Often times when studying slavery in the United States, people wonder, "How could slave owners justify their choices to hold other humans in bondage? What could make them do such a horrible things?" These questions are important and require understanding a very complicated set of facts and ideas.
Without knowing much about this particular time in history, a few explanations seem to explain slave holders' actions. One might be tempted to say that slave owners were simply "bad people." There is considerable support for this explanation. One does not have to look too far to find many stories of extreme cruelty and torture by slave owners. At the same time one does not have to look very far to see cruelty and slavery throughout history -- both before and after slavery was practiced in this country. Simple cruelty does not completely explain slave homders' actions.
Another logical answer is racism. This refines the "bad people" hypothesis by more explicitly naming the "badness" of slave owners-they were not just cruel, but also practiced their cruelty on people of a common ancestry. While this idea also has some historical support, we know of many stories which complicate that explanation. For example, we know that whites have held other whites in slavery and that there were African Americans who enslaved other African Americans during the Antebellum period. There are even examples of Native Americans holding African-American slaves.
Another explanation for slavery is that slave owners were simply greedy, eagerly taking the chance to make considerable profits. In this scenario, slave owners' desire for money and power overrode all else. This too makes some sense. Historians know that the profits from slavery were similar to what the owners of factories in the North earned, and that slave owners held almost every position of political power in the South while being prominent in Federal government as well. For example, other than John Adams and John Quincy Adams, every President in the first forty-five years of our nation was a slaveholder.
To help us understand how slave owners justified holding other humans in bondage we have the chance to read a series of letters between two fictional slave owners. What follows is an imaginary exchange of letters between a plantation owner and small-scale slave owner. The letters show slave owners justifying their actions. They also show how small-scale slavery was different from the rarer large-scale plantation.
Every quotation within each fictionalized letter is drawn from the actual writing of an actual person who lived in the early 19th century. For example, one letter references John C. Calhoun, who was a United States Senator from 1832-1843 and from 1845-1850. The biographical details about each person quoted are also true.1 Their words are harsh, direct and often disturbing. The opinions of the fictional letter writers are likewise disturbing, but they are written to show you how slave owners spoke and thought about their slaves. Finally, it is important to know that throughout the 1700s, many American slave owners had seen slavery as a "necessary evil." What these letters show is a new, more vicious view of slavery emerging. The fact that ideas and beliefs about basic definitions of right and wrong can change so quickly should make us all pay close attention to the values that are changing in the present. They will certainly influence our future, for the better or for the worse.
Sept. 5, 1848
To the Hon. Col. Williams,
Sir, I cannot thank you enough for your generous lease of your two slaves, Casius and Claudius. They have proven to be hard workers and very well behaved, though I found I could not understand their words. I relied on m own Negroes to help make plain their speech. Are they dim witted? They seemed unfamiliar with many words. In any event, my two Negroes have benefited considerably from seeing first hand how productive plantation slaves can be.
Your assistance means that the cotton I'd feared would spoil will now be sent on to Charleston in time to fetch the best price. As a token of my appreciation I have included, along with the ten dollars for the leased Negroes, a copy of my new work on the physical and mental characteristics of the African race.
Dr. Simon Elkins
Sept. 21, 1848
To Dr. Elkins,
Sir, I received your payment and generous gift. I have read much of it and found it to be lucid and fascinating reading. Before I comment further on your work, let me answer your questions about the Negroes I leased you, as it may have some use to your further research.
As you know my plantation has some hundred and thirty slaves. They live in their own quarters. The field hands work quite apart from my personal instruction, but rather follow my overseer, Mr. Thomas. Unfortunately, the requirements of farming must take priority and so most of the field hands are little instructed in the way of proper speech. They keep many of their African words and often never learn to speak proper English. This I think explains your difficulty understanding them. They are dimwitted only to the extent that is common for their race, which leads me to offer a few comments on your fine book.
I found your words confirmation of what I had experienced all along regarding Africans, but never had the natural history knowledge to support. Indeed, Africans do seem made to be slaves. Their coarse manners and slow wits show that they need our guidance to help civilize them and show them the way to proper morality and religion. I read recently the words of our esteemed Senator Calhoun who noted, "The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to him to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death."
I was surprised that you drew so little evidence from the Bible. After all it is well known that the Bible clearly permits slavery in Genesis 14.14 and 21.10, as well as Exodus 21.16. In addition, why did you mention so little natural history to support slavery? Were you unaware of Professor Thomas Drew's work? His research at the University of Virginia has shown that, "It is as much in the order of nature that men should enslave each other as that other animals should prey upon each other." I think you might benefit from looking beyond just physiology to make your case, though I admire your focus on a single area of inquiry. Your words were convincing indeed.
Finally, I was pleased to hear that my laborers made such quick work of your harvest. This too is another benefit of holding slaves in larger numbers, though I realize that men of your somewhat lower status may not be able to afford such efficiencies. Unlike those of you who must live in close contact with your slaves, I have no such inconvenience. Thus I am freed to use the whip much more freely and thus assure that each field hand does his fair share. I find that even if each slave is beaten only every other year, I have enough slaves that each one sees at least a beating a week. This helps keep them at their work.
I hope you will do the courtesy of a reply. As a fellow man of learning, I hope you do not take my criticism too much to heart.
Colonel John R. Williams
October 11, 1848
To The Hon. Col. Williams,
Sir, my apologies for not responding to your letter sooner. I have been traveling of late, collecting information for an expanded edition of my book. Your suggestions to look for new sources on the justness of slavery inspired me. My time is short, so I will have to content myself with sketches of the ideas that I have developed.
My most fruitful inquires have come from the area of political economy. I have studied the governance of African countries and found that all are led by despots. None have been able to see the light of democracy. This support the contention that Africans cannot be fit for self-governance. After all, if they cannot lead themselves in Africa, how could they possibly manage it here?
I have also inquired into the working conditions in the North, especially New England mills and factories. You will not be surprised when I say that our Negroes live better than factory workers. Does anyone lookout for the poor loom tender whose arm is permanently damaged? No. Does anyone see that workers are properly fed and housed? Again, no. Should our slaves see what awaits them if they live under "industrial freedom", they would never wish to set foot north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
A brief study of the Northern textile industry also reveals much of interest. We both know that the mills would shudder to a halt without our cotton. Yet, I wonder how they would respond if we suddenly asked them to pay twice as much for their raw bales. That is what would be required if the abolitionists had their way. Would it not be ironic if the very people who decry slavery found themselves without shirts, pants, and dresses as a result of their success? I confess that the charge of hypocrisy falls with ease upon Northerners who decry our institution, yet treat their workers poorly and push us to keep the costs of our cotton low.
I hope these ideas meet with your approval. Yet I must add one observation. I found your remarks about whipping your slaves disquieting indeed. Are we not Christians? Should we not lead by example and morality, not as calculating disciplinarians? I beg your pardon, but must suggest that small slave holdings so seem superior to plantations in a number of regards. I know my slaves personally, and thus am able to teach them proper piety and virtue. I use the whip only as a last resort, because I must face my slaves each day and work along side them. The distance of the plantation seems to leave the slaves further from our good influence, too much in the company of their own, and it disposes us to use the lash too freely. I am sure, Sir, that you take care to avoid these problems, though I fear that others do not possess your enlightened sense of responsibility.
I look forward to your response regarding these matters, and would appreciate greatly the honor of your reading the next draft of my new book. A mind as developed as yours would be a welcome addition and would help correct whatever errors I have made.
While slavery proponents used every source of knowledge they could think of to support their "peculiar institution", opponents of slavery had direct rebuttals for each of the pro-slavery arguments. European-American and African-American opponents of slavery made these arguments in letters, books, and at demonstrations. Sometimes they even used the same sources, like the Bible, to attack slavery. Whatever the arguments, slavery had been practiced for thousands of years, while widespread opposition to slavery was little more than forty years old when abolitionism took root in the United States during the 1830s. The opponents of slavery drew many of their ideas from the Enlightenment, a relatively recent intellectual movement. In this way critics of slavery were developing a new dimension of public discourse. The resistance they met can be understood in part as the weight of tradition pushing back on the ideas of the day.
One new front of the war over slavery began to be waged with science, as you saw above. Today the views of "scientific racism" exist only at the margins of the academic world. The ideas expressed above have been disproven again and again over the past hundred years, though a very small minority of scientists still think that race and intelligence do correlate. All the scientific bases for racial hierarchy have been discredited.
These letters show that the answer to our question, how could slave owners hold slaves, is complicated. There were multiple reasons, reasons which certainly varied from owner to owner. Regardless, a number of questions arise from the claims of the slave owners. What do these letters say about human nature? Why do people try to exploit groups who seem different and are less powerful? Were slave owners pure evil? Did the slave owner's arguments make any sense? Which one made the least sense to you? Which made the most sense? Are any of these arguments used today to justify inequality among people? Is slavery practiced anywhere now? If so, what do supporters of slavery use to justify their actions? Could any argument above be used to argue for something positive?
1 There are many collections of primary sources that allow students to read the actual words of participants in the debate over slavery. Particularly useful are William Dudley, ed., Slavery: Opposing Viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, 1992, and David Shi and Holly Mayer, For the Record, W.W. Norton, 1999. Writings from the men quoted in the fictional letters can be found in these volumes.
Living Conditions - an essay giving a historical overview of the various living conditions of slaves throughout slavery.
Letter from Robert Edmondson to Mrs. St. George Tucker 10/17/1826 - In this letter, a slave reports to the plantation mistress on the state of affairs in her absence.
All readings created in the Historical Fiction section were reviewed and approved by the educational advisor, Thomas Thurston, Director of Education at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale Center for International and Area Studies.