Skip to main content
The Collation

Macbeth and the End of Slavery in the United States

What can Shakespeare say about the original sin of the United States, slavery? As two artists in the Civil War era thought, a lot.

Two cartoons in the Folger’s collections, drawn around a decade apart, allude to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to comment on slavery and its place in U.S. society and politics. Through these cartoons we see the sea change that happened within that short span of time.

David Johnston’s “A pro slavery incantation scene. Or Shakespeare improved”, Folger call number: ART File S528m1 no.86.

David Claypoole Johnston’s A pro slavery incantation scene. Or Shakespeare improved, drawn around 1856 or 1857, depicts several politicians around a cauldron, evoking the witches in Macbeth. Johnston alludes to several of the events and politicians that pushed what seemed a tough-to-stop march of slavery in the 1850s. From left, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas expresses joy at how his Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for white men in territories to decide whether to allow slavery, had led to great bloodshed. James Buchanan, who defeated the moderately anti-slavery Republican John C. Fremont in the 1856 presidential election, refers to his endorsement of the pro-slavery constitutions in Kansas, where pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers set up rival territorial governments.

Another politician refers to the Ostend Manifesto, a plan in 1854 advocating for the United States to acquire Cuba, then a Spanish colony, and divide it into several states–giving pro-slavery forces more seats in Congress, where they were increasingly at a disadvantage numerically by the 1850s (due to booming populations in free states). Others celebrate when South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856.

By the time Johnston drew this in the late 1850s, it was far from clear that the United States would ban enslavement (except as a punishment for crime) by 1865. Abraham Lincoln, when running for the U.S. Senate against Douglas in 1858, warned that the country could not continue being divided on slavery. As numerous historians have written about, forces promoting slavery appeared on the march, as if they had sinister forces, like those that could be conjured only through witchcraft, on their side. Northern Democrats like Douglas and Buchanan allied themselves with the so-called Slave Power—white Southern politicians who, by the 1850s, didn’t just seek to protect the system of slavery where it existed but expand it into new territories like Kansas, Nebraska, and even Cuba, and, potentially, nationally. Pro-slavey politicians were in firm control of the U.S. government and seemed as if they could do what they pleased.1 Their loss of power after Lincoln’s election in 1860 drove secession and, by early 1861, the outbreak of Civil War.

Like during most revolutions, events moved quickly during the Civil War, to the point where another drawing, created in the 1860s or early 1870s, would have been unimaginable to just about anyone–especially someone with anti-slavery sentiments like Johnston—in the late 1850s.2 As my colleague Esther French discusses in a blog post, this drawing, from an unknown artist, depicts Columbia—a 19th century representation of the United States—attempting, unsuccessfully, to wash a blood stain, representing slavery, from her hands as Lincoln and New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley watch.

“Columbia as L. Macbeth: Yet here’s a spot–out, damned spot, out, I say!”, Folger call number: ART Box S528m1 no.2 (size S).

What does this drawing mean? Since we don’t know the artist or date, we can’t say for certain, but there are some possibilities.

Perhaps the artist drew this early in the Civil War, when the idea of abolishing slavery once and for all may have still seemed a pipe dream but was becoming more realistic.

Or perhaps this is from later in the Civil War, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially banned slavery in areas in rebellion but couldn’t touch the institution elsewhere. Is the artist trying to say that cleansing the country of slavery would take a more radical intervention, like a constitutional amendment?

Or perhaps the artist drew this after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865, abolishing slavery nationwide. Is the artist trying to speak to slavery’s continuing stain on the United States? In the less-often-quoted portion of his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln depicted the bloodshed of the Civil War as divine punishment for the nation’s sin of slavery. No matter how much she scrubbed, Columbia—the United States—could not remove that stain without a serious reckoning. Perhaps that can be a metaphor for then, and now.

Interestingly, Johnston and the unknown artist made specific references to deviant, evil female characters—the witches and Lady Macbeth—while omitting male villains like Macbeth himself.3 Perhaps Johnston is calling pro-slavery politicians—especially Northerners like Douglas and Buchanan—deviant by comparing them to witches. Perhaps the anonymous artist is telling us that Columbia, the personification of the United States, did not follow the expected behavior of a democracy by allowing for enslavement.

As the Folger’s exhibition and radio documentary Shakespeare in American Life and James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, among other works, make clear, we can learn a great deal about different eras in U.S. history from how different people invoke Shakespeare. For both Johnston and the unknown artist, Shakespeare provided a perfect vehicle for commenting on contemporary U.S. issues. The differences between their cartoons show how much changed in a short time, how a hard-to-imagine outcome in the late 1850s—the abolition of slavery—became reality by 1865, even if that sin was not so easy to expunge from our country’s hands.

  1. For more on slavery’s entrenchment in the 1850s and attempts to expand it, see Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, First edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020).
  2. Numerous works have focused on the revolutionary aspects of the Civil War, including the groundwork that abolitionists and other anti-slavery activists laid to push the end of slavery when the war came. See, among others, James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, 1st ed (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2013); Edna Greene Medford, Lincoln and Emancipation (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015); Kate Masur, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, First Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021); Jonathan W. White, A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
  3. Thanks to my colleague Abbie Weinberg for this insight.


This is yet another wonderful post! Many thanks for doing these!

Allan Mahnke — September 22, 2022

An excellent resource on changing historical uses of Macbeth, inclusive of how different thinkers/artists in different U.S. communities and periods used the play, as commentary on U.S. enslavement of Black people can be found in the collection of essays in Weyward Macbeth, Scott Newstok & Ayanna Thompson, eds (Springer, 2016). Could be a useful addition to interpreting these cartoons and many other refs to the Scottish play in texts, images, etc generated around and about the Civil War.

L Yim — September 23, 2022