John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman

This remarkable work honors those who fought for their own freedom, but acknowledges that the struggle goes on.

John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman, 1863, bronze, 19 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth). Speakers: Erin Long, Lead Gallery Teacher, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Beth Harris

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] We’re in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, looking at a very important sculpture, John Quincy Adams Ward’s “The Freedman,” exhibited in 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War.

Erin Long: [0:19] What we see is an African American male, seated on what looks like a tree stump, and he is seated in a coiled position, with his left leg outstretched and his right leg tucked up against the stump, leaning forward.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] By coiled, you mean that his torso is moving in the opposite direction of his legs, so there’s a torsion in his body that immediately gives the figure a sense of movement and energy.

Erin: [0:49] He looks as if he could pop up any moment, or sink down at any moment.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] The title tells us what we’re looking at. We’re looking at an African American man, a slave, who has been freed. It was just in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln warned that he was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st of 1863 that would free all the slaves in those states that were still in rebellion against the Union.

Erin: [1:19] We often look at this as a direct response to the Emancipation Proclamation. On the figure’s left wrist we have an attached, enclosed manacle with a link dangling. In the right hand, clutched in the fist, the other unattached manacle hanging from his hand. There’s an implication that this person is the author of his own freedom and also that that freedom is not complete.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] Although we’re not seeing him actually breaking these chains of slavery, there is certainly the implication, the sense of strength in this figure, that he could have done that. And the way that he’s holding one and still bound with the other gives us that sense of someone in between freedom and slavery.

[2:08] Certainly, we know that there were many slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation who were making their way to Union lines, to freedom.

Erin: [2:12] If you look at the facial expression, the knit brow and the focused gaze, it looks as though he has a sense of his purpose and his direction. Ward has been so specific about the details of the face, the facial hair. This is not a very young man, this is someone with experience.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] We know that Ward likely modeled this from life. While we may be used to seeing sculptural images of African Americans, this was something that was incredibly rare in the mid-19th century.

Erin: [2:45] This is groundbreaking in its focus on a single African American figure not in a position of subjugation.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] This is freedom that he has taken into his own hands. So many images of slavery that we see coming out of the abolitionist movement — the movement to abolish slavery — show slaves in this position of subjugation, pleading for sympathy, and even images after the Civil War show African Americans being granted their freedom, often by President Lincoln.

[3:20] This idea is very self-congratulatory to white politicians and puts the power in their hands and not the power in African Americans’, who did so much to fight for their freedom.

Erin: [3:32] We also have on the dangling manacle a reference to the Massachusetts 54th, an all-African American unit in the Union Army who led an assault on Fort Wagner under the command of Robert Gould Shaw, and many many of those soldiers died in the cause.

[3:54] Ward is looking in this particular cast of the sculpture at the soldiers as important members of the Union army and as potential citizens.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Freedom is very much a long struggle for these rights of education, citizenship, and Ward captures that idea of process, not of something complete and finished.

Erin: [4:10] Many people see when they look at this sculpture that frustration with the speed of that process. With one manacle still firmly attached, we can’t help but think that the freedom is slow in coming and that Ward might be frustrated with this pace.

[4:29] We know that Henry Kirke Brown, who was the teacher of John Quincy Adams Ward, and Ward himself were both sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] If we see him as a fugitive slave or a slave on the path to freedom in some way, nudity doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Erin: [4:42] These aren’t practical travel clothes. The emphasis is on this perfect human body, this beautiful human body, and we know that Ward and his contemporary sculptors are all looking back to the classical era for their inspiration.

Dr. Harris: [4:55] This combination of the real, which we see in his features, in the expression, in the manacles, but also elevating him by recalling this tradition of ancient Greek sculpture, making him seem noble and heroic.

Erin: [5:11] And perhaps demanding his humanity.

Dr. Harris: [5:20] It’s so interesting to me that as his body moves forward, he also looks back. So again that sense of the past and the future here. What’s so special about this casting is that it has a key.

Erin: [5:29] The most exciting thing and the most intriguing thing often to people about this sculpture is the brass key. We could use that to pop open the manacle, which seems a great amount of detail to include if he wasn’t focused on that idea of freedom, and unlocking some sort of role, or future, for emancipated slaves in the American Union.

Dr. Harris: [5:49] It’s interesting to think about Ward’s own words about his intentions for this sculpture. He wrote, “I intended it to express not one set free by any proclamation, so much as by his own love of freedom, and a conscious power to break things. The struggle is not over with him, yet I have tried to express a degree of hope in his undertaking.”

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Key points

  • Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 made clear the Union’s intention to abolish slavery. However, it only freed slaves in states still in open rebellion against the Union. Slavery was not formally abolished in the United States until 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified.
  • The Freedman directly responds to the Emancipation Proclamation and may reflect Ward’s frustration at the slow progress of slavery’s abolition. The figure appears to have broken off one manacle, but the other still binds him, reinforcing the notion that he is not yet completely free.
  • Ward’s sculpture depicts an African-American man in charge of his own freedom. This depiction departs from typical Abolitionist-era images that typically showed slaves pleading for sympathy. Ward elevates his subject by building on the ideal of heroic male nudity in Greek art, but he also includes realistic details that suggest the man’s age, experience, and character.
  • In this version of the sculpture, Ward inscribes the dangling manacle with a reference to the Massachusetts 54th, the first African-American regiment in the Union Army. This reference underscores African-Americans’ willingness to fight, and die, for their freedom.

Ward’s Freedman imagines the agent of emancipation to be the man himself. The Freedman eliminates the figure of Lincoln, focusing instead on the powerfully modeled slave. Entirely nude except for drapery across his loins, he still wears one manacle on his left wrist. His torso twists to the right, where his arm anchors the torque of his body in a pose that conveys coiled strength. His seated posture implies a further ambiguity—is he resting his weight upon the tree trunk that props his body up, or is he preparing to stand? The tension of his pose suggests an open-ended future no longer dictated by external forces but by the internal poise and dynamic power of the man himself.

The Freedman speaks a sculptural language that originates in antiquity. The classical canon of proportion, the athleticism of idealized male form, and the graceful torsion of head and body, are all apparent in Ward’s freedman. Unusually for this period, Ward uses a heroic model from antiquity—the Hellenistic Belvedere Torso, which linked physical perfection with moral grandeur—to represent a racial type that had been ordinarily associated with grotesque exaggeration and ungainly proportions. Conveying physical power and individualized features, Ward’s Freedman holds the promise of fuller human endowments and responsibilities.

The Freedman reflects the uncertainties of the future. This black American frees himself through his own efforts. Yet he cannot act alone. A decade of federally enforced efforts to establish a new order of equality collapsed in 1877, foreclosing for the time being the unrealized promise of racial justice.

From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 284. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


Discussion questions

Think about other types of images that ask for our sympathy for political or social causes today. How do these images portray their subjects? Are they depicted in positions or power or passivity? What effects do these depictions have on us as viewers?

Cite this page as: Erin Long, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman," in Smarthistory, January 21, 2018, accessed June 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ward-freedman/.