The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.

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“We love the white woman so much…”

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Gentle readers, we have almost finished with Stringfellow’s pamphlet. I could certainly extract more meaning from it, but I think I’ve captured the high points. Much of what remains involves a reiteration of past points. But Stringfellow, after listening the benefits of slavery to the black and white man, comes around to consider just how wonderfully white women benefit as well. In so doing, he expresses some exceptionally horrific ideas. I will reach them in full toward the end of the post. If any of you find discussion of sexual violence especially traumatic, please don’t ruin your day here.

Slavery, Stringfellow asserted

ennobles woman. Relieved by the slave from the abject toil, the servile condition to which the white woman is so often subjected by necessity where negro slavery does not exist, and which strip her of woman’s greatest charm, modesty; which make of her the rude drudging, despised servant of a harsh master; the white woman becomes, as she is fitted to be, not the slave, but the queen of her house, fit mate for a sovereign.

Virtuous, modest, sensitive, retiring, her only ambition to merit the love of her husband, her only pride to point to her children and say, “these are my jewels”; worshipped in her sphere, her gentle sway undisputed, the white woman in the slave-holding States needs no conventions to give her, her rights. Whether she be the mistress of a mansion, or the humble tenant of a cabin, to her the seat of honour is ever accorded — at home or abroad, every son of the south deems himself her champion.

Women, as decent, reasonable, male person knew very well, had only one rightful use: as help-meets to their husbands. Slavery permitted white women that role by taking from them many toils which they had to endure in the free states. But slavery gave them more than just occasion to fulfill their divinely ordained role. It saved them from far worse horrors:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

Providing black women as slaves to white men gave them someone acceptable to rape, thus sparing the virtue of white womanhood. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow wrote that for public consumption. He had it published. It came out as the official manifesto of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. The members approved it. They all knew very well what the words meant and accepted them as a statement of their principles for anybody in the nation to read. They might not like to talk about rape, but they accepted that it happened and preferred it happen to slaves.

Abolitionists damned the whole South as a great brothel, filled to the brim with degenerate masters forcing themselves on their human property. After pages of carefully answering antislavery arguments, Stringfellow comes up dry. He says it himself: “we love the white woman so much.”  Just them. Nothing of the sort should befall a white woman.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

I can think of no better answer to this than that Sojourner Truth gave in other circumstances a few years before:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?