|Somehow Seeking Participation in and Control of One's Destiny:
The Consolations of Faith?
Both slaves and laborers turned to evangelical Christianity to provide them with the meaning of life. They sought something that placed their own destiny in their own hands, as against living in a material world with often oppressive masters and employers and nearly zero social mobility. Through a faith where "he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman," where the eternal state was far more important than the present life, "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away," at least some became more content in this life, seeing the trials of this life as preparation for the next. The truly ancient Stoic advice that one can control and change one's attitude or thinking when one cannot change one's material or physical environment bears fruit here. They also sought meaning through active participation in something, in some organization controlled at least partially by themselves, where people like themselves had some significant input. The slave preacher (or conjuror!) had almost the only influential social role a bondsman could have that was not directly derived from his master's power and ownership of property. The driver, the "mammy," even the skilled artisan, received positions based on their willingness to serve obediently their master or mistress. But on religious matters the slaves themselves frequently received a chance to organize a social group and its activities generally to their own liking, even though watchful whites carefully screened the ideological content emanating from the pulpit. Similarly, the laborers adopting Nonconformity, even when under the banner of mainline Methodism, took part in chapels where they determined their activities and influenced their organization much more than in the churches. Some, such as Arch, even received a chance to preach since formal qualifications (i.e., a seminary degree from university training) were not considered always essential. Now, it can be argued that slaves or laborers who adopted these beliefs drained energy from resistance movements that could have challenged the elite's hold on them. Nevertheless, the laborer embracing Nonconformity, or the slave participating in an illicit late-night meeting, figuratively voted "no confidence" about their masters’ religion as they presented it to their subordinate class. Although modern-day skeptics may dismiss them as passive in effect, such decisions of faith still subverted the elite's ideological hegemony. In a material world fraught with bondage, oppression, and hopelessness, they sought some means to assert they had ultimate control over their own destinies, and to participate in something that shaped their lives, instead of feeling their masters and natural events solely determined their fates. For these oppressed men and women, the consolations of faith for them were neither unimportant nor futile in their ultimate effects, bringing as it did meaning to lives otherwise vain and useless, largely consumed by the burdens their elites imposed.
The Slave Family: How Well Did It Survive Slavery?
One of the most endlessly contentious issues in the historiography of African-American slavery concerns how badly it damaged the black family as an institution. Contemporary politics always lurks in this debate’s background, and not just merely the civil rights movement, race riots, affirmative action, and abolition of Jim Crow. More specifically, the 1965 Moynihan report, which blamed the poverty of the inner cities on the black family's weaknesses going back to the time before emancipation, became a target of not just politicians or civil rights leaders, but historians. Moynihan maintains that the black community's disproportionately high number of female-headed, single-parent families, combined with absentee fathers, created in the ghettos a system of matriarchy by default, leading to increased crime and poverty from ill-raised children. At the time, his report created a storm of controversy, but rising concerns about the effects of increased white illegitimacy (and divorce) rates since then have combined with general political rhetoric nowadays about "family values" to vindicate mostly Moynihan's thesis in the culture at large in more recent decades, even though it only partially explains the genesis of poverty among American blacks.
Now, what does it mean to say the family is a "strong" or "damaged" institution, black and otherwise? Here, “a strong family” shall be defined as a stable traditional nuclear family of a husband, a wife, and their children, that avoids events such as divorce, illegitimacy, and death which either prevent its formation or break it up afterwards by separating its members, especially before the children become self-supporting adults. The purpose of the family in this context is to raise successfully well-adjusted, well-socialized children who will be able to make reasonable decisions and support themselves without burdening society by committing crimes, living off the dole for extended periods, or committing various other social pathologies. The black family under slavery endured additional events broke it up above and beyond those present among free people. Since slave marriages in the American South had no legal standing, masters and mistresses had the power to separate the husband or wife by sale from his or her mate. They also could take slave children from both or either of their parents in order to display them on the auction block. Since slaveholders normally (excepting in a state or two) held their bondsmen as chattels, personal moveable property, they could take them wherever they wished when relocating to another farm or plantation. So if one master owned the wife, and another the husband, the one moving away had no legal obligations to purchase the spouse left behind. Slaves also were disposed of as gifts, divided among heirs of an estate, rented for greater or lesser periods, or sold to meet the debts of bankrupt slaveowners. All these events often caused the separation of husbands and wives, of mothers, fathers, and children. Slaveholders frequently had no wish to maintain the marriage or parental bonds of their slaves since the goal of maximizing profits may require them to treat their human chattels as totally interchangeable units of labor. Consequently, the black family under slavery suffered additional constant assaults upon its stability besides what free people already endured, such as divorce, illegitimacy, and death. While the extra assaults never "destroyed" the black family as an institution, for numerous slaves fortunately avoided such disasters, or resourcefully patched new relationships together after their owners obliterated the old ones (if perhaps illicitly from the viewpoint of strict Biblical sexual morality), they still contributed to a sense of rootlessness, alienation, and greater inability to commit to stable relationships among many bondsmen. Because the slave family unit suffered additional strains imposed artificially by outsiders, this section devotes far more space to American slaves than to English farmworkers, for the latter’s conditions were “normal,” at least relative to a free society (meaning, one without serfdom or legal bondage) conforming to western European norms.
Importantly, the African-American slave family differed from those elsewhere in the Americas because of the nearly balanced male/female sex ratio in the United States, especially after the colonial period. Monogamy soon became the norm for the black American slave family, just as for whites, even though some curious exceptions occasionally appeared where masters did not care how many "wives" their male slaves took since their marriages had no legal standing anyway.261 The closing of the legal international slave trade for America after 1807 motivated masters and mistresses to maintain an even gender ratio among their bondsmen because they wanted to promote family arrangements that would keep up the birth rate. A disproportionately male slave population, as was the case south of the border, could not be expected to reproduce itself. The masters found an even sex ratio promoted their interests, and also the black family's stability--but such happy coincidences of slaveholder-slave self-interests in this realm proved to be few and far between.
The key difference between the quality of family life for the agricultural workers and slaves revolves around how their differences in legal status enabled slaveowners to subordinate the family unit of their slaves to the needs of agricultural production in ways almost impossible to do with English farmworkers, a theme returned to again below (pp. 167-176, 189-190). Slaveholders routinely manipulated or took advantage of the relationships between the members of slave families to serve their instrumental purposes in increasing output and profits. Master Jones could always threaten a defiant (married) “Sambo” with, in so many words, "If you don't shape up, I'll sell your wife [or you] South." In the English case, while a farmer could fire and work to blacklist a rebellious laborer, or (mostly post-1832) wave the sword of Damocles of the dreaded workhouse over a recalcitrant farmworker’s head if put out of work, he simply neither could threaten to dissolve the laborer's family as the ultimate sanction for violating work discipline nor manipulate the family's relationships to his own ulterior ends to anywhere near the same degree. Slaveholders could routinely whip their slaves, and most did, but no farmer could dare expect to get away with whipping adult farmworkers. The astute but ruthless slaveowner or overseer could take advantage of the relationships within the black family to maximize the effects of imposing submission by the lash. One particularly cruel overseer in Alabama "sometimes, to cramp down the mind of the husband, . . . would compel him to assist in the punishment of his wife."262 Miscegenation also undermined the quality of black family relationships. But here, the master, his sons, or his overseer sought sexual gratification instead of profit. The slaves’ quality of life fell way beneath the agricultural workers’ as a result of how their different legal statuses allowed slaveholders to subordinate totally human relationships within the slave family, such as husband and wife, mother and daughter, brother and sister, to weaken or to destroy them in order to serve work processes performed for someone else's ends of monetary or even sexual gain. The slaveowners’ ultimate crime against the black family was to treat it as a means to serve their own ends of increased profit outside the confines of Scriptural law, instead of letting this institution’s relationships serve its members’ ends of personal happiness and character growth.
The Family Bonds of Slaves Made Conditional upon the Stability of Slaveholders
In a number of ways, slaves had their family bonds solely conditionally upon the continued life and financial success of their (individual) owners. If a master (or perhaps mistress) went bankrupt or died, slave family bonds were dissolved to serve the interests of creditors or heirs. As Gundersen notes: "The value of slaves as property meant that black family stability was tied to the life cycle of their owners." The heirs split up the children of Harriet Brent Jacobs' grandmother. Her uncle Benjamin, "the youngest one, was sold, in order that each heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents."263 Frederick Douglass himself experienced the terrible anxiety and excitement of a large estate’s division. All its slaves dreaded being turned over into the hands of a particularly cruel son of the recently deceased master. Douglass fortunately avoided that particular disaster. But the whole process of division, seemingly totally capricious at times to its victims, illustrated how the slaves' family and social lives meant little or nothing to the whites who, having total control over the slaves' destinies, settled the estate:
Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had not more voice in that decision than the brutes [farm animals] among whom we were ranked. A single word from the white men was enough--against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties--to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.264
When financial trouble struck white slaveholders, slaves knew what was likely to follow, as "Uncle" Shade, once a slave in Georgia, commented: "Dey knowed all de white folkses troubles. Knowed when white man got ter raise money it mean you gwine see de spec'lator's buggy drivin' up, an' somebody gwine be sold!" Because his kind master went bankrupt, John Little was sold away from his family at public auction to a virtually inhuman one living ten miles away in the same county of North Carolina. His mother strived to get neighbors to buy him, but they refused, believing the slave traders would pay more. One man in Louisiana told Olmsted about men he knew as a child and had gone to school with who eventually fell on hard times, which came generally from their own fiscal irresponsibility and prodigal lifestyles. Another told him about one largely wiped out by the weather: "Had two bad crops. Finally the sheriff took about half his niggers." Since the master of Charles Ball died with heavy debts, some of his slaves were sold to different masters, including Ball’s brothers and sisters: "Our new master took us away, and I never saw my mother, nor any of my brothers and sisters afterwards." Under these conditions, the preservation of relationships within slave families depended not only on the master’s kindness, but also upon his continued life and financial success. Slave families were vulnerable to division from any upsets that disturbed the whites owning them.265
Living amidst a nation settling a wilderness, slave families were split up for another reason: The whites frequently moved while carving out new farms and plantations on the frontier or elsewhere in the South. Since the wilderness seemed limitless, the white settlers found it profitable to exhaust the soil's fertility and then move on for another spot to exploit. As a result, the American white population was much more mobile than the laborers who were scraping out a living near some village in southern England–-a reality full of ominous implications for slave family stability. Different slaveholders often owned different members of the same slave families. The practice of one master owning the husband, and another the wife and children, was especially common. Family divisions routinely took place without the sound of an auctioneer's gavel simply by one planter moving his slaves to some new, more fertile piece of land in another state or county. When visiting Texas, Olmsted noted that after the land was sold separately from the slaves, "the whole body of slaves move away, leaving frequently wives and children on neighbouring plantations. Such a cause of separation must be exceedingly common among the restless, almost nomadic, small proprietors of the South." After carefully examining 65 slave narratives, Davis finds the relocation of owners was the second most common reason for slaves to move, accounting for some 46 relocations out of 350, following rentals at 103 moves. In five of the sixty-five cases, slaves accompanied their masters when moving long distances westward. Constituting an extreme case, the master of Henry Bruce moved nine times in less than ten years. Fogel and Engerman claim that 84 percent of all interregional movement of slaves resulted from masters relocating. But after examining the statistical basis for this number, Gutman and Sutch demolished it. After committing a arithmetic error in division, Fogel and Engerman casually accepted Calderhead's assumption that 50 percent of the slaves migrating in Maryland were sold outside the state, leaving 50 percent to have moved with their masters. As Gutman and Sutch observe: "But even when the error is corrected, the result is still a totally baseless number produced by a faulty procedure." So even when no sale took place, white slaveholder relocations still routinely destroyed slave families by separating their members.266
The Routine Destruction of Family Relationships under Slavery
During sales, slaveholders often ignored the family "bonds" of the human beings they owned. Such stories are legion. Freedwoman Joanna Draper's story shows that masters knew selling a slave woman away from her childern was despised, but her owner still did it anyway: "He sold her (my husband's mammy) off and lied and said she was a young girl and didn't have no husband, 'cause the man what bought her said he didn't want to buy no woman and take her away from a family." R.S. Sorrick, sold as a slave himself at the age of one, told Drew that he knew of one-month-old babies being sold away from their mothers! Dan Josiah Lockhart was sold at age five, "and when I first saw my mother to know her, I had a wife and child." "Uncle" Shade, born in Georgia, saw his seven brothers and sisters sold off to various different owners. Some of his brothers and sisters were resold twice as one trader sold to another, a process that scattered them over two or three states. He told Armstrong: "Did we ever find de chillun whut de spec'lators tuk? Naw suh. You know how 'tis. When de fambly once scattered, it's hard to get togedder ergain!" After one slave trader purchased and planned to take far away all seven of one mother’s children via the auction block, the woman cried in agony: "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?" Sales affected others besides mothers and their children. Without warning, Charles Ball’s owner sold him away from his wife and children. He was not even allowed to see them again before leaving. His parents' marriage had ended similarly, when a Georgia trader took his mother away from Maryland, leaving his father behind. One slave woman auctioned off in Richmond, Virginia had been forced to separate from her husband two days earlier. While she had seven children, only three were sold with her. Why can similar stories about slave sales destroying family relationships can be recited seemingly endlessly? As Gutman and Sutch observe, as indicated by New Orleans sales invoices which number in the thousands, most sales of individuals reflect the destruction either of marriage or parental-child bonds: "The predominance in the New Orleans sales of single individuals, far from being evidence of the security of the slave family, is evidence that slave sales typically broke up slave families, since, as Bancroft knew, nearly every slave belonged to a family."267
Conscious of the family relationships of their bondsmen, at least some masters and mistresses tried to preserve them by attaching conditions to sales or restricting who could buy them. Under an ideal system of slaveholder paternalism, family bonds should only be broken under "necessity." Unfortunately, as shown above, "necessity" proved to be of common occurrence because of unpredictable events disrupting the lives of white slaveowners. For example, Mrs. Polk wanted to trade a family of slaves on her estate in Mississippi to avoid having to move them away from family and friends. This effort failed, although it was still hoped an exchange would occur later.268 Despite being often ignored, an anti-selling ethos did show up in slaveholder culture. Planter Captain Wayne Bedford was told, when he was twelve years old by his dying father, "to grow up, keep the plantation going, keep the slave families intact and above all take care of his mother."269 One bill collector, after showing up at planter Barrow’s door, "offered him a family of negros."270 Louisiana codified a bit of this paternalistic ethos by prohibiting the selling of children of age 10 or lower away from their mothers (fathers were irrelevant) unless they were orphans.271 According to Sweig, this law, passed in 1829, caused the number of single children ten years or less being sold to fall from 13.5 percent before April 1, 1829 to just 3.7 percent afterwards, based on incoming coastwise shipping manifests. Apparently responding to public criticism (or their own consciences), one major slave trading firm in New Orleans, Franklin and Armfield, chose to deal mainly in slave families after 1834.272 But such moves were mere baby steps. If the slaveholders really had taken seriously the slaves' family ties, they would have passed laws totally prohibiting the involuntary separation (for any cause) of husbands and wives, and of children from their parents when under the age of (say) eighteen. The general lack of such laws in the American South (outside of this Louisiana statute and any like it) proves most slaveholders valued flexibility in the labor market much more than the preservation of their slaves’ family relationships, any paternalistic pro-slavery propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.
Fogel and Engerman's Mistakenly Low Figures on Marriage Breakup
Notoriously, Fogel and Engerman maintain relatively few slave marriages were broken up, based on a questionable reading of the New Orleans slave sale records. They said 84 percent of all sales of those over age 14 involved unmarried individuals, that 6 percent were sold with their mates, and widows and voluntary separations made up at least 25 percent of the rest (i.e., about 5 percent overall). Therefore, by a six-to-one (84 percent to 16 percent) ratio, single women were sold more commonly than married. Based on their fallacious figure (critiqued above) that sales caused only 16 percent of all interregional slave movement (even Calderhead’s guess was 50 percent), they conclude: "It is probable that about 2 percent of the marriages of slaves involved in the westward trek were destroyed by the process of migration."273 Their calculations rest upon some very questionable assumptions, which Sutch and Gutman examine at length. Most importantly, the New Orleans invoices rarely say anything about marital status, excepting the cases where married couples or families were disposed of as a unit. Using a sample limited to women aged twenty to twenty-four, Fogel and Engerman assume that broken marriages only happened when married women were sold with one or more children, but without a husband. Their assumptions overlook childless married couples, those whose children had all died, and all cases in which traders intentionally sold the (normally older) children apart from their parents. Slave traders in the frontier southwest had strong motives for selling slave mothers and fathers separately from their children because the newly opened plantations in that region only wanted hands able to work productively right away. Using probate records, Fogel and Engerman maintain only about half (53 percent) of slave women aged 20-24 (from which they extrapolate to the whole population of slave women) had children. This calculation’s plausibility melts before Kemble's observations about the universality of 16-year-old mothers and 30-year-old grandmothers on her husband's Georgian estates.274 Ironically, their own statements show married slave women (i.e., the 16 percent figure) were frequently separated from their mates by the auction block: If 6 percent were sold with their husbands and 25 percent were widows (an assumed figure--only 5.18 percent in the general population were), then sales did separate nearly 70 percent (100% - 25% - 6% = 69%) of all married couples sold in New Orleans. Here quantitative history supplies an excellent example of the GIGO principle at work: If certain false or questionable hypotheses are initially assumed, number crunching afterwards will not magically change them into "facts." Above all, Fogel and Engerman implicitly equate a broken slave family with a broken slave marriage, which blithely ignores how selling off children away from their parents also breaks family ties.275 Far more reliable broad-based quantitative data produce a much higher percentage of masters tearing up slave marriages. Based upon ex-slaves registering their marriages with the Freedman's Bureau, Blassingame derives a figure of 32.4 percent (out of a sample of 2888) while Gutman obtains 22.7 percent (from a sample of 8700).276 Undeniably, a high percentage of slave families suffered forcible separations because the slaveholders' labor market valued individuals’ work potentials as interchangeable units of labor far more than their family relationships.