This is a super-long post, because this has been on my mind for awhile, and I hope you’ll read it all. I don’t usually do “opinion” pieces, but I will because it is the result of all my research on the enslaved that has formed the opinion.
A new book has come out that I’m reading called, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist that I highly recommend. The book places the brutality of slavery front and center along with its emergence as the economic driver of our nation’s founding. Those of us researching African-Americans frequently come face to face with the horrors of slavery in the documents we review.
This is why I don’t believe in the concept of a “good slaveowner.” (Caveat: I am not talking about freed blacks who became “slaveowners” when laws forced them to buy their loved ones and keep them in that status or have them thrown out of the state. Thanks, Debra!)
I am amazed how many times a slaveowner is described as “good” to his slaves–usually by well-meaning but misguided descendants of slaveowners. It has happened to me often and I cringe inside when I hear that term. We all know that slaveowners differed in their treatment of their slaves–that there was a spectrum of treatment as wide and diverse as humans are. And I know there’s a visceral desire to distance oneself and one’s family from the institution. But what people need to understand is that at a certain point what individuals slaveowners did is beside the point.
The system of slavery was held in place by violence. It was force– ever-increasing and sadistic means of force that made the system of slavery work. It could not survive without the force of the whip, the gun, the patrollers, the overseer and the physical and psychological torture mechanisms designed to subdue a people. They were forcibly held captive. Otherwise, how else could an entire life of labor be stolen from millions of people? Without force, slavery could not exist. The Civil War caused much of that system of violent force to breakdown as white Southerners went off to war. It is that breakdown which allowed slaves to escape successfully behind Union lines and force the issue of their freedom. Without the enforcement mechanisms to hold it in place, slavery collapsed.
Enslaved people resisted slavery at all times from the very beginning; it is only the overwhelming use of violence and the wealth created that made the system of slavery successful. Enslaved people also feigned illness, broke tools, laid out in the woods for weeks and months at a time, and sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, physically confronted their oppressors (see the book Runaway Slaves: Rebels of the Plantation for more on this). I’ve heard people actually ask “why did slaves stay?” That anyone could ask this is only proof of their woeful ignorance about the most powerful slave society the world had ever seen. It is an ignorance that haunts us as a country to this very day.
Viewed from this lens, it is clear to me that that truly “good” people could not willingly participate in that system–a system that was optional, not mandatory. Some people think somehow that “because of the times,” slavery was excusable/understandable/justified. I wholeheartedly disagree. Slaveowners witnessed the atrocities of whippings and sales and as human beings no different than you or I, were thus completely capable of being moved and changed by those experiences. Robert “King” Carter and John Randolph both freed about 500 slaves (although the latter did so in in his will). Before you claim that those were isolated and rare incidents, know that thousands of slaveowners came to see slavery as morally despicable and freed their slaves during their lifetimes, especially after the American Revolution. Many others were changed by religious conversions during the Great Awakening, especially Quakers and Methodists. In my own family, Susanna Waters, who owned my 3nd ggrandfather Joshua Waters, freed him and over 20 other slaves well before her death. In her will, she materially provided for the enslaved people she had freed.
Although I recognize how difficult it would have been to have a transformative view of slavery if one was born into that life, that is not the same as saying it did not and could not happen. There are thousands of examples of it happening. A good slaveowner to me sounds as ridiculous as referring to a good child-molester–we would never use that phrase for obvious reasons. For those who think they know an example of a “good” slaveowner, I ask you to consider this: what would they do if one of their slaves did not feel like working one day? Or if one decided he didn’t want to be there at all and wanted to leave? Confronting those questions will lead you to the fact that violence and force had to be at the root of any successful slave enterprise. Coercion was a necessary part of this equation.
Some of the most monstrous descriptions of the system of slavery can be found in the many diaries of slaveowners and their wives that exist. Senator James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina, was one of slavery’s biggest proponents. His diary reveals his vicious appetites. “Dear Henry,” he writes to his son about one of his slaves. “In the last will I left to you…Sally Johnson the mother of Louisa and all the children of both. Sally says Henderson is my child…it is possible, but I do not believe it. Louisa’s first child may be mine. Her second I believe is mine.” He had sex with 18- year old Louisa and later began having sex with her then 12-year old daughter Louisa. Thomas Thistlewood’s 18th century diary of his time as overseer and slaveowner in Jamaica contains truly barbaric scenes. He noted every time he had sex (mostly with his slaves), and there were a lot of those entries. The mechanisms he designed to torture misbehaving slaves are incomprehensible and hard to read.
Now obviously, slaveowner descendants are not responsible for what their ancestors did any more than anybody else. I don’t hold any blame or anger towards them. But today, with easily accessible information about the degradation and horrors of slavery, I do believe people should stop trying to excuse/justify/lessen slavery by saying that their ancestors were “good to their slaves.” People might respond, “well, [this slaveowner] did not whip his slaves or allow them to be whipped.” Well, those owners sold slaves that became troublesome. Is that better? They certainly could not have a working farm or plantation if the slaves were not somehow disciplined. There was also tremendous emotional, psychological and sexual abuse which should not be discounted as any “less than” physical abuse. The permanent wounds resulting from seeing one’s parents or children sold, whipped or tortured are all over the slave interviews and narratives.
It is true that slaves themselves referred to having “good” slaveowners, which in the world in which they lived is understandable. If I had been enslaved, I would have hoped to have an owner who landed on the lesser scale of barbarism as well. But I’m going to guess that if slaves had a absolute choice–they’d have chosen to not be slaves at all.
The only silver lining we can hold on to is that the slaveowners were never able to fully crush the spirits and minds and hearts of their slaves. They never fully succeeded in that goal. Slaves formed kinship ties,and created their own communities, traditions, beliefs and practices in the small spaces they carved out of all that degradation.
I do realize others may disagree, and I’m fine with that; decent people can disagree. It is a subject fraught with emotion. I hope we all can spend some time reading some of the narratives and interviews and diaries available and get a better understanding of their lives. And we all should remember that slavery was not just an economic system: it became the very basis of ALL social relationships in the South (which The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South,” by Bruce Levine brilliantly captures.)
I took a walk around the web and elsewhere and I’m asking readers to read some of the excerpts below that describe slavery by those who lived it and saw it. One of the best sources I recommend reading is American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It was taken from first-hand accounts and designed to show the horrors of slavery. The author’s wife, Angelina Grimke, came from a prominent family of slaveowners in South Carolina, but like others, she renounced slavery and became an ardent abolitionist. We can’t ever let people forget the horrors of the lives of the enslaved. I am in awe that any of them survived. I’ll start with a quote from an anonymous slave interview:
I have heard a heap of people say they wouldn’t take the treatment what the slaves took, but they woulda took it or died. If they had been there, they woulda took the very same treatment.
Here are some other excerpts. They will all make you cry a little bit inside.
Ole Missis Gullendin, she’d take a needle and stick it through one of the nigger woman’s lower lip and pin it to the bosom of her dress, and the woman would go roun’ all day with her head drew down that way, and slobberin’.Old Missus done her that way lots of times. There was knots on her lip where the needle had been stuck in it.
From: Testimony of Mrs. Thomas Johns
My marster had a barrel, with nails drove in it, that he would put you in when he couldn’t think of nothin’ else mean enough to do. He would put you in this barrel and roll it down a hill…Sometimes he rolled the barrel in the river and drowned his slaves.
From: Anonymous Slave Narrative
My marster…limited the lashes to 500. After whippin dem, he would rub salt and pepper on their backs, and lay dem before the fire until blistered. And den take a cat…and make him claw the blisters.
From: Slave Narrative of Robert Burns
Old Marster had an overseer that went round and whipped the niggers every morning, and they hadn’t done a thing. He went to my father one morning and said, “Bob, I’m going to whip you this morning.” Daddy said, “I aint done nothing.” And he said, “I know it. I’m going to whip you to keep you from doing anything.”..And Daddy was choppin cotton and just took up his hoe and chopped right down oin that man’s head and knocked his brains out…It killed him….When the nigger trader came along, they sold my Daddy to him.
From: Anonymous Slave Narrative
[My mistress’s] instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife- handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, or a bunch of keys; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found. One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. ..That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage….
From: Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery, and the Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation
The ordinary mode of punishing the slaves is both cruel and barbarous. The masters seldom, if ever, try to govern their slaves by moral influence, but by whipping, kicking, beating, starving, branding, cat-hauling, loading with irons, imprisoning, or by some other cruel mode of torturing. They often boast of having invented some new mode of torture, by which they have “tamed the rascals…
To threaten them with death, with breaking in their teeth or jaws, or cracking their heads, is common talk, when scolding at the slaves.. If negroes could testify, they would tell you of instances of women being whipped until they have miscarried at the whipping-post. ..A large proportion of the blacks have their shoulders, backs, and arms all scarred up, and not a few of them have had their heads laid open with clubs, stones, and brick-bats, and with the butt-end of whips and canes–some have had their jaws broken, others their teeth knocked in or out; while others have had their ears cropped and the sides of their cheeks gashed out. Some of the poor creatures have lost the sight of one of their eyes by the careless blows of the whipper, or by some other violence.
From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, which was designed to show the horrors of slavery firsthand
Old Missus and young Missus told the little slave children that the stork brought the white babies to their mothers, but that the slave children were all hatched from buzzard’s eggs. And we believed it was true.
From: Slave Narrative of Katie Sutton
I recollect seein’ one biscuit crust, one mornin’. Dey throwed it out to the dogs, an’ I beat de dog to it.
From: Anonymous Slave Narrative
Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging…To show the disgusting pollutions of slavery, and how it covers with moral filth every thing it touches, …A planter offered a white man of my acquaintance twenty dollars for every one of his female slaves, whom he would get in the family way. This offer was no doubt made for the purpose of improving the stock, on the same principle that farmers endeavour to improve their cattle by crossing the breed.
This same planter had a female slave who was a member of the Methodist Church; for a slave she was intelligent and conscientious. He proposed a criminal intercourse with her. She would not comply. He left her and sent for the overseer, and told him to have her flogged. It was done. Not long after, he renewed his proposal. She again refused. She was again whipped. He then told her why she had been twice flogged, and told her he intended to whip her till she should yield. The girl, seeing that her case was hopeless, her back smarting with the scourging she had received, and dreading a repetition, gave herself up to be the victim of his brutal lusts.
Other [slaveowners] punish by fastening them down on a log, or something else, and strike them on the bare skin with a board paddle full of holes. This breaks the skin, I should presume, at every hole where it comes in contact with it. Others, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them,cat-haul them–that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by the hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied. This kind of punishment poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.
A punishment dreaded more by the slaves than whipping, ..was invented by a female acquaintance of mine in Charleston–I heard her say so with much satisfaction. It is standing on one foot and holding the other in the hand. Afterwards it was improved upon, and a strap was contrived to fasten around the ankle and pass around the neck; so that the least weight of the foot resting on the strap would choke the person. The pain occasioned by this unnatural position was great; and when continued, as it sometimes was, for an hour or more, produced intense agony.
A woman in Charleston with whom I was well acquainted, had starved a female slave to death. She was confined in a solitary apartment, kept constantly tied, and condemned to the slow and horrible death of starvation.
Benjamin James Harris, a wealthy tobacconist of Richmond, Virginia, whipped a slave girl fifteen years old to death. While he was whipping her, his wife heated a smoothing iron, put it on her body in various places, and burned her severely. The verdict of the coroner’s inquest was, “Died of excessive whipping.” He was tried in Richmond, and acquitted. I attended the trial.
From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses
Throughout the Southwest the Negroes, as a rule, appeared to be worked much harder than in the Eastern and Northern Slave States… They are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor, is painful to witness. This was especially the case with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands (for the force of two plantations was working together), moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground… I think it told a more painful story than any I had ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.
…Slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.
Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, etc.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.
[The overseer] said, ‘That won’t do,’ said he; ‘get down.’ The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulder with his tough, flexible, ‘raw-hide’ whip (a terrible instrument for the purpose). They were well laid on, at arm’s length, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced and exclaimed, ”Yes, sir!’ or ‘Ah, sir!’ or ‘Please, sir!’ not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, ‘Now tell me the truth.’ The girl repeated the same story. ”You have not got enough yet,’ said he; ‘pull up your clothes-lie down.’ The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the raw-hide, across her naked loins with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away from him, not rising, but writing, groveling, and screaming’Oh, don’t, sir! Oh, please stop, master! Please, sir! Please, sir! Oh, that’s enough, master! Oh, Lord! Oh, master, master! Oh, God, master, do stop! Oh, God, master! Oh, God, master!’…The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road, coming diagonally up the ravine, ran out upon the cotton-field. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said: ‘She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work, and she has done it, too.’ “
From: Frederick Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, 1850s
And finally, if you have any more stomach for this, read this first-hand account of Reverend Walsh in 1829 aboard an intercepted slave ship.