William Wells Brown: Clotel; or, The President's Daughter

Clotel; or, The President's Daughter

by William Wells Brown

Published: 1853

"Clotel; or, The President's Daughter" is considered the first novel published by an African-American author, although it was initially released in Britain with the hopes that the British would be able influence American opinions in favor of abolishing slavery.

The novel explores slavery's destructive effects on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race eople, and the "degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America." Featuring an enslaved mixed-race woman named Currer and her daughters Althesa and Clotel, fathered by Thomas Jefferson, it is considered a tragic mulatto story. The women's relatively comfortable lives end after Jefferson's death. They confront many hardships, with the women taking heroic action to preserve their families.

The book offers a revealing contemporary account of both the horrors and the hypocrisy of the institution of slavery. A slave's status was determined by the mother's status; if she was a slave, and then any of her offsprings were also born into bondage. This book explores the complicated relationships and circumstances that result from these laws; the book's heroine, Clotel, for example, is the offspring of our nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson (the novel was playing on the stories widely reported at the time that Jefferson had fathered children by a slave who was the half-sister of his wife); despite her almost regal heritage, she is still enslaved by virtue of the fact that her mother was a slave.

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