• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History

We tend to think of someone who aspires to be a good slave as an Uncle Tom, and maybe we should. But human beings are not so simple. If a slave aspires to a certain excellence within the system, and if his implicit trust in the generous response of the master is betrayed, as often it must be in such a system, then he is likely to be transformed into a rebel. If so, he is likely to become the most dangerous kind of rebel, first because of his smashed illusions and second because of the skills and self-control he taught himself while he was an Uncle Tom. The historical record is full of people who were model slaves right up until the moment they killed their overseer, ran away, burned down the Big House, or joined an insurrection.

So what can be said about the decidedly non-Christian element in the religion of the slave quarters? The planters tell us repeatedly in their memoirs and letters that every plantation had its conjurer, its voodoo man, its witch doctor. To the planters this meant a residue of African superstition, and it is of course possible that by the 1830s all that remained in the slave quarters were local superstitions rather than continuing elements of the highly sophisticated religions originally brought from Africa. But the evidence suggests the emergence of an indigenous and unique combination of African and European religious ideas, adapted to the specific conditions of slave life by talented and imaginative individuals, and representing an attempt to establish a spiritual life adequate to the task of linking the slaves with the powerful culture of the masters while providing for a high degree of separation and cultural autonomy.

When we know enough of this story we shall know a good deal about the way in which the culture of an oppressed people develops. We often hear the expression “defenseless slaves,” but, although any individual at any given moment may be defenseless, a whole people rarely if ever is. A people may be on the defensive and dangerously exposed, but it often finds its own ways to survive and fight back. The trouble is that we keep looking for overt rebellious actions—a strike, a revolt, a murder, arson, tool-breaking—and often fail to realize that in given conditions and at particular times the wisdom of a people and their experience in struggle may dictate a different course, one of keeping together. From this point of view, the most ignorant of the field slaves who followed the conjurer on the plantation was saying no to the boss and seeking a form of cultural autonomy. That the conjurer may in any one case have been a fraud and even a kind of extortionist, and in another case a genuine popular religious leader is, from this point of view, of little importance.

Let us take the family as an illustration. Slave law refused to recognize slave marriages and family ties. In this respect United States slavery was far worse than Spanish American or Luso-Brazilian slavery. In those Catholic cultures the Church demanded and tried to guarantee that slaves be permitted to marry and that the sanctity of the slave family be upheld. As a result, generations of American historians have concluded that American slaves had no family life and that Cuban and Brazilian slaves did.

This judgment will not bear examination. The slave trade to the United States was closed early: no later than 1808—except for some cases of smuggling which are statistically insignificant—and in fact decades earlier for most states. The rise of the Cotton Kingdom and the great period of slavery expansion followed the closing of the slave trade. Slavery, in the numbers we are accustomed to thinking of, was a product of the period following the end of African importations. The slave force that was liberated during and after the War for Southern Independence was overwhelmingly a slave force born and raised in this country.

We have good statistics on the rate of increase of that slave population and there can be no doubt that it compared roughly to that of the whites—apart from the factor of immigration—and that, furthermore, it was unique among New World plantation slave classes. An early end to the slave trade, followed by a boom in cotton and plantation slavery, dictated a policy of encouraging slave births. In contrast, the slave trade remained open to Cuba and to Brazil until the second half of the nineteenth century; as a result, there was little economic pressure to encourage family life and slave-raising. In Brazil and Cuba far more men than women were imported from Africa until late in the history of the respective slave regimes; in the Old South a rough sexual parity was established fairly early. If, therefore, religion and law militated in favor of slave families in Cuba and Brazil and against them in the Old South, economic pressure worked in reverse. The result was a self-reproducing slave force in the United States and nowhere else, so far as the statistics reveal.

It may be objected that the outcome could have reflected selective breeding rather than family stability. But selective breeding was tried in the Caribbean and elsewhere and never worked; there is no evidence that it was ever tried on a large scale in the South. Abolitionists charged that Virginia and Maryland deliberately raised slaves—not merely encouraged but actually fostered slave breeding. There is, however, no evidence for slave breeding on a significant scale. If slave-raising farms existed and if the planters were not complete fools, they would have concentrated on recruiting women of childbearing age and used a relatively small number of studs. Sample studies of major slave-exporting counties in Virginia and Maryland show no significant deviations from the patterns in Mississippi or other slave-buying regions.

It is clear that Virginia and Maryland—and other states as well—exported their natural increase for some decades before the war. But this was a process, not a policy. It reflected the economic pressures to supplement a waning income from agriculture by occasional slave sales; it was not incompatible with the encouragement of slave families and in fact reinforced it. Similarly, planters in the cotton states could not work their slaves to death and then buy fresh ones, for prices were too high. They had been too high from the very moment the Cotton Kingdom began its westward march and, therefore, a tradition of slavekilling never did take root. As time went on, the pressures mounted to provide slaves with enough material and even psychological satisfaction to guarantee the minimum morale needed for reproduction.

These standards of treatment—food, living space, time off, etc.—became part of the prevailing standard of decency, not easily violated by greedy slaveholders. In some respects the American slave system may have been the worst in the world, as many writers insist. But in purely material terms, it was probably the best, for the evidence left by participants, travelers, and official reports shows that American slaves were generally better fed, clothed, housed, and worked than those of Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, or elsewhere.

But the important thing here is that the prevailing standard of decency was not easily violated because the slaves had come to understand their own position. If a master wished to keep his plantation going, he had to learn the limits of his slaves’ endurance. If, for example, he decided to ignore the prevailing custom of giving Sundays off or of giving an extended Christmas holiday, his slaves would feel sorely tried and would certainly pay him back with one or another form of destruction. The slaves remained in a weak position, but they were rarely completely helpless, and by guile, brute courage, and a variety of other devices they taught every master just where the line was he dared not cross if he wanted a crop. In precisely this way, slaves took up the masters’ interest in their family life and turned it to account. The typical plantation in the Upper South and the Lower was organized by family units. Man and wife lived together with children, and to a considerable degree the man was in fact the man in the house.

Whites violated black family life in several ways. Many families were disrupted by slave sales, especially in the Upper South where economic pressures were strong; white men on the plantations could and often did violate black women: nothing can minimize these injustices. The frequency of sales is extremely hard to measure. Many slaves were troublesome and sold many times over; this inflated the total number of sales but obscured the incidence of individual transfers.

The crimes against black people are a matter of record, and no qualifications can soften their impact. But it is not at all certain that most slaves did not live stable married lives in the quarters despite the pressures of the market. I do not wish to take up the vexing question of the violation of black women here, but certainly there was enough of it to justify the anger of those who condemned the regime on this ground alone. The evidence, however, does not warrant an assumption that a large percentage of black plantation women were so violated. In other words, for a judgment on the moral quality of the regime, the problem was extremely important; for an assessment of the normal life of the slaves it was much less so.

What the sources show—both the plantation diaries and record books and letters of the masters and also the reports of runaway slaves and exslaves—is that the average plantation slave lived in a family setting, developed strong family ties, and held the nuclear family as the proper social norm. It is true that planters who often had to excuse others, or even themselves, for breaking up families by sale, would sometimes argue that blacks did not really form deep and lasting attachments, that they lacked a strong family sense, that they were naturally promiscuous, and so forth. Abolitionists and former slaves would reinforce the prevalent notion by saying that slavery was so horrible no real family tie could be maintained. Since planters, abolitionists, and former slaves all said the same thing, it has usually been taken as the truth. Only it was not.

In the first place, these various sources also say the opposite, which we rarely notice. Planters agonized over the breakup of families and repeatedly expressed regrets and dismay. Often, they went to great lengths to keep families together at considerable expense, for they knew how painful it was to enforce separations. Whether they were motivated by such material considerations as maintaining plantation morale or by more lofty sentiments is beside the point. They often demonstrated that they knew very well how strong the family ties were in the quarters. Planters encouraged the slaves to live together in stable units, for they recognized that a man was easier to control if he had a wife and children to worry about.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print