George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims


Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.


James Mason and the Slave Power

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

After Stephen Douglas finished castigating Charles Sumner for The Crime Against Kansas, James Mason took his turn. Sumner didn’t get personal with Mason quite like he did with the absent Andrew Butler, but the Massachusetts senator singled out the Fugitive Slave Act for particular scorn on every occasion. Mason wrote the law.

The Virginian began with now familiar complaints about Sumner’s incivility, then centered his objections on Sumner’s believe in the Slave Power. That conspiracy of Southerners and turncoat Yankees dominated the Union, as Sumner had it. Others argued much the same. Mason’s objection began with a lack of clear definitions. What did Sumner mean by slave power, if he never explained it? Where did its great might come from?

It is not the wealth of the slaveholding States, for the Senator from Massachusetts himself, by an extravagance of speech, declared here yesterday, that, the productive industry of his own small State was greater than the whole cotton-growing labor of the South.

If the South couldn’t buy and sell the North, then whence came its power? Mason dismissed numbers, because the slave states lacked a majority in the House and Senate alike. If not money or numbers, then what?

If there be any slave power exerting an influence upon the counsels of this country, it is that moral power diffused through the world, acknowledged everywhere, and to which kings and potentates bow-it is the moral power of truth; adherence to the obligations of honor, and the dispensation of those charities of life that ennoble the nature of man. That is the moral power which the Senator ascribes to the institution of slavery.

Mason had the truth of it closer than he or Sumner might care to admit, if for the opposite reasons. The disproportionate power of the slave states come in part from the anti-democratic nature of the American Constitution, which we struggle with still. It granted them strength beyond their number, then added more on top to help protect slavery specifically. But the moral power in those obligations of honor came down to the steadfast unity of most of the South, most of the time, in slavery’s defense. Even shy of a numerical majority, the slave states formed a plurality interest of vast influence. Many northerners objected to slavery in the abstract or in principle, but even into the Civil War they didn’t view its eradication as a civilization-defining trait. The South, by contrast, understood slavery as the ultimate, indispensible foundation of civilization.

“Piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4Full text

Charles Sumner went for the low blow. Andrew Pickens Butler, an elderly man, had then-recently suffered a stroke that left him with some facial paralysis. As a result, he tended to drool and spray when he spoke. Sumner went beyond criticizing the politics and morals of his proslavery oratory and damned him for “loose expectoration.” This went somewhat beyond the ordinary bounds of political invective, even in an era when making fun of disabilities didn’t arouse the kind of opprobrium it might now. Hearing all of this while angrily pacing the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas told a reporter “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.”

Of course Sumner had choice words for Douglas too. The Little Giant made the Kansas-Nebraska Act with his enthusiasm for the Pacific railroad, his political ambitions, and his eagerness to sweep aside Native Americans. “[T]he squire of Slavery” defended his course on Kansas in a “labored address,”

piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass-constrained himself, as you will remember, to unfamiliar decencies of speech. Of that address I have nothing to say at this moment

Anthony Burns

And if you believe that, Sumner has some beachfront property in Kansas that you may like. Most of The Crime Against Kansas responds to Douglas and others. To open that, five pages in, Sumner engaged in a lengthy recapitulation of Kansas history from “the Missouri discussion” on down. He indicted Franklin Pierce and slavery’s friends in Congress for trampling over the rules of the House and Senate to organize the territory with slavery permitted and took swipes at the blue lodges. He made all the familiar accusations of conspiracy and rehearsed the attacks upon democracy in the territory. He called out Pierce further for claiming impotence to enforce law and order within Kansas against proslavery lawlessness when the president exerted himself eagerly to enforce it in Massachusetts to deliver up Anthony Burns.

At length -nine pages in, now- Sumner came to the Wakarusa War:

in the latter days of November, 1855, a storm, long brewing, burst open the heads of the devoted people. […] like the Heathen of old, they [proslavery Missourians] raged, particularly against Lawrence, already known, by the firmness of its principles and the character of its citizens, as the citadel of the good cause. On this account they threatened, in their peculiar language, to “wipe it out.” Soon the hostile power was gathered for this purpose.

Wilson Shannon

That this all arose out of a proslavery man murdering an antislavery man and led to a proslavery force marching against an antislavery town made the whole thing downright perverse, and multiplied its evil in Sumner’s mind. Wilson Shannon “[t]he weak Governor, with no faculty higher than servility to slavery” only compounded the error further by giving official license to the mob. The Senator passed over the role Shannon played in defusing the situation, though considering how heavily he contributed to bringing things to that dire point one can hardly grant him much credit. He tried to clean up the mess only after making it.

Loose Expectorations: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3Full text

Andrew Butler, that “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!” always had a good word for his mistress, the harlot Slavery. Charles Sumner would not let the Senate soon forget that. There among them sat a man happy to defend the practice of selling children at auction. Many others did the same, but not all of them both played an important supporting role in repealing the Missouri Compromise and remained in the Senate for Sumner to castigate. Like some of those others, Butler had laid into Sumner. Sumner hit back:

the Senator, in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious words to those who differ from him on this floor.

That opprobrium included calling Sumner and company sectional fanatics. Standing against the theft of Kansas by proslavery fraud made for “an uncalculating fanaticism.” Sumner damned the attacks as untrue and unoriginal and turned them back on Butler, painting him as the ardent sectionalist and returning to his theme of freedom national. Butler’s “too great a perversion of terms” could not stand.

Many pages and a day later, Sumner returned to Butler again. The Senator, while absent then from the Senate, remained,

omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech […] The Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure-with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law […] He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

On the face of it, Sumner insulted Butler in no more unusual a manner than he would anyone else. One can easily imagine him indicting Franklin Pierce or Daniel Webster with similar words. Sumner’s “loose expectoration” remark would, strictly speaking, fit anybody speaking incautiously. Andrew Butler suffered from partial facial paralysis, which gave him a speech impediment. Disability, not rage or fanaticism, afflicted the Senator’s oratory.

Many historians believe that Sumner drew the assault on his person that would come shortly with those words. Calling attention to a man’s disability attacked him in a way that indicting his politics did not. Sketching him as a bumbling fool and making the disability a centerpiece of that portrayal made it all the worse. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t have our scruples about mocking the unfortunate, but Sumner probably still exceeded the bounds of good taste by a wide margin. Often politicians could flay one another viciously and then kick back for a few drinks after Congress let out. Sometimes they even delighted in the insults they threw back and forth as a kind of game. Butler and Sumner’s friendship likely had some of that element to it, at least at the start. Maybe it could have again, but Butler died in 1857 and Sumner remained largely absent from Washington for the next few years.

“I mean the harlot, Slavery” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2Full text

We left Charles Sumner at the verge of the most famous part of his Crime Against Kansas. He set down the preliminaries, took a trip through Antiquity and Norse myth, and came back up with a plan for the oration. Before he got into the meat of it, though, he had to say a few words about the men who brought such ruin to Kansas. Likening Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. Butler lived in the F Street Mess with David Rice Atchison and friends back in the heady days when they told the Little Giant he needed to give them a big slavery win or give up on organizing the territory west of Missouri. He also became Sumner’s friend when the two came to sit beside one another.

Sumner likened the pair to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -he took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to get the details right- and set them out together in pursuit of the same cause. Butler played the lead role:

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight-I mean the harlot, Slavery.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Sumner meant to cast Butler as a fool and more than hint at sexual depravity. One doesn’t go to harlotry for a reference otherwise and such accusations were common in the farther left antislavery circles. Slavery turned the entire South into one great brothel, where white men young and old ran wild with lust. They might seize an enslaved woman by force or coerce her by threats, spoken and otherwise, but they would have their way. Southerners themselves occasionally complained of it, but if the man in the big house or a son or relative wanted to demonstrate their virility few objected too loudly. Enslavers bought black women specifically to rape often enough to sustain a steady trade in “fancy” slaves, but even those who bought them for other reasons could claim it as a fringe benefit. Like a depressing multitude of men in most places and eras, they argued that men could not contain their sexual urges. In the South, black women provided a convenient way to express them without sullying the “purity” of white women or raising the ire of their male relations.

Andrew Butler always had a good word for slavery and always rushed to its defense. To impugn bondage drew his wrath like nothing else, Sumner averred. If the nation would not serve slavery its due commerce in marriages sundered and the sale of “little children at the auction-block” then the nation must fall and Butler would leave the charge out of the Union: “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!”


The Crime Against Kansas, Prologue

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner saw the way out of his political difficulties in the direction his conscience pointed and where he had proven talents: a big antislavery speech. He had previously inveighed against the Fugitive Slave Act, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more than a year of increasing troubles in the nation’s newest territory gave him good cause to change subjects. Letters full of proslavery horrors filled his correspondence. Of course the Democrats in the Senate got the other side of the story and in an era before live news feeds and swift long distance travel, no one could much tell beyond the Kansas-Missouri border which side lied more often. Neither the Herald of Freedom nor the Squatter Sovereign would shy away from inventing suitable news or slanting real stories to serve the cause.

Kansas debates opened up with Stephen Douglas making an impassioned attack on the free state movement. They only made trouble for the law-abiding citizens of the territory, who ought to have their legal government recognized at once. Never a fan of Douglas, Sumner found his aggressive tone nearly intolerable. William Seward answered him with a proposal that the Topeka government be admitted to the Union at once. Things went downhill from there, but more and more northerners lined up against Douglas and his allies as the debate went on.

Sumner stayed out of it, instead sitting down for one of his research sessions. He took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to make sure he got his insults right and busied himself with histories of Georgia and the Carolinas to check his facts. He wrote more than a hundred pages, gilded with quotations from Antiquity, the British parliament, and past American debates. Then Sumner memorized the whole thing, so he wouldn’t have to check his notes as he spoke. He did a dry run with Seward and then deemed himself ready.

At one in the afternoon on May 19, as Marshal Donaldson’s proslavery army gathered at Lecompton and dreamed of razing Lawrence for good, Charles Sumner gained the floor in the United States Senate. He would hold it (PDF) for three hours:

Mr. President: You are now called to redress a great transgression. Seldom in the history of nations has such a question been presented. Tariffs, army bills, navy bills, land bills, are important, and justly occupy your care; but these all belong to the course of ordinary legislation. As means and instruments only, they are necessarily subordinate to the conservation of government itself. Grant them or deny them, in greater or less degree, and you will inflict no shock. The machinery of government will continue to move. The State will not cease to exist. Far otherwise is it with the eminent question now before you, involving, as it does, liberty in a broad territory, and also involving the peace of the whole country with our good name in history for evermore.

Without a Party Again

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Incensed at Charles Sumner’s refusal to play the part of slave-catcher, a task they believed assigned to him by the Constitution, Southern Senators plotted his expulsion from the Senate. His emergence as a competent debate partner helped turn his oratorical achievements into something far more menacing and he had to go. Alas, a quick canvass showed they lacked the necessary votes. The proslavery men would just have to put up with Sumner until his term ran out.

In the tumult of the Whig party’s slow collapse and the coalescence of the Republicans, Sumner ought to have played a leading role; he certainly hoped to do so and intended to play a large part in the fall campaigns. But many Whigs even in Massachusetts disliked the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Sumner’s extremism alike. Persistent factionalism in Massachusetts antislavery circles did its work, helped along by Henry Wilson. Wilson had orchestrated the coalition with the Democracy, which now stood in ruins. He had a reputation as a plotter and soon lived up to it. The Massachusetts GOP put on a poor campaign because Wilson betrayed it.

Wilson joined the nativist Know-Nothings, who kept their proceedings secret, and his people supported their man for governor. For that support, Wilson had a promise that he would go to Washington as Sumner’s colleague. The Know-Nothings promised a single issue party opposed to Catholicism and immigration and their ticket swept Massachusetts. The new legislature would have one each of Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans. All the rest hailed from the nativists.

Sumner, like any Massachusetts politician of the day, knew of his state’s anti-immigrant bent. The press of Irishmen into the factories transformed the demographics of Boston in just a decade. Many of his antislavery colleagues harbored nativist sentiment and the sense that the Bay State changed for the worse under the ministrations of foreign elements, whether the alliance of Massachusetts textile magnates and the Slave Power or the new immigrants, permeated political discourse. Disgusted by the development, Sumner discussed building an antislavery party clean of such elements.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

For once Sumner kept his beliefs largely to himself and a tight circle of intimates. Know-Nothing power in Massachusetts looked too strong to permit an open challenge. He explained the success of nativism entirely by citing dissatisfaction with the old parties. Even in private correspondence, he took care not to get on the wrong side of the movement. A more venal sort might have rushed to head the new movement, living up to the belief of his enemies that Sumner cared only for his own position. Instead Sumner delayed and kept silent, which precluded assuming any kind of leadership role. In less than a year, Sumner had gone from a politician with no support back home and a dubious future to a favored son and back again.

Without a party, again, and with no clear way forward, Sumner decided on a trip to the West. There he saw slavery firsthand, including an auction and the beating of children. He went as far as St. Louis, then up the Mississippi to Minnesota. Along the way, his carriage caught on a fence and flew up into the air. It landed on Sumner, but he suffered no worse than a bad bruising.

The Example of Louis XIV: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Charles Sumner made no bones about how politicians had nationalized slavery. He declared to the assemblage of National Whigs and Democrats in the Senate that to a man, Americans should rightly see them as Slavery Whigs and Slavery Democrats. One could argue with the details of Sumner’s history, but as a practical matter he had them dead to rights. Time and time again, they have capitulated to demands for slavery’s advance and made concessions taking almost useless fig leaves back to their angry voters in trade. Sumner, however, saw

Slavery as a sectional institution, within the exclusive control of the States, and with which the nation has nothing to do.

That makes him sound a bit like a reverse fire-eater. Sumner didn’t argue for disunion, but he believed in the rightness of state noncompliance in fugitive slave renditions and that the national government had no rightful power to impose any part of slavery upon a state. Enslavers and their allies could point to the specific grant of power to do just that in the Fugitive Slave Clause, finding themselves the virtues of a muscular national government coercing mere provinces. Everyone, then and now, chooses to prefer a form or level of government from policy outcomes. The what and how of politics concern us much more than the where and who.

The world had turned upside-down, by Sumner’s lights:

by an equally strange perversion, Freedom is degraded to be sectional, and all who uphold it, under the national Constitution, share this same epithet. The honest efforts to secure its blessings, everywhere within the jurisdiction of Congress, are scouted as sectional and this cause, which the founders of our National Government had so much at heart, is called sectionalism.

Sumner had the right of it there. Slavery agitation, allegedly either way but mostly to the antislavery side, won its practitioners condemnation as sectional men, fanatics, and obsessives bent on the Union’s destruction. One can’t get more anti-national than that. All this, Sumner attributed to the nature of slavery itself:

herein is the power of Slavery. According to a curious tradition of the French language, Louis XIV, the grand monarch, by an accidental error of speech, among supple courtiers, changed the gender of a noun; but Slavery has done more than this. It has changed word for word. It has taught many to say national, instead of sectional, and sectional instead of national.

No one would have missed Sumner’s allusion to monarchical power. Americans then still ardently feared kings and treasured their republican tradition in a world largely hostile to such things. To invoke a famous autocrat like Louis XIV and his pliable band of well-dressed lackeys, not a single backbone to share amongst them, Sumner cast slavery as fundamentally alien, dangerous, and authoritarian. He turned the insult back on its purveyors: Antislavery agitation did not imperil the Union, but rather the demands of despotic, unrepublican slavery had corrupted and perverted popular understandings. Slavery itself made men into monarchs, endowing them with a power like the Sun King’s.

How Often Did Enslavers Abuse Their Slaves?

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, some time ago I shared with you the story of an enslaved girl being brutally whipped. I did not then have the research habits I have now. In the course of answering a question about the prevalence of violence against enslaved people for Reddit’s AskHistorians, I revisited the story and gathered together some other sources I have since come upon on the subject. I have reworked portions of that post into this. None of it makes for a pleasant read. If you feel that you should take a pass on today’s post, please do so. Also please know that this post includes a vile racial slur.

One must naturally ask, if one accepts that enslavers abused their slaves, if every last one of them did it. We have a natural inclination to look for exceptions and we know from our own lives that people who do the same thing rarely ever do it to a uniform degree or in just the same way. Especially in our bureaucratized, computerized age it makes sense to ask for a normal level of brutality too, even if the victims of violence don’t have the luxury of comparing and taking their relative suffering with a philosopher’s detachment. The pain we feel, we must feel most keenly.

Enslavers, overseers, and others charged with controlling enslaved labor are people and do vary, but they and the law take violent “correction” as generally a matter of course. An enslaver who doesn’t lay it on regularly risks being thought a dangerously light touch and possibly a secret abolitionist in the minds of his neighbors. If one didn’t have the stomach for whipping oneself and didn’t have a regular person to do it, one could get the local sheriff to serve for a one-time fee. Robert E. Lee did.

Frederick Law Olmsted traveled the South and what he reports is largely consistent with the attitudes I see Southerners express amongst themselves:

The whip was evidently in constant use, however. There were no rules on the subject, that I learned; the overseers and drivers punished the negroes whenever they deemed it necessary, and in such manner, and with such severity, as they thought fit. “If you don’t work faster,” or “If you don’t work better,” or “If you don’t recollect what I tell you, I will have you flogged,” are threats which I have often heard. I said to one of the overseers, “It must be very disagreeable to have to punish them as much as you do?” “Yes, it would be to those who are not used to it-but it’s my business, and I think nothing of it. Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a nigger more than I would a dog.” I asked if he had ever killed a negro? “Not quite,” he said, but overseers were often obliged to.

Olmsted’s informant gave resistance to being whipped as just cause for a murder, which is something that Northrup risks in the movie. Enslavers often quantify by the number of lashes and we find occasional reference to standard punishments so incremented, but should not mistake these for modern business regulations. Enslavers, for practical purposes, answer only to themselves. Getting between the “domestic” relationship of a man and his human property smacked of abolitionism, to the point that even people running Bible study classes for slaves with the permission and supervision of their enslavers have trouble keeping on.

Independent of Olmsted, Jourdon Anderson’s famous letter to his ex-enslaver references a similar incident:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One doesn’t see much outright killing, though the law rarely punished any that did happen. More often comes horrific violence, which might lead to death. The worst Olmsted, an outsider present with the knowledge of the enslavers, saw happened to an eighteen year-old named Sall. They came on her while crossing a gully, where she had hidden out. She gave an excuse for being abroad without leave, but the overseer (Olmsted’s tour guide) didn’t buy it. (She said she was accidentally locked in, then got out on her own by breaking a plank loose. Then she got up and he spotted a ring of keys.) The girl’s father, all of a few minutes away, could have settled things one way or another. The overseer didn’t feel inclined to bother.

I’m sorry; things become much worse now:

“That won’t do,” said he [the overseer], “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulking horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” or “Ah, sir!” or “Please, sir!” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes-lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away form him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir! please, sir! oh, that’s enough, master! oh, Lord! oh, master, master! oh, God, master, do stop! oh, God, master! oh, God, master!”

Gentle Readers, I don’t know how many of you have or expect to have children or otherwise count teenagers among your loved ones, but Sall had those people too. She meant the world to them and they couldn’t prevent this, who might even have to watch it happen on other occasions.

A younger child too plays a part in this episode; a fifteen year old boy accompanied Olmsted and the overseer. He watched it all, bored. None of this was new for anybody but the Yankee. Olmsted

glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy for my emotion.

Olmsted couldn’t take it and rode off, the screams chasing him. The boy caught up to him, but not from pain or fear. The overseer came right behind, apparently finished. He can’t have missed much, if anything. “He [the overseer] laughed as he joined us.” Then he sounded off on how Sall cheated him out of day’s work. Olmsted asked if they had to do such things and the overseer made the standard argument:

Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would have done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.

The overseer struck to the heart of it: slaves don’t like slavery. Everybody in the South knew it, for all the occasional protests to the contrary. On the scale of an individual plantation, the enslaved outnumber the whites. It takes pain and terror to keep them at work. A slave may get off easy now and then, but even treasured personal valets can end up in the fields to make sure they don’t get ideas. The occasional less horrific enslaver doesn’t change the overall system.

It makes cold economic sense. The incentives free labor operates under don’t work well in a slave system. To get more out of a person, and thus more profit, they needed whips, chains, and other tortures. Temporarily or permanently impairing the ability of one to deliver that labor may well terrorize the others enough to make up the difference and then some.

This neglects, of course, that no one yet born has ever lived the live of the perfectly rational utility maximizer that stars in so many economic calculations. Fear plays its part: slaves not terrorized into submission may rise up and murder their tormentors. We must also consider rage: how dare the slaves challenge their masters? We can never forget the white supremacy that made it all work: those people, those subhumans, dared think they had the right to gainsay a white man. Finally, we must add pleasure to our calculations. Not every enslaver went to bed each night to happy visions of whips cracking and flying blood, but people in positions of power with great discretion and little accountability have a long history of giving themselves license to do things they would otherwise find unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson

Take it from an enslaver:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The author, no prodigy, exercised his boisterous passions upon Sally Hemings. He learned those things. They are part of his manners. That fifteen year-old kid decades later learned them just as well.

We have hitherto referred to impressionistic accounts, as historical research must. We have recorded moments, not sociological surveys. In the nineteenth century, a far less bureaucratized time, people did things more casually and made fewer managerial notes. A partial exception comes from the Barrow plantation in Louisiana. Barrow might have exceeded the norms of his time, but we can’t say for sure. My source, Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, wrote in the mid-Seventies and laments that no one has done a thorough study of plantation records that have survived to find out. I don’t know if one has been done since, despite checking a few recent surveys I have. Working from the Barrow sample, he comes up with

A slave -“on average”- was whipped every 4.56 days. Three slaves were whipped every two weeks. Among them, sixty (37.5 percent) were females. A male was whipped once a week, and a female once every twelve days.

During the two year period (1940-1) for which numbers exist, Barrow whipped all but 19 of his 129 slaves. We don’t know their age distribution, but it typical then 89 or so had reached the age of ten or more. Barrow whipped 119 individual slaves.

If Barrow did not whip children under the age of five, and if children under the age of ten were fairly evenly distributed, that means that every child aged five to nine probably was whipped one or more times in 1840-1841.

Barrow’s surviving diary extends somewhat beyond the 1840-1 time frame and may not be complete. He could have done worse than we know.

More than once, for example, Barrow penned suggestive diary notations such as “had a general Whiping frolick,” “whiped about half to day,” “general Whipping yesterday,” “intend Whipping them straight, “whiped all my grown cotten pickers today.”

Whipping frolics happened at least six times.

In his fine dissertation on the slave family, Bobby Jones concluded that Barrow resorted to “practically every known form of chastisement slaveholders used.” Jones pointed out: “During his career, Barrow resorted to chains; extra work; whipping; humiliation, such as making a man wear women’s clothing and parade around the quarters; imprisonment; stocks; ‘raked several negro heads to day’; ‘staking out’; ‘hand-sawing’; and dousing or ducking in water which occurred in October and November.”

Jones thinks that hand-sawing involved beating people with the saw, teeth first.


We can’t know for sure if we should take Barrow as exceptional or typical, but between the numbers his records provide and the constant reference to violence in period sources, we can’t fairly say that brutality happened rarely. Violence against enslaved people looks, both from the tremendous array of sources from enslaved people themselves, their enslavers giving advice to one another, and white third parties, like the overwhelming norm. All the stories of whipping, cutting, chaining, beating, rape, and torture didn’t just come from nowhere. People, almost all white, did them all to other people, all black. They made a system of this, a great, all-encompassing world that turned blood, pain, and screams into the money that made the wealth of a nation and fed the mills off another. Other people, most other whites, took no great interest in that until the same system appeared poised to enslave them too. Most of us, myself included, have taken little notice since of the many ways it continues. We too have learned our manners.

Honor, Pride, and Free Books at the Free State

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison gave a speech outside Lawrence, interrupted by cheers as Samuel Jones came back with the town’s cannons. Then the proslavery mob, after waiting so long, finally moved in with flags waving. Rumors of mined streets delayed them only briefly. Many of the women and children exited, some of the former looking back over their shoulders and telling the proslavery mob just what they thought of affairs.

They had come to do more than visit. Early in the month, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury declared the antislavery papers and free state hotels public menaces in need of suppression. The mob got to that straightaway, starting with Josiah Miller’s Free State. Miller operated out of the second story of what William Phillips calls “a concrete building”. I think he means cemented stone, not a modern poured concrete structure. A store occupied the first floor and the border ruffians went there first.

One of the ruffian officers entered the store and demanded of the proprietor if there was a mine under the building to blow it up. The merchant assured him there was not, when the interrogator told him that they were going up into the printing office, and that if anything happened he would hold him responsible.

A keg of gunpowder wouldn’t blow up a building quite like a modern artillery shell, but expecting to survive the experience still sounds awfully hopeful. Satisfied, the proslavery men entered the Free State office.

The press and other articles were first broken, so as to be rendered perfectly useless, and then thrown into the Kansas river. As this was some distance to carry the articles, they got tired of it, and began throwing the remainder in the street. Books and papers were thrown in the street.

If the Free State had machinery anything like the Herald of Freedom did, which seems likely, then the proslavery men had to lug a lot of metal around just in the steam press. The lead type would only add to the fun. Since this meant free books, some of the mob helped themselves. Some officers intervened to stop that, claiming that the antislavery men would use the theft against them. William Phillips, just the antislavery man who did, must have related that with particular relish.

Colonel Zadoc Jackson, of Georgia, exerted himself to prevent the plunder, as did several others; they were prepared for the most desperate war against Freedom and American rights, but they had too much honor, or too much pride, to wish to occupy the position of highwaymen. Unfortunately, these officers were unable to prevent these outrages, or restrain the villains they had gathered up to do their lawless work.

Honor and pride had their pleasures, but free books offered still greater joys.