The insecurity of slavery in the Border South stimulated many extreme measures to defend it, including the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The presence of so many whites, so few blacks, and so many outsiders made the hard-nosed, violent ways that the Lower South constructed white solidarity harder to exercise and more likely to backfire. Thus Kansas became a test case for whether or not Border South slavery could endure.
I intended to follow immediately along on that thread today, but have lately taken up Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I picked up a very cheap Barnes & Noble edition some time ago and it finally reached the top of my pile. Born in Maryland, Douglass lived under the Border State slavery regime. In the course of telling his own story, he tells many others about how his fellow slaves suffered. I read one of those just today and it struck me as a good way to turn things back, at least for a moment, from a story about the future of white settlement in Kansas and the implications it had for the white man’s Union to a story of how white Americans suppressed the agency and stole the lives of black Americans.
Douglass wrote about an overseer, the aptly named Austin Gore, who excelled at his job. He could turn anything a slave did into a sign of insubordination and would readily answer that with the lash.
Mr. Gore was a grave man, and, though a young man, he indulged in no jokes, said no funny words, seldom smiled. His words were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words. Overseers will sometimes indulge in a witty word, even with slaves; not so with Mr. Gore. He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well. When he whipped, he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences. he did nothing reluctantly, no matter how disagreeable; always at his post, never inconsistent. He never promised but to fulfil.
Leaving aside Gore’s exact job, he sounds like a model employee. People at the time didn’t have to set aside the job to make that call, since they knew full well that they wanted someone to manage slaves. Manage them, Gore did:
His savage barbarity was equalled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but a few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. the second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.
Gore did not own Demby. He belonged to Gore’s boss. Thus he had to answer for destruction of property. That didn’t bother Gore in the slightest. He told his employer
that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slave would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.
Gore kept his job and his reputation spread. He knew his business. So did the 545 other Maryland men who listed their profession as overseer on the 1850 census. More would do the job for themselves and thus might tell the census that they farmed or planted. Over in Missouri, the same census found only 64 overseers. Maryland had a few counties that looked like bits of the Lower South, more than half enslaved. Missouri’s most enslaved county, Howard, could only manage 5,886 slaves out of 15,946 people, 36.91%.
Small wonder that Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest felt so vulnerable. Even Maryland, with half its black population free, could produced better slavery numbers than Missouri could. They might have already lost their home state, so best secure the one next door. Otherwise they might find black Americans voting, with their feet or otherwise.