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Slavery Reconsidered

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Slavery in Mississippi By Charles S. Sydnor. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $3.50. Plantation Slavery in Georgia. By R. B. Flanders. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $3.50. Union and Reconstruction in Tennessee. By James Welch Patton. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $3.50.

The picture of slavery held by the average American was drawn by the Abolitionist. He drew it without access to the facts, and for purposes other than revealing the truth. As the voice of God in a sinful world, he fashioned his enemies to the pattern of the Antichrist and ascribed the appropriate characteristics. Few men took him seriously in the beginning, but the outbreak of war between the sections called for propaganda which would lift the Northern cause to the dignity of a holy crusade and render Southern men fit only to be targets for well-aimed rifles. Abolition statements on slavery and slaveholders were then taken at face value, and, with victory, passed on to future generations as undisputed truths. Even in the South, after a, period of romancing on the glories of plantation days, the tendency was to accept a modified abolition point of view. Propaganda was never more successful.

The correction of these distortions has been slow in coming. The late lamented Ulrich B, Phillips pioneered the way with his epoch-making survey of the whole field of Negro slavery. Recent writers have filled in details with more concentrated studies of slavery in the different states. All have shown the infinitely varied character of the institution and the dangers in making sweeping generalizations. Slavery has ceased to be an explanation of all things in the antebellum South. The plantation and the human factors in rural living loom increasingly larger even in the lives of the black folk. Admitted evils sometimes appear more as possibilities than as realities in the system. Given the Negro, the plantation, the staples, and the “mine-run” human beings of that Southern world, and slavery becomes largely a. matter of the economy involved in such distribution of capital and the rather insignificant unique possibilities for both good and evil inherent in such control and direction.

Both Professor R. B. Flanders’ “Plantation Slavery in Georgia” and Professor Charles S. Sydnor’s “Slavery in Mississippi” emphasize these fundamental facts. Unfortunately both deal with slavery as it swept westward with cotton, and do not afford the contrasts which are possible between regions differing in age and crops. Both show that in the Cotton Kingdom small men predominated. Only here and there did the traditional planter with his great house, his forma] gardens, and his country-gentleman ways develop. Both studies reveal the small proportion of slaveholders to non-slaveholders, but Professor Sydnor, whose work shows greater maturity throughout, correctly points out that the number dependent on slavery was considerably larger. He estimates, however, that more than half of the people in Mississippi had nothing whatsoever to do with slaves. Both studies point out the tendency for black belts to appear in favored regions, for the runaway to be more common in pi-oncer days, and for the laws regulating slavery to be more harsh in letter than in practice. By concrete examples each shows that slavery differed on every plantation, under every overseer and every master.

The conclusions reached regarding the treatment of the Negro under slavery tend to follow those drawn by Dr. Phillips, although the influence of the less scholarly Bancroft is apparent in the handling of “buying and selling.” Slave houses are found to have been adequate and about as good as those which the Negro has builded for himself in freedom. His food was coarse but abundant. If not always tastily prepared, some allowances may be made for the digestive capacities of those who toil long hours in the open. His clothing and bedding were usually satisfactory. His day was from sun to sun—that which rural folk have accepted through the ages; his tasks well within his strength. The exceptions to these generalities, and there were exceptions, serve to emphasize the dangers of permitting the “keeping” of one human being to the will of another. Some men were ever unfit to be husbands or fathers or masters.

From the material angle it is, therefore, apparent that the laborer under slavery fared about as well as the laborer under most other systems of his time and general locality. His real hardships were in the realm of mind and spirit. Education was denied him by the laws of both states, and while a few servants learned the three R’s about as well as most rural men of the period, the great masses were consciously kept in ignorance. For his crimes, punishments were more severe. His marriages, while often respected by the white man, had no standing in law. He was bought and sold and “hired out” both with and without regard to his family tics. The better masters always respected his feelings in such matters, but “being better masters” was the only reason for their doing it. And yet it must be remembered that “westward expansion” was playing havoc with white families in the same period, and that as slavery “grew old” in each locality the breaking up of families decreased. The human factors in the situation were ever crowding up to ignore the system itself. The slave was property, yet he “knocked-down” more than his share of overseers. Slavery was “forced labor,” yet no group of workers ever developed more “protections” against toil. The Negro was an inferior, yet his women folk bore a steady and goodly crop of mulatto children.

Both of these volumes on slavery attack the problem of profitableness. Professor Sydnor is quite positive in his assertions that slavery did not pay as well in cotton production as white labor would have paid. Professor Flanders is less certain about the matter. He cites cases where reasonable profits were made and quotes men who were convinced that the Negro under slavery was the best worker the South has ever known. Both writers ascribe to slavery losses which should be laid at other doors, and both fail to credit it with earnings rightfully its own. Neither asks the question as to whether agriculture was paying in any part of the nation at the time, or whether it does not always depend for its profits on the increase of values in land and on the exploitation of the soils and the workers. Some day an honest writer will confess that there is no certain answer to the question as to whether slavery paid. He will point out that slavery was also a part of the political machinery by which the conduct of the lower elements in society was regulated. He will demand a thorough comparison of local government costs in free and slave regions. He will also insist that slavery made large social returns and insist that the contribution to “charity” and to the care of defectives be included in the reckoning. But he too will break down in his effort to get a picture complete enough to give the answer to his question.

Professor Patton’s “Unionism and Reconstruction in Tennessee” also belongs to the class which “re-writes accepted history.” The Negro enters his story only to reveal total unfitness for immediate responsibility under freedom gained by emancipation. The study is primarily designed to cover the Reconstruction period in a “near-border state” with something of the same thoroughness achieved in the volumes inspired by Professor Dunning. Tennessee’s experiences in “The Age of Hate” differed from those of any other state in that she escaped extreme military rule. But she substituted a bitter family quarrel which brought almost as much of grief. It is about the personality of the vitriolic Parson Brownlow that the story centers to make understandable the birth and spread of the Ku Klux Klan from this state.

Dr. Patton has done his work well. It lacks charm in presentation and still bears the marks of having been a highly successful doctoral dissertation.


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