DID THE CONFEDERACY DESERVE TO SURVIVE?
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
In the 2003 Civil War movie Gods and Generals, the character of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a famous Union officer, gives a brief, stirring speech to his brother, Tom, about slavery and the Confederate cause. In his short speech, Chamberlain presents a strong argument against the Confederate position. Says Chamberlain,
Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I cannot question their integrity. I believe they are wrong, but I do not question it. But I do question the system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others, to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom, war is a scourge, but so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another.
Many people find this argument simple,
logical, and powerful. After all, wasn't it inconsistent for the Confederates
to claim they were fighting for freedom and independence when at the same time
they were keeping another group of people in bondage? Yes, this is a valid
argument--up to a point. But it's also an incomplete argument, and in some ways
it’s an unfair argument. One reason this argument is both incomplete and unfair
is that it ignores major inconsistencies in the North’s position. For example, one could ask tough, critical
questions about the North’s claim that it was fighting for freedom and for the
preservation of the
* How could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when the Union army was forcing thousands of Southern slaves to work for the Union army, and even to fight against the South, against their will, even when those slaves made it clear they didn't want to leave their plantations and didn't want to fight for the North?
* How could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when four of the Northern states were slave states and when some Northern states wouldn't even allow free blacks to settle within their boundaries?
* How could the North claim it was fighting
for freedom when it was trying to crush an independence movement? To put it
another way, how could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when it was
trying to conquer eleven states that had left the
* How could the North claim it was justified
in fighting to preserve the Union when the original Union was a voluntary
compact between the states, and when the founding fathers had prohibited the
federal government from using force against any of the states? Even President
James Buchanan, who was president when the
* Wasn’t the North’s use of force against the Southern states fundamentally contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which says that governments derive their just powers "from the consent of the governed," and that a people have the natural, God-given right to sever existing political ties, to establish their own government, and to take their place among the family of nations?
A key argument that is implied in the movie character's criticism is that the South did not deserve to be independent because slavery existed within its borders. Critics argue that not only was the South's position inconsistent, but that the Southern states had no moral right to be independent and that therefore the North's invasion was justified.
No Moral Right to
Did the South have no moral right to be
independent because it permitted and upheld slavery? There's no doubt that
slavery was wrong and that it needed to be abolished. But, if the Southern
states had no right to form their own government because slavery existed within
their borders, then the American colonies had no right to form their own
government either, since slavery existed in the colonies and since some of the
colonies (especially the New England colonies) upheld and grew rich from the
slave trade. British leaders noted this inconsistency during the American
Revolution. They pointed out that some of the colonial leaders who were loudly
demanding "freedom and independence" were slaveowners. If the
existence of slavery within a nation's borders means that nation has no right
to exist, then
Every nation and region has its share of
social injustices, and the South was certainly no exception. But what about the
North? For starters, the
The North was home to a cruel form of wage slavery where factory workers, especially those who were immigrants, worked in terrible conditions for wages that were barely sufficient for basic existence. These workers were usually cast aside as soon as they ceased to be productive. On the other hand, many if not most slaves were fed, clothed, and housed for the duration of their lives, even after they grew old and could no longer work. Even some modern scholars agree that many Northern wage-slave factory workers were materially worse off than most Southern plantation slaves (see, for example, John Garraty and Robert McCaughey, The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877, Volume 1, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, p. 385).
Some Northern states had "Black
Codes" that discriminated against free blacks to varying degrees. Some
Northern states wouldn't even allow free blacks to move into their territory.
Let's briefly consider the conditions in one such Northern state,
The head of the family had to register all family members and provide detailed descriptions to the supervisor of the poor, who could expel the whole family at any moment.
Blacks who met these requirements were under constant surveillance and could be disciplined or arrested by any White. They could not vote, sue, or testify in court. . . .
With [Abraham] Lincoln's active and passive support, the state used violence to keep Blacks poor. Most trades and occupations were closed to them, and laws and customs made it difficult for them to acquire real estate. . . .
As for the pursuit of happiness . . . Blacks could not play percussion instruments, and any White could apprehend any slave or servant for "riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, trespasses and seditious speeches." It was a crime for any person to permit "any slave or slaves, servant or servants or color, to the number of three or more, to assemble in his, her or their house, out house, yard or shed for the purpose of dancing or reveling, either by night or by day. . . ." (Forced Into Glory, pp. 185-186)
Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln not only supported the Illinois Black Code, but he voted to deny blacks the right to vote and also voted "to tax Blacks to support White schools Black children couldn't, in general, attend" (Forced Into Glory, p. 186).
Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech”
In any discussion on the South and the Confederacy, critics invariably raise the issue of white supremacy. They are quick to point out that Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States, in his so-called “Cornerstone Speech,” said that one of the foundational principles of the new government was that the white race was superior and that blacks were best suited for slavery. Said Stephens,
Our new government . . . rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. (Cornerstone Speech, March 21, 1861)
When critics quote this statement, they almost never inform the reader that similar views were expressed by Northern politicians and Northern citizens alike. For example, a leading Northern abolitionist journal, the National Era, criticized blacks for supposedly being “so fit for slavery”:
It is the real evil of the negro race that they are so fit for slavery as they are. (National Era, June 2, 1853; Eric Foner, Free Soil, Fee Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 298)
Not only did most Americans believe that
blacks and other minorities were inferior, but they believed that
I say to you in all
frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a negro is not a citizen, cannot be,
and ought not to be, under the constitution of the
Congressman Samuel Cox of Ohio said the following in the House of Representatives on June 2, 1862:
I have been taught in the history of this country that these Commonwealths and this Union were made for white men ; that this Government is a Government of white men ; that the men who made it never intended, by any thing they did, to place the black race on an equality with the white. (Samuel Cox, Eight Years in Congress, D. Appleton & Co., 1865, Kessenger Publishing, 2005, reprint of 1865 edition, p. 156)
Many Northerners believed that the statement
in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal"
did not apply to blacks, but only to whites. Senator Douglas expressed
this position in his fifth debate with
The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. (Fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate: Douglas' Speech, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, p. 697)
A Northern citizen who staunchly supported the Union war effort wrote a letter to the editor saying that the North was fighting for a white nation and a white government and that the North should not use blacks as soldiers:
The white feather party turns up with every great battle, and howls for negro help. There is something eminently disgusting in all this. It is a nation of white men, a government of white men, that we are fighting for. (“Negro Brigades,” Illinois State Register, 14 July 1862)
Lincoln himself made no bones about his views on white supremacy:
. . . anything that argues me into . . . [the] idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. . . . I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, New York: The Library of America, 1989, edited by Don Fehrenbacher, pp. 511-512)
In another speech that he gave that year,
I will say, then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, p. 751)
Lincoln believed that the "all men are created equal" phrase did not refer to inherent equality but only to legal equality in certain respects, and more than once Lincoln called the Declaration of Independence "the white-man's charter of freedom" (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, pp. 269, 477; see also Bennett, Forced Into Glory, pp. 303-304).
Lincoln was by no means the only Republican to hold such views. During the 1860 election Republican candidates described their party as "the true 'White Man's Party' because they wanted to reserve the territories for free white labor" (James McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 123). The Republican candidate for governor in Ohio assured voters that “the Republican Party is the white man’s party . . . and it labors for the prosperity and liberty of the white man” (Merton L. Dillon, The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority, Norton Paperback Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979, p. 240). Joshua Giddings, a leading Radical Republican, declared,
We do not say the black man is, or shall be, the equal of the white man, or that he shall vote or hold office. (Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, p. 291)
Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, an early opponent of slavery and an ardent foe of the extension of slavery into the territories, assured a Republican rally in Chicago that the Republican Party was “the white man’s party” and that he wanted nothing to do with blacks—in fact, he wanted blacks to leave the country:
I, for one, am very much disposed to favor the colonization of such free negroes as are willing to Central America. I want to have nothing to do with the free negro or the slave negro. We, the Republican Party, are the white man's party. [Great applause.] We are for free white men, and for making white labor respectable and honorable, which it never can be when negro slave labor is brought into competition with it. [Great applause.] We wish to settle the territories with free white men, and we are willing that this negro race should go anywhere that it can to better its condition, wishing them God speed, wherever they go. We believe it is better for us that they should not be among us. I believe it will be better for them to go elsewhere. (The Campaign in Illinois, Chicago, 1858, pp. 8-9)
Merton Dillon observes that the abolition of slavery in most of the North in the late eighteenth century actually caused an increase in prejudice against free blacks:
The ending of slavery in the North had not been accompanied by change in the racial attitudes that for so long had supported it. If anything, prejudice increased as the numbers of free Blacks grew and as the insecurities resulting from rapid economic and social change were felt throughout white society. Prejudice was not expressed in verbal slurs and social slights alone. Far more serious was the fact that custom barred most Blacks from economic and educational opportunity. Although striking examples can be cited of Blacks who overcame all such obstacles, the majority were shut out by prejudice from sharing in the profits and advantages of the growing American economy. (The Abolitionists, pp. 20-21)
When Alexis De Tocqueville traveled in America, he noted that racism seemed to be more of a problem in the North than in the South:
On the contrary, the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude never has been known.
It is true that in the North of the Union marriages may be legally contracted between negroes and whites; but public opinion would stigmatize a man who should connect himself with a negress as infamous, and it would be difficult to meet with a single instance of such a union. The electoral franchise has been conferred upon the negroes in almost all the States in which slavery has been abolished; but if they come forward to vote, their lives are in danger. If oppressed, they may bring an action at law, but they will find none but whites among their judges; and although they may legally serve as jurors, prejudice repulses them from that office. The same schools do not receive the child of the black and of the European. In the theatres, gold can not procure a seat for the servile race beside their former masters; in the hospitals they lie apart; and although they are allowed to invoke the same Divinity as the whites, it must be at a different altar, and in their own churches with their own clergy. The gates of Heaven are not closed against these unhappy beings; but their inferiority is continued to the very confines of the other world; when the negro is defunct, his bones are cast aside, and the distinction of condition prevails even in the equality of death. The negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labour, nor the afflictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he can not meet him upon fair terms in life or in death. (Democracy in America, Volume 2, 1838, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904, reprint of 1838 edition, pp. 384-385)
Even after the Civil War, racism was alive and well in the North. Herbert Gutman notes that Northern whites not only viewed blacks as inferior but also women and working-class men:
Neither the Civil War nor the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated northern whites from ideological currents that assigned inferior status to nineteenth-century blacks, women, and working-class men. . . .
Northern whites regularly compared the ex-slaves to the northern Irish and other "degraded . . . races or classes." (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, p. 293)
Several years after the war, prominent
Northern leader William Seward, who had served as
The North has nothing to do with the Negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. . . . They are not of our race.” (William Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, New York: Viking Press, 2001 p. 295)
I could go on for many pages documenting the fact that, unfortunately, throughout the nineteenth century most Americans, North and South, believed in white supremacy. This is why it's unfair when critics quote Stephens' cornerstone speech but remain silent about the fact that most Northerners held very similar views, and that some Northerners held identical views. It's also unfair when critics quote Stephens' speech but say nothing about the Black Codes that existed in most Northern states. Furthermore, not all Southerners agreed with Stephens' belief that blacks were best suited for slavery, but critics rarely mention this fact either.
What Was Slavery Really Like?
So what are the facts about slavery in the South? Did any good come from slavery? Did slavery have any good aspects? Did all slaveowners mistreat their slaves? The subject of slavery in the antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) South is a delicate, highly charged issue because history books and documentaries have usually only told one side of the story. The recent PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America is a prime example of the one-sided, misleading, and incomplete portrayals of Southern slavery that are usually presented to the public. I'm not trying to justify slavery. All I'm saying is that if we're going to talk about slavery, let's be factual about it.
Most history books and documentaries that discuss slavery are full of tragic stories about the bad aspects of slavery, but they rarely mention the good aspects of the institution. Historians typically cite the worst cases of mistreatment and abuse but ignore or minimize the far more numerous cases of humane treatment, mutual respect, and genuine friendship. True, the good aspects of slavery don't outweigh the fact that slavery was wrong, but they should be noted in the interest of fairness and historical truth.
Defending how slavery was usually administered is not the same thing as defending slavery itself. If my daughter were abducted, I would never condone her abduction; however, I would be willing to admit that her abductors did not abuse her, if that were indeed the case. To put it another way, I would never excuse her abductors for their crime, but I would acknowledge that they did not abuse her while they held her captive. Similarly, slavery was wrong no matter how humanely it was usually administered, but let us be willing to admit that most slaves were not brutalized, if that was in fact the case.
Southern slavery may have been the most
humane form of slavery the world has ever known. Most slaves were not mistreated, and most
masters treated their slaves humanely.
Slaves in the South were arguably materially better off than many
factory workers in the North. In many cases, slaves and slaveholders formed
lasting friendships. Most of the
ex-slaves who were interviewed for the W.P.A. narratives and who discussed how
they were treated said their masters were good men. Some slaves remained fiercely loyal to their
masters, even during the war and even though they had ample opportunity to
leave. The suicide rate among slaves was actually substantially lower than the
suicide rate among whites. In part
because of the efforts of numerous slaveowners, millions of slaves voluntarily
accepted Christianity and found peace in their personal lives. In some cases, Christian slaves converted
their masters and afterward enjoyed a better relationship with them (see, for
example, Leslie Howard Owens, This Species of Property: Slave Life and
Culture in the Old South,
Slavery in the
McPherson notes other interesting facts: Although Southern law did not recognize marriages between slaves, 66 to 80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up by their masters (Ordeal By Fire, pp. 35-36). McPherson points out that not only did most slaveowners permit their slaves to marry, but that some masters allowed their slaves to earn money and in some cases to buy their freedom (Ordeal By Fire, p. 34).
Economic Incentives and Job Skill Opportunities
Economic historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman contend that slaves were able to earn money and rise to responsible positions in the slave system, and that in some cases they received a greater share of the product of their labor than did many factory workers in the North (Time on the Cross, Norton Edition with Afterword, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 39-78, 144-150; see also John Niven, The Coming of the Civil War, Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1990, pp. 160-161). Fogel and Engerman discuss some of the various forms of advancement and reward that existed in Southern slavery:
While slavery clearly limited the opportunities of bondsmen [slaves] to acquire skills, the fact remains that over 25 percent of males were managers, professionals, craftsmen, and semiskilled workers. Thus, the common belief that all slaves were menial laborers is false. Rather than being one undifferentiated mass, slave society produced a complex social hierarchy which was closely related to the occupational pyramid. . . .
Neglect of the fact that more than one out of every five adult male slaves held preferred occupational positions, which involved not only more interesting and less arduous labor but also yielded substantially higher real incomes, has encouraged still another oversight: that is, the failure to recognize the existence of a flexible and exceedingly effective incentive system that operated within the framework of slavery. . . .
What planters wanted was not sullen and discontented slaves who did just enough to keep from getting whipped. They wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters. Planters sought to imbue slaves with a “Protestant” work ethic and to transform that ethic from a state of mind into a high level of production. “My negroes have their name up in the neighborhood,” wrote Bennett Barrow, “for making more than anyone else and they think whatever they do is better than anybody else.” Such an attitude could not be beaten into slaves. It had to be elicited.
Much of the managerial attention of planters was focused on the problem of motivating their hands. To achieve the desired response they developed a wide-ranging system of rewards. Some rewards were directed toward improving short-run performance. Included in this category were prizes for the individual or the gang [a team of slaves] with the best picking record on a given day or during a given week. The prizes were such items as clothing, tobacco, and whiskey; sometimes the prize was cash. Good immediate performance was also rewarded with unscheduled holidays or with trips to town on weekends. When slaves worked at times normally set aside for rest, they received extra pay—usually in cash and at the rate prevailing in the region for hired labor. Slaves who were performing well were permitted to work on their own account after normal hours at such tasks as making shingles or weaving baskets, articles which they could sell either to their masters or to farmers in the neighborhood.
Some rewards were directed at influencing behavior over periods of intermediate duration. The rewards in this category were usually paid at the end of the year. Year-end bonuses, given either in goods or in cash, were frequently quite substantial. Bennett Barrow, for example, distributed gifts averaging between $15 and $20 per slave family in both 1839 and 1840. The amounts received by particular slaves were proportional to their performance. It should be noted that $20 was about a fifth of national per capita income in 1840. A bonus of the same relative magnitude today would be in the neighborhood of $1,000.
rewarded slaves who performed well with patches of land ranging up to a few
acres for each family. Slaves grew
marketable crops on these lands, the proceeds of which accrued to them. On the
planters even devised elaborate schemes for profit sharing with their
slaves. William Jemison, an
There was a third category of rewards. These were of a long-term nature, often requiring the lapse of a decade or more before they paid off. Thus, slaves had the opportunity to rise within the social and economic hierarchy that existed under bondage. Field hands could become artisans or drivers. Artisans could be allowed to move from the plantation to town where they would hire themselves out. Drivers could move up to the position of head driver or overseer. Climbing the economic ladder brought not only social status, and sometimes more freedom; it also had significant payoffs in better housing, better clothing, and cash bonuses. (Time on the Cross, pp. 40-41, 147-149)
In a separate study, Fogel observes the following:
Indeed, many large-scale planters had elaborate systems for rewarding exceptional work that not only recognized outstanding performances by field hands but generally led to substantial income differentials between ordinary field hands on the one hand and exceptional workers, especially drivers or artisans, on the other. (Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 191)
Fogel further notes that slaveholders often allowed slaves to grow food for their own use and to sell some of that food for their own profit:
Most U.S. planters allowed slaves to supplement rations with vegetables raised in gardens or by rearing small livestock and often purchased eggs, chickens, and vegetables raised by slaves for use on their own tables [i.e., on the slaves’ tables]. There were also masters who rewarded top hands by allowing them plots of up to a few acres to grow cotton or other staples on their own time, with the proceeds of the sales of these crops accruing to the hands. . . .
A recent study by
Phillip D. Morgan of the practices of planters in the low country of
Mark Smith, citing the research of Philip
Morgan, observes that some slaves in
Philip D. Morgan,
for example, has shown that rice coast
Slaves in Southern cities had additional opportunities to advance themselves. This was no small number of people either. In 1860 there were some 400,000 slaves living in cities, "and many additional thousands were hired out by their owners" (J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 75). J. G. Randall and David Donald, citing the research of Richard B. Morris, point out some of the opportunities that were available to these slaves:
By the nature of their employments and the conditions of their service, as Richard B. Morris has pointed out, these urban and industrial slaves were a step removed from plantation service. . . . many of them were, despite numerous legal restrictions, "permitted to hold property, receive wages, make contracts, and assume supervisory responsibilities"; in addition, they possessed "some measure of mobility and occasionally a limited choice as to masters and occupations." "In industry slaves were customarily reimbursed for services performed beyond an accepted minimum," Professor Morris continues. ". . . slaves hired to others occasionally received directly a portion of the hiring wages. . . . Masters were often reluctant to force slaves to work as hirelings in occupations they disliked or for masters whom they found uncongenial." An increasing number of slaves were permitted to hire their own time--i.e., to work at whatever employment they pleased, paying their masters an annual rental. Such "nominal slaves" were able "to control their earnings, separate property, or occupational choices." (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 76)
James and Lois Horton point out that free blacks in the North had fewer opportunities to engage in skilled labor than did free blacks and slaves in the South:
free black skilled workers seemed limited in the North in some ways that they
were not in the South. Slaves did
virtually all types of work, and . . . in the South . . . free blacks were
employed at many levels, even in skilled jobs.
It was not unusual to find black carpenters, blacksmiths, and coopers
paint a dismal picture of black opportunities for skilled work in
White workers in the North generally saw black craftsmen as competitors and tried to exclude them from the work force. . . . Blacks were barred from membership in the trade associations, dominated by German and some Irish immigrants, which pressured white businesses to hire black workers only for “appropriate” menial employment. (In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 paperback edition, pp. 117-118)
Historian Patrick Rael notes that blacks in the South had more opportunity to learn technical skills than did blacks in the North:
Free African Americans in the North generally lacked the opportunity for social mobility that was available in the more highly stratified Lower South. In 1860, African American northerners claimed between 10 and 12 percent of the property claimed by whites in the region; free African Americans in the Lower South claimed over 14 percent of the property claimed by whites in that region. . . .
on occupational status reinforce findings regarding the compressed social
structure of the black North. Free black men in the North enjoyed little of the
occupational status that accrued to free African Americans in the Lower South.
Leonard Curry’s analysis of occupational skill levels of blacks in antebellum
cities demonstrates the great disparities between the North and South. Whereas
in Boston nearly 80 percent of employed free blacks occupied jobs that required
no or few skills, less than 20 percent of Charleston’s free male black
workforce was so employed. In contrast, almost 60 percent of free black workers
black Philadelphian commented in 1855 that ‘‘most of the colored mechanics in
Most slaves were provided with good housing
for that era. The Northern
abolitionists’ claim that slaves lived in inhumane housing was unfounded. The “houses of slaves compared well with the
housing of free workers in the antebellum era” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on
the Cross, p. 116). Some slaves who
worked in Southern cities had private homes "that rivaled those of country
slaveholders in space and rustic luxury" (Owens, This Species of
Property, p. 147). On "many of the farms the slave cabins were not
much inferior to the master's cabin," and on some plantations "they
were nearly as comfortable as the overseer's cottage" (Kenneth Stampp, The
Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, Vintage Books
Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 293). According to information from the 1860
census, there were 5.2 slaves per house on large plantations, whereas there
were 5.3 persons per house in free households, and most slave families, like
most free families, lived in a house by themselves and didn’t have to share the
house with others (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, pp.
115-116). In fact, Fogel and Engerman
point out that the typical slave cabin probably provided more sleeping space
per person than did the homes of most workers in
As late as 1893, a
survey of the housing of workers in
Relations Between Slave and Master
Good relations often existed between slaves
and slaveowners. As one example of this fact, let's consider the relationship
between Confederate soldier Henry Kyd Douglas and one of his family's slaves
named Enoch, who had left the family and had gone to live in
I was surprised
about this time to receive a letter from Enoch, whom I have spoken of as my
father's colored coachman. He had gone off from home and was living in
Another case in point is that of Jefferson
Davis, the president of the Confederate States of
Without question he
respected individual blacks and in turn received their respect. His dealings
with his slave James Pemberton and with Ben Montgomery as both a slave and a
freedman illustrate such a relationship. Inviting
At a time when many Americans, in all parts
of the country, still opposed allowing blacks to testify in court,
I hope the negroes' fidelity will be duly rewarded and regret that we are not in a position to aid and protect them. There is, I observe, a controversy which I regret as to allowing negroes to testify in court. From brother Joe [Joseph Davis], many years ago, I derived the opinion that they should be made competent witnesses, the jury judging of their credibility. (Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823-1889, selected and edited by Hudson Strode, New York: De Capo Press, 1995, reprint, p. 188)
Few people know that Davis and his wife informally
adopted a mulatto (part-white-part-black) orphan during the war. For those who
care to know, the child looked like a young African-American boy, except that
his skin was slightly less dark than the skin of most other black children; his
facial features and hair were clearly African-American. Mrs. Davis rescued the
young boy from a cruel guardian and brought him with her to live at the
Confederate White House in
Many other examples of good relations
between slaves and slaveholders could be cited. For example, there were numerous
instances during the war when slaves hid food from Union troops and then gave
the food to their masters and their families (who in turn shared it with them).
One such instance occurred when Union forces occupied Charles and Mary Jones'
plantation on the
Ex-slaves of the Sea Islands in
"Many ex-slaves," notes Leslie Howard Owens, "chose to live with their masters after emancipation, some out of affection" (This Species of Property, p. 86). Owens continues,
The affection that masters and domestics [domestic slaves] showed one another took many forms. At the death of Jimmy, a "faithful servant," one of her owners, whom she had suckled in his infancy, experienced her loss deeply. He lamented that she "always felt more like a mother than a servant to me and was a kind mother to all my children." Masters' feelings at these times seem to strip the slave's personality of any resemblance to stereotypes. Jimmy's master continued his tribute as follows: she "was a kind mother to all my children. I frequently left them entirely in her care and always found her faithful in nursing and taking care of them and they all loved her as a mother and she loved them. . . ." In other cases, masters compared their domestics to relatives and friends: [In speaking to his sister during a funeral, one master said] "True, sister, he was a servant, and you may be vexed or ashamed, that I should in any manner compare him with yourself . . . but although his skin was black his heart was always in the right place." (This Species of Property, pp. 116-117)
Some female slaves occupied an especially honored place in plantation homes. Owens observes that one of "the most privileged domestics was the black mammy of the large estate" (This Species of Property, p. 118). Owens provides further information on these women:
She "is in fact the foster Mother of her Master's children and is treated with all the respect due to the faithful discharge of the duties of her station. . . ." The mammy nursed them through their illnesses and watched them as they grew into adulthood. She also showered them with a loving affection, which they returned. Many whites mourned for her at her death. (This Species of Property, p. 118)
One almost never hears about the fact that at times free blacks sought refuge on slaveholders' plantations to escape persecution during periods of rumored slave revolts. Says Owens,
There were times,
too, when slaves witnessed the hasty retreat of free blacks to the plantation's
safety in order to escape repression by whites during periods of rumored slave
uprisings. Elizabeth Jefferson of
Slave Marriages and Families
Most masters strove to accommodate a slave couple's desire to get married, and some sought to provide a form of recognition for the marriage. Cooper says "most slaveowners . . . recognized families among their slaves, despite the absence of any statutory provision or protection for the slave family" (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 251). As a matter of fact, Fogel and Engerman observe that slave marriages “were not only recognized but actively promoted under plantation codes” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p. 128). This promotion, say Fogel and Engerman, came in various forms:
To promote the stability of slave families, planters often combined exhortations with a system of rewards and sanctions. The rewards included such subsidies as separate houses for married couples, gifts of household goods, and cash bonuses. They often sought to make the marriage a solemn event by embedding it in a well-defined ritual. Some marriage ceremonies were performed in churches, others by the planter in the “big house.” In either case, marriages were often accompanied by feasts and sometimes made the occasion for a general holiday. . . .
For most slaves it was the law of the plantation, not of the state, that was relevant. Only a small proportion of the slaves ever had to deal with the law enforcement mechanism of the state. Their daily lives were governed by plantation law. Consequently, the emphasis put on the sanctity of the slave family by many planters, and the legal status given to the slave family under plantation law, cannot be lightly dismissed. (Time on the Cross, pp. 128-129)
The recollections of elderly ex-slaves and other historical evidence disclose a variety of ways in which slave marriages were publicly announced and legitimized. . . . Elderly ex-slaves also recollected owner-sponsored ceremonies. (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, pp. 273-274)
John Blassingame points out that thousands of slaves were married in Southern churches:
notwithstanding, thousands of slaves were married in Southern churches between
1800 and 1860. For example, out of a total of 1,228 marriages performed in
Episcopal churches in
Contrary to the portrayals often given in
textbooks and documentaries, most slave marriages and slave families were not
broken up by their masters. "A
study of wills and advertisements," says Francis Butler Simkins,
"shows that many masters" stipulated that their slaves "were not
to be sold away from their families or transported out of the state" (A
History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher,
1963, p. 123). As mentioned, even a strongly pro-Northern historian like
McPherson acknowledges that 66 to 80 percent of slave marriages were not broken
up by their masters. Fogel and Engerman
note that information from the slave market in
Data contained in
the sales records in
When circumstances led to the separation of a slave family, some owners and others tried to help the family in any way they could. Notes Gutman,
The separation of slave family members by sale or for other reasons led some sensitive owners to encourage contact between them. . . .
of slave familial feelings deeply affected some owners and other whites who
came into contact with these slaves. Whites intervened sometimes to prevent the
sale of slaves. After a hired
needed to respect the marital ties of his slaves; yet a Tennesseean purchased
several slaves at a public sale, not because he needed them, but because of
"their intermarriage with my servants and their appeals to me to do
A number of slaves were freed by their owners in the owners' wills. African-American scholars John Franklin and Alfred Moss note that for many years slaveholders, "stricken by conscience, impelled by affection, or yielding to the temptation to evade responsibility, manumitted [freed] their slaves in large numbers. . . ." (From Slavery to Freedom, Eighth Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 168, emphasis added).
Other slaves earned enough money to purchase their freedom. Some owners assisted with the purchase of freedom by accepting payments over a period of time or by agreeing to accept a generously low price. Stampp explains how some slaves managed to buy their freedom:
Occasionally, they earned the necessary funds by working nights and Sundays. More often, they hired their own time. Either way, they gradually accumulated enough money to pay their masters an amount equal to their value and thus obtained deeds of emancipation. Benevolent masters helped ambitious bondsmen by permitting them to make the payments in installments over a period of years or by accepting a sum lower than the market price. (The Peculiar Institution, p. 96)
Allan Nevins noted that even in the 1850s "many" slaves continued to buy their freedom:
Even in the eighteen-fifties, many slaves, particularly in towns and among the skilled or semi-skilled, continued to buy their liberty. (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, p. 161)
In contrast to many factory workers in the North, and even in contrast to many low-wage workers in our day, many if not most slaves received relatively good medical care. Most slaves received at least some medical care. And some slaves received exceptional medical care. Says Stampp,
To treat their sick
slaves, many masters employed trained physicians, often the same ones who
treated the white families. A few large planters retained resident doctors on
their estates; occasionally several small planters together contracted with a
doctor for his full-time service. More commonly a slaveholder made a yearly
contract with a physician who agreed to charge a fixed amount for each visit.
"Bargained today with Dr. Trotti to practice at the plantation,"
This statement was much too optimistic, but it did give recognition to a class of humane masters whose expenditures for medical service went far beyond the simple dictates of self-interest. In mourning the death of an old slave woman, a North Carolinian noted that his physician had given the case "assiduous attention" for six months, "devoting to it more reflection and research than he had (as he informs me) to any case within ten years". . . .
A few masters
patronized hospitals which were built and maintained especially for the care of
sick slaves. During the 1850's, three
Wise and humane
masters gave proper attention to slave women who were either expectant or
nursing mothers. A Mississippian ordered his overseer to treat them with
"great tenderness." A South Carolinian required "lying-in
women" to remain at the quarters for four weeks after parturition, because
their health might be "entirely ruined by want of care in this
Some masters were equally solicitous about the care of slave children. On the smaller establishments they appointed an old woman to watch the children while the mothers worked in the fields. On the plantations they built nurseries where the plantation nurse cooked for the children, mended their clothing, and looked after them during illness. (The Peculiar Institution, pp. 311-313)
Fogel and Engerman:
While the quality of slave medical care was poor by modern standards, there is no evidence of exploitation in the medical care typically provided for plantation slaves. . . .
That adequate maintenance of the health of their slaves was a central objective of most planters is repeatedly emphasized in instructions to overseers and in other records and correspondence of planters. . . .
Slave health care was at its best for pregnant women. “Pregnant women,” wrote one planter, “must be treated with great tenderness, worked near home and lightly.” “Light work” was generally interpreted as 50 to 60 percent of normal effort and was to exclude activity which required heavy physical effort. During the last month of pregnancy work was further reduced. . . .
Demographic evidence gives strong support to descriptions of pre- and post-natal care contained in plantation rules, letters, and diaries. Computations based on data from the 1850 census indicate that the average death rate due to pregnancy among slave women in the prime childbearing ages, twenty to twenty-nine, was just one per thousand. . . . The slave mortality rate in childbearing was not only low on an absolute scale, it was also lower than the maternal death rate experienced by southern white women. (Time on the Cross, pp. 117, 122-123)
Work Hours and Time Off
Abolitionists claimed that most slaves worked intolerably long hours. This claim is repeated in the PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America. In point of fact, “the slave work year was shorter than the free work year” (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, p. 78, original emphasis). Fogel qualifies this observation by making the argument that slaves were forced to work harder than were free workers; yet, he admits that slaves also earned 15 percent more income per clock-time hour than free workers earned (Without Consent or Contract, p. 79). In addition, Fogel concedes that on average slaves enjoyed longer rest breaks during the workday and more time off on Sundays than did free workers (Without Consent or Contract, p. 79). As a matter of fact, many if not most masters gave their slaves part of Saturday off and all of Sunday off (Without Consent or Contract, pp. 77-78). Not only did slaves work less hours than did free workers, but they also worked less hours than did workers in English textile mills:
Recent studies on the labor routine on U.S. cotton plantations have revealed that the average work week during the spring, summer, and fall was about 58 hours, well below the 72 hours thought to have prevailed in English textile mills during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and also below the 60-hour work week of northern commercial farmers in the United States during the first quarter of the twentieth century. (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, pp. 28-29)
Similarly, slaves operating under the task system in coastal Georgia chiseled out from the working day more time to call their own by completing their tasks early. On the whole, slaves’ independent production and the market they helped fashion, and participated in, while perhaps not making them freemen, none the less eased some of the burdens of slavery. (Debating Slavery, p. 56)
In addition, slaves were by no means always confined to their farms and plantations. Many if not most slaves were allowed to visit other estates or to go into nearby towns on a fairly regular basis. A few slaves lived in a state of virtual freedom. As mentioned, some slaves earned money by working on their time off. Slaves were usually free to attend church, and often times they were encouraged to do so. Blassingame observes that many slaves did not have to sneak off the plantation in order to leave for short periods for social visits and the like:
Many slaves did not have to use these stratagems. Their masters did not try to restrict their recreational activities as long as they did not interfere with the plantation routine. According to Robert Anderson, "The slaves on a plantation could get together almost any time they felt like it, for little social affairs, so long as it did not interfere with the work on the plantation. During the slack times the people from one plantation could visit one another, by getting permission and sometimes they would slip away and make visits anyway." Similarly, Elijah Marrs said his master "allowed us generally to do as we pleased after his own work was done, and we enjoyed the privilege granted to us." (The Slave Community, p. 108)
The more religious planters not only excused their slaves from work on religious holidays but provided great feasts and recreation on these occasions. "During these periods, which lasted from four to six days," says Blassingame, "planters prepared sumptuous feasts for their slaves" (The Slave Community, p. 107). He continues,
Whole hogs, sheep, or beeves were cooked and the slaves ate peach cobbler and apple dumplings, and frequently got drunk. Often the festival seasons included dances and athletic contests. (The Slave Community, p. 107)
In at least one part of the South, slaves didn’t have to be back on their plantations until 8:00 p.m.; only after 8:00 p.m. did they need a pass (Nehemiah Adams, A Southside View of Slavery: An Eyewitness Account of Servitude in the Antebellum South, Dahlonega, GA: Confederate Reprint Company, 2001, reprint of 1854 original, pp. 24-26).
Nehemiah Adams, a New Englander who visited the South prior to the Civil War, said the following about what he observed regarding work conditions, work hours, time off, and overall treatment of slaves:
Some planters allow their hands [slaves] a certain portion of the soil for their own culture, and give them stated times to work it; some prefer to allow them out of the whole crop a percentage equal to such a distribution of land; and some do nothing of the kind. . . . It is the common law, however, with all who regard public opinion at the south, to allow their hands certain privileges and exemption, such as long rest in the middle of the day, early dismissal from the field at night, a half day occasionally, in addition to holidays. . . .
They raise poultry, swine, melons; keep bees; catch fish; peddle brooms, and small articles of cabinet making; and, if they please, lay up the money, or spend it on their wives and children, or waste it for things hurtful. . . . Some slaves are owners of bank and railroad shares. A slave woman, having had three hundred dollars stolen from her by a white man, her master was questioned in court as to the probability of her having had so much money. He said that he had not infrequently borrowed fifty and a hundred dollars of her and added she was always very strict as to his promised times of payment.
It is but fair, in this and all other cases, to describe the conditions of things as commonly approved and prevailing; and when there are painful exceptions, it is but just to consider what is the public sentiment with regard to them. By this rule a visitor is made to feel that good and kind treatment of the slaves is the common law, subject, of course, to caprices and passions. (A Southside View of Slavery, pp. 35-36)
One frequently runs across the claim that slaves had no legal protection. This is simply not true. I'm not saying slaves had all the legal protection they deserved, but the often-heard claim that they had no protection whatsoever is incorrect. Stampp discusses the legal status of slaves:
slave," said a
responded with laws extending some protection to the persons of slaves. Masters
who refused to feed and clothe slaves properly might be fined; in several
states the court might order them to be sold, the proceeds going to the
dispossessed owners. Those who abandoned or neglected insane, aged, or infirm
slaves were also liable to fines. In
All Southern states had laws that imposed penalties for mistreating slaves. Whites who killed slaves could be convicted of first- or second-degree murder or of manslaughter, depending on the circumstances, and could be put to death for the crime. A few whites were actually executed for murdering slaves, and in a few other cases, Southern courts refused to convict slaves who had killed brutal overseers because they had acted in self-defense to resist a potentially deadly assault (Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, pp. 220-221).
Southern legislatures sought to provide
other legal protections for slaves. Some legislatures passed laws that limited
the number of hours a slave could be worked in a day. All legislatures enacted
laws that set aside Sunday as a day of rest for slaves. Some states provided
for trials by black juries for slaves accused of misdemeanor offenses. In most
states, slaves who were accused of a capital crime were given jury trials in
the regular courts. Certain states, like
Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese, two leading authorities on American slavery, discuss the legal status of slaves and their treatment:
Southerners admitted cases of extreme cruelty to slaves but asserted their infrequency. . . . [In 1851] the usually hard-headed Lisa McCord challenged her cousin, Mary Cheves Dulles of Philadelphia, on Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Why, have you not been at the South enough to know that our gentlemen don’t keep mulatto wives, do not whip negroes to death, nor commit all the various other enormities that she [the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] describes?” As late as 1913, Mrs. R. M. Grune, a descendant of middling slaveholders in Alabama, still maintained that “many” slaveholders never whipped their slaves. She acknowledged the existence of vicious masters but insisted that “upright just citizens” scorned them. . . .
Agricultural societies, awarding premiums for the best-managed plantations, included humane treatment of slaves in good management. In 1846 in Alabama, a committee of the Barbour County Agricultural Society acknowledged abuses and recommended fearless exposure and correction. . . . : “Your committee feels well warranted in adding that the master who could disregard all those motives for good treatment of slaves must be brutal indeed, and must be so obtuse in his intellect as to act against the plainest principles of reason. For such cases your committee invokes enforcement of the laws, and the expression of a strong condemnation by public sentiment”. . . . The clergy reinforced the theme frequently, even stridently. A master must provide his slave with food and raiment, James Henry Thornwell preached, not only because it is good policy but in fear of the damnation of his own soul. . . .
From Virginia to Texas, notorious slaveholders—most notably those who killed slaves—found it advisable to relocate to some far-off place. Although juries might be loath to acquit [cruel slaveholders] . . . the wretch could face the wrath of irate citizens. Anne Matilda King of Georgia, horrified at the news that a planter had whipped a boy of 12 to 14 years to death and then promptly departed for Savannah, wrote her brother: “Now if this Dr. Moffet gets clear, I think the abolitionists may well talk of cruelty to slaves.” Even masters with a genuine complaint about their slaves reacted strangely. In Kentucky a master vigorously but vainly opposed the execution of a slave who had shot and wounded him. And what are we to make of the recollection of Litt Young, who had been a slave in Mississippi? His master spent $500 to buy a slave condemned to hang for the murder of his previous master. If true, the community had to believe, notwithstanding the slave’s conviction, that he had killed a monster in self-defense. . . .
Public opinion expressed circumspect approval for a slave who killed a barbaric overseer or even a barbaric master. . . . In South Carolina, 83 prosecutions for cruelty led to 31 convictions. . . . Judge John Belton O’Neall sentenced two white men to death for the “cruel and inhuman murder” of a fugitive slave on whom they had turned dogs loose. Although one of them, Thomas Motley, hailed from a wealthy Charleston family, Governor John L. Manning refused a pardon. . . . It was 1834, at the height of sectional tensions, but hanged they were. . . .
Less dramatically, whites reported and former slaves attested that irate citizens, often women, strenuously demanded intervention by community leaders against cruel masters. . . .
Transplanted Yankees like S. S. Prentiss and visitors like Eleanor Baker, writing privately, supported that contention [that bad masters were scorned by the community]. Prentiss, in a letter to his brother in Maine in 1831, described the slaves of Mississippi as “kindly treated” and probably as “fully as happy as their masters.” Public opinion, he had no doubt, did not tolerate cruelty. Mrs. Baker, visiting Charleston in 1848, privately noted that cruel planters were rare and invariably discussed by the gentry with the utmost distaste. Even Bishop John England, neither mendacious nor naïve, declared, “The owner who would treat his slave unkindly or cruelly would not be sustained by public opinion, and nothing would more sink a man in public estimation than the character of a cruel master”. . . . Catherine Cooper Hopley reported that respectable Virginians scorned and even ran off brutal masters. . . . A Methodist clergyman in Alabama got a taste of the community ostracism Southerners liked to talk about. A church court acquitted the Reverend James Boatwright of Greensboro of charges of brutality to his slave. It is doubtful that he was guilty, but he had to retire from the ministry anyway. His congregants thought him guilty and refused to attend his church. (The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 372-375, 378)
Punishment -- Whipping
According to the abolitionists, as well as most modern history books, the average slave’s daily life was one of brutality and fear, and most slaves were whipped frequently or even daily. There is simply no evidence to support this claim. Yes, there were some cruel masters, and some slaves were subjected to inhumane, brutal treatment. However, the available evidence indicates that such mistreatment was the exception and not the rule, and that most slaves were treated humanely and often kindly. This does not mean that slavery was “no big deal” or that it was “okay.” It does mean that slavery, though undeniably wrong as an institution, was usually administered in a humane manner.
Before we consider some of the evidence on this subject, we need to step back for a moment and realize that we must be careful about judging people in the nineteenth century by our modern standards. Fogel and Engerman:
There was nothing exceptional about the use of whipping to enforce discipline among slaves until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It must be remembered that through the centuries whipping was considered a fully acceptable form of punishment, not merely for criminals but also for honest men or women who in some way shirked their duties. . . .
Although some masters were brutal, even sadistic, most were not. The overwhelming majority of the ex-slaves in the W.P.A. narratives who expressed themselves on the issue reported that their masters were good men. (Time on the Cross, pp. 145-146)
Back in the 1800s, whipping was one of the punishments that the U.S. Army used to discipline disobedient soldiers. Local sheriffs would sometimes employ the whip as punishment for crimes. Some parents would whip their children. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had some of their slaves whipped. Managers in Northern factories would occasionally use force to correct or punish an unproductive worker. We live in a world that is very different from nineteenth-century America.
Also, the severity of whippings could vary greatly. Not all whippings were extreme or prolonged. Not all whippings left scars. A few of the masters who used whipping as a punishment did the whipping themselves, while other masters put a limit on how many lashes could be administered, because they wanted to ensure their slaves were not injured. Blassingame notes that most planters instructed their overseers not to injure their slaves:
Most planters enjoined [prohibited ] the overseer from maiming, scarring, or disabling their property. Instead, he was to treat slaves with “care and humanity” and punish them in a humane fashion free from passion. In addition, the overseer was not to “use abusive language to nor to threaten the negroes, as it makes them unhappy and sometimes induces them to run away.” (The Slave Community, p. 242)
Overseers who were too lenient stood a decent chance of keeping their jobs, but overseers who were cruel were usually fired. Eugene Genovese:
“It is an indisputable fact,” reported Solon Robinson, “that an overseer who urged the slaves beyond their strength, or that inflicted cruel or unnecessary punishment, or failed to see them well-fed, or kindly taken care of when sick, would be as sure to lose his place as though he permitted them to be idle and waste their time”. . . .
The slaveholders, however, regularly fired their overseers for cruelty. David Gavin of South Carolina exploded with rage when his overseers’ wife beat slaves without cause; his diary shows that he was more concerned with the injustice to his people [the slaves] than with the damage to plantation efficiency. John C. Burruss of Louisiana wasted no time in firing an overseer who had had his throat cut, almost fatally, by slaves whom he victimized while drunk. When Haller Nutt of Louisiana visited his plantation to find “a horrid account of negligence and ill-treatment,” he fired the overseer. Henry Palfrey of Louisiana fired an overseer for mistreating his slaves and explained, “He is a man of violent and ungovernable temper, and of a jealous, suspicious, and vindictive disposition.” Jerry Boykins, an ex-slave from Georgia, recalled that his master did all the whipping on the plantation because his slaves had killed two overseers for whipping cruelly. The courts upheld masters in civil suits when they summarily discharged overseers for cruelty, and occasionally an overseer went to jail for it. (Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1976, p. 14)
So how often were slaves whipped? It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question, but the evidence indicates that whipping occurred far less frequently than the abolitionists claimed it did, and that in most cases the whipping was not done in a cruel manner. One indication of this comes from the records of the Bennet Barrow plantation in Louisiana. These records cover the years 1840 to 1842. Barrow believed in strict discipline for his slaves. His attitude was “spare the rod, spoil the slave.” Yet, even on Barrow’s plantation, whipping was by no means a daily occurrence; in fact, a substantial number of his slaves were never whipped.
There is disagreement among scholars over the number and frequency of whippings indicated in Barrow’s records, but even the most negative interpretation of the numbers produces a picture that is greatly at odds with the abolitionist picture of slavery. According to Fogel and Engerman, Borrow had 200 slaves, 120 of whom were in his work force. Over a 23-month period between 1840 and 1842, Fogel and Engerman count 160 whippings, “an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year” and “about half the hands were not whipped at all during the period” (Time on the Cross, p. 145). Herman Gutman and Richard Sutch dispute Fogel and Engerman’s findings. They contend that Barrow had 129 slaves, and that 77 of them were working slaves (Reckoning with Slavery, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 64). They summarize their findings on the number and frequency of whippings indicated in the Barrow records as follows:
Eighty percent of the men were whipped at least once during the 23-month period. Seventy percent of the women felt the lash at least once. In all, 50 of 66 male and female cotton pickers were whipped at least once during this period. These 50 slaves together were whipped no fewer than 150 times. (Reckoning with Slavery, p. 65)
Even taking these numbers as Gutman and Sutch present them, this is still a far cry from the abolitionist description of slavery. If 80 percent of the men were whipped one or more times in the 23-month period, that means that 20 percent were never whipped during that period—and, again, keep in mind that we’re talking about a plantation where the master believed in “spare the rod, spoil the slave.” If 70 percent of the women were whipped one or more times, that means that 30 percent were not whipped. If 50 of 66 of the cotton pickers were whipped at least once, that means 16—nearly one-fourth of them—were not whipped. Furthermore, “at least once” could be mean one time or only two or three times over a two-year period. In addition, given the fact that Barrow was an outspoken opponent of mistreating slaves (Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, pp. 373-374), there is reason to believe that the whippings administered on his plantation were not done in a cruel manner.
When we look more closely at the Barrow records, we see that Gutman and Sutch’s summary does not tell the whole story. As mentioned, Gutman and Sutch note that 50 of the 66 cotton pickers were whipped at least once in the 23-month period under discussion. However, the Barrow records show that 13 of those 50 were whipped only once during those 23 months. So 16 of those slaves were never whipped at all and 13 were whipped only once. Of the remaining 37 slaves, i.e., those who were whipped two or more times, 16 were whipped twice, and another 16 were whipped three to four times—in 23 months. Only 5 of the 50 were whipped more than four times. In other words, 16 of the 66 cotton pickers were never whipped; 13 were whipped .055 times per year (or less than once a year); 16 were whipped once a year; and another 16 were whipped no more than twice a year. (To be fair, I should observe that Gutman and Sutch present this information in the form of a table [p. 65, Table 2], but they don’t address it in their comments.)
What about what the slaves themselves said about how they were treated? By even the most critical reading of the slave accounts, those accounts indicate that slaves were treated humanely more often than not. For example, based on his analysis of the slave narratives, Stephen Crawford estimates that “36 to 45 percent of southern slaves lived on plantations of frequent physical punishment” (Debating Slavery, pp. 54-55). Even if we take the high end of Crawford’s estimate (45 percent), that means that 55 percent of slaves did not live on plantations where physical punishment was “frequent” (Crawford doesn’t define “frequent”). Moreover, just because slaves lived on a plantation of frequent physical punishment does not mean that all of them were subjected to physical punishment. If the Barrow plantation is any indication, the majority of the slaves who constituted Crawford’s 45 percent may only have been whipped once or twice per year, and many of them may never have been whipped. If Crawford’s estimate of 36 percent is correct (and I suspect even that number is high), then 64 percent of slaves did not live on plantations of frequent physical punishment, and many of those who did may have been whipped only rarely or never, as we’ve seen from the Barrow plantation records.
Perhaps this is why so many slaves said they were treated humanely and even kindly. No matter how critically or rigidly one reads the slaves’ own accounts, there is no escaping the conclusion that the majority of slaves who commented on their treatment spoke well of their former masters and/or said they were not mistreated. The following quotes admittedly constitute only a very tiny snapshot of what the slaves themselves said about their treatment, but they reflect the views of the majority of those slaves who talked about how they were treated. (Before we read the quotes, please be advised that some of the slaves used the N-word. I apologize if anyone is offended by this, but many slaves used the word to refer to themselves and to their fellow African Americans, and they seemed to do so with no intent to offend or denigrate.)
Former slave Simon Phillips:
People has the wrong idea of slave days. We was treated good. My Master never laid a hand on me the whole time I was with him. . . . Sometimes [during Reconstruction, after slavery was abolished] we loaned the master money when he was hard pushed. (Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Washington, D.C.: Federal Writers Project, W.P.A.,1941, Vol. 1, p. 224)
Former slave Charles Anderson:
Master Stone's cousin kept house for him. I remember her well. They [the Stone family] were all very nice to us always. He had a large farm. He had twenty servants in his yard. We all lived there close together. My sister and mama cooked. We had plenty to eat. We had beef in spring and summer. Mutton and kid on special occasions. We had hog in the fall and winter. We had geese, ducks, and chickens. We had them when we needed them. We had a field garden. He raised corn, wheat, oats, rye, and tobacco. . . .
I don't know when freedom came on. I never did know. We was five or six years breaking up. Master Stone never forced any of us to leave. He give some of them a horse when they left. I cried a year to go back. It was a dear place to me and the memories linger with me every day. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 14)
Former slave “Aunt Adeline”:
My master's folks always treated me well. I had good clothes. Sometimes I was whipped for things I should not have done just as the white children were. . . .
When the war was over, Mr. Parks was still in the South and gave to each one of his slaves who did not want to come back to Arkansas so much money. . . .
After the War many soldiers came to my mistress, Mrs. Blakely, trying to make her free me. I told them I was free but I did not want to go anywhere, that I wanted to stay in the only home that I had ever known. In a way that placed me in a wrong attitude. . . . Sometimes I was threatened for not leaving but I stayed on. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 4. My copy of Vol. 2, Part 1, is from the Gutenberg Project and has no page numbers, so I have assigned them page numbers. All quotes from Vol. 2, Part 1, can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11255/11255-h/11255-h.htm)
Former slave D. B. Gaines:
Touching slavery, the white people to whom my parents belonged were tolerant and did not allow their slaves to be abused by patrollers and outsiders. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, pp. 5-6. This quote and those that follow are from RTF versions of the slave narrative volumes, and I have followed the page numbering indicated by RTF pagination.)
Former Rose Adway:
Mama was the cook for her missis in slavery times.
I think my folks went off after freedom and then come back. That was after they had done been set free. I can remember that all right. . . .
My folks said their owners was all right. You know they was 'cause they [her parents] come back. I remember that all right. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 6)
Former slave Amsy Alexander:
My father and mother [both of whom worked in the fields on the farm] were well treated by our master and then both she and my father were quiet and their masters were good to them naturally. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 9)
Former slave Sarah Anderson:
My master was Madison Newsome and my missis was Sarah Newsome. Named after her? Must a done it. Ma and her children was out wallowin' in the dirt when the Yankees come by. Sometimes I stayed in the house with my white folks all night.
My mother and father say they was well treated. That's what they say. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 17)
Former slave James Gill Marvell:
Ole mars [the master], he would come from Alabama to see 'bout the business two and three times every year and on some of them occasions he would bring Mars Jeff with him and Mars Jeff [who was the master’s son], he always never failed to have something for me, candy and such like, and them times when Mars Jeff come was when we had the fun. Us just run wild playin' and if it was in the summer time we was in the bayou swimmin' or fishin' continually, but all those good times ceased after a while when the War come and the Yankees started all their devilment. We were Confederates all the while, leastwise I means my mammy and my pappy and me and all the rest of the children 'cause ole mars was and Mars Jeff would have fought them too, and me with him if we had been old enough. . . .
When de Yankees would come they would ask my mammy, “Aunt Mary, have you seen any Se-cesh [Confederates] today?' and mammy, she would say 'No, Sir” even if she had seen some of us men, but when our soldiers would come and say, 'Aunt Mary, have you seen any Yankee 'round here recent?' she would always tell them the truth. . . .
Speaking from my own personal experience, the niggers was treated good in slavery times, that is, that was the case with my mars' [master’s] peoples. Our mars wouldn't have no mistreatment of his niggers. . . . We had good houses and plenty something to eat out of the same pot that the white folks' victuals [were] cooked in and the same victuals [food] that they had. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, pp. 17, 19, 20)
Former slave Cora Gillam:
I'll tell you, lady [the interviewer], if the rough element from the North had stayed out of the South, the trouble of Reconstruction would not have happened. Yes ma'am, that's right. You see, after great disasters like fires and earthquakes and such, always reckless criminal class people come in its wake to rob and pillage. It was like that in the war days. It was that bad element of the North that made the trouble. They tried to incite the colored against their white friends. The white folks was still kind to them who had been their slaves. They would have helped them get started. I know that. I always say that if the South could of been left to adjust itself, both white and colored would been better off. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, p. 25)
Former slave Will Glass:
There were good masters and mean masters. Both of my old grandfathers had good masters. . . .
Grandfather Joe said when he wanted to marry Jennie, she was under her old master, the man that Anderson worked under. Old man Glass found that Grandfather Joe was slipping off to old man Field's to see Grandma Jennie, who was on Field's place, and old man Fields went over and told Glass that he would either have to sell Glass to him or buy Jennie from him. Old man Glass bought Jennie and Grandfather Joe got her. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, pp. 29-30)
Former slave Ella Brassfield:
My folks said Master Gates was good. I knew my pa's young Master Gates. Pa said he never got a whooping. They made a right smart [amount] of money out of his work. He said some of the boots he made brung as high as twenty dollars. Pa had a good deal of Confederate bills as I recollects. Ma said some of them on Gates' place got whoopings.
When they would be at picnics and big corn shuckings, all Gates' black folks was called “Heavy Gates”; they was fed and treated so well.
I visited back at home in Mississippi. Went to the quarters and all nineteen years ago. I heard them still talking about the “Heavy Gates.” I was one of the offspring. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, p. 34)
Former slave Joe Golden:
I belonged to Mr. Andy Mitchell. He was a great old man, he was. Did he have a big farm and lots of black folks? No, miss [the interviewer], he didn't have nothing but children, just lots of little children. He rented me and my pappy and my mother to the Sumpters right here in Hot Springs. . . .
Yes, ma'am we worked. But we had lots of fun too. Them was exciting times. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, p. 35)
Former slave James Graham:
My father was a farmer. My father and mother belonged to this people, that is, to the Tillmans.
On my father's side, they called my people free Negroes because they [the Tillmans] treated them so good. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 2, Part 3, p. 47)
Former slave Cordella Thomas:
Slaves didn't do any cooking on our place 'cause Marster [the master] fed everybody up at the big house. . . .
Marster was good 'bout seeing that his Niggers had plenty to eat and wear. For supper we ate our bread and milk with wooden spoons out of wooden bowls, but for dinner they give us vegetables, corn pone, and 'taters. Marster raised all sorts of vegetables . . . and he had big old fields of wheat, rye, oats, and corn, 'cause he allowed that livestock had to eat same as folks. There was lots of chickens, turkeys, cows, hogs, sheep, and some goats on that plantation, so there would always be plenty of meat for everybody. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 4, Part 4, p. 12)
Former slave Joseph Anderson:
I was born a slave. I belonged to Mr. T. C. McIlhenny who had a big rice plantation, "Eagles Nest," in Brunswick County [North Carolina]. It was a big place. He had lots of slaves, an' he was a good man. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 11, Part 1, p. 13)
Former slave Mary Anderson:
I was a slave belonging to Sam Brodie, who owned the plantation at this place. My missus' name was Evaline. My father was Alfred Brodie and my mother was Bertha Brodie. . . .
We had good food, plenty of warm homemade clothes, and comfortable houses. . . .
There were about one hundred, and sixty-two slaves on the plantation and every Sunday morning all the children had to be bathed, dressed, and their hair combed and carried down to marster's for breakfast. It was a rule that all the little colored children eat at the great house every Sunday morning in order that marster and missus could watch them eat so they could know which ones were sickly and have them doctored. . . .
Marster had three children, one boy named Dallas, and two girls, Bettie and Carrie. . . . He had four white overseers but they were not allowed to whip a slave. If there was any whipping to be done he always said he would do it. He didn't believe in whipping so when a slave got so bad he could not manage him he sold him. . . .
Some of the slave children wanted to stay with them [the Brodies] at the great house all the time. They knew no better of course and seemed to love marster and missus as much as they did their own mother and father. Marster and missus always used gentle means to get the children out of their way when they bothered them, and the way the children loved and trusted them was a beautiful sight to see. . . .
Sunday was a great day on the plantation. Everybody got biscuits Sundays. The slave women went down to marsters for their Sunday allowance of flour. All the children ate breakfast at the great house and marster and missus gave out fruit to all. The slaves looked forward to Sunday as they labored through the week. It was a great day. Slaves received good treatment from marster and all his family. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 11, Part 1, pp. 15-17)
Former slave Reuben Rosborough:
My marster was a kind and tender man to slaves. . . . Set down there [write it down] that he was good enough to buy my old gran' mammy Mary, though she never could do much work. . . .
Money was not worshipped then like it is now. Not much use of it. Marster raised all we eat and made all we wear right there on the place, 'bout five miles north of Ridgeway.
I guess Marster John had forty slaves. We lived in two-story log house with plank floor. Marster John died, We were sent to his brother Robert and his wife Mistress Mary. I played with her children. Logan was one and Janie the other. My marster and mistress was good to me. . . .
Indeed I recollects about the Yankees. They come and ask my pappy, the foreman, where was the mules and horses hidden. Pappy say he don't know. . . . They [the Yankees] found out a boy that knew; made him tell, and they went and got the mules and horses. They took everything and left. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 14, Part 4, pp. 54-56)
Former slave Mary Scott:
Interviewer: Was your master a good man?
Miss Scott: Mr. Gamble like to drink liquor but still good people. All who I talking about good people. . . .
Interviewer: Did you see any slaves punished?
Miss Scott: Some punished, but I ain't never seen none whipped. . . .
Interviewer: Did you see slaves in chains?
Miss Scott: No chains. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 14, Part 4, pp. 92-94)
Former slave Lucinda Elder:
Well, Sir [the interviewer], you all wants me to tell you about slave times, and I'll tell you first that I had mighty good white folks, and I hope they is gone up to Heaven. My mama belong to Marse John Cardwell. . . . I don't 'member old missy's name, but she was mighty good to the slaves, just like Marse John was. . .
But Marse John sure was the good marse and we had plenty to eat and wear, and no one ever got whipped. . . .
"Marse John let us go visit other plantations and no pass, neither. If the patroller stopped us, we would just say we belong to Marse John and they don't bother us none. . . .
Then, just three weeks after freedom mama died and that was how come I had to leave Marse John. You see, Marse Gibson, who owned papa before freedom, was a good marse and when papa was set free Marse Gibson gave him some land to farm. Of course, papa was going to have us all with him, but when mamma died Marse Gibson told him that Mr. Will Jones and Miss Susie, his wife, want a nurse girl for their, so papa hired me out to them, and I want to say right now that they was just as good white folks as Marse John and Old Missy, and sure treated me good. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 16, Part 2, pp. 29-30, 32)
Former slave Marriah Hines:
'Cause master was good and kind to us, some of the other white folks used to call him “nigger lover.” He didn't pay that no mind though. He was a true Christian man, and I mean he sure lived up to it. He never did force any of us to go to church, if we didn't want to. That was left to us to decide. If you wanted to you could, if you didn't you didn't have to, but he'd always tell us, you ought to go.
Not only was master good but his whole family was too. When the weather was good we worked in the fields and on other little odd jobs that was needed done. We slaves would eat our breakfast, and go to the fields, there weren’t no hurry-scurry. . . . There was times though we had to get to it early, too, especially if it had been rainy weather and the work had been held up for a day or so. Master didn't make us work at all in bad weather, neither when it got real cold. The men might have to get in fire wood or something of that sort but no all day work in the cold--just little odd jobs. We didn't even have to work on Sundays, not even in the house. The master and the preacher both said that was the Lord's day and you weren't supposed to work on that day. So we didn't. We'd cook the white folks victuals on Saturday and lots times they eat cold victuals on Sundays. Master would sometimes ask the preacher home to dinner. . . . We hated to see Missie fumbling around in the kitchen all out of her place. We didn't have to do it, we just did it on our own free will. Master sometimes gives us a little money for it too, which made it all the better. Master and Missus was so good to us we didn't mind working a little on Sundays, in the house. Master had prayer with the whole family every night, prayed for us slaves too. Any of the slaves that wanted to join him could. Or if they wanted to pray by themselves they could. Sundays we went to church and stayed the biggest portion of the day. Nobody had to rush home. . . .
We had plenty time to ourselves. Most of the time we spent singing and praying 'cause master was such a good Christian and most of us had confessed religion. Evenings we would spin on the old spinning wheel, quilt make clothes, talk, tell jokes, and a few had learned to weave a little bit from Missus. (Slave Narratives, Vol. 17, pp. 39-41)
Northern abolitionists charged that most
slaves were poorly fed. The evidence
indicates otherwise. Indeed, the energy
value of the average daily diet of slaves “exceeded that of free men in 1879 by
more than 10 percent” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p.
113). Furthermore, the slave diet
actually surpassed the levels of primary nutrients that were recommended in the
The Slave-Breeding Myth
Textbooks and documentaries often repeat the Northern abolitionist claim that slaveholders engaged in widespread slave-breeding and regularly had sexual relations with their female slaves, with or without their consent. Fogel and Engerman point out that the evidence for these charges is meager and doubtful:
The evidence put forward to support the contention of breeding for the market is meager indeed. Aside from the differential in profit rates produced by Conrad and Meyer, the evidence consists largely of unverified charges made by abolitionists, and of certain demographic data. However, subsequent corrections of the work of Conrad and Meyer have shown that rates of return on men and women were approximately the same. And the many thousands of hours of research by professional historians into plantation records have failed to produce a single authenticated case of the “stud” plantations alleged in abolitionist literature. . . .
Proponents of the breeding thesis have been misled by their failure to recognize the difference between human beings and animals. That eugenic manipulation increases the fertility of animals does not mean it would have the same effect on human beings. Not only does promiscuity increase venereal disease (an issue which does not plague animal husbandry) and thereby reduce fertility, but emotional factors are of considerable significance in successful human conception. These emotional factors, of course, also carry over into the work routine. Distraught and disgruntled slaves did not make good field hands.
planters shunned direct interference in the sexual practices of slaves, and
attempted to influence fertility patterns through a system of positive economic
incentives, incentives that are akin to those practiced by various governments
First and foremost, planters promoted family formation both through exhortation and through economic inducements. “Marriage is to be encouraged,” wrote James Hammond to his overseer, “as it adds to the comfort, happiness and health of those entering upon it, besides ensuring a greater increase.” The economic inducements for marriage generally included a house, a private plot of land which the family could work on its own and, frequently, a bounty either in cash or in household goods. The primary inducements for childbearing were the lighter work load and the special care given to expectant and new mothers. The field-work requirement of women after the fifth month of pregnancy was generally reduced by 40 or 50 percent. In the last month they were frequently taken off fieldwork altogether and assigned such light tasks as sewing or spinning. Nursing mothers were permitted to leave for work at a later hour than others and were also allowed three to four hours during the day for the feeding of their infants. . . .
While there were
circumstances under which the economics of slavery encouraged widespread
promiscuity and concubinage . . . the main thrust of the economic incentives
generated by the American slave system operated against eugenic manipulation
and against sexual abuse. Those who
engaged in such acts did so, not because of their economic interests, but
despite them. Instructions from
slaveowners to their overseers frequently gave recognition to this
conflict. They contain explicit caveats
against “undue familiarity” which might undermine slave morale and discipline. “Having connection with any of my female
servants,” wrote a leading
Antebellum critics of slavery . . . accused slaveowners and overseers of turning plantations into personal harems. They assumed that because the law permitted slaveowners to ravish black women, the practice must have been extremely common. They also assumed that black women were, if not more licentious, at least more promiscuous than white women, and hence less likely to resist sexual advances by men, whether black or white. Moreover, the ravishing of black women by white men was not the only aspect of sexual exploitation which devastated the slave family. There was also the policy of deliberate slave-breeding, under which planters encouraged promiscuous relationships among blacks. . . .
The evidence on which these assumptions and conclusions were based was extremely limited. While none of the various travelers through the South had seen deliberate slave-breeding practiced, they had all heard reports of it. Some travelers published conversations with men who admitted to fathering a large number of the slaves on their plantations. Others wrote of the special solicitude shown by one or another master to mulatto offspring, a solicitude which in their minds strongly implied parenthood. There were also the descriptions of the treatment of especially pretty slave women on the auction block and of the high prices at which such women sold, prices too high to be warranted by field labor and which could be explained only by their value as concubines or as prostitutes.
Even if all these
reports were true, they constituted at most a few hundred cases. By themselves, such a small number of
observations out of a population of millions, could just as easily be used as
proof of the infrequency of the sexual exploitation of black women as of its
frequency. . . . The prevalence of
mulattoes convinced not only the northern public of the antebellum era, but
historians of today, that for each case of exploitation identified, there were
thousands which had escaped discovery.
For travelers to the South reported that a large proportion of the
slaves were not the deep black of Africans from the
But this seemingly irrefutable evidence is far from conclusive. It is not the eyesight of these travelers to the South which is questionable, but their statistical sense. For mulattoes were not distributed evenly through the Negro population. They were concentrated in the cities and especially among freedmen. According to the 1860 census, 39 percent of freedmen in southern cities were mulattoes. Among urban slaves the proportion of mulattoes was 20 percent. In other words, one out of every four Negroes living in a southern city was a mulatto. But among rural slaves, who constituted 95 percent of the slave population, only 9.9 percent were mulatto in 1860. For the slave population as a whole, therefore, the proportion of mulattoes was just 10.4 percent in 1860 and 7.7 percent in 1850. Thus it appears that travelers to the South greatly exaggerated the extent of miscegenation because they came into contact with unrepresentative samples of the Negro population. . . . Far from proving that the exploitation of black women was ubiquitous [widespread], the available data on mulattoes strongly militate against that contention.
The fact that during the twenty-three decades of contact between slaves and whites which elapsed between 1620 and 1850 only 7.7 percent of the slaves were mulattoes suggests that on average only a very small percentage of the slaves were fathered by white men. This inference is not contradicted by the fact that the percentage of mulattoes increased by one third during the last decade of the antebellum era, rising from 7.7 to 10.4 percent. For it must be remembered that mulattoes were the progeny not just of unions between whites and pure blacks but also of unions between mulattoes and blacks. Under common definition, a person with one-eighth ancestry of another race was a mulatto. Consequently, the offspring of two slaves who were each one-eighth white was to be classified as a mulatto, as was the offspring of any slave, regardless of the ancestry of his or her mate, whose grandfather was a white.
A demographic model of the slave population . . . shows that the census data alone cannot be used to sustain the contention that a large proportion of slave children must have been fathered by white men. And other available bodies of evidence, such as the W.P.A. survey of former slaves, throw such claims into doubt. Of those in the survey who identified parentage, only 4.5 percent indicated that one of their parents had been white. But the work of geneticists on gene pools has revealed that even the last figure may be too high. Measurements of the admixture of “Caucasian” and “Negro” genes among southern rural blacks today indicate that the share of Negro children fathered by whites on slave plantations probably averaged between 1 and 2 percent.
That these findings seem startling is due in large measure to the widespread assumption that because the law permitted masters to ravage their slave women, they must have exercised that right. As one scholar recently put it, “Almost every white mother and wife connected with the institution [of slavery] either actually or potentially shared the males in her family with slave women.” The trouble with this view is that it recognizes no forces operating on human behavior other than the force of statute law. Yet many rights permitted by legal statues and judicial decisions are not widely exercised, because economic and social forces militate against them.
To put the issue somewhat differently, it has been presumed that masters and overseers must have ravished black women frequently because their demand for such sexual pleasures was high and because the cost of satisfying that demand was low. Such arguments overlook the real and potentially large costs that confronted masters and overseers who sought sexual pleasures in the slave quarters. The seduction of the daughter or wife of a slave could undermine the discipline that planters so assiduously strove to attain. Not only would it stir anger and discontent in the families affected, but it would undermine the air of mystery and distinction on which so much of the authority of large planters rested. Nor was it just a planter’s reputation in the slave quarter of his plantation that would be at stake. While he might be able to prevent news of his nocturnal adventure from being broadcast in his own house, it would be more difficult to prevent his slaves from gossiping to slaves on other plantations. . . .
For the overseer, the cost of sexual episodes in the slave quarter, once discovered, was often his job. Nor would he find it easy to obtain employment elsewhere as an overseer, since not many masters would be willing to employ as their manager a man who was known to lack self-control on so vital an issue. “Never employ an overseer who will equalize himself with the negro women,” wrote Charles Tait to his children. “Besides the morality of it, there are evils too numerous to be now mentioned.”
Nor should one underestimate the effect of racism on the demand of white males for black sexual partners. While some white men might have been tempted by the myth of black sexuality, a myth that may be stronger today than it was in the antebellum South, it is likely that far larger numbers were put off by racist aversions. Data on prostitutes support this conjecture. . . . The substantial underrepresentation of Negroes, as well as the complete absence of dark-skinned Negroes, indicates that white men who desired illicit sex had a strong preference for white women. . . .
The contention that the slave family was undermined by the widespread promiscuity of blacks is as poorly founded as the thesis that masters were uninhibited in their sexual exploitation of slave women. Indeed, virtually no evidence, other than the allegations of white observers, has ever been presented which sustains the charge that promiscuity among slaves was greater than that found among whites. . . .
Unfortunately, abolitionists and other antislavery critics were not free of racism merely because they carried the banner or a moral struggle. With their greater physical separation from blacks, these writers were often more gullible and more quick in their acceptance of certain racial stereotypes than slaveholders. . . .
The available demographic evidence on slaves suggests a picture of their sexual lives and family behavior that has little in common with that conveyed by the allegations. (Time on the Cross, pp. 78-79, 84-86, 130-136)
For well over one hundred years, virtually all books on slavery repeated the Northern abolitionist claim that slaves were unproductive workers, and that slave plantations were less productive than free farms. Northern abolitionists argued that slaves supposedly worked so poorly because they were trying to sabotage their masters’ financial interests. But the abolitionist assertion that slaves were less productive than free workers has long since been refuted. Fogel:
Slave plantations and laborers were not less efficient than free farms and free farmers. Slaves on small plantations who, like ordinary field hands, worked in the fields alongside their masters were just as productive as free farmers. But those who toiled in the gangs of the intermediate and large plantations were on average over 70 percent more productive than either free farmers or slaves on small plantations. These gang laborers, who in 1860 constituted about half of the adult slave population, worked so intensely that they produced as much output in roughly 35 minutes as did free farmers in a full hour. (Without Consent or Contract, p. 159)
Few books on slavery mention the fact that many overseers were black. Instead, one is usually given the impression that slaveholders almost always employed whites as overseers. However, in point of fact, most slaveholders used blacks as overseers. Fogel and Engerman:
Among moderate-sized holdings (sixteen to fifty slaves) less than one out of every six plantations used a white overseer. On large slaveholdings (over fifty slaves) only one out of every four owners used white overseers. Even on estates with more than one hundred slaves, the proportion with white overseers was just 30 percent, and on many of these the planters were usually in residence. (Time on the Cross, pp. 200-201; see also p. 211)
What did outside observers say about slavery? Europeans visited the South and left us their impressions of slavery. Civil War scholar John Tilley observed that their accounts suggest that most slaves were treated humanely:
Among these were
Buckingham and Sir Charles Lyell, both Englishmen of distinction. Interestedly
appraising the status of house-servants of his Southern hosts, Buckingham wrote
that their situation was quite comparable to that of servants in the middle
rank of life in his own country. He goes on record that, as a rule, they were
"well-fed, well-dressed. . . ." Lyell's investigation led to a like
conclusion: namely, that these house-slaves enjoyed advantages superior to
those experienced by white servants in similar work in
Yet others came
from abroad to be astonished by the variance between fiction and fact relative
to slavery conditions. Lady Wortly found the Southern negroes generally happy
and contented. Grund's observations convinced him that they were better cared
for than the free negro element he had seen in the North. Charles Mackay singled
out the farm labor of
A digression may be
indulged. True to his Northern preconceptions, historian [James]
Tilley continued by arguing that the findings of Northern student Frederick Law Olmsted and of a Northern governess agree with those of the European visitors:
A few years prior to the War between the States, a Northern student, Frederick Law Olmsted, made tours of various sections of the South in order personally to view the situation of negro bondman. In 1856, in a volume entitled Journey in the Seaboard States, he shared with the public the benefit of his findings. Some of these, it may be worthwhile briefly to summarize.
according to Olmsted, the slaves had food in plenty; in fact, it was his
opinion that in this respect they were better provisioned for than "the
proletarian class of any other part of the world." While in
Rhodes tells of a
New England-born governess, employed on a
Before we conclude this section, let’s take a moment to consider what the slaveholders themselves said in response to the charges of the abolitionists:
They vigorously denied promoting promiscuity and practicing barnyard techniques to increase fertility. Although admitting that some masters abused their power, seducing or raping slave women, they argued that these were isolated cases and that such behavior was condemned by the generality of masters. They pictured themselves as devoted family men who promoted stable family lives among their slaves. Although they acknowledged their adherence to a pronatalist [pro-childbirth] policy, they insisted that this was in keeping with church doctrine, both Catholic and Protestant, and that their means of implementing this policy among the slaves—bounties of various sorts for married couples, released time and special rations for nursing and pregnant women, bounties for parents of large numbers of children—were along lines sanctified by religion and long practiced by civilized states. They also acknowledged that the slave trade was an impediment to family life but contended that its deleterious [harmful] effects were exaggerated. Masters forced to sell slaves for economic reasons, they insisted, sought either to sell slaves who were still single or to sell them in family groups.
As for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, they argued that masters were at great pains to see that slaves were well taken care of in these respects because it was to their economic interests to do so. Far from being poorly treated, they claimed that slaves were better fed, clothed, and sheltered than free laborers in the cities of the North. To support their case they called attention to census and local registration data that showed that death rates were higher in northern cities than on slave plantations, turning the arguments that British abolitionists had used to condemn West Indian slavery into a critique of northern society. They also denied that slaves were overworked, except in isolated cases, claiming that the daily hours on plantations were the normal ones for agriculture, that there was no work on the Sabbath, and that slaves also received part of a day, or all day, off on many Saturdays, on rainy days, and on various holidays. (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, pp. 121-122)
As we have seen, there is a great deal of truth in what the slaveholders said in defense of the way they administered slavery. Most of these men treated their slaves humanely. One can make the case that Southern slaveholders treated their slaves better than many Northern factory owners treated their workers. Most former slaves who discussed their treatment said their masters were good men.
All this being said, slavery was still wrong. It had its positive aspects, and it was usually administered humanely, but it was still wrong. It was wrong because it’s wrong to hold humans in bondage against their will if they have committed no crime. My only point in noting some of the good aspects of slavery is to provide a little balance to the one-sided picture that is usually painted of it. There were many forms of injustice in the world in the nineteenth century. Southern slavery was one of them, but it was by no means the worst of them. The exploitation of free workers in many Northern factories was arguably nearly as bad as slavery, if not worse in some cases. The terrible abuse that slaves experienced on Northern slave ships was far worse than anything they experienced on most Southern plantations and farms.
With 3.5 million Southern slaves, it only took a small minority of bad masters to give the abolitionists plenty of ammunition. It may well have been the case that only about 5 percent of slaveholders mistreated their slaves. But 5 percent of 3.5 million is 175,000. So if 5 percent of those slaves were treated harshly, that would mean that 175,000 Southern slaves suffered cruel treatment. By any rational, humane measurement, that was intolerable, not to mention horrendously wrong.
Therefore, there were tens of thousands of slaves who had genuine horror stories to tell about slavery. A small percentage of those slaves escaped to free states in the North and told their stories to abolitionists, who in turn published them in their newspapers and literature. Americans in all parts of the country were shocked by those stories, and they had every right to feel that way. But that was no excuse for the abolitionists to portray those accounts as the norm, when in fact they were the exception.
Additionally, occasional cruelty to slaves occurred in the North as well. in 1861, following the South’s secession, there were about 500,000 slaves in Union states (and slavery remained legal in a few Northern states until after the Civil War). A small percentage of those slaves surely suffered harsh treatment. The same was undoubtedly true when slavery was widespread in the North in the mid- and late 1700s. We know these things from the accounts of former Northern slaves, among other sources.
When slavery was common in the North, and when New England was reaping huge profits from the overseas slave trade, there was no country or region that was constantly condemning the North for its slavery, slave trading, and fugitive slave laws. There were no Southern or Canadian abolitionists spreading grossly misleading portrayals of Northern slavery and demonizing the North as a barbaric, backward region.
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that most Southerners did not own slaves. Scholars generally agree that a very small percentage of Southern citizens held title to slaves, and that over two-thirds of Southern families were not slaveholding households.
According to the 1860 census, there were 306,300 slaveholders in the South. The white population of the South was about 5.3 million. 306,300 is not quite 6 percent of 5.3 million, but let’s round up to 6 percent. The 1860 census also reported that only 31 percent of Southern families included slaveowners. So, if we’re to believe the 1860 census, only 6 percent of Southern citizens held title to slaves, and only 31 percent of Southern families were slaveholding households.
Of those Southerners who did own slaves, three-fourths owned less than ten. Half owned less than five, and often worked side by side with them in the fields. As for the "planter class," less than fifteen percent of slaveholders belonged to it. "The planter aristocracy," notes Stampp, "was limited to some ten thousand families. . . ." (The Peculiar Institution, p. 30). Says Stampp,
Nearly three-fourths of all free Southerners had no connection with slavery through either family ties or direct ownership. The "typical" Southerner was not only a small farmer but also a nonslaveholder. (The Peculiar Institution, p. 30)
Slavery and the Federal Government’s Use of Force
Given these facts, I don't believe the existence of slavery in the South justified the federal government’s use of force to deny the South its independence. I don't believe that Southern slavery justified the brutal form of "total war" that federal armies waged against the South. This brand of warfare included the needless destruction of farm tools, thousands of private homes and public buildings, the large-scale theft of private belongings, the burning of priceless Southern libraries, the killing of thousands of farm animals (even in remote areas), and the shelling of defenseless towns. Some idea of the brutality that was inflicted on the South is indicated by the fact that about 50,000 Southern civilians died in the war (Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Avon Books Edition, New York: Avon Books, 1997, p. 411).
Nor do I believe that Southern slavery
The time came when, shut off from the world by blockade [the federal blockade], the South experienced the greatest difficulty in obtaining medicine which had been made contraband by order of the federal government. By 1864 conditions were so desperate that the South actually offered to purchase from the North such needed supplies, agreeing to pay for them in gold, cotton, or tobacco. The offer made plain that Union surgeons might bring the medicines down and use them solely to minister to Union prisoners. To this offer, there was no reply. (Facts the Historians Leave Out, Ashland City, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing, 1993, reprint, p. 52)
I'm glad slavery was abolished, but it could and should have been abolished peacefully. Yes, this would have taken longer, maybe a lot longer. But it also would have saved the lives of over 600,000 soldiers who died in the war, as well as the lives of tens of thousands of Southern civilians who died as a result of the brutal type of warfare that federal armies waged in the South. It also would have spared tens of thousands of soldiers from suffering the loss of arms and legs for the rest of their lives. Other nations found ways to abolish slavery peacefully. I don't believe we needed to wage the most destructive war in our nation's history before slavery could be abolished. It’s important to understand that slavery was not abolished during the war; it was abolished several months after the war with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
We will never know what would have happened to Southern slavery if the North had allowed the South to go in peace. The Confederacy was never given the chance to outgrow slavery. There were plenty of people in the South who did not like slavery and/or who wanted to see the slaves freed, including Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and Stonewall Jackson, Confederate Congressman Duncan Kenner, and James Spence, the Confederate financial agent in Europe, who criticized slavery in his book The American Union (Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 196). There were also Confederate leaders who supported emancipating slaves who served in the Confederate army, such as Confederate generals Patrick Cleburne, Daniel Govan, John H. Kelly, and Marc Lowrey, Governor William Smith of Virginia, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, and the Confederate president himself, Jefferson Davis. It’s worth repeating that at least 69 percent of Southern families did not have slaves.
I believe the Confederacy would have eventually abolished slavery. There is some evidence that suggests slavery was beginning to die out on its own. For example, the percentage of Southern whites who belonged to slaveholding families dropped by 5 percent from 1850 to 1860 (Robert Divine, T. H. Bren, George Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams, America Past and Present, Fifth Edition, New York: Longman, 1999, p. 389). Nevins noted that "slavery was dying all around the edges of its domain" (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, p. 469). Historians Randall and Donald, after noting the Confederacy’s move toward officially using slaves as soldiers and the support of key Confederate leaders for granting freedom to slaves and their families for faithful military service, acknowledged that the Confederacy may very well have abolished slavery even if it had survived the war:
On November 7, 1864, President Davis went so far as to approve the employment of slave-soldiers as preferable to subjugation, and on February 11, 1865, the Confederate House of Representatives voted that if the President should not be able to raise sufficient troops otherwise, he was authorized to call for additional levies “from such classes . . . irrespective of color . . . as the . . . authorities . . . may determine”. . . . There was no mistaking the meaning of this action. The fundamental social concept of slavery was slipping; an opening wedge for emancipation had been inserted. Lee’s opinion agreed with that of the President and Congress. On January 11, 1865, he wrote advising the enlistment of slaves as soldiers and the granting of “immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully. . . .” This fact, together with other indications, suggests that, even if the Confederacy had survived the war, there was a strong possibility that slavery would be voluntarily abandoned in the South. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 522)
We must be careful not to judge a country or
a people through our twenty-first-century lens. Past nations and their citizens
should be judged primarily in the context of their own times and not in the
context of our times. One hundred years from now, who is to say that future
civilizations won't look back and denounce modern America as an unjust,
oppressive nation because we have legalized the killing of hundreds of
thousands of innocent unborn children every year by abortion, because we have a
large and growing pornography industry, and because we still have not extended
basic health care to all our citizens? Over the last thirty years alone, more
innocent human beings have been killed by abortion than were ever killed by
slavery (even including the thousands who died on the slave ships). Or,
consider how many low-income people in our country have died prematurely
because they had substandard health care or no health care at all. This tragic
injustice is no secret. Numerous stories about it have appeared on TV, in
newspapers, and in books for decades. Yet, it continues. Will future
civilizations look back and judge
More on the Confederacy
This is not to say the Confederacy was
perfect. But, in comparison to other nations in that era, and even to many
nations in our day, the Confederacy was one of the most democratic countries in
the world. The Confederacy came into existence in a peaceful, democratic
manner, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Southern citizens. In
fact, the percentage of Southern citizens who supported the formation of the
Confederate States of
The Confederacy made every effort to
establish peaceful relations with the federal government. The Confederate
government even offered to pay compensation for all federal facilities in the
South and to pay the Southern states' fair share of the national debt. The
Confederacy also announced that Northern ships could continue to use the
The record is clear that the South sought to avoid war. In fact, most Southerners believed secession would be peaceful. It's interesting to note that the correspondence of the first Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, "clearly indicates he did not expect war" (Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 106). The Southern states believed, with good reason, that since they had joined the Union voluntarily and peacefully, they had every right to leave Union voluntarily and peacefully. But war came when the federal government launched an invasion of the Confederate states. That's why the vast majority of battles were fought in the South. The South fought because it was invaded. The South had no desire to overthrow the federal government--it merely wanted to leave that government and to form its own.
The Confederacy did not start the war, and,
contrary to what most history books claim or imply, the war didn't really begin
when Confederate forces attacked
Soon after South Carolina seceded, federal forces,
acting without orders to do so, occupied Fort Sumter, in violation of the
agreement that South Carolina had (or certainly thought it had) with President
James Buchanan not to change the status quo. Southern leaders argued that
When Confederate leaders learned that,
contrary to Lincoln and Seward's promise,
Not a single Union soldier was killed in the
attack. As a matter of fact, at one point, when the Confederates feared a fire
on the fort was going to burn out of control, they offered to help put out the
fire. When the federal troops surrendered, the Confederates allowed them to
surrender with full military honors and then permitted them to return to the
North in peace. This was the "attack," the alleged act of
"rebellion" or "insurrection," that
We protest solemnly, in the face of mankind, that we desire peace at any sacrifice, save that of honor. In independence we seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we have lately been confederated. All we ask is to be let alone--that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms. (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1, pp. 283-284; see also Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, p. 367)
Was the War Fought Over Slavery?
Many historians seek to justify the federal government's invasion of the South by claiming that the war was fought over slavery, and that Union forces were fighting to free the slaves while the South was fighting to keep them in bondage. A number of critics claim the South only fought in order to ensure the continuation of slavery. A detailed refutation of these assertions would require a separate paper. However, for now, I offer the following points in response to them:
* The war was fought over secession and
Southern independence, not over slavery. If the South had not declared its
* In July 1861, the U.S. House of
Representatives passed a resolution, by a nearly unanimous vote, that affirmed
that the North was not waging the war to overthrow slavery but to preserve the
. . . in 1861 the
North was fighting for the restoration of a slaveholding
* To be sure, some members of the Republican Party did believe the war should be waged for the purpose of abolishing slavery. Those who belonged to this faction of the party were commonly known as "Radical Republicans."
* There were important economic and
political differences between the North and the South that were major reasons
for the South's desire for independence. Prior to secession, the South had
complained for decades about unfair, unconstitutional Northern economic
policies, especially tariff policy. One of the seven ordinances of secession
and two of the Declarations of Causes of Secession of the
The industrial North demanded a high tariff so as to monopolize the domestic markets, especially the Southern market. . . . It was an exploitative principle, originated at the expense of the South and for the benefit of the North. . . .
The industrial section demanded a national subsidy for the shipping business and merchant marine, but, as the merchant marine was alien to the Southern agrarian system, the two sections clashed. It was once more an exploitation of one section for the benefit of the other.
The industrial North demanded internal improvements--roads, railroads, canals, at national expense to furnish transportation for its goods to Southern and Western markets which were already hedged around for the benefit of the North by the tariff wall. . . .
It is interesting to observe that all the favors thus asked by the North were of doubtful constitutional right. . . . Even in the matter of public lands the South favored turning over these lands to the state within which they lay, rather than have them controlled by the federal government. . . . ("The Irrepressible Conflict," in Edwin C. Rozwenc, editor, The Causes of the American Civil War, Second Edition, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972, pp. 108-109)
Even after the war, the North's economic exploitation of the South continued for decades. For example, Kenneth C. Davis, although he is critical of the South on many points, concedes that Southern railroad companies were "burdened for decades by unfair rates and restrictive tariffs set by Northerners, who controlled the vast majority of railways and the legislatures that set rates" (Don't Know Much About the Civil War, pp. 425-426).
* Southern leaders had valid reasons for
their belief that monetary considerations played a major role in the North's
decision to invade the South. It was no secret that the North did not want
Southern ports to be able to trade directly with
The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)
* In order to understand the Civil War, one must take into account the inflammatory anti-Southern propaganda that numerous Northern leaders and newspapers spread for years prior to the war. Northern abolitionist attacks on slavery were often misleading and exaggerated. These attacks frequently included unfair attacks on the South as a whole. Northern agitators unfairly attacked the South on a wide range of issues. In her book, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2000), British scholar Susan-Mary Grant documents the harsh anti-Southern propaganda that Northern leaders, writers, and newspapers spread in the decades leading up to the war, especially from around 1840 onward. During the five years that preceded the war, numerous Republican leaders and pro-Republican newspapers frequently portrayed Southerners as barbaric, ignorant, depraved, and even un-American. In the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party distributed an abridged version of a book entitled The Impending Crisis of the South, which spoke approvingly of a scenario where slaves would rise up and kill their masters. Not only did the Republican Party distribute this book, but in the version that the party printed, Republican editors added such captions as "The Stupid Masses of the South" and "Revolution--Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must." The "Revolution . . . Violently if we must" statement referred to inciting slave revolts that would potentially cause the deaths of thousands or even tens of thousands of Southern citizens.
* As one reads the speeches and letters of
Confederate leaders during the war, it becomes apparent that they certainly
didn't believe their main reason for fighting was the preservation of
slavery. For example, beginning in late
1862, James Phelan, Joseph Bradford, and Reuben Davis wrote to Jefferson Davis
to express concern that some opponents were claiming the war "was for the
defense of the institution of slavery" (Cooper, Jefferson Davis,
American, pp. 479-480, 765). They called those who were making this claim
"demagogues." Cooper notes that when two Northerners visited
Jefferson Davis during the war,
* There is no doubt the issue of slavery was
the main, immediate factor that led the original seven states of the
Confederacy to secede, but it was certainly not the only factor. It's crucial
to understand that secession and the war were two different events. The
election of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans in 1860 was the reason the
What about the four other states of the
Confederacy? Why did they secede? They only seceded after
The causes of secession were not the causes
of the war, and secession did not have to lead to war. The Republicans could
have allowed the South to go in peace, but they chose not to do so. The direct
cause of the war itself was the federal invasion of the South. The battles and
the bleeding and the dying started when federal armies invaded the Southern
states in an effort to destroy the Confederacy and to force the South back into
* Precious few textbooks mention the fact
that by 1864 key Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, were prepared
to abolish slavery. As early as 1862 some Confederate leaders supported various
forms of emancipation. In 1864 Jefferson Davis officially recommended that
slaves who performed faithful service in non-combat positions in the
Confederate army should be freed. Robert
E. Lee and many other Confederate generals favored emancipating slaves who
served in the Confederate army, along with their families. In fact, Lee had long favored the abolition
of slavery and had called the institution a "moral and political
evil" years before the war (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom,
New York: Ballantine Books, 1988, p. 281; Recollections and Letters of
Robert E. Lee, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003, reprint, pp.
231-232). By late 1864,
The Radical Republicans
It would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the Radical Republicans. They wielded tremendous power in their party. They were not only abolitionists, but, like most other Republicans of their day, they tended to support higher taxes (in the form of high tariff rates), subsidies and land grants to certain big businesses, and the expansion of the federal government's size and power. Southern leaders consistently opposed these policies.
Most Radical Republicans made no secret of their hatred of the South. Southern leaders suspected that some of the Radicals didn't really care about the slaves but were using slavery as an excuse to crush and subjugate the South. The harsh, illegal Reconstruction program that the Radical Republicans in Congress imposed on the South after the war led many people, in all sections of the country, to believe this suspicion was justified. Even President Andrew Johnson said in an official message that the Reconstruction regime that the Radicals wanted to impose on the South was illegal, vengeful, and despotic (Lloyd Paul Stryker, Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1930, pp. 263-285; see also Johnson's veto message of the first Reconstruction act). Johnson tried to prevent the Radicals from imposing such harsh terms by vetoing their Reconstruction bill, but they had enough votes to override his veto. When Johnson persisted in opposing the Radicals, they indicted (impeached) him and then tried to remove him from office on the basis of charges that can only be described as shameful, not to mention invalid (Stryker, Andrew Johnson, pp. 572-674; see also Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 601-617).
Almost immediately after Lincoln was
assassinated, Radical Republicans in Congress and in the War Department, along
with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, falsely accused Jefferson Davis and other
Confederate leaders of complicity in Lincoln's death. A War Department military
tribunal and the House Judiciary Committee formally endorsed this claim. They
based this accusation on information they knew was bogus. Some Radicals
continued to repeat the accusation even after it became clear that it was
false. Cooper notes that most people came to reject the claim that
In the immediate
The story of the Radical Republicans'
attempt to convict Jefferson Davis of involvement in Lincoln's death is one of
the most shameful episodes in American history, and it says a lot about how
utterly lawless and corrupt some Republicans were. I'm unaware of a single textbook that says
anything about the Radicals’ unethical conduct in the affair. Therefore, I'd
like to devote a few paragraphs to examining some aspects of their attempt to
A surprise witness
There were three
other "witnesses" who were the backbone of the trial and who supplied
the basis of the verdict. All were perjurers for hire, and they were hired by
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Foremost was . . . Sanford Conover, alias James
Watson Wallace, but whose true name was Charles A. Dunham, a totally
Second of these
perjurers was a man who claimed to be Richard Montgomery. His real name was
James Thompson, and he was a convicted
The third of these
perjurers was known as Dr. James B. Merritt, who later confessed to a committee
of the House of Representatives that his testimony had been a tissue of lies,
for which the government had paid him $6,000. . . . It was on the basis of the
lies of these men that Secretary of War Stanton was able to induce new
President Andrew Johnson to issue his offer of rewards for the capture of
Jefferson Davis and several other Confederates, accused of having plotted
Time permits me to quote only a small part of Frank's analysis:
The news of
President Lincoln's assassination came as a terrific blow to the people of the
North. . . .
Through bribes and
offers of rewards,
In the trial before
the military tribunal the prosecution had attempted to establish this
The three witnesses were Richard Montgomery, Dr. James B. Merritt, and Sanford Conover. By his own admissions, each had done much to discredit his story and to impeach his personal credibility. Holt knew that their stories would not stand public scrutiny and tried to keep their testimony secret. This endeavor had failed. . . . The entire evidence of the three was therefore given to the newspapers.
In early June
, this suppressed evidence appeared in the leading American and Canadian
papers. Bitter denunciations, indignant denials, and angry countercharges
followed. The witnesses had alleged that most of the plotting had occurred in
Although President Johnson allowed several
people to be tried and hung as conspirators in
The same Republican-controlled Congress that imposed Reconstruction on the South also sanctioned official discrimination against the American Indians in the West and permitted them to be segregated from the rest of society. One textbook, edited by Civil War scholar Bruce Catton and others, puts it this way:
The same Congress that devised Radical Reconstruction . . . approved strict segregation and inequality for the Indian of the West. (Catton et al, editors, The National Experience: A History of the United States, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968, p. 416)
The Abolitionists, Slavery, and the South
The conduct of the Northern abolitionists is
rarely questioned because their ultimate goal, the emancipation of the slaves,
was undeniably noble and praiseworthy. But does a worthy goal justify any and
all means to achieve it, even if those means include the use of egregious
falsehoods and violence? Granted, it's tragic and frustrating when immoral
institutions or evil practices are protected by law, either expressly in the
Constitution, by legislative acts, or by court rulings. However, the proper way
to remedy such situations is to change the law or to reverse the court ruling,
not to resort to inflammatory slander and violence. Slavery was an institution
that was protected from federal intervention by the Constitution. Even
Naturally, Southerners resented these
methods. They saw considerable hypocrisy and lawlessness in such assaults. They
knew that slavery had been legal since the founding of the republic. They also
knew that many of the founding fathers had owned slaves, and that slavery had
existed in the North for decades. When the Northern states abolished slavery,
they did so gradually, and in many cases Northern slaveholders had ample time
to sell their slaves. Similarly, when
In many ways one can compare the situation that existed with slavery to the situation that now exists with abortion. Abortion is an immoral practice that was legalized by a highly questionable ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. No matter how dubious or unfounded the court's ruling may have been, the decision established abortion as a protected practice in American law. As a result, tens of millions of unborn children have been killed in abortion clinics. In an effort to stop this evil practice, a few radical anti-abortion activists have resorted to bombing abortion clinics and to shooting abortion doctors. As much as one might detest abortion (as I do), one cannot condone these actions. In terms of the cost in human lives, abortion has caused far, far more death and suffering than did slavery. There is simply no comparison. Nevertheless, no responsible citizen, no matter how strongly he or she dislikes abortion, condones the bombing of abortion clinics or the shooting of abortion doctors. Similarly, although I certainly admire the Northern abolitionists for their opposition to slavery, I cannot condone some of their methods, especially their support of armed raids into the South in an effort to incite slave revolts. The 1859 John Brown raid, in which Northern abolitionist John Brown tried to incite a large-scale slave revolt in Virginia, sent shock waves through the South and caused many Southern citizens to question the value of remaining in the Union.
Few nations or peoples respond positively when they're subjected to false accusations and unfair criticism, and especially when they're subjected to armed raids. Tilley expressed the view of many Southerners that slavery could have been abolished peacefully and that some of the abolitionists' methods only made the situation worse:
The record has disclosed that prior to the onslaught of the abolitionists, gradual emancipation was in the making. As a matter of course, it was not to be accomplished overnight. Beyond question, it would require a plan of just compensation to those on whom would fall the financial loss. . . . After all is said, the best blood of the South knew then, as its descendants know now, that slavery was inherently, incurably evil, an economic and moral anachronism. Slavery and the ideals of freedom which inspired the founders of the nation were wholly incompatible conceptions. No system of human bondage, be it ever so humane, could have long endured the blinding light of American civilization and Christianity.
Time was required. Time is a potent problem solver. . . . Time would have wrought the extirpation [elimination] of human enslavement. The march of progress, intellectual, social, and spiritual, could not long have tolerated the barrier of such a stumbling block.
That the ugliest blot on American life is forever gone from these shores no individual Southerner regrets. It is just possible, however, that he may be indulged the privilege to submit that, in light of all the facts, the method of its going was transparently unjustified and unfair. (The Coming of the Glory, pp. 46-47)
On an aside note, it should be observed that the South’s anger over the John Brown raid was a major reason that Confederate leaders strongly objected when the federal government began to use former slaves in the Union forces that were invading and ravaging the Southern states. Few textbooks mention the fact that Union forces often compelled slaves and former slaves to fight in the Union army. Nor do many textbooks explain that Union soldiers frequently assaulted and robbed slaves and also took slaves away from their farms and plantations against their will.
Confederate leaders, and most Southerners as well, viewed the Union army’s use of former slaves as a federally sanctioned slave revolt. From their viewpoint, since those slaves had either been stolen or had run away, they still belonged to their masters and had no legal right to be soldiers or to take up arms against Southern citizens. Slavery was still legal in the South, and it was still legal in the four Union slave states. Yet, Union armies didn’t invade and devastate Northern slave states, only Southern slave states. Of course, on the other hand, one can certainly sympathize with those former slaves who joined the Union army in the hope of freeing their fellow blacks who were still being held as slaves in the South. If I had been in their position, I may very well have done the same thing. But I can also understand the Confederate position on the matter.
It should be kept in mind that the American
colonists greatly resented the British attempt to recruit slaves to fight
against them in the Revolutionary War.
The British offered freedom to American slaves who would fight on their
side, and they encouraged slaves to sabotage the colonial war effort. Many thousands of slaves flocked to British
lines, and several thousand of them fought for the British. At the end of the war, at least 18,000 former
slaves accompanied British troops as they evacuated
What If the Confederacy Had Survived?
I don't agree with the view that it would
have been a catastrophe if the Confederacy had survived. The claim is sometimes
heard that if the South had remained independent, we could not have defeated
Nazi Germany and
If the Confederacy had survived, abortion most likely would not have been legalized in the Southern states; taxes would have been much lower in the South; no federal income tax would have been imposed on the Southern states; prayer and Bible reading and the posting of the Ten Commandments would have remained in Southern schools; Southern anti-sodomy laws would not have been swept aside by an amoral U.S. Supreme Court; and sick "virtual" child pornography would not have been legalized as "protected free speech" by that same amoral U.S. Supreme Court.
We should keep in mind that the Confederate
states and their citizens were American too. After all, they comprised the
Confederate States of
If the Confederacy had not been invaded but
had been allowed to exist in peace, the relations between all the states would
have been nearly identical to how they had been before secession, and the
citizens of the states could have remained "one people" in every
important sense. Similarly, if the
"We Lost Too Much": The War’s Impact on Our Form of Government
The North's invasion and subjugation of the
South destroyed the republic that the founding fathers established. We went
from a Union in which the federal government's powers were strictly limited to
The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 taxed almost everything but the air northerners breathed. . . . The law also created a Bureau of Internal Revenue, which remained a permanent part of the federal government. . . . The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never again the same. . . .
The old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post office gave way to a more centralized polity that taxed the people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, drafted men into the army, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and established the first national agency for social welfare. . . . Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution had limited the powers of the national government; six of the next seven, beginning with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, vastly expanded those powers at the expense of the states. (The Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 447-448, 859)
The Civil War
marked a decisive turn in the nature of American nationality. Buried forever
was the notion of the
For all practical purposes the Tenth Amendment, which reserves all unspecified powers to the states and to the people, was abolished by the North's victory. Former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton came under attack during her confirmation hearings because she had dared to say in a 1996 speech that "we lost too much" in the way of states rights because of the Civil War. In her speech, Norton, who was then the Attorney General of Colorado, said the following:
I recall, after I
had just gone through this massive battle with the EPA on state sovereignty and
states rights, visiting the east coast. For the first time, I had the
opportunity to wander through one of those Civil War graveyards. I remember
seeing this column that was erected in one of those graveyards. It said in
memory of all the
But we lost too
much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the Federal
government gaining too much power over our lives. That is the point I think we
need to reappreciate. We need to remind ourselves and remind the political
debate that part of the reason the states need to be able to make their own
decisions is to provide that check in our Federal system against too much power
Jefferson Davis believed the North's denial
of the Southern states' desire to peacefully leave the
Secession, on the other hand, was the assertion of the inalienable right of a people to change their government. . . . Under our form of government, and the cardinal principles upon which it was founded, it should have been a peaceful remedy. The withdrawal of a state from a league has no revolutionary or insurrectionary characteristic. The government of the state remains unchanged as to all internal affairs. It is only its external or confederate relations that are altered. To term this action of a sovereign a "rebellion" is a gross abuse of language. So is the flippant phrase which speaks of it as an appeal to the "arbitrament of the sword" [i.e., trying to settle an issue by force]. In the late contest, in particular, there was no appeal by the seceding states to the arbitrament of arms. There was on their part no invitation or provocation to war. They stood in the attitude of self-defense, and were attacked for merely exercising a right guaranteed by the original terms of the compact. . . . The man who defends his house against attack cannot with any propriety be said to have submitted the question of his right to it to the arbitrament of arms. . . .
The invasions of
the Southern states, for purposes of coercion, were in violation of the written
Constitution, and the attempt to subjugate sovereign states, under the pretext
of "preserving the
J. Lamar Curry, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former member of the U.S. Congress and of the Confederate Congress, said the following about what was lost because of the Civil War:
We find in England and other countries an aristocracy, the classes in the enjoyment of pensions, tithes, monopolies, vested rights, exclusive privileges, until, with blunted sensibilities and beclouded intellects, they delude themselves into acquiescence in, and support of, such inequalities and wrongs. So in the United States . . . the government during . . . [the Civil War] incorporated banks, made fiat money or promises to pay legal tender, constructed roads, granted bounties and monopolies, gave away the property of the people, proscribed state constitutions . . . fixed terms and conditions of suffrage, dictated the manner of appointing and electing senators, assumed control over railways and industries, and absorbed and exercised power over interstate commerce, capital, labor, currency, and property. We have an alliance between Congress and eleemosynaries [charities], senators taking care of their private affairs in revenue bills, and manufacturers before sub-committees of ways and means and of finance dictating the subjects to be taxed and the amount of duties to be levied. (A Civil History of the Confederate States Government, Dahlonega, Georgia: Confederate Reprint Company, 2001, reprint of 1901 edition, pp. 238-239)
Historian Robert Selph Henry:
The Confederacy was a belated attempt to exercise the right of a state to leave the United States of America. . . .
With its failure the United States of America that we know was born. . . . The old union of states federated together for specific and limited purposes died, to be succeeded by a new nation in which the states, North and South alike, have sunk from the sovereignty they so jealously maintained in 1787 to become little more than convenient administrative subdivisions of government. (The Story of the Confederacy, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1999, reprint of 1931 edition, p. 11)
The Right of Secession
What about the right of secession? Did the
South have the right to secede? Thomas Jefferson clearly indicated he would
allow a state to leave the
If they had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers. (The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992, reprint, p. 131)
Grant also said he believed that if any of
the original thirteen states had attempted to secede from the
If there had been a desire on the part of any single State to withdraw from the compact at any time while the number of States was limited to the original thirteen, I do not suppose there would have been any to contest the right, no matter how much the determination might have been regretted. (The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, p. 130)
The Declaration of Independence says people
have the right to sever existing political ties with other peoples and to take
their place among the family of nations.
It also says governments derive "their just powers from the consent
of the governed" and that people have the right to form a new government
when they believe they need to do so, "laying its foundation on such
principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most
likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." It may be said with complete accuracy that
the Declaration of Independence is a secession document. Our founding fathers signed the declaration
in order to proclaim their independence from
This is just a small part of the evidence
that shows the South had valid grounds for believing it had the right to
peacefully leave the
The Devastation of the South
One cannot understand why many Southerners and others feel the war was unjust without understanding the extent of the devastation that federal forces inflicted on the South during the war. When a whole region experiences the kind of devastation and brutality that the South suffered, accounts of such wrongs are passed down from parents to children for many generations. Today nearly all textbooks either ignore or gloss over the cruel type of warfare that federal armies waged in the South and the amount of destruction and suffering those armies caused. So, before I conclude this article, I'd like to take just a moment to examine the nature and consequences of the devastation that federal forces inflicted on the South.
Along with the horrible number of deaths and crippling wounds, much of the seceded South was left in smoldering ruins. The Southern economy was practically nonexistent. The dollar value of the destruction was staggering. Although cotton resumed its significant position almost immediately, it was another twenty-five years before the number of livestock in the South returned to prewar levels. . . .
William T. Sherman
In the aftermath of
the war, the entire Confederacy, save sections west of the Mississippi that had
been spared the massive battles, was devastated--physically, economically, even
spiritually. The postwar South was probably worse off than
Randall and Donald:
On the nature and extent of devastation at the South the historian's sources present a sad record. By the end of the war the eleven seceding states had 32 percent fewer horses than in 1860, 30 percent fewer mules, 35 percent fewer cattle, 20 percent fewer sheep, and 42 percent fewer swine. . . . Omitting slave property from his calculations, Professor Sellers concludes that "southern wealth in 1860 had shrunk in value at the end of the war by 43 percent". . . .
The South had been
broken by the war. Lands were devastated. Proud plantations were now mere
wrecks. Billions of economic value in slaves had been wiped away by
emancipation measures without that compensation which Lincoln himself had
admitted to be equitable. . . . Accumulated capital had disappeared. Banks were
shattered; factories were dismantled; the structure of business intercourse had
The interior of
South Carolina, in the wake of Sherman's march, "looked for many miles
like a broad black streak of ruin and desolation--the fences all gone; lonesome
smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots
where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown
by weeds, with here and there a sickly looking patch of cotton or corn
cultivated by negro squatters. In the city of
The war not only killed one-quarter of the Confederacy's white men of military age. It also killed two-fifths of southern livestock, wrecked half of the farm machinery, ruined thousands of miles of railroad, left scores of thousands of farms and plantations in weeds and disrepair. . . . Two-thirds of assessed southern wealth vanished in the war. The wreckage of the southern economy caused the 1860s to become the decade of least economic growth in American history before the 1930s. As measured by the census, southern agricultural and manufacturing capital declined by 46 percent between 1860 and 1870, while northern capital increased by 50 percent. In 1860 the southern states had contained 30 percent of the national wealth; in 1870, only 12 percent. (The Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 818-819)
When surrender stopped the invader, physical destruction was apparent in many places. Lands were devastated, plantations wrecked. Accumulated capital had disappeared in worthless stocks, bonds, and currency. The banks had failed; factories had been dismantled; and the structure of business intercourse had crumbled. Two billion dollars invested in slaves had been wiped out, without the compensation which Lincoln himself had regarded as equitable. . . . Cotton worth $30,000,000 had been confiscated by federal Treasury agents. . . .
The eighty miles
from Harpers Ferry to New Market were described by a
In December 1865, an estimated 500,000 white people in three states of the lower South were without the necessities of life, and some of them even starved. . . .
Fifteen years after
the war only the frontier states of
The spirit of vengeance was strong in the victorious North at first. . . .
Because Southerners refused to be friendly, the federal army of occupation resorted to irritating retaliations. Women required to go to military headquarters for any favor were forced to take ironclad oaths of national loyalty. The wearing of Confederate uniforms was forbidden and when this order was enforced among men who had no other clothes, scenes of unforgivable humiliation resulted. . . .
were seized and turned over to Northern denominations, and ministers were not
allowed to preach unless they agreed to conduct "loyal services, pray for
the President of the
In addition, there was the burden of discriminatory war taxes and the confiscation laws of Congress. Federal Treasury agents threaded their way through the occupied areas seizing 3 million out of the 5 million bales of cotton which had not been destroyed. They corruptly enriched themselves. "I am sure," said the Secretary of the Treasury, "that I sent some honest agents South; but it sometimes seems very doubtful whether any of them remained honest for very long." A special tax of from 2.5 to 3 cents a pound on cotton yielded the federal treasury $68,000,000. Because of its effects on the economy of a prostrate region, this levy was called by the United States Commissioner of Agriculture "disastrous and disheartening in the extreme." As soon as the federal troops got a foothold in the South, property was seized and sold for nonpayment under the Direct Tax Act. (A History of the South, pp. 247-251, original emphasis)
In conclusion, I hope that in this article I have provided some balance to the common, and I believe inaccurate and unfair, descriptions of the antebellum South, of the Confederacy, and of the events that led to the Civil War. When judged by any fair, reasonable comparison, the South was just as deserving of its independence as were the original thirteen colonies. Similarly, the South had just as much right as did the North to be governed by a government of its own choosing. The Confederacy had just as much right to exist as did any other nation of its day.
It's been said that those who fail to learn
from the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them. But how can we learn
from history if our version of history is markedly one-sided and incomplete?
Sometimes the facts of history can be unsettling, especially when those facts
have been widely suppressed.
I acknowledge . . . the obligation to heal dissensions, allay passion, and promote good feeling; but I do not believe that good feeling should be promoted at the expense of truth and honor. I sincerely desire that there may be between the people of the North and the people of the South increasing peace and amity, and that, in the spirit of genuine fraternity, they may work together for the prosperity and glory of their common country; but I do not think the Southern people should be expected to sacrifice the truth of history to secure that end. (The Men in Gray, Crawfordville, Georgia: Ruffin Flag Company, 1997, reprint, p. 17)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael
T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance
University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from
American Military University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from
Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the
Community College of the Air Force. He
also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of
Civil War Studies from