Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow had the Bible on his side, if he did say so himself. He knew piratical abolitionists would flood Kansas with pauper mercenaries. That flood would not just take Kansas away from slavery, but also inflame antislavery sentiment in the adjacent Missouri slave belt. Ruin and race war would come unless he and his Platte County Self-Defense Association comrades stood against it. Stringfellow knew from the horrifying example of Haiti that without white tutelage, black people would return to their supposed natural state of idolatrous savagery.
Even if one granted Haiti as a clear example that black people simply could not govern themselves, nineteenth century Americans had another example of a black population living without slavery. Stringfellow could hop on a train, catch a river boat, ride or walk a few hundred miles and find himself deep in a free state. Every free state had at least some free black people living there, despite the best efforts of their white neighbors. If the natural experiment of Haiti suggested that blacks needed slavery, didn’t the natural experiment of the free states suggest that they did not?
Stringfellow didn’t think so. He had facts and figures to back up his assertion that slaves benefited from slavery. The 1850 census, like the 1840 census, did more than just count the people and note their race and sex. In fact, the census for the first time tried to count every single person in the nation. The census takers also counted the “deaf and dumb”, the blind, and “insane and idiots”.
Loss of speech, of hearing, of sight, as certainly indicate physical, as idiocy and insanity do mental suffering. By the extent to which the negro, slave and free, is subject to these afflictions, we are enabled to determine his condition. Blindness, insanity and idiocy especially result from destitution and distress.
That makes good sense as far as it goes. If we looked at a group of people working in a particular industry or living in a particular area today and found that they had statistically significant higher rates of blindness, mental impairment or illness, or loss of speech, we would think something had gone wrong. Stringfellow compared the census figures for whites and free blacks to start, finding their rates of the aforementioned afflictions:
Of Deaf and Dumb, 1 to 2151 White, 1 to 3005 Free Negro
“Blind 1 to 2445 ” , 1 to 870 ” ”
“Insane and Idiots 1 to 1374 ” , 1 to 980 ” “
From these he concluded that free blacks suffered such things at a greater rate than whites. What about the slaves? Stringfellow constructed a proper table of the data:
|Deaf and Dumb.||Blind.||Insane and Idiots.|
|White||1 to 2151||1 to 2445||1 to 1374|
|Free Negro||1 to 3005||1 to 870||1 to 980|
|Slave||1 to 6552||1 to 2645||1 to 3080|
Not only did the slaves suffer less than free blacks, they actually came off better than whites! How could that be? Stringfellow posited that “the watchful care of the master” and “the simple genuine happiness of the slave” explained it all.
Counting the disabled had been a problem in the 1840 census, which returned figures so obviously wrong that when confronted with specific examples even John C. Calhoun would admit that the federal marshals made errors in recording them. In some cases, the number of black people with disabilities exceeded the total black population and Calhoun would not pretend anything other than error occurred there. Furthermore, in order to get on the census lists for disability one had to live in some kind of institution, poorhouse, or benefit from some kind of local charity. Whites would receive precedence over blacks in the North, possibly to the point of complete exclusion, but down south even that asked a great deal. A disabled slave would remain a slave and most likely take tasks for which the disability didn’t matter so much and might go unmarked. The 1850 census came from the work of nineteenth century lay Americans, not twenty-first century statisticians and demographers. The numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.