The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Drapetomania)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn SpeciesPeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar BrainsPeculiar Blood, Tiedemann on Brains, Tiedemann on Nerves. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504. The full text of Tiedemann’s paper here as a PDF.)

Having run down the basics of Cartwright’s case, however lacking, where he went with it deserves some attention. From those peculiarities which do not withstand scrutiny, Cartwright deduced that black people have two unique mental illnesses: Drapetomania and Dysaesthesia Aethiopica. He made them up, of course, but certainly slaves did run away and put less than their best efforts into the tasks their masters compelled them to perform. Who wouldn’t?

To explain Drapetomania, Cartwright refers to the Bible. Thus we immediately pass out of doing science and into theology. Brains, nerves, and blood aside, Cartwright believes black people naturally suited to slavery because his God says so.

To ascertain the true method of governing negroes, so as to cure and prevent the disease under consideration, we must go back to the Pentateuch, and learn the true meaning of the untranslated term that represents the negro race. In the name there given to that race, is locked up the true art of governing negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away. The correct translation of that term declares the Creator’s will in regard to the negro; it declares him to be the submissive knee-bender. […] If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than the “submissive knee-bender,” [italics in original] (which the Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his bearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound and cannot run away.

One could get the idea that black people had inner lives just like white people and made decisions rational decisions that weighed the risk of escape and punishment against the chance for freedom. Cartwright goes on to note that two classes of owner most often had runaways: those who ruled their human property leniently and those who ruled it very brutally.

As they proved countless times and by the thousands during the Civil War and on a smaller scale before then, black people did not in fact prefer slavery. They voted for freedom with their feet. Running away always meant risking recapture and possibly horrific punishment. It meant leaving behind friends, loved ones, and one’s home all at once in the hope that one could make it to an unknown, distant place. People simply do not hazard that kind of thing lightly.

Taking Cartwright at his word, why did slaves treated comparatively leniently run away more often? I submit that as thinking beings they expected that if recaptured, their owners would continue the accustomed leniency. Punishment might come, but the punishment of an owner or overseer inclined to leniency had to provoke less fear than that of one inclined to brutality.

In the latter case, slaves treated too harshly have every reason to run. Punishment might carry with it special dread when one knows it will come from a brutal, sadistic owner or overseer, but the terror of staying and the appeal of escape had to increase together. We see this play out all the time. People can only take so much before desperate courses of action take on a far more reasonable cast.

But let we be too kind to Cartwright for suggesting a balance of gentle and harsh treatment, the doctor recommends this treatment to cure Drapetomania:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Prophylactic whippings don’t count as arbitrary or brutal treatment. Slaves had every reason for sulking and dissatisfaction, even if Cartwright can’t admit it, so he has in effect written a prescription for the lash for any slave suffering a lack of acting talent. The only balance he really advises is a balance of terror: terrorize slaves just enough that they fear your wrath more than running but not so much as to drive them to flight anyway.

One comment on “The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Drapetomania)

  1. […] what did the good doctor use as evidence for the validity of his […]

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