John H. Wheeler
Early life and education
John Hill Wheeler was born in 1806 in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, where his family were planters. Wheeler earned a bachelor's degree at Columbian College (now George Washington University). He read law under John Louis Taylor and was admitted to the bar in 1827. The following year he continued his studies and received a master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Wheeler was first elected to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1827, from Hertford County at age 21, and served four years. Years later he was elected to the House again, but from Lincoln County. He gained a patronage position under President Andrew Jackson, who appointed Wheeler as superintendent of the federal mint in Charlotte, North Carolina (1837-1841).
In 1842, Wheeler was elected state treasurer by the North Carolina General Assembly, but he was defeated for re-election in 1844.
Wheeler moved to Washington, DC about 1853 to be more active in national politics. President Franklin Pierce appointed him as an assistant secretary in 1854. Shortly thereafter Wheeler was appointed as US Minister to Nicaragua. There, he officially recognized the government of William Walker, an American adventurer who had invaded the country with a small force, intending to take it over.
After returning to North Carolina, Wheeler served in a variety of minor federal government patronage posts.
Wheeler read widely and had a large library, containing works by prominent English writers, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and others. His library has been studied in the 21st century for evidence of what a literate slave might have read there, as a woman who escaped from his plantation about 1857 later wrote a novel that included many quotes from these authors.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African-American literature and history, who studied the 1882 catalogue of Wheeler's library, has written that he was surprised to find so many slave narratives, including works by poet Phillis Wheatley and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
"It turns out that Wheeler's library included a large section of works devoted to slavery, including works by fugitive slaves themselves. Few libraries in the United States before 1860 would have included more works by African-American authors than Wheeler's. A partial listing includes Wheatley's Memoir and Poems; Martin R. Delany's Official Report of the Niger River Valley Exploring Party; The Life of Noah Davis, a Colored Man; The Refugee, or Narrative of Fugitive Slaves in Canada; Narrative of the Suffering of Lewis and Milton Clarke; Austin Steward's Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom and Narrative of a Life."
"In addition, Wheeler's library contained several significant abolitionist texts by white authors, like Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman and Lydia Maria Child's Freedman's Book, alongside racist texts like Negrophobia 'On the Brain' in White Men, by J. R. Hayes, and John Campbell's Negromania, the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Man. (As we might expect, Wheeler's library contained a much larger section of these sorts of books than antislavery ones.) It was as if he read the works of fugitive slaves to study the mind of the enemy, perhaps better to master and control his slaves, and to prevent them from escaping."
In his own work, Wheeler wrote or edited several books on North Carolina state history and its prominent white men, which are listed below.
- Historical Sketches of North Carolina, from 1584 to 1851
- The Narrative of Colonel David Fanning
- Legislative Manual and Political Register of the State of North Carolina for the Year 1874
- Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians (published posthumously)
Wheeler had at least two slaves evade his control and gain freedom: Jane Johnson left with her two sons in July 1955, while traveling with Wheeler and his family in Philadelphia, on the way to his posting in Nicaragua. Pennsylvania considered slaves to be free who were brought to the state voluntarily by their masters. Johnson was aided by local members of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. At the time, one of Wheeler’s home state papers, the Fayetteville Observer, wrote: "No man who carries his Negroes into a Free State is deserving of any sympathy in his loss. He invites it, with an assurance that the invitation will be accepted." The case attracted national attention after a white abolitionist, Passmore Williamson, was jailed for contempt of court.
The next month, local and state officials protected Johnson after she testified in court against Wheeler in his prosecution of assault charges of six African American men. (Four, including William Still, chairman of the Vigilance Committee, were acquitted and two had charges reduced and minor sentences.)
Hannah Bond, a literate slave who served Wheeler's wife Ellen as a lady's maid, escaped about 1857 from their North Carolina plantation. She reached New York State and settled in New Jersey. She wrote The Bondwoman's Narrative, under the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. The manuscript was rediscovered in 2001 and published for the first time in 2002; it is believed to be the first novel by an African-American woman, and certainly the first by a fugitive slave. The novel became a bestseller.
Charles L. Hinton
|North Carolina State Treasurer
Charles L. Hinton
|United States Minister to Nicaragua
April 7, 1855 - October 23, 1856
Mirabeau B. Lamar
- Henry Louis Gates Jr., "ESSAY; Borrowing Privileges", New York Times, 2 June 2002, accessed 5 March 2014
- "The Liberation of Jane Johnson", One Book, One Philadelphia, story behind The Price of a Child, The Library Company of Philadelphia, accessed 2 March 2014
- Bosman, Julie (18 September 2013). "Professor Says He Has Solved a Mystery Over a Slave’s Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
- "John Hill Wheeler", Dictionary of North Carolina Biography
- John H. Wheeler, Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians, text available online at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina