The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.

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