Friday, December 28, 2018

Offsite Post: ‘Slavery in the South’

What was the institution of slavery in the South that is so quickly condemned by the self-proclaimed defenders of the Rights of Man?  It is a complex thing, brought together from the inweaving of a series of events and circumstances particular to Dixie, and by no means the morally simplistic outrage normally presented to the inquirer.

Let us start at the beginning, with the settling of the Southern colonies, when a superabundance of land presented unique challenges to the colonists.  Rowland Berthoff writes,

The easygoing land policy even tended to perpetuate the shortage of labor which it was designed to remedy.  . . .  The colonial economy obviously needed a class of immigrant laborers who could not achieve independent landownership, at least for a period of years.  There appeared very early, therefore, the seemingly paradoxical institutions, in the midst of abundant cheap land, of white indentured servitude and Negro slavery.  Actually there was no paradox:  servitude and slavery for some persons were direct consequences of the excessive opportunity for landownership which most others enjoyed.  Slavery, and with it the perpetual American dilemma of an unfree caste in a free country, came into existence precisely because from the outset America was as free a country as it was (An Unsettled People: Social Order and Disorder in American History, New York, Harper & Row, 1971, p. 40).

But contrary to present-day belief, there was little animosity between white and black in the Southland:

 . . . well before the end of the eighteenth century white and black Americans were inextricably bound together in only marginally variant forms of speech, religion, and other aspects of a common culture (p. 43).

John Devanny explains further,

Mr. Mariner begins his work on familiar ground already plowed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and T. H. Breen.  He accepts the thesis that Virginia in the seventeenth century was a society with slaves, but would slowly develop into a slave society by the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet, even as the legal status of African American slaves became that of chattel, and the liberty of free African-Americans came under greater and more onerous legal restriction, the reality was far “less fixed, much more muddled and fluid.”  For example: slaves received and owned property granted to them by their masters, slaves often were allowed to hire themselves out and keep a portion of the wages, slave resistance was significant in both passive and more violent forms, and segregation was virtually nonexistent.  But, dear reader, there is more.  To quote Mr. Mariner,

Blacks and whites, slave and free, lived in close proximity, knew each other and dealt with each other on a daily basis.  They regularly mingled together, and sailed together.  They went to church together, drank together, and celebrated together.  They hatched crimes together, and stood together before courts.  Not infrequently they lived in the same houses and slept in the same rooms. (15)

Yet there is still more.  African Americans successfully sued for their freedom in the county and magistrate courts.  (These findings lend support to the recent findings of Professor DeRosa regarding slave standing and litigation successes in local, county, and state law courts.) The suits became more frequent through the eighteenth century.  As a result, Virginia’s law makers passed a law requiring all such suits by African Americans to be in forma pauperis, that is the plaintiff had to employ local counsel and damages awarded could only total one cent.  Nevertheless, the number of such suits increased, and in some cases Mr. Mariner found that the in forma pauperis provision was ignored.

There were more than enough brutes who treated their slaves badly, but the overall ethos of the institution of slavery in the South was very much akin to this:

As the proslavery divines and serious Christian laymen acknowledged, [the Bible] also specifies the master-slave relation as a trust to be exercised in accordance with the Decalogue, the standards of the Abrahamic household, and the teachings of Jesus.  The Southern divines had their work cut out for them, for they could hardly deny that Southern slavery, as legally constituted and daily practiced, fell well short of biblical standards.  Accordingly, when they rallied their people to secession and war, they did not blithely assure them of a God-given victory.  Instead, they warned that, to retain God’s favor in a holy war, Southerners would have to prove worthy of His trust, specifically, of the trust He had placed in them as Christian masters.  Hence, the divines called for repentance and reform.

Principal church leaders—Calvinist and Arminian, theologically orthodox and theologically liberal—agreed that God, in sanctioning slavery, commanded masters to follow the example of Abraham and to treat their slaves as members of their household and as brothers and sisters in the eyes of the Lord.  Two questions haunted the sincere Christians among white Southerners:  First, did not the actual conditions of slave life in the South significantly lapse from biblical standards?  And second, would not the changes necessary to bring Southern slavery up to biblical standards in fact replace slavery with a markedly different form of personal servitude?  These questions kept surfacing even in the texts of those who seemed chary of raising them directly.  Prominent Catholics and Jews joined Protestants in upholding the biblical sanction for slavery while they complained that Southern slavery fell short of biblical norms (Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South, Athens, Ga., U of Georgia Press, 1998, pgs. 5-6).

Is this really the epitome of evil?  The forerunner of Nazism as Dinesh D’Souza claims, and other such charges?  It is not.  Slavery in the South was an expression of her commitment to the social norm of hierarchy, the reverence for which was with her from the start, before African slaves even arrived in Dixie.  Her defense of slavery was part of her defense of hierarchy overall.  Robert Lewis Dabney put it this way:

 . . .


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

No comments:

Post a Comment