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Modern Voices
William Scarborough on antebellum slavery
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Q: How did slaveholders see themselves?
William Scarborough

A: Planters viewed themselves as benevolent patriarchs with respect to the institution of slavery. They felt that they treated their slaves humanely. They fed them well. They did not require more work than was required of agricultural laborers generally. They gave them generous holidays. It was not uncommon, for example, for slaves to receive as much as seven days at Christmas. In fact, I think the average on one Louisiana plantation that I dealt with recently was eight and a half days at Christmas.

They also had a system of rewards as well as punishments. We're all familiar with the whipping, which was certainly endemic on southern plantations. That was the normal form of punishment. But there [were] also systems of rewards. There was a Louisiana planter, for example, who operated a sugar plantation south of New Orleans. And the records indicate that he supplied the slaves there with mosquito nets, with sheets, with socks. This is highly unusual, I'll admit. But [he] also rewards [with] pay for overtime work on Sundays and on holidays, and generally tried to balance the punishment with rewards. [He] gave gifts at certain times to both male and female slaves and to the children. Generally a very benevolent master. Slaveowners felt that they treated their charges much better than northern factory workers treated the operatives in the New England textile mills and other manufacturing establishments.

They believed that slavery was in harmony with Christianity. Indeed, you know, the Bible condemns a great many things. It condemns murder, and it condemns thievery and adultery and so on, but nowhere does it condemn slavery explicitly. Of course, you can use the Bible to support any position that you choose to take. But there is no explicit injunction, and slaveowners, many of whom were devout Christians, felt that the Bible sanctioned slavery. There are Biblical characters with slaves. One Georgia woman, Gertrude Thomas, when [her] slaves were emancipated in 1865, had her Christian faith challenged by that very act. She says, "The Bible says it's all right, and now the slaves are emancipated. What am I to make of the Bible, God's holy book?" she said. So they believed that it was in harmony with the Bible. They believed they were doing good works by introducing Africans to Christianity, an elevated religion. They saw the plantation as a school by which they could elevate a less fortunate people to a more civilized form of life. The only problem with the "plantation as a school" thesis, as my old professor used to say, was that there was never a graduation day.

William Scarborough
Professor of History
University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg

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