William Apess’ “Looking-Glass”: Why We Should All Read It

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Throughout American history, countless have left their mark on society with their words. William Apess is but one voice featured in our American Voices virtual exhibit.

Black and white portrait of William Apess
William Apess (1798–1839)

“You and I have to rejoice that we have not to answer for our fathers’ crimes, neither shall we do right to charge them one to another. We can only regret it, and flee from it, and from henceforth, let peace and righteousness be written upon our hearts and hands forever.” –William Apess

Born in 1798 in Colrain, MA, William Apess was a mixed-race man who began life as an indentured servant, served in the army during the War of 1812’s Quebec campaign, and became a traveling Methodist minister. He was also the author of the first published Native American autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829). As a passionate advocate of Native American rights, he helped the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-1834 gain traction, later documenting its legal and cultural triumphs in the book Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (1833). Apess was a strong proponent of change for the better, striving to improve the quality of life for Native Americans in the fledgling United States of America. The Pequot Indian’s contributions to American culture and history are undeniable.

Perhaps most notably, Apess also published (as an addendum to his edited collection of conversion narratives The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe) an essay that distills much of his unique life, impressive work, and potent voice into a concise, very readable form: “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” (1833). The first sentences of “Looking-Glass” establish the conversational style and tone, pointed social and spiritual arguments, and audience engagement that are hallmarks of the essay:

Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are traveling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances but will judge righteousness. Now I ask if degradation has not been heaped long enough upon the Indians? And if so, can there not be a compromise? Is it right to hold and promote prejudices? If not, why not put them all away?

In early American literary history, Apess was matched in his skills at argumentative and persuasive rhetoric only by Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass. In the fourteen paragraphs that follow this striking opening, he deploys a wide and convincing range of evidence and logic in support of his goal of social and political equality between the races. Yet Apess’ essay offers more than just facts and arguments—it also presents precisely what it claims: a looking glass through which white Americans could and can examine their own perspectives and actions. “By what you read,” he succinctly puts it, “you may learn how deep your principles are.” While Apess knows full well that many are but “skin-deep,” he concludes instead with an appeal to “ye noble-hearted” of his readers: “pray you stop not till this tree of distinction shall be leveled to the earth, and the mantle of prejudice turn from every American heart.” 

Such goals remain before us today. Through Apess’ looking glass, then, American readers can find not only a singular voice and a vital part of our national histories, but also and just as importantly a powerful reflection of contemporary society and issues—and a continuing call to action.

–Ben Railton

William Apess and countless other American writers fought for equality among all people, fundamentally changing the trajectory of history. You can read more about Apess and his allies at our virtual exhibit, American Voices.

A black and white illustration of a white settler (left) and a Native American man (right). The settler holds the Native American man's forearm with one hand and a bottle in the other as the Native American stares on at him. In the background behind the settler are teepees and other Native Americans. Behind the Native American man is a settler driving a horse-drawn cart with lumber.

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