Although author Catherine Marie Sedgwick holds the illusion that slavery as practiced in New England was a beneficent institution, she admits to several cases of abusive masters and mistresses. In this excerpt she describes in detail the very different treatment slaves in one Sheffield residence received from the male and female heads of house.
Before the American Revolution, slavery extended throughout the United States. In New England it was on a very limited scale. There were household slaves in Boston, who drove the coaches, cooked the dinners, and shared the luxuries of rich houses; and a few were distributed among the most wealthy of the rural population. They were not numerous enough to make the condition a great evil or embarrassment, but quite enough to show its incompatibility with the demonstration of the truth, on which our declaration of Independence is based, that "all men are born equal," and have "an
inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The slaves in Massachusetts were treated with almost parental kindness. They were incorporated into the family, and each puritan household being a sort of religious structure, the relative duties of master and servant were clearly defined. No doubt the severest and longest task fell to the slave, but in the household of the farmer or artisan, the master and the mistress shared it, and when it was finished, the white and the black, like the feudal chief and his household servant, sat down to the same table, and shared the same viands. No doubt there were hard masters and cruel mistresses, and so there are cruel fathers and exacting mothers: unrestrained power is not a fit human trust. We know an old man, who, fifty years ago, when strict domestic discipline was a cardinal virtue, and "spare the rod and spoil the child" was written on the lintel, was in the unvarying habit, "after prayers" on a Monday morning, of setting his children, boys and girls, nine in number, in a row, and beginning with the eldest, a lad of eighteen, he inflicted an hebdomadal prospective chastisement down the whole line, to the little urchin of three years. And the tradition goes, that the possible transgressions of the week were never underrated--that these were supererogatory stripes for possible sins, or chance misdemeanors!
But this was a picturesque exception from the prevailing mildness of the parental government, and so were the cruelties exercised upon her slaves by a certain Madame A----, who lived in Sheffield, a border-town in the western part of Massachusetts, exceptional from the general course of patriarchal government. This Madame A---- belonged to the provincial gentry, and did not live long enough for the democratic wave to rise to her high-water mark. Her husband, as was, and is, not uncommon in New England, combined the duties of the soldier and the magistrate, and honourably discharged both. He won laurels in "the French war," (the war waged in the Northern British provinces), and wore them meekly. The plan of Providence to prevent monstrous discrepancies, by mating the tall with the short, the fat with the lean, and the sour with the sweet, &c., was illustrated by General A--- and his help-meet. He was the gentlest, most benign of men; she, a shrew untameable. He was an 'Allworthy,' or 'my Uncle Toby.' He had pity, tolerance, and forgiveness for every human error. There was no such word as error in Madame A---'s vocabulary.. Every departure from her rule of rectitude was criminal. She was the type of punishment. Her justice was without [?illegible word] as well as blind, so that she never
weighed ignorance against error, nor temptation against sin. He was the kindest, of masters, to his slaves; she, the most despotic of mistresses. Happily for the servile household, those were the days of the fixed supremacy of man. No question of the equality of the sexes had impaired woman's contentment, or provoked man's fear or ridicule. The current of his authority had run undisturbed since first the river [?illegible name] flowed out of Eden. No "woman's rights' conventions" had dared to doubt the primitive law and curse, "thy desire shall be to the husband, and he shall rule over thee:" so that, as we intimated, the servants of Madame A---, suffering under her despotism, had always a right of appeal to a higher tribunal. Whatever petty tyrannies, the magnanimous General might quietly submit to in his own person, he never acquiesced in oppression of his people. Among them was a remarkable woman of unmixed African [?illegible word]. Her name was Elizabeth Freeman, transmuted to "Betty," and afterwards contracted by lisping lips from Mammy Bet, to Mum-Bett, by which name she was best known.