Stringfellow hammered the point that the census showed slaves as better off in terms of physical and mental health than free blacks, neglecting any difference in their ability to access what the nineteenth century had to offer in terms of social welfare for those so afflicted. Stringfellow pressed on from there. He had the Bible on his side. He had the census. But he had still more statistics to advance his thesis that slavery benefited the slave and slaveholder alike.
Even in slaveholding Missouri, free black people just did little to no good. They had slaveholding whites and faithful slaves all around them, but appeared to take little from their good example. Stringfellow knew because he lived in their company:
There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character
It did little to just assert that free black ne’er-do-wells rampaged across the South, though. People of the time would probably not call him a racist for it, but they would know all too well that a proslavery man has a strong motivation to exaggerate or outright invent sins of those who slipped slavery’s noose. Stringfellow went to the crime statistics to back himself up.
Of the moral condition of the slave, as contrasted with that of the free negro, the census also gives us no information. But so full are the annals of crime, of evidence on this head, we would waste time in making the contrast. Of the slave we fearlessly assert that as to all the higher grades of crime, he will contrast favorably even with the white man. But “children of a larger growth,” kindly, affectionate in their dispositions, their wants all simple, amply supplied, they have neither the temptation nor the inclination to commit crime. They may be led astray, they are easily ruled, they may commit a petty trespass; but let alone, with none to corrupt them, they pass through life happy, contented and innocent.
Slaves behaved themselves, absent some abolitionist giving them bad ideas. Free black people? Not so much:
On the other hand, the unhappy free negro, thoughtless and improvident, driven from the society of the good and the virtuous, an outcast among the vicious, is regarded as a nuisance even by the abolitionist! He is not a mere nuisance, but the criminal statistics of the North show, that crime of the highest grades, offences which are punished by confinement in the penitentiaries, prevail among the free negroes to an unheard of extent. In Massachusetts, composing less than one-hundredth part of the population, they furnish one-tenth of the convicts. In other States, the proportion is even greater. In the South, on the other hand, offenses of this character are even more rare than among the whites.
I wish Stringfellow gave a source for his numbers. Despite his proud declaration that he has them, we receive only this one from his text.
That said, let’s grant for the sake of argument that Stringfellow spoke the general truth. He ignores, and can’t have missed the fact having lived in a slave society, that slaves had little to no access to the criminal justice system. If they committed a grievous crime, it might make a sensation in the newspapers and be on everyone’s mind for a while. That slave or free black person, however, stood little chance of coming before a court, facing trial, and receiving a sentence. The white South, seeing its survival at stake, dealt with these things brutally but informally.
Abraham Lincoln told the story of one such case in Stringfellow’s own Missouri back in the 1830s:
Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.
McIntosh murdered a prominent citizen of St. Louis. Even on its chilly frontier, where cotton did not grow, the white South dealt with that kind of thing far more often by means of private violence than the courts.