|CHAPTER 11 SLAVES AND MASTERS
THE MASTER CLASS
College students should be encouraged to think abstractly about social phenomena without forgetting that institutions depend upon humans for their functioning. Because humans are not always logical, they sometimes service institutions they despise. Slavery is a good case in point.
Slavery may have developed during the colonial period from a series of “unthinking decisions,” but its continued existence into the nineteenth century demanded a force stronger than mere momentum. Considering the active hostility that slaves adopted toward their condition, slavery could not have lasted a week in the United States if it had not been supported by the mass of the white population, even though most whites never owned a slave and considered slavery itself unnatural and un-American.
Laws alone do not enslave people; those laws must be applied, as they were in the South. Visitors to the region were often fooled into thinking that there was no law and order in the South, but that was the case only among whites. The black portion of the population was always heavily policed. In every locality when the sun went down, armed white men went out on patrol to make sure that the night belonged to the master class. Any African American who ventured from his or her cabin without written permission risked immediate and painful “justice” from the infamous “patrollers.” Even slaves with passes had to worry about being harassed or abused. On those occasions when slaves collected in large numbers and struck for their freedom, the white community mobilized overwhelming counterforce with remarkable rapidity. Nat Turner and his followers, for example, began to kill whites in Southampton County, Virginia, on a Sunday night in August, 1831. On Monday afternoon, a young white girl escaped the slaughter and spread the alarm. By Wednesday, Turner’s band, nearly a hundred strong, was defeated in battle by armed whites. Within the next few days, militia companies from three counties plus federal troops with artillery had converged on Southampton County and began a savage manhunt for Turner, during which as many as one hundred African Americans may have been killed. When Turner himself was finally hanged, his corpse was treated with shocking brutality.
Turner’s uprising represented a rare failure of the system of daily repression designed to keep slaves down. It was not so much the gun and the whip that slaves suffered, but the routine humiliation meant to establish an impassable gap between them and free people. Whites and blacks in the South very often worked together, drank together, played together, prayed together, and even had sex together, but no matter how friendly or intimate the contact, it was expected that slaves would observe rituals of self-abasement, for example, by using a title of respect when addressing whites, such as Master or Mistress, while being addressed themselves by first name, or as “Boy” or “Girl.” Whites were expected to resent any show of disrespect and could become murderous in their rage without much fear of legal consequences.
There can be no doubt that it was the willingness of the average white Southerner to insist upon the supremacy of his or her “race” that kept slavery alive, but few Southern whites approved of the slave system. Indeed, the word “slave” was more often used by Northerners; Southern whites invariably used the word “servant.” It is not even clear that most white Southerners were racists. They not only lacked any “scientific” belief in the superiority of some genes over others, as good Christians they believed that slaves had souls, that all souls were equal and that slaves would enjoy freedom and happiness in Heaven as much as any master would. Slavery was part of the imperfect, unredeemed world that resulted from sin; it could not exist in the supernatural world. Furthermore, slavery violated the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian political values of most white Southerners because slaveholding gave special privileges to a small and shrinking minority of “aristocrats.”
Foreigners traveling in the South often observed the torment suffered by the “conscience¬haunted” masters. In one illustrative episode, a Northerner in Alabama in 1853 met a local white resident who described how runaway slaves were hunted down and how some of the hunters enjoyed doing so. “Always seemed to me a kind o’barbarous sport,” the man said. And then, after a pause, “It’s necessary, though.” Whites southerners lived a paradox. They were a master class yearning to be free.
RELIVING THE PAST
Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 seared the South; it demonstrated like no other slave uprising the depth of black rage. One of the most chilling incidents happened at the very beginning of the revolt. Having slaughtered his master’s family, Turner and his confederates left the house and proceeded some distance before they remembered that they had left an infant alive in a crib. They went back and finished the massacre. A complete collection of documents relating to the rebellion, including trial transcripts and Turner’s “confessions,” can be found in Henry Irving Tragle, editor, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971). Some scholars doubt the authenticity of Turner’s confession, which was taken down by a white physician. William Styron used the confession rather loosely as the basis for his novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).
Rebellion was the most extreme form of resistance to slavery and involved not only risking one’s own life, but the willingness to kill whites whom one knew and perhaps even liked. More frequently, slaves sought freedom through flight, as Frederick Douglass did in 1836. His recollection of the planning and successful execution of his escape from Maryland is dramatic, but especially revealing is his discussion of the force of ignorance, fostered by white planters, that made the prospect of flight so terrifying. Douglass, for example, did not know that the states of New York or Massachusetts existed. Douglass actually published three editions of his autobiography, all of which were reprinted in the Library of America edition in 1994 with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
NAT TURNER’S REBELLION: A TURNING POINT IN THE SLAVE SOUTH
The author begins this chapter with Turner’s uprising to set the theme of a society in conflict with itself. In the aftermath of the rebellion, white Southerners became more repressive and more insecure, while black Southerners became less open but more resilient in their struggle against slavery.
THE DIVIDED SOCIETY OF THE OLD SOUTH
Although slavery was primarily an economic institution that created great wealth, it was also a peculiar social institution. It gave all whites a specious sense of equality despite great disparities in wealth, while it united all blacks, free and enslaved, field hands and house servants, in a common dream of freedom.
A. Slave’s Daily Life and Labor
The conditions under which enslaved blacks worked varied greatly, but the great majority of them were field workers, organized in gangs, to cultivate cotton. Conditions for those workers were brutal.
B. Slave Families, Kinship, and Community
Slavery made normal family life difficult. Fathers could not always discipline or protect their children, and families could be broken up at any time. Nonetheless, most slaves grew up in strong, two-parent families. On the plantations, individual blacks were related to all others by ties of kinship, even if sometimes the kinship was fictive. All elderly men were “uncles,” all young women were “sisters.” Slave culture was a family culture, and the family, like religion, saved the individual from having to face alone the horror of slavery.
C. African American Religion
Black Christianity owed much of its form and content to traditional African religion and served as the cornerstone of an emerging African American culture. Because of its subversive potential, whites tried to supervise black religion. The African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, for example, was sometimes banned in the South; but religion, especially that practiced by slaves when they were safe from white observation, reaffirmed the inherent joy of life and the inevitable day of liberation, in this world, and in the world to come.
D. Resistance and Rebellion
The most dramatic displays of a yearning for freedom were the slave rebellions in the antebellum South. Most notable are the ones led by Gabriel Prosser in 1800, Denmark
Vesey in 1822, and the greatest of all, Nat Turner in 1831. Most slave resistance, however, was more subtle: they feigned illness, worked inefficiently, destroyed tools, and sometimes poisoned their masters. In their jokes and stories, slaves asserted their everyday victories against overwhelming odds.
E. Free Blacks in the Old South
Free blacks in the South suffered so many legal restrictions that their condition amounted to a sort of semi-slavery. They felt a sense of solidarity with the slaves, but were generally unable to help them.
WHITE SOCIETY IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH
Great planters were a small minority but they were the dominant political and economic figures in the South.
A. The Planters’‘ World
The tone and values of the white South were set by the great planters, those who owned more than twenty slaves, even though they comprised fewer than one percent of the white population. These men, typically self-made, earned a considerable part of their income from commerce, land speculation, and slave-trading, as well as cotton planting. They carried into the management of their plantations the same shrewd business mind that had given them their start, but some of them preferred to think of themselves as born aristocrats who disdained money-making.
B. Planters, Racism, and Paternalism
Southern planters prided themselves on their paternal feelings toward their slaves. These slaves, according to studies, enjoyed a better standard of living than did slaves elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. The relatively decent treatment can to some extent be explained by their increasing economic value after 1808, when planters could no longer count on getting more slaves from Africa. In reality, most large planters had little to do with their slaves. Overseers managed the slaves on a daily basis, and everyone acknowledged that physical force, whipping, and the sale of troublesome slaves were actions necessary to keep the plantation in operation. Nor should it be forgotten that racism was at the core of paternalism. It was only because they could portray Blacks as inferior that slaveholders could see themselves as benevolent Christians.
C. Small Slaveholders
Slave-owners with fewer than twenty slaves generally provided the worst conditions for African Americans. The slave shared the master’s poverty, and was at the complete mercy of the master’s whim.
D. Yeomen Farmers
Most white Southerners did not own slaves. They worked their own farms and differed from the yeomen farmers of the North in only one important aspect: They generally lacked the urban outlets that would have encouraged commercial farming. Although small farmers in the South resented the large planters and often made a point of asserting their equality with them, the average white in the South was not likely to turn against the institution of slavery. One could dream of owning slaves someday, but, and this point best explains why the white South defended slavery, the average white feared and hated blacks and saw in slavery a system for keeping blacks “in their place.” So long as all blacks were kept inferior, all whites would be superior.
E. A Closed Mind and a Closed Society
The dominant planter class feared not only slave rebellion, but also that the white small farmers might join the abolitionist crusade. The planters, therefore, created a mood of impending disaster in order to encourage all Southerners to close ranks. After the 1830s, it became dangerous in the South even to speak of slavery as a necessary evil. Slavery could be described only as a positive good. This position was defended on the basis that Africans were inferior in some way, that slavery was sanctioned in the Old and New Testaments, and that slavery provided a kind of humane asylum for African Americans, who would improve as a race because of slavery. In addition, Southerners claimed that slavery was superior to the northern wage labor system.
Although books criticizing slavery were censored, and people who criticized slavery were beaten and forced to emigrate, and efforts were made to keep slaves illiterate and to keep free blacks under surveillance, southern planters never achieved a sense of security. By the 1850s, they began to believe that their safety could only be guaranteed by secession from the United States.
SLAVERY AND THE SOUTHERN ECONOMY
Before the Civil War, two distinct subdivisions emerged in the South. In the lower South, the cotton kingdom, all economic life revolved around one crop, and blacks constituted nearly half the population. In the upper South, where whites outnumbered blacks three to one, slave labor was less important.
A. The Internal Slave Trade
Virginia and Maryland, the old centers of tobacco production, had become areas of mixed farming by the 1850s. They needed less labor and more capital, which they acquired by selling slaves to the lower South. As slavery loosened its hold on Virginia, Maryland, and
Kentucky, these states began to take on some of the characteristics of the industrializing North. Whether the loyalty of these states would go to the North or South was increasingly uncertain.
B. The Rise of the Cotton Kingdom
The great boom in cotton cultivation came with the introduction of “short-staple” cotton, which could be grown anywhere south of Virginia and Kentucky. The cotton gin made it easy to extract the seeds, and since it required almost constant, year-round labor, it was ideally suited to slave labor. Cotton growing began in Georgia and South Carolina and spread rapidly westward to Alabama and Mississippi, and finally to Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. Cotton was grown by small farmers, but large planters with their own gins and armies of slaves dominated production, which increased by leaps and bounds. By the 1850s, the South produced 75 percent of the world’s cotton. It was sold to the textile mills in Great Britain in such quantity that cotton’s value as an export exceeded the value of all other American exports combined.
There were periods of boom and bust in the cotton industry, but planters made enough in good times to ride out the bad and, from 1849 to 1860, there was a long, sustained period of prosperity. In the 1850s, cotton was the most important business in the United States.
C. Slavery and Industrialization
Southerners realized they had developed little industry and commerce and resented their dependence on the North in these areas. Many Southerners projected schemes to develop industry, some of which proposed using free white labor and others, the use of slaves. Slaves did, in fact, work in southern factories, but what effect industrialization would have had on slavery is a moot point. Agriculture offered too great a profit for planters to shift their interest to industry.
D. The “Profitability” Issue
Large cotton planters usually benefitted from slavery, but the South as a whole did not. White small farmers had lower living standards than most northern farmers, and slaves, of course, did not do well. It is true that cotton was an expanding, profitable business before the Civil War, but its profits were not well distributed, and the slave system that the South felt was necessary to grow cotton caused the South to waste its human resources and remain an undeveloped region.
CONCLUSION: WORLDS IN CONFLICT
Despite a booming economy, the South was a fragile society, divided as it was by color and class, by culture and geography.