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A Sweet Assault on Slavery

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It may be Madness for everyone else, but the arrival of March in Vermont means one thing: it's Maple Sugar Time. As both the temperatures and sap rise, you see the web of sap lines descending from the woods to galvanized vats beside the roads, as dense clouds of wood smoke billow from sugar houses, large and small. One of my favorite sugaring spots is the Merck Forest, near my home in Vermont, where they celebrate Sugaring Season on March 19 and 20, 2011.

But this year, as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, the maple sugar season has a different meaning. Some 70 years before the war began on April 12, 1861, people had looked to maple sugar both as a political and economic weapon against slavery. The idea was simple: replace cane sugar, produced by slave labor, with maple sugar and it would be a blow to the slave system.

One of the first to advocate the idea was Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration and an early voice of abolition in America. With the Quakers of Philadelphia, Rush proposed using maple sugar as a means of hastening the end of slavery by replacing one of the key products produced by slave labor. (Rush also opposed the death penalty, was a proponent of public education, and advocated for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.)

In 1788 Rush had published an essay on the "Advantages of the Culture of the Sugar Maple Tree" in a Philadelphia monthly. In 1789 he had founded, with a group of Philadelphia Quakers, the Society for Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree. He had even staged a scientific tea party to prove the potency of maple sugar. The guests -- Alexander Hamilton, Quaker merchant Henry Drinker, and "several Ladies" -- sipped cups of hyson tea, sweetened with equal amounts of cane and maple sugar. All agreed the sugar from the maple was as sweet as cane sugar. (Source: The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia)

Their aim was simple, as Rush's 1788 essay put it: "to lessen or destroy the consumption of West Indian sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy negro slavery."

Dr. Rush found an enthusiastic disciple in Thomas Jefferson, who explored the concept of an American maple sugar industry during a journey to Vermont and even attempted --unsuccessfully, it would turn out -- to import sugar maple trees to Monticello.

Jefferson and other conscientious consumers could now "put sugar in [their] coffee without being saddened by the thought of all the toil, sweat, tears, suffering and crimes that have hitherto been necessary to procure this product." (Source: The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia)

Jefferson, Dr. Rush and other Abolitionists were ultimately disappointed, as the maple sugar idea failed to gain a foothold and speculation in maple forests actually created a "maple bubble" that burst before this "sugar substitute" could prove itself an economic weapon against slavery.

But well into the 19th century, Abolitionists continued to pursue the cause of maple sugar. The American artist Eastman Johnson attempted to make maple syrup a political statement through a collection of works showing that the sugaring process was not only a part of New England's social fabric but a way to strike a blow for freedom.

This failed effort to make what we buy and eat a political act may have been a quixotic disappointment. But the thought of putting maple syrup and sugar to use in a noble cause only makes them taste a little sweeter.

And the fundamental idea that taking care in what what we purchase and consume can make a difference is still a valuable principle.

You can read more about Abolition and the Civil War in my book "Don't Know Much About the Civil War."

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