Jesuit Focus on Maintaining Marriage Bonds

Draft posted 20210417

In speculating on the reasons behind the willingness of the clergy at Bohemia Manor to cooperate in these transactions, it is possible that in the early national period they were persuaded that the liberatory rhetoric of the Revolution should have a meaningful impact on their dealings with their enslaved population. But, the gestures at supporting freedom were few and far between and always compensated. A more likely explanation for their cooperative stance in Greenwood and Barnes's plans is that they were persuaded by the imperative to keep spouses together when possible. In subsequent decades, the Jesuits regularly considered transactions that would allow husband and wife to remain together under the conditions of enslavement. As always, those considerations were tempered by financial limitations.

In 1817, Francis Neale engaged in a negotiation to unite an enslaved man named Clem who lived at St. Inigoe's Manor with his wife, who was enslaved by a non-Jesuit. The Jesuits were willing to buy Clem's wife rather than letting the couple remain separated. Mr. Herbert was open to this transaction, unfortunately, his asking price for the woman was too high for the order's current financial situation. Since the outright purchase of the woman was not possible at the moment, Giovanni Grassi proposed a possible exchange. The year before John Ashton, SJ, who had been estranged from the order, had died at St. Thomas's Manor, officially bestowing eleven enslaved people to the Jesuits. In February 1817, those individuals were sent from St. Thomas's Manor to St. Inigoe's. Therefore, Grassi proposed that Mr. Herbert might select a man or a women from that group, "then an exchange could take place for Clem's wife leaving to impartial judges as arbitrators to determine their price etc."1 This kind of negotiation occurred within the framework of slavery, and the possibility of purchase for term or manumission was not raised as an option for either Clem or his wife.

The possibility that a spouse who lived abroad might be sold away brought more urgency to these conversations, but the financial calculous was always present. For example, in January 1826, Francis Neale informed Georgetown College President, Fidor Dzierozynski, SJ, that a family at St. Thomas's Manor was about to be separated, and the only solution he could find to the situation was to sell the enslaved man owned by the Jesuits:

I find it necessary to inform yr. Revce. that this Family must lose her best Negroe hand for labor. The reason is his wife belongs to another person. Her master has ordered her & her children to be sold. I cannot buy her, too much is demanded $500 for her & her three children. They are all girls of which we have 10 or 12 already in our family. I shall be obliged to sell our Man not to separate man & wife. I have spoken to the owner of the wife he says he cannot admit her into his family at Washington he has too many &cc.2

Despite being unable to find a way to unite that particular family at the beginning of 1826, Neale wrote again to Dzierozynski at the end of 1826, proposing another other transaction to maintain a marriage bond:

Ed. Hamilton, who has a servant man married to one of our servant women informed me yesterday that he is determined to part with his man & begs of me to take him, not for any particular fault or for no other reason than because the servt does not wish to live with him. To hinder the separation of man & wife we must do one of these two things, either exchange an other man for him or pay $400. Hamilton tells me this prices is offered.3

Posed with these two options: a monetary transaction or an exchange of human beings, the Jesuits worked to maintain enslaved marriages and families. Yet, the situation was always a bit precarious, given the difficult financial situation that the order constantly faced in the vicious circle of having committed to enslaved labor to farm plantation estates that in turn required resources to run. Yet another letter from Francis Neale to Dzierozyski makes clear the intricate nature of the balance the Jesuits tried to maintain. In late 1828 or 1829 an enslaved man named Steven ran away prior to being sold, and in doing so set off a cascade of financial concerns about other transactions undertaken to keep enslaved families together. Neale explained:

price paid for Steven was intended to cover a debt necessarily incurred to stop the wife ^& children^ of one of our married men from being sent to Georgia or some other place equally distant. She & family consisting of one child & near her time for another were priced at $250, which sum is due me with interest & is now payable. Had I been successfull in my wheat, this & every other debt would have been canceled. When & how I shall be able to pay them God knows.4

Neale's negotiations with the owners of spouses abroad are the clearest evidence of an ongoing commitment to maintaining, as much as possible, coresidential situations for married enslaved people. Significantly, however, this commitment was so central to Neale's thinking, that he was apt to prohibit some marriages based on the chance that the couple would be separated. Ultimately, then, his stance was deeply paternalistic and not grounded in a conviction that enslaved people were fully autonomous human beings who could choose their intimate partners and lasting relationships for themselves.

Marriage and Family in 1838

A commitment to maintaining marital relationships also influenced the conduct of the Jesuits when they committed to sell their enslaved population in the 1830s. Having come to the decision to divest of their enslaved property in Maryland, the leadership of the order undertook a process of seeking authorization for their plans from their Jesuit superiors in Rome. The responses of Jan Roonthaan, SJ then guided, at least to some extent, their approach to finding a buyer and structuring the conditions of the sale.

In authorizing the sale, Roothaan laid out conditions that included locating Catholic buyers, guaranteeing that the enslaved people would have adequate opportunity to exercise their Catholic religion and that families should be kept together:

3. Husbands and wives, parents and children, in no way must be separated, nor, I should say, parents from the children, as much as is possible.
4. If any slave male or female of ours, should have a wife or husband in somebody else’s possession, they ought to be joined together with all effort, otherwise they absolutely should not be sold with the intention of taking them to a far away region.5

For the most part, in transacting the major sale the Maryland Jesuits made an effort to adhere to Roothaan’s demands. In the days after the initial sale to Henry Johnson was executed in November 1838, Thomas Mulledy, SJ, reported, “I have succeeded in getting on board ship all the negroes except those who are married off the farm. Gov. Johnson wished, very prudently, to leave those to see if he could purchase their wives or husbands, as the case may be. We start this week together to visit all the masters."6 Fidel Grivel, SJ, confirmed the results of Mulledy’s effort by May 1839, explaining to Charles Lancaster, SJ that “all our married people who had married out of our farms, have been sold to the masters of their husbands or wifes, or to the next neighbors of them, so that husbands & wives are together, but some children who could not be sold with their mothers, have been sent with the others to Louisiana.”7

  1. On the transfer of Ashton's people to St. Thomas, Grassi letter to Marshall (1817-01-10), CHMC, Box 6, Folder 7, and on the Herbert exchange, Grassi letter to Marshall (1817-02-06) CHMC, Box 6, Folder 7.
  2. Francis Neale letter to Dzierozynski (1825-01-10), MPA, Box 61, Folder 9 and
  3. Francis Neale letter to Dzierozynski (1826-12-10), MPA, Box 61, Folder 1.
  4. Francis Neale letter to Dzierozynski (1829-01-12), MPA, Box 63, Folder 7.
  5. Jan Roothaan letter to William McSherry, SJ (1836-12-27), MPA Box 93, Folder 9 and
  6. Thomas Mulledy, SJ, letter to John McElroy, SJ, (1838-11-11) MPA, Box, Folder 3.
  7. Fidelis Grivel, SJ, to Charles Lancaster, SJ, (1839-05-04) MPA, Box 66, Folder 1.