All things atrocious and shameless flock from all parts to Rome. — Tacitus

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




How Slavery Grew in America

An English traveler, riding along the banks of the Potomac in mid-July, 1798, saw ahead of him on the road an old-fashioned chaise, its driver urging forward his slow horse with the whip, until a sharp cut made the beast swerve, and the chaise toppled over the bank, throwing out the driver and the young lady who was with him. The traveler—it was John Bernard, an actor and a man of culture and accomplishments, spurred forward to the rescue. As he did so he saw another horseman put his horse from a trot to a gallop, and together they reached the scene of action, extricated the woman and revived her from her swoon with water from a brook; then righted the horse and chaise, helped to restore the half-ton of baggage to its place; learned the story of the couple—a New Englander returning home with his Southern bride—and saw them safely started again. Then the two rescuers, after their half-hour of perspiring toil in a broiling sun, addressed themselves courteously to each other; the Virginian dusted the coat of the Englishman, and as Mr. Bernard returned the favor he noticed him well,—"a tall, erect, well-made man, evidently advanced in years, but who appeared to have retained all the vigor and elasticity resulting from a life of temperance and exercise. His dress was a blue coat, buttoned to the chin, and buckskin breeches." The two men eyed each other, half recognizing, half perplexed, till with a smile the Virginian exclaimed, "Mr. Bernard, I believe?" and, claiming acquaintance from having seen him on the stage and heard of him from friends, invited him to come and rest at his house near by, to which he pointed. That familiar front, the now wholly familiar face and form,—"Mount Vernon! Have I the honor of addressing General Washington?" With a charming smile Washington offered his hand, replying, "An odd sort of introduction, Mr. Bernard; but I am pleased to find you can play so active a part in private and without a prompter." There followed a long and leisurely call at Mount Vernon, and Bernard, in his volume of travels which did not see the light for nearly a century, has given a most graphic and winning picture of Washington in his every-day aspect and familiar conversation. To the actor's keen eye, acquainted with the best society of his time, the near approach showed no derogation from the greatness which the story of his deeds conveyed. "Whether you surveyed his face, open yet well defined, dignified but not arrogant, thoughtful but benign; his frame, towering and muscular, but alert from its good proportions—every feature suggested a resemblance to the spirit it encased, and showed simplicity in alliance with the sublime. The impression, therefore, was that of a most perfect whole."

The talk ran a various course. Washington incidentally praised the New Englanders, "the stamina of the Union and its greatest benefactors." The Englishman acknowledged a tribute to his own country, but Washington with great good humor responded, "Yes, yes, Mr. Bernard, but I consider your country the cradle of free principles, not their arm-chair." He had proceeded a little way in a eulogy of American liberty, when a black servant entered the room with a jug of spring water. Bernard smiled, and Washington quickly caught his look and answered it: "This may seem a contradiction, but I think you must perceive that it is neither a crime nor an absurdity. When we profess, as our fundamental principle, that liberty is the inalienable right of every man, we do not include madmen or idiots; liberty in their hands would become a scourge. Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom, and not confound a man's with a brute's, the gift would insure its abuse. We might as well be asked to pull down our old warehouses before trade has increased to demand enlarged new ones. Both houses and slaves were bequeathed to us by Europeans, and time alone can change them; an event which, you may believe me, no man desires more heartily than I do. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our Union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle."

These words of Washington, with the incident that supplies their background, are an epitome of the view and attitude of that great man toward slavery. Before measuring their full significance, and the general situation in which this was an element, we may glance at the preliminary questions; how came slaves in Virginia and America; whence came slavery; what was it?

Primitive man killed his enemy and ate him. Later, the sequel of battle was the slaying of all the vanquished and the appropriation of their goods, including women and other live stock. Then it was found more profitable to spare the conquered warrior's life and set him to do the victor's disagreeable work; more profitable, and incidentally more merciful. Civilization advanced; wars became less general; but in the established social order that grew up there was a definite place for a great class of slaves. It was part of Nature's early law, the strong raising themselves upon the weak. Morality and religion by degrees established certain limited rights for the slave. But the general state of slavery was defended by philosophers like Aristotle; was recognized by the legislation of Judea, Greece, and Rome; was accepted as part of the established order by Jesus and the early church. It is beyond our limits here to measure either its service, as the foundation on which rested ancient society; or the mischief that came from the supplanting of a free peasantry, as in Italy. We can but glance at the influence of Christianity, first in ameliorating its rigor, by teaching the master that the slave was his brother in Christ, and then by working together with economic forces for its abolition. By complex and partly obscure causes, personal slavery—the outright ownership of man—was abolished throughout Christendom. Less inhuman in theory, less heartless in practice, though inhuman and harsh enough, was the serfdom which succeeded slavery and rested on Europe for a thousand years; till by slow evolution, by occasional bloody revolt, by steady advance in the intelligence and power of the laborer, compelling for him a higher status, the serf became a hired laborer and thence a citizen throughout Europe.

The recrudescence of slavery came when the expanding energies of European society, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dashed against the weak barbarians of Africa and America. The old story was retold,—the stronger man, half-savage still under the veneer of civilization and Christianity, trampled the weaker man under foot. In Europe there was little need or room for slaves—the labor supply was sufficient, but on the new continent, in the words of Weeden (Economic and Social History of New England): "The seventeenth century organized the new western countries, and created an immense opportunity for labor. The eighteenth coolly and deliberately set Europe at the task of depopulating whole districts of western Africa, and of transporting the captives, by a necessarily brutal, vicious and horrible traffic, to the new civilization of America." The European was impartial between African and Indian; he was equally ready to enslave either; but the Indian was not made for captivity,—he rebelled or ran away or died; the more docile negro was the chief victim. The stream of slavery moved mainly according to economic conditions. Soil and climate in the Northern States made the labor of the indolent and unthrifty slave unprofitable, but in the warm and fertile South, developing plantations of tobacco, rice, and indigo, the negro toiler supplied the needed element for great profits. The church's part in the business was mainly to find excuse; through slavery the heathen were being made Christians. But when they had become Christians the church forgot to bid that they be made brothers and freemen. Some real mitigation of their lot no doubt there was, through teaching of religion and from other conditions. Professor Du Bois says that slavery brought the African three advantages: it taught him to labor, gave him the English language and—after a sort—the Christian religion. But it ruined such family life as had existed under a kind of regulated polygamy. Again we must decline to measure the good and the evil of the system. Probably the negro was in better condition in America than he had been in Africa, as he certainly was in far worse condition than he was entitled to be—and was in future to be.

The traffic was maintained chiefly by trading companies in England,—at first a great monopoly headed by the Duke of York, then rival companies. The colonists made some attempts to check the traffic,—growing alarmed at the great infusion of a servile and barbaric population. Virginia long tried to discourage it by putting a heavy import tax on slaves, which was constantly overruled by the English government under the influence of the trading companies. At a later day every one tried to put the responsibility of slavery on some one else,—the North on the South, the South on England. But in truth the responsibility was on all. The colonists did not hesitate to refuse to receive tea which England taxed; equally well they could have refused to buy slaves imported by trading companies if they had not wanted them; but they did want them. The commercial demand overrode humanity. The social conscience was not awake,—strange as its slumber now seems. Stranger still, as we shall see, after it had once been thoroughly roused, it was deliberately drugged to sleep. But this belongs to a later chapter.

New England had little use for slaves at home, but for slave ships she had abundant use. With a sterile soil, and with the sea at her doors swarming with edible fish and beckoning to her sails, her hardy industry found its best field on the ocean. The fisheries were the foundation of her commerce. The thrifty Yankee sold the best of his catch in Europe (here again we follow Weeden); the medium quality he ate himself; and the worst he sent to the West Indies to be sold as food for slaves. With the proceeds the skipper bought molasses and carried it home, where it was turned into rum; the rum went to Africa and was exchanged for slaves, and the slaves were carried to the West Indies, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Rum and slaves, two chief staples of New England trade and sources of its wealth; slave labor the foundation on which was planted the aristocracy of Virginia and the Carolinas,—alas for our great-grandfathers! But what may our great-grandchildren find to say of us?

The social conscience was not developed along this line; men were unconscious of the essential wrong of slavery, or, uneasily conscious of something wrong, saw not what could be done, and kept still. Here and there a voice was raised in protest. There was fine old Samuel Sewall, Chief Justice of Massachusetts; sincere, faithful man; dry and narrow, because in a dry and narrow place and time; but with the capacity for growth which distinguishes the live root from the dead. He presided over the court that adjudged witches to death; then, when the community had recovered from its frenzy, he took on himself deepest blame; he stood up in his pew, a public penitent, while the minister read aloud his humble confession, and on a stated day in each year he shut himself up in solitude to mourn and expiate the wrong he had unwittingly done, and, almost alone among his people, he spoke out clear and strong against human slavery.

A little later, in the generation before the Revolution, came the Quaker, John Woolman,—a gentle and lovely soul, known among his people as a kind of lay evangelist, traveling among their communities to utter sweet persuasive words of holiness and uplifting; known in our day by his Journal, a book of saintly meditations. Sensitive and shrinking, he yet had the moral insight to see and the courage to speak against the wrong of slavery. The Quakers, rich in the virtues of peace and kindliness, were by no means unpractical in the ways of worldly gain, or inaccessible to its temptations; they had held slaves like their neighbors, though we should probably have preferred a Quaker master. But the seed Woolman sowed fell on good ground; slavery came into disfavor among the Quakers, and when sentiment against it began to grow they lent strength to the leadership of the public conscience.