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How to Understand Slavery

Slavery and Freedom

by Willie Lee Rose, edited by William W. Freehling
Oxford University Press, 224 pp., $17.95

Who would have predicted, back amid the storms of 1975 or thereabouts when American historians were still smiting each other over the historical meaning of slavery, that only a half-dozen years later the waters could have become as deadly calm as they seem to be now? I can’t say exactly why this is so, or how long it will last.* But meanwhile a voice is heard above these waters, speaking with precision and in tones of quiet reason. It is that of Willie Lee Rose; the voice has been with us for quite a while, and we have always known the sound of it. But it was never very loud, or nearly as insistent as most of the others, and we can hear it better now.

A volume of Mrs. Rose’s essays, several hitherto unpublished, together with material from the large study she had started work on prior to the stroke she suffered in the summer of 1978, has just been brought out with the editorial assistance of her Johns Hopkins colleague William Freehling. We are thus free to listen, really for the first time without interruption, to what one of our best historical minds has been thinking on the subject of slavery over the past fifteen years. So before the storm blows up again, let us strain to catch everything, including the overtones, and we will find that what we have heard was vastly worth waiting for.

Having these pieces all together, and going through them at one stretch, makes the entire subject—considering all that has been said about it—look strikingly new and different. I would go further and say that if an entirely new exhaustive survey of American slavery were to be undertaken now, what we have here comes closest to anything else I can think of as the right agenda for how it ought to proceed. This is a very large assertion, and I shall be taking up the rest of this essay trying to prove it.

I am struck by two characteristics of Mrs. Rose’s writing and thought, two preoccupations that reveal themselves in everything she has done here. One of them is the urge for particularity. In the light of all the schematic abstractions that have emerged from the work of the past generation, the importance of this point should really be allowed to sink in. She has heard all the arguments and has absorbed them; nothing is going to be thrown overboard. But she still has to know what it was actually like. The world she writes about has a texture and an idiom; there are sights, sounds, and circumstances, and it is full of people. She won’t quite trust anything that doesn’t square with it. Her other concern is for time, for what happened to slavery in the course of it.

Slavery existed in America for well over two hundred years. It was very different in the nineteenth century from what it had been in the eighteenth. Why, and how? Most “models” that exist for the analysis of American slavery, good intentions notwithstanding, have remarkably little room in them for chronology. Now bring these two principles together, particularity and the action of historical change, and you have a formula—a model if you wish—for illuminating the subject all over again, at every key point in its dreary existence.

Willie Lee Rose has carried the subject a long way, and this is not altogether fortuitous, given the qualifications and training she has brought to it. She is one of those Southerners who can never be jarred out of either her native accent or her instinct for the tangled specificity of Southern life. Her first book, moreover, was the ideal vehicle with which to begin. It described what happened to slavery in a very particular place—Port Royal, South Carolina—at a moment of tremendous historical significance, the arrival of Union forces early in the Civil War. The record was so copious that she could get to know every inch of the terrain and just about all the people on it, of whom there were hundreds. Her final asset is, if one may so put it, character: faith, charity, independence, and a benign spirit.

But back to the model. Two of the essays, which are of generous scope, concern the extended consequences, for slavery, of the American Revolution. These were considerable, and ultimately sinister. The slave system as it had evolved in the plantation colonies by the mid-eighteenth century was singularly inhuman and brutal, and the Revolution brought a great crisis of conscience. The manifest inconsistency between proclaiming the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” on the one hand and denying it on the other could not easily be brushed aside; it “forced itself forward at every turn.” The strain of this, to which the temporarily depressed condition of agriculture contributed, brought about a widespread sequence of manumissions, notably in Virginia, where for the past half-century manumission had been illegal. Libertarian sentiment in the Northern states went much further, resulting for practical purposes in full emancipation. Along with this went a policy of containment by the national government, excluding slavery from the Northwest Territory and outlawing the African slave trade. A major result was a large and growing community of free blacks, especially in the upper South.

But another result was a series of second thoughts, powerfully sharpened by the slave uprisings in Santo Domingo during the 1790s, the Gabriel Prosser plot of 1800 in Virginia, and a steady upturn in staple-crop agriculture. All of which, with the opening of the nineteenth century, presented a new dilemma for the slaveholding South. There was little disposition to celebrate slavery as a national blessing, but there was no longer much question—if indeed there ever had been—of giving it up either. The dilemma was there; it had to be resolved, and conscience again, in some way at least, must play its part.

There were growing apprehensions in the South over the now numerous enclaves of free blacks and the temptations they might hold out to discontented slaves for escape, absorption, and disappearance. Moreover, with the opening signs of an abolition movement in the North, the South could begin to see itself as ringed about with enemies. Under the circumstances manumission once more became unpopular, and legislatures in all the Southern states resolutely went to work to discourage it.

But there were other kinds of legislation as well, and Mrs. Rose thinks it important to make a point of this. The slave codes of the eighteenth century had been “unspeakably harsh, permitting punishment by dismemberment and allowing anyone to kill slaves declared outlaws by masters. Slaveholders had no specific and enforceable obligations for housing, food, or clothing. Few appeared to have taken pride in physical arrangements for chattel property.” All this was greatly modified in the advancing decades of the nineteenth century, with the enactment of laws regulating the treatment of slaves and laying down minimum standards for decent maintenance. With legal recognition, of a sort, of the slave’s humanity, life took on a certain regularity, with the physical and material conditions of slavery vastly improved.

What emerged was a new code of values and behavior for the conscientious slaveholder, one greatly enhanced by the evangelical piety that had become quite general by about 1830. This was a code that had not, by and large, been there a generation before. What it came down to was paternalism: a range of responsibilities which the wise, just, and humane master of a plantation must assume for the welfare of everyone on it. It was a code that, if lived up to, could allow a man to see himself as a good Christian, a good planter, a good citizen, and a good patriarch. Many a man did live up to it, and a good many more at least made the effort. Paternalism: that was the real resolution, and that was what completed the “domestication,” as Mrs. Rose calls it, “of the domestic institution.” Still, there is every reason to conclude that it was as much this resolution, this “good” side, as it was the brutal side that most certainly remained, which made American slavery in the nineteenth century the stultifying, spiritually and psychically debilitating social arrangement that it was.

While his community had established many new responsibilities for the master, carrying them out remained in his hands and his alone; the “patriarch’s” control over his dependents was all but absolute, perhaps more so than ever. For the system to work, and to maintain what humanity it had acquired, those dependents must be defined as children—perpetual children—and the entire community organized itself to this end. That, too, was something that had not been nearly so visible in the eighteenth century as it would become in the nineteenth. This is not the place to reopen the argument over how deep the damage went. It is enough to observe that the system’s sanctions against any clear personal challenge to its basic definitions were truly formidable.

But Mrs. Rose can still tell us about kinds of damage that we might not otherwise have thought of. She has one chapter on real childhood, on what it was like to grow up under such a system. There is a story in it in which nobody is killed, or maimed, or taken from his parents, but which nonetheless leaves one unsettled in the heart. It is about a little slave boy named Jacob who was being trained to be a jockey. The trainer took to beating Jacob regularly, for no reason the boy could imagine. Jacob appealed in his misery to his father, and was dumbfounded to be told simply that he must try harder. “Go back to your work and be a good boy, for I cannot do anything for you.” The father knew that the trainer was a friend of the overseer, that if there were trouble the overseer would take it out on Jacob’s mother, who was a field hand, and presumably that the overseer stood well with the master. It was the key moment in the boy’s socialization: his own father was in fact impotent; while the “real” father was three or four removes out of reach. Moreover, Jacob probably got the most responsible advice available. A less caring parent or harassed auntie—as in fact happened in case after dismal case—would merely have fetched him another cuff for having disturbed the peace and for making things harder on everyone. So much for the happy childhood of slaves.

Yet such is Mrs. Rose’s own humanity that she can see the damage of paternalism as extending well beyond the slave, and striking at the master himself. He could, other things being equal, make it work as long as he was there to police it. But if he were serious about being a good father he needed something more in the way of reciprocity, of feeling and obligation. The code was inherently so brittle, so loaded with the potential for self-deception, that a failure of expectations could literally undo a man.

We can spare at least a pang or two for John Hartwell Cocke, a Virginia planter of high Christian principles who owned another plantation off in Alabama. Cocke had conceived the plan of seeing that a number of his slaves there were prepared step by step, under his benevolent aegis but supervised, as it were, from a distance, for eventual freedom in Liberia. But when in the winter of 1847-1848, full of glowing hopes, he came on a visit to see how things were going, he was devastated by what he found. The place was in a state of anarchy, and had become a moral shambles. There was bastardy, venereal disease, and promiscuity everywhere; even some of the young men of the neighborhood were getting in on it. “My School for ultimate…freedom had become a plantation Brothel headed by my Foreman.” The iron entered General Cocke’s soul as he set about putting things to rights, hustling nine of the offending couples into holy wedlock, and swinging the whip liberally. We are not told whether there was any more talk about freedom. In any case the “children” seem not to have been quite ready, at least as he saw it, to be turned loose.

The other supreme merit of Mrs. Rose’s historical design, besides that of charting the emergence of paternalism, is her willingness to stick with the subject beyond emancipation. This is the point at which almost everyone else has simply run out of energy. But moving from the long cycle of slavery, and then from war and freedom into at least the opening stages of Reconstruction, can bring new revelations. Her culminating chapters, “Masters without Slaves” and “Blacks without Masters,” point to two areas of great promise for more investigation. One concerns the crowning damage done to the master class by the legacy of paternalism. The other explores the resources available to the newly liberated slaves, before the white world again closed in on them, for repairing the damage of paternalism to themselves. Those resources appear to have been considerable.

It is true that in none of the cruder senses was there an ancien régime mentality in the postwar South. There was nothing that seriously resembled a movement to restore slavery. It can even be said that in the emotional response to emancipation there was something like relief at having the burden lifted—and that when a man declared, as many did, that the thing was gone and he did not want it back, he was in some sense telling the truth. Yet too many paradoxes remain unresolved if one simply leaves it at that. This was only part of a wider and darker syndrome. A large part of the picture that a one-time slaveowner might have had of himself, and of the world in which he had functioned, had been consumed in the fire and was gone. But his determination to keep hold of the rest, however it might or might not square with his rational interest now, could be ferocious. It was far easier to abandon the legal control he had once exercised over his bondmen than to give up the other kind—the cord of filial dependency that must surely survive if the code he had lived by had contained any meaning at all.

The commonest cry of anguish on beholding the self-assertive behavior of the new freedmen was at their ingratitude for all that had been done for them under the old order. And by the same token, there was a pathetic eagerness to snatch at every instance of the old loyalty. Such stories abound in the lore of the postbellum South, but they meant rather more than what their tellers desperately wanted them to mean. All these things, says Mrs. Rose, “are accurately read as signs of what the planter understood the human relations of slavery to have been.” And rather than alter that understanding, he turned hard.

One way he did so was through his attitude toward the land. The typical planter again and again flatly refused to sell land to the freedmen, or even rent it, even when they had the cash and much as he may have needed it. Against any form of redistribution he fought like a tiger, and of course eventually won. He needed the freedmen’s labor, and wanted them to work for wages. This they resisted, and what all sides generally settled for was sharecropping. But what the planter needed most, and was somehow determined to retain, was their dependency. Another way he expressed this need was in his blind hatred for the blacks’ new Yankee benefactors—the schoolteachers and the Freedmen’s Bureau agents—and despite all the assistance the Bureau may have extended in getting the blacks back to work. Hatred, that is, for everyone who seemed to be decoying away the blacks’ loyalty from “their own best friends.” Much of this, then, may be viewed, humanely or not, from the perspective of pathology. It was what was happening to an elite “whose world-view was shaken not only by their conquerors but also by their erstwhile slaves.”

Then there is the requirement proposed in these pages of viewing the blacks themselves as they moved out of slavery and into Reconstruction—or rather, seeing the experience through their eyes. There are technical, logical, and artistic problems here, which it will take more than good will to get over. Yet Mrs. Rose insists that “one has to find some narrative strategy for focusing on black participation when narrating a history where white participants had more power and deserve more of the spotlight in terms of making events happen.” Reconstruction may still for some purposes be the white man’s subject, but for Mrs. Rose’s purposes, and for those of any historian of slavery; her way is the only way. Reconstruction was the critical point of slave history and the occasion to investigate it is too great to be missed, because “the difference between slavery and freedom is about the greatest difference in status we can imagine, no matter how kindly a view some historians might want to take of slavery, no matter how limited and curtailed freedom may have turned out to be.”

The blacks’ first impulse with Emancipation was the exact reverse of that of the planter. They wanted to shake off the clutching hand of paternalism, and they acted on their impulse with the same eerie precision as he did with his. At the very beginning vast numbers simply picked up and left, and as one planter expostulated, “They didn’t even ask my advice about goin’ away.” Many of them, to be sure, came back, but not to what he had in mind. The two things they wanted most were land and then education, even though many of their Yankee friends thought that what they needed most of all was the vote. Yet these were two kinds of power, the power of livelihood and the power of the word, which to them were the most immediate and concrete means of delivering them from dependency, while some kind of dependency represented the only terms the old regime was willing to offer them. Dependency: this after all was the main issue, no matter what form it took, and this is the organizing principle for much of what the blacks did in Reconstruction. It even accounts to some extent for the conservative nature of the “revolution” they were engaged in. They did not want vengeance. They behaved with generosity, and when they had anything to say about it they generally resisted the disfranchisement of whites by Radical Reconstruction regimes. They would have been happy to settle for the one thing that the planters, even the best disposed of them, found least possible to imagine their having: the conditions for their own independence. So the Northern outsiders could at each turn be a step ahead in contending for the blacks’ loyalty, until they too in the end pulled out, leaving a trail of disillusionment and failed hopes all around.

Black political activity in Reconstruction has been dealt with by most historians. But again, Mrs. Rose has larger purposes; she wants to view it along the road that led out of slavery. We know a fair amount about the black leaders, a great many of whom had already enjoyed some measure of protection or privilege under the slavery regime. Joel Williamson has stated, more or less correctly, “The one thing that most native Negro leaders were not was fresh from the cotton fields.” But the sub-leadership, those who helped organize the plantations and get out the vote, those whose work required both more instinct than training and “a certain amount of intestinal fortitude,” may be another matter. A good number of these, Mrs. Rose is willing to bet, must have come “fresh from the cotton fields.”

In any case, many problems and relationships—of cooperation, of connections between leaders and followers, of corruption and violence, to name a few—are still there to be explored. Willie Lee Rose insists, quite characteristically, that it can’t be done without a willingness to dig into local history. She still wants particularity: to get as close to the real experience as she can. First and last, she has to know what it was actually like.

  1. *

    I don’t think the “storm” metaphor is entirely misleading. Late in 1974 Willie Lee Rose remarked in a lecture at Princeton that things had quieted a good bit since the end of the Sixties. Yet the winds were still pretty brisk, and she may now remember that two or three months later they were really howling again.

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