A scene of slaveholder brutality #economistbookreviews

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, I’m sorry for this post. I read this passage years ago and it stuck with me ever since for the obvious reasons, but I don’t think I ever shared it. The content that follows can easily ruin one’s day. But in light of The Economist’s denial of the centrality of cruelty to slave production, I can’t continue letting it go. What follows is a period description of the whipping of a slave girl. It’s violent, graphic, and somewhat sexualized. It also includes the slaveholder’s favorite racial epithet. I hope we are all somewhat sensitive to these things, but if you are the kind of person who will suffer great personal trauma in reading it then I beg you to skip the post.

I take as my text William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. Therein he quotes Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park. Olmstead  toured the South and wrote a book of his observations:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

This is the history that The Economist wants to minimize and, ultimately, ignore. And keep in mind that Olmstead saw what his hosts felt comfortable displaying to a Yankee visitor.