Behind The Scenes: Or Thirty Years A Slave And Four Years In The White House

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Elizabeth Keckely’s book vividly portrays the past times, particularly the slavery era as well as Lincoln’s period as president. Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House is perceived as one of the bluntest and most moving slave narratives. Born into slavery, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley suffered innumerable sufferings in the hands of her slave owners (Keckley, 1999). However, she finally buys her freedom and that of her son and is well remembered as a fashion designer, business woman, community activist, abolitionist, writer, as well as educator.

From the book we learn that black men and women lived as slaves of their white masters and were considered as personal property. The White and African-Americans did not share the same rights. In some instances, slaves are even offered as a means to settle debt. Children were also not an exemption of slavery. Elizabeth at a tender age was given the responsibility to take care of her master’s infant child. As a child herself, a promise that she would be the child’s little maid if she took good care of it sounded golden. However, the baby fell on the floor while on her watch which led her to get a thorough beating, due to her said carelessness.

The book also demonstrates that slave owners were at liberty to punish their slaves, even for being proud. There were no consequences for raping or physically abusing slaves. Mr. Bingham, at Mrs. Burwell’s request, flogs Elizabeth in an attempt to subdue her pride. He flogs Elizabeth so badly that her body is filled with bruises and blood. Elizabeth, as she writes in her book is raped by a white man, whose name she refuses to say. This results in the birth of her boy child.

We also learn, sadly, that it was almost part of their lives, that children be separated from their parents, and husbands from their wives, some of whom never reunite again. Elizabeth’s mother and her husband are forced to part when his master moves away. Despite their correspondence and hope of seeing each other again, they never get the chance to reunite. Elizabeth is also separated from her mother at a young age, to go work for her master’s son.

Keckley proposed to fill in as dressmaker in Washington, yet came up short on the cash to pay for the required permit as a free dark to stay in the city for over 30 days. She spoke to her patrons, and a Ms. Ringold utilized her association with Mayor James G. Berret to request of for a permit for Keckley. Berret conceded it to her gratis Keckely was an educated, self-reliant lady and used her dressmaking skills to build a successful business, even before the beginning of the civil war. Her skills made her a well desired modisite for most fashionable women of class. It was her great talent and entrepreneurial spirit that resulted into her becoming the first lady’s seamstress and confidant to both the president and his wife. Elizabeth had always had a great desire to work with ladies of the white house (Keckley, 1999). Elizabeth made life feel better for both the president and his wife especially during the dark times of the war between the north and the south.

From her book, we learn that the United states had a wonderful president, President Lincoln, who was a kind and honest man and always saw the best in people. On several occasions, Mrs. Lincoln is seen warning her husband to be careful especially with some of the people he works with but he denies the accusations she makes of them, calling them good men. For example, When the president urged Andrew Johnson for Tennessee governor in the military, Mrs. Lincoln opposed that decision calling hi a demagogue. However, the president regarded the man a patriot and a good soldier. Another instance is where he defends Seward, who is described as untrustworthy, saying that Seward is an able man who can be trusted by both Mr. Lincoln and the country.

In her book, Mrs. Keckely also describes the president as a good natured man who was also generous by nature. Even during the war, the president felt respect for the opposing side even for their valor in the war. As she says, his heart was to great for selfish and narrow opinions of narrow-mindedness. He was brave himself and greatly respected other people’s bravery regardless of which side they were supporting.  He is heard speaking of various opponents with high regard and even regrets that they had to fight against each other. Further, the United States president’s character is seen when Mrs. Lincoln tells Mrs. Keckley about the huge debt she was in but wouldn’t tell hers husband to avoid upsetting him, describing as a man who was too honest and straightforward and wouldn’t take anything that was not within his salary (Keckley, 1999).

Lincoln’s house is also seen to appreciate the fact that all humans are equal. They do not treat people of color as slaves rather, they do not mind working together with Mrs. Keckely who they treat well and consider her a friend and confidant. It is evident that Lincoln genuinely believed slavery to be wrong. His moral, legal and economical stand was strongly opposed to slavery. The president however was unsure of what to do about slavery, especially in the legal system then. Mr. Lincoln strongly believed that black people, like the white, deserved a right to improve their individual lives in society as well as enjoy the results of their hard work. In this manner, the white and black people would be equal. Mr. Lincoln perceived that to be among the reasons slavery was wrong and unjust. The opinion of the president with regards to social and political equality for the black people would change over time in the course of his term in the office. In the last speech the president gave, he aired his thoughts that the black individuals who participated in war should ne given   a right to vote.

From Keckely’s book, we also see a history in the United States where African-Americans became free from slavery, for the first time in their lives. While some embraced the freedom and proceed to work and live quiet happy lives in farms, some did not know what to do with the newly acquired freedom. Independence for them was them was not all sunshine, rather, it came with poverty and lack of security that they had experienced back in slavery. They also had friends and other associations ho they had to leave behind. They had loved their past to an extent that they were unable to find beauty in their lives outside slavery.

Another thing we learn from Elizabeth Keckley’s book is the fact that the safety of the president was constantly in danger. Mr. Lincoln had received various reports warning him. However, the president did not seem to have any fear in him. At one point when his wife told him that he ought not roam alone for he might put himself in danger, the president express no worry and even wondered who and why anybody would want to harm him (Keckley, 1999). Concern is also expressed by Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln when the president addressed masses of people openly. They feared it might be too easy to target the president. Mary Lincoln constantly prayed that her husband be protected from hands of assassins.

Keckely describes Lincoln’s disclose poignant unshielded times of happiness, dialogue and friendship. She saw the sorrow of the two guardians at the passing of their child Willie and Mrs. Lincoln’s abasement when her husband death.  In critical money related strains, Mrs. Lincoln swung to Keckley, who put in a while in New York helping the previous First Lady offer her exquisite garments.

Leader of the Contraband Relief Association and a companion of Frederick Douglass and other conspicuous African-American pioneers, Elizabeth rises as a momentous, clever, and principled lady who interceded among highly contrasting networks. Frances Smith Foster's presentation follows the book's gathering history and fills in true to life holes in the content.

We also learn from the book that keeping a high social Status was important in the United Sates in the Victorian era. We see Mrs. Lincoln sharing intimate information with her friend Mrs. Keckely. She expresses her fear that she may have to return to boarding and give up her city house. Her salary is too little to sustain her expenses and was having a hard time keeping up with appearances. She also tells her friend that she may as well need to sell some of her clothes to afford a good living.              

Another thing we learn about the United States from the book is that women had limited independence to do as they pleased. When Mrs. Lincoln decided to sell her clothes to pay her bills and settle her debt, she had to disguise herself as Mrs. Clark of Chicago. When the press found out, Mrs. Lincoln was sadly branded as insane. She was accused of being a mercenary prostitute. They said that she dishonored the memory of her husband the former president. She had to stop and retreat, leaving her friend, Elizabeth Keckley to do transactions for her. Mrs. Lincoln receives much condemnation and ridicule from the society afterwards (Keckley, 1999). They said awful things about her, especially given that people took anything that surfaced from the media, whether or not it held any truth to it. This compels her friend Mrs. Keckely to write a book in defense of her friend. She felt the need to defend Mrs. Lincoln’s honor by trying to let people know that despite her actions, Mary Lincoln always had good intentions. This further supports the fact that status and reputation were essential for proper survival in the United States, and was particularly harder on women.


Keckley, E. (1999). Behind the Scenes, . Bethany Ronnberg.

November 13, 2023




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