular play, The Grecian Captive; or, The Fall of Athens (1822) deployed the motif of enslaved Christian women and added the titillation of the threat of sexual defilement by the infidel Turk. The beautiful and plucky heroine preserves her virginity and her Christian purity by repelling the lascivious advances of her Muslim owner. At the end of the play, she and her fellow Greeks are rescued and freed by the crew from an American frigate. Across the nation Americans identified with the Greek fight against Ottoman tyranny, which they deemed analogous to their own revolutionary rebellion against British oppression. Modern Greece, the home of the glories of classical Greek civilization and the contemporary battleground between liberty and tyranny, must be defended.
Abolitionists swiftly exposed the hypocrisy of supporting the Greek struggle for liberty against the Ottomans while simultaneously supporting African American slavery in the United States. Turning the tables on white slaveholders’ sympathies for Greeks suffering under the Ottoman Turks, black abolitionist David Walker acerbically remarked “I saw a paragraph…speaking of the barbarity of the Turks [which] said: ‘The Turks are the most barbarous people in the world—they treat the Greeks more like brutes than human beings.’ And in the same paper was an advertisement, which said: ‘Eight well-built Virginia and Maryland Negro fellows and four wenches will positively be sold to the highest bidder.’…I declare, it is really so amusing to hear the Southerners…talk about barbarity.” Walker exposed and condemned the hypocrisy of protesting the Ottoman political oppression of the Greeks and the sale of Greek women and children into slavery while ignoring the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South.
Similar criticism of racism and hypocrisy were leveled at the ecstatic reception of one of the most famous statues of the nineteenth century: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave (1844). Powers’ statue is loosely based on the classical statues Aphrodite of Knidos created by Praxiteles and the Medici Venus. It portrays a nude young Greek woman captured by the Turks during the Greek War for Independence and put on the auction block in a slave market. Cruel and lusty Turks have stripped off her clothes, clapped her in chains, and put her up for sale. A cross on her taken clothing informs viewers of her sustaining Christian faith. The beautiful, chaste Greek maiden retains her purity and innocence despite her chains; the infidel Turk cannot defile her. The statue was displayed in a host of cities across the United States between 1847-1851 attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators. Powers made six copies of the Greek Slave and it was reproduced in multiple copies in a scaled-down model in Parian ware for purchase to display in homes. The statue was a sensation across the nation.
Powers’ Greek Slave and the rapturous responses to it by viewers caused an uproar in the abolitionist press. Acknowledging the “semi-angelic countenance” of the statue, one contributor to Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper wrote with bitter sarcasm,
- We pity and love the poor outraged Greek slave-girl…Oh! How heart and brain burn with hatred of the cruel Turk who does thus violate the sacred rites of human nature; and place his own diabolical self between God and his creature. And to the feeling heart and discerning eye, ALL SLAVE GIRLS ARE GREEK AND ALL SLAVE MONGERS TURKS, wicked cruel and hateful; be their names Hasan, Selim, James or Henry.
The editorial indicted viewers of Powers’ statue who will not acknowledge the racism of sympathizing with the plight of a white female slave while ignoring the plight of black female slaves. White slaveholders who sexually abuse their female slaves in the American South are as despicable as the Ottoman Turks; there is no difference between a white slave owner who violates a young black slave woman and a Turk who does the same to a white one. “When shall painting and sculpture do what they ought for the American slave,” asked one writer rhetorically in the Liberator, “whose chains now clank in our ears, whose blood moistens our soil, whose cry constantly ascends to heaven for deliverance?” While looking at the statue, another author wrote, “Waste not your sympathies on the senseless marble, but reserve some tears for the helpless humanity which lies quivering beneath the lash of American freemen!” Black women in the South experienced the fictional fate threatening the white marble Greek slave as a daily reality. Not only were young female slaves whipped by their “American freemen” owners, they were frequently raped by the same masters.
While living in England, William Wells Brown, accompanied by two other former slaves, William and Ellen Craft, and several English abolitionists, went to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in June 1851, both to view the Exhibition and to make an anti-slavery intervention on behalf of American female black slaves. The English abolitionists interlocked arms with the former slaves and two-by-two the group of sixteen strolled through the Exhibition. Brown later wrote that he received “jeering” looks from pro-slavery Virginians visiting the Exhibition who were outraged that Brown walked arm-in-arm with a white woman. The destination of the group was the American department where Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave was on display about which Brown commented “it would have more to their credit had they kept that at home.”
Brown had seen the John Tenniel cartoon in Punch magazine, The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Power’s ‘Greek Slave] The illustration is of a partially clothed black slave-woman whose expression is of despair. Her pose parodies that of Powers’ naked Greek; the conventions of Punch allowed neither legs nor pudenda, whereby the enlarged breasts are the more startling. The juxtaposition of a post with a woman whose dress is pulled down suggests the familiar scene of flogging, and this meaning is underscored by the pedestal itself: An American flag and the inscription E Pluribus Unum on the pedestal make it explicit that this is an American slave, not a Greek one; the chains festooning the pedestal, and the crossed cat-o’-nine-tails whip that adorn it.
The Punch cartoon exposed the racism that allowed Americans to sympathize with an imaginary white female slave but to refuse to acknowledge the pain and horrific conditions of the suffering black chattel female slave. In full agreement with these sentiments, Brown placed a copy of the Punch illustration beside Powers’ sculpture and announced to the crowd viewing the sculpture, “As an American fugitive slave, I place this Virginia Slave by the side of the Greek Slave, as its most fitting companion.” The abolitionist performance turned the American exhibition from a proud self-statement of artistry and democracy to a bold critique of America and its slave system.
Frederick Douglass never wrote about Powers’ Greek Slave but his newspaper published scathing editorials about it. Given the widespread abolitionist scorn for Powers’ statue it can come as a surprise to see a 19-inch replica of it in the Washington D.C. home of Frederick Douglass. Why might the most famous abolitionist of the nineteenth century have purchased a replica of the infamous statue to display in his home?
Nearly all of the scholarship on Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave has focused on the five statues he completed before the Civil War. When Powers’ was asked about the inspiration for them he consistently pointed to atrocities committed by the Turks on the Greeks during the Greek Revolution. The creator of the first 5 statues was not a supporter of abolition of American slavery nor did he intend an abolitionist reading of his statue. But Powers created one more version of his Greek Slave, his sixth, in 1866; and it has a significantly different detail. Powers replaced what he called the “ornamental” chains on the Greek slave with manacles on the sixth statue. As Vivian Green Fryd has pointed out, in an 1869 letter he wrote that he considered that manacles better represented American slavery, while chains were “simply an emblem of despotism or tyranny.”
Fryd persuasively argues that Powers’ views on abolition and American slavery evolved over the course of the 1850s with the passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which allowed for the expansion of slavery in western states. In an 1854 letter Powers wrote: “I have become very spunky on the subject of slavery extension, although until the Nebraska bill passed, I was dead set against the rabid abolitionists—but now that a step has been taken to extend it over more territory I think it high time to oppose it tooth and nail everywhere.” Thus, for his final version of the Greek Slave he decided to make a political statement criticizing not just Ottoman enslavement of Greeks but also American slavery.
A careful look at the replica of the Greek Slave in Frederick Douglass’ home reveals that it was a replica of the sixth manacled slave that he purchased; he chose to own the version of The Greek Slave that was explicit in its reference to slavery in America. Although Powers waited until after the Civil War to make his new views known, nevertheless, Douglass must have welcomed the evolution of Powers’ views on the evils of American slavery and the change he made to his famous statue.
Anonymous. “Greek Slave.” North Star, October 3, 1850.
Anonymous. “The Sanctification of Art.” Liberator, October 1, 1847.
Anonymous. “Correspondence of the Era.” The National Era, September 2, 1847.
Brown, William Wells. Sketches of Places and People Abroad: The American Fugitive in Europe. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1855.
Everett, Edward. Address of the Committee Appointed at A Public Meeting Held in Boston December 19, 1823, for the Relief of the Greeks. Boston: Press of the North American Review, 1823.
Farmer, William. “Fugitive Slaves at the Great Exhibition.” Liberator, July 18, 1851.
Fryd, Vivian Green. “Reflections on Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave.” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 15, no. 2 (Summer 2016). Http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/summer16/fryd-on-reflections-on-hiram-powers-greek-slave
Mordecai, Noah. The Grecian Captive; or, The Fall of Athens. New York: E. M. Murden, 1822.
Tenniel, John. “The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Power’s (sic) ‘Greek Slave’.” Punch, June 7, 1851.
Walker, David and Peter P. Pinks, eds. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000.
Webster, Daniel. Mr. Webster’s Speech on the Greek Revolution. Washington City: John S. Meehan, 1824.
Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.