Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Slavery as it Was

And now, in the year 1852, there befell an event perhaps as momentous in American history as any between the establishment of the Constitution and the Civil War. A frail little woman, the wife of an obscure theological professor in a Maine village, wrote a story, and that story captured the heart of the world. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Uncle Tom's Cabin converted the North to the cause of the slave. The typical Union volunteer of 1861 carried the book in his memory. It brought home to the heart of the North, and of the world, that the slave was a man,—one with mankind by that deepest tie, of human love and aspiration and anguish,—but denied the rights of a man.

The book was a birth of genius and love. It is absolutely sweet-spirited. Its intense and irresistible plea is not against a class or a section, but against a system. It portrays among the Southern slave-holders characters noble and attractive,—Mrs Shelby, the faithful mistress, and the fascinating St. Clare. The worst villain in the story is a renegade Northerner. Its typical Yankee, Miss Ophelia, provokes kindly laughter. The book mixes humor with its tragedy; the sorrows of Uncle Tom and the dark story of Cassy are relieved by the pranks of Black Sam and the antics of Topsy. With all its woes, the story somehow does not leave a depressing effect; it abounds in courage and action; the fugitives win their way to freedom; the final impulse is to hopeful effort against the wrong. Its basal motive was the same as that of the Abolitionists, but its spirit and method were so different from Garrison's that it won response and sympathy where he had roused antagonism. Against pharisaical religion it uses effective satire,—which was intensified in its successor, Dred,—but the Christianity of faith and life is its animating spirit. No book is richer in the gospel of love to man and trust in God. Its rank is high in the new literature which has stimulated and led the great modern movement for the uplifting of the poor and oppressed. Its place is with Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Tolstoi's War and Peace.

The motive of Uncle Tom's Cabin was an appeal to the heart of the American people. There was no reference to political action, far less any suggestion of servile insurrection, and there was no discussion of methods of emancipation. The book set forth an organized, monstrous wrong, which it was in the power of the American nation, and above all, of the Southern people, to remove. The effect at the North was immeasurably to widen and deepen the conviction of the wrong of slavery, and the desire to remove it. But the way to practical action did not open; and strangely enough there was at first no visible effect on politics. The political logic of the situation led straight, as a first step, to the support of the Free Soil party. But though Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared (as a book) in April, 1852, and its popularity was instant, the Presidential election seven months later showed a Free Soil vote less by 100,000 than four years before. The political effect of the book was to appear only when public events two years later gave a sudden spur to the hesitating North.

The South turned a deaf ear to the appeal. It shut the book out from its borders as far as it could, and one who inquired for it in a Southern bookstore would probably be offered Aunt Phillis's Cabin or some other mild literary anti-toxin. The South protested that the book's picture of slavery was untrue and unjust. It was monstrous, so they said, that their labor system should be shown as having its natural result in the whipping to death of a saintly negro for his virtuous conduct. Another reply was: "If the book is true, it is really a eulogy of slavery, for it depicts slavery as producing in Uncle Tom a perfect character."

To the objections to the fidelity of her portraiture Mrs. Stowe replied with A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin,—a formidable array of proved facts, as to the laws of the slave States, and specific incidents which paralleled or exceeded all she had told. As now judged, the novel has some serious imperfections as a picture of slavery. Probably the most important of these was expressed by Judge Tourgee, para-phrasing the proverb about the Russian and the Tartar: "Scratch one of Mrs. Stowe's negroes, and you will find a white man." She failed adequately to differentiate the two races, and described the negro too much from such specimens as Uncle Tom and George and Eliza Harris. She had never lived in the South, and her knowledge was obtained from observation in the border town of Cincinnati, from acquaintance with fugitives, and from the reports of Northern travelers—all interpreted with the insight of genius and the impulse of philanthropy. Her avowed purpose was not to make a literal or merely artistic picture, but to show the actual wrongs and legalized possibilities of wrong which called for redress. It did not lessen the justice of her plea, that the mass of negroes were more degraded than she knew, or that their average treatment was kinder than her portrayal showed.

But a true historical judgment of slavery must rest on a comparison of documents. The story told from the master's standpoint should be heard. Among the faithful and graphic narrations of this sort may be named Mrs. Burton Harrison's Flower de Hundred,—a volume of personal reminiscences of Virginia before the war. It is a charming story, without motive other than the pleasure of recalling happy memories, and it describes a society of various and vivid charm. The mention of the slaves is occasional and incidental; but the description of the plantation hands, and especially the household servants, trusted and beloved, gives a sunny and doubtless a real side of slavery. Another book is fuller and more impressive in its treatment. It might be said that every American ought to read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a part of his education, and to follow it with two other books of real life. One of these is A Southern Planter,—a biography of Thomas Dabney, of Virginia and later of Mississippi, written by his daughter. It is a story amply worth reading for its human interest, and for its presentation of a man of noble and beautiful character. One is enriched by the acquaintance, even through a book, of a man like Thomas Dabney. And it is most desirable for the Northerner to vivify his impression of the South by the knowledge of men like him. We are misled by general and geographical terms: "an Englishman" is a vague and perhaps unattractive term to an American until he knows, in books or in flesh and blood, a few Britons of the right stamp. And so South and North need mutual interpretation not alone through their historic heroes, but through the best of their everyday people. And of those best, surely Thomas Dabney was one,—a strong, tender, noble man, fulfilling each relation in family and society with loyal conscience and sympathetic heart.

From the book we can give but a few instances of plantation life as such a man made it. When he was to move from Virginia to Mississippi he called together all his slaves,—some hundreds—and told them he wanted to take none of them against their will, and especially he would not break up any families. If any of them had wives or husbands on other plantations, he would sell or buy, just as they wished, so that every family should stay or go together. Every one of them elected to go with their old master. Settled in Mississippi, his cotton plantation became the admiration and envy of the neighbors, for the size of the crops as well as the condition of the workers. Their comfort was amply secured. The general rule was three hours' rest at midday and a Saturday half-holiday. At the height of the season hours were longer, but there was a system of prizes, for four or five months in the year, from $1 a week to a picayune; with an extra prize of a $5 gold piece for anyone picking 600 pounds a day; and these prizes roused such interest and excitement that some of the ambitious ones had to be compelled to leave the field at night, wishing to sleep at the end of their row. The inefficient were gently tolerated; severe punishment was held to be alike cruel and useless; an incompetent servant was carried as a burden from which there was no escape. Such endurance was the way of all good masters and mistresses at the South,—"and I have known very few who were not good," adds the writer. The plantation trained and kept its own mechanics; two each of carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, with five seamstresses in the house. In the house, under the mistress's eye, were cut and made the clothes of all the negroes, two woolen and two cotton suits a year, with a gay calico Sunday dress for each woman. The women were taught sewing in the house. When their babies were born a nurse was provided, and all the mother's work done for her for a month, and for a year she was allowed ample leisure for the care of the baby. The sons of the family taught reading to those who wished to learn. Some of the house servants were very fine characters; the sketch of "Mammy Maria" one would gladly reproduce. When secession came on, Thomas Dabney altogether disapproved, and foresaw the ruin of the South. He proposed to his wife that they close up their affairs, and go to live in England. Her reply was: "What will you do with Abby? and with Maria and Harriet, and their husbands and children, and the rest of our people?" That was unanswerable. So he stayed, and with his family shared the fighting,—for, the war begun, Dabney gave his hearty support to the Southern cause, and his sons went to the field,—shared the hardships of a devastated country, the social chaos that followed, and the slow reconstruction,—a more intrepid and lovable figure in adversity than before.

His daughter writes: "In the family of Thomas Dabney the first feeling when the war ended was of joy that one dreadful responsibility at least was removed. Gradual emancipation had been a hope and a dream not to be realized." "A hope and a dream,"—it does not appear that it had ever been seriously considered as a purpose or a duty. "Not an intelligent white man or woman in the South," says the writer, "would now wish slavery restored." But why,—it is impossible not to return to the question,—why had the South done nothing to rid itself of the evil? Why had it centered its political energies in maintaining and extending it? Why had it revolted from the Union and invited war and ruin, for a system which when once removed it recognized as a burden and a curse? No right minded man can ponder that question without taking a step further, and asking whether the evils in our present industrial system shall be allowed to go on till they bring down the temple on our heads, or be met with deliberate and resolute cure. And the good and conscientious man who does his best under the existing system—as Thomas Dabney did under slavery—is yet derelict unless he gives his thought and effort to such radical amendment as the system may need.

There is yet another book in illustration of slavery which ought to be read by every American. It is Fanny Kemble Butler's A Residence on a Georgia Plantation. She was a woman of unusual genius, character, and sensibility; the inheritor of a great dramatic talent, and a brilliant actress until she married Mr. Butler of Georgia, and left the stage to live with him on the plantation owned by himself and his brother. After no long period she left her husband, not taking the world into her confidence as to her domestic affairs, but returning to the stage as a dramatic reader, and passing into honored private life. After the outbreak of the Civil War she published, with some reserves and some additions, the journal she had kept during her life on the plantation. As to her personal relations, except as touching the slaves, the book is entirely reticent, but it is plain that slavery as she saw it made life under those conditions literally intolerable. Below all special cruelties, she writes, she felt the ever-present, vivid wrong of living on the unpaid labor of servants. The special wrongs were constant. Thus she describes the parting of a family of slaves, and the husband's awful distress. She tells of the head-driver, Frank, an every way superior man, left at some seasons in sole charge of the plantation; but his wife was taken from him and made the mistress of the overseer. There was Engineer Ned, intelligent and capable, and himself not badly treated, but with a wife broken down by being driven to field work too soon after the birth of a child. Half the women on the plantation were diseased from the same cause. One woman brought to her mistress a pitiful tale of such suffering. A little later the mistress learned that the woman, on the ground that this visit had caused her day's labor to come short, had received a flogging. She appealed to her husband, but he refused to interfere. "To Mr. ——'s assertion of the justice of poor Theresa's punishment, I retorted the manifest injustice of unpaid and enforced labor; the brutal inhumanity of allowing a man to strip and lash a woman, the mother of ten children; to exact from her toil which was to maintain in luxury two idle young men, the owners of the plantation. I said I thought female labor of the sort exacted from these slaves, and corporal chastizement such as they endure, must be abhorrent to any manly or humane man. Mr. —— said he thought it was disagreeable, and left me to my reflections with that concession." Presently he refused to listen to any more such petitions from her. She writes: "A wild wish rose in my heart that the river and the sea would swallow up and melt in their salt waves the whole of this accursed property of ours."

The principal physical hardships, she writes, fell to the women. The children and the old people are idle and neglected; the middle-aged men do not seem over-worked, and lead a mere animal existence, in itself not peculiarly cruel or distressing, but with a constant element of fear and uncertainty, "and the trifling evils of unrequited labor, ignorance the most profound (to which they are condemned by law), and the unutterable injustice which precludes them from all the merits and all the benefits of voluntary exertion, and the progress that results from it."

Her eye notes closely the faces about her. When she gathers the slaves to read prayers to them, she observes "their sable faces, so many of them so uncouth in their outlines and proportions, and yet all of them so pathetic, and some so sublime in their expression of patient suffering and religious fervor." She says: "Just in proportion as I have found the slaves on this plantation intelligent and advanced, I have observed this pathetic expression of countenance in them, a mixture of sadness and fear." The plantation, she writes, was well reputed, and its management was considered above the average.

Her analysis of the master class in the South is keen and striking. "The shop is not their element, and the eager spirit of speculation and the sordid spirit of gain do not infect their whole existence, even to their very demeanor and appearance, as they too manifestly do those of a large proportion of the inhabitants of the Northern States. The Southerners are infinitely better bred men, according to English notions, than the men of the Northern States. The habit of command gives them a certain self-possession, the enjoyment of leisure a certain ease. Their temperament is impulsive and enthusiastic, and their manners have the grace and spirit which seldom belong to the development of a Northern people; but upon more familiar acquaintance the vices of the social system to which they belong will be found to have infected them with their own peculiar taint; and haughty, over-bearing irritability, effeminate indolence, reckless extravagance, and a union of profligacy and cruelty which is the immediate result of their irresponsible power over their dependents, are some of the less pleasing traits."

She gives another and darker picture of the planter class. It goes without saying that it is only a part of the class to which it fairly applies: "A nation, for as such they should be spoken of, of men whose organization and temperament is that of the southern European, living under the influence of a climate at once enervating and exciting, scattered over trackless wildernesses of arid sand and pestilential swamp, intrenched within their own boundaries, surrounded by creatures absolutely subject to their despotic will; delivered over by hard necessity to the lowest excitements of drinking, gambling, and debauchery for sole recreation; independent of all opinion; ignorant of all progress; isolated from all society—it is impossible to conceive a more savage existence within the border of any modern civilization." The picture of the poor whites is graphic and somber, but space must limit these quotations.

She gives credit for the habits of courage and command, which are bred in the upper class, as when she tells of a heroic rescue from a shipwreck: "The devil must have his due, and men brought up in habits of peremptory command over their fellowmen, and under the constant apprehension of danger and awful necessity of immediate readiness to meet it, acquire qualities precious to themselves and others in hours of supreme peril."

She touches repeatedly on the social restrictions on free speech; thus, speaking of two gentlemen, one a clergyman: "They seem good and kind and amiable men, and I have no doubt are conscientious in their capacity of slave holders; but to one who has lived outside this dreadful atmosphere, the whole tone of their discourse has a morally muffled sound which one must hear to be able to conceive." She observes that whenever she discusses slavery with people she meets, they waive the abstract right or wrong of the system. Now and then she gets a bit of entire frankness, as when a very distinguished South Carolinian says to her, "I'll tell you why abolition is impossible; because every healthy negro can fetch $1000 in Charleston market at this moment."

She generalizes as to the effects of emancipation in a way which later events completely justified. Unlike the West Indies, she says, the South is not tropical, and will not yield food without labor, and necessity would compel the liberated blacks to work. That they would not work, and the ground would lie idle, was, as we know, the bogy which was held up to scare away from emancipation—just as in our own day the danger of race mixture is made a bogy to scare away from social justice. But the event proved that Fanny Kemble was right in her predictions, in which indeed she was at one with other candid observers at the time. As to gradual emancipation, she believed it unwise—the system, she writes, is too absolutely bad for slow measures. Had she owned her husband's plantation, she would at once have freed the slaves, and hired them, if only as a means of financial salvation.

She pronounces Uncle Tom's Cabin to be no exaggeration. Her own story of facts gives a darker impression than Mrs. Stowe's novel. It may be asked, why, at this distance, revive the tragic tale? The answer is, that the truth of history is precious, and our present problems cannot be understood if we shut our eyes to their antecedents. Just now there is a fashion, among many Southern writers on the negro question, of beginning their story with the wrongs and sufferings of the reconstruction period. Now, it was indeed deplorable, and a thing not to be forgotten, that ignorant negroes sat in the Senate chambers of South Carolina and Mississippi, that taxes were excessive, and the public business mismanaged. But, in the broad view, it is well to remember that a few years earlier very much worse things than these were happening, and that a system which made cattle of men and women might be expected to avenge itself.

Another work may be merely mentioned as illuminating the facts of slavery. It is Frederic Law Olmsted's three volumes of travels in the slave States. He studied them with the eyes of a farmer and a practical man; a well-equipped, fair, and keen observer. His testimony, already touched on in these chapters, is very strong as to the economic mischief of the system, its frequent cruelties, its demoralization of both master and slave, and the absolute need of its ultimate extinction. From his pages we can borrow but one or two passages. The contrasts of slavery are epitomized in two plantations he found side by side in Mississippi. On one the slaves had good food and clothes, were not driven hard, were given three stops in the day for meals, and had the time from Friday night till Monday morning for themselves. In this time the men cultivated gardens and the women washed and sewed. They were smartly dressed, and seemed very contented; many could read and write; on Sundays there was a church service and a Sabbath school taught by their mistress, both of which they could attend or not as they pleased. On the other plantation, owned by a religious woman, the working hours were from 3.30 A. M. to 9 P. M. The slaves had only Sunday free from labor, and on that day there were three services which they had to attend under penalty of a whipping. They were never allowed off the plantation, and were whipped if they talked with slaves from other plantations. Said a neighbor, "They can all repeat the catechism, but they are the dullest, laziest, and most sorrowful negroes I ever saw."

As to the possibilities of gradual emancipation, which he favored, Olmsted wrote that in Cuba every slave has the right of buying his own freedom, at a price which does not depend on the selfish exaction of his master, but is either a fixed price or is determined in each case by disinterested appraisers. "The consequence is that emancipations are continually going on, and the free people of color are becoming enlightened, cultivated, and wealthy. In no part of the United States do they occupy the high position which they enjoy in Cuba." So much for the despised Spanish-American.

From a still different standpoint—that of the non-slaveholding Southern white—the system was reviewed and scathingly judged in Helper's The Impending Crisis. But that, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, was not merely a book, but an event, and as such is to be mentioned in its place among events. The general survey of the slave system in itself need not here be carried further. As to its essential character and basal principle, no truer word was ever spoken than that which Mrs. Stowe puts in the mouth of the slaveholder St. Clare:

"The short of the matter is, cousin, on this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it,—clergymen, who have planters to please,—politicians, who want to rule by it,—may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press Nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the devil, that's the short of it,—and to my mind, it's a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line. You seem to wonder; but if you will get me fairly at it, I'll make a clean breast of it. This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong,—because I know how, and can do it,—therefore I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don't like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is."

St. Clare goes on to say that "for pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of women and not savage beasts, many of us do not and dare not—we would scorn to—use the full power which our savage laws put into our hands." In truth, a compilation of the slave laws was one of the most convincing arguments against the whole system.

This book is characterized by Charles G. Ames,—whose long life of noble service to humanity included earnest work among the anti-slavery pioneers: "To my mind, the heaviest blow, though probably not the most telling one, ever struck against our slave system as a system was the compilation and publication of Stroud's Slave Laws—a codification from the statute-books of the Southern States of their own barbarous methods of legislation, made necessary for the protection of the peculiar institution. All the recent sentimental defenses of it, as gentle, humane, and patriarchal, seem utterly to ignore the rugged facts, which Lawyer Stroud's book made as plain as the stratification of the rocks to the eye of the geologist."

In its actual administration, the system was in a measure softened and humanized. It was more humane in the border than in the cotton and sugar States, and it was generally better when a plantation was managed by its owner than when left to an overseer,—as the plantation of Fanny Kemble's husband had been left. But in one respect its disastrous effect was everywhere felt. By associating manual labor with the stigma of servitude, it bred, in free men, a strong disrelish for work,—a most demoralizing and ruinous influence. Inefficiency and degradation were the marks of the non-slaveholding whites. The master class missed the wholesome regimen of toil. Nature is never more beneficent than when she lays on man the imperative command "Thou shalt work." Of all ways of evading it the worst is to shift the burden to another man. In being driven to do other men's work as well as his own the negro found some compensation, but his enslaver paid a constant and heavy penalty.