I can recall with clarity from childhood my North Carolina grandmother’s reminiscences of her slaves. To be sure, she was an old lady well into her eighties at the time, and had been a young girl growing up during the Civil War when she owned human property. Nonetheless, that past is linked to our present by a space of time which is startlingly brief. The violent happenings that occur in Oxford, Mississippi, do not take place in a vacuum of the moment but are attached historically to slavery itself. That in the Commonwealth of Virginia there is a county today in which no Negro child has been allowed to attend school for over four years has far less relevance to Senator Byrd than to the antebellum Black Laws of Virginia, which even now read like the code of regulations from an inconceivably vast and much longer enduring Nazi concentration camp.

As Professor Stanley Elkins has pointed out, the scholarly debate over slavery has for nearly a century seesawed with a kind of topheavy, contentious, persistent rhythm, the rhythm of “right” and wrong. These points of view, shifting between the Georgia-born historian Ulrich Phillips’s vision of the plantation slave as an essentially cheerful, childlike, submissive creature who was also in general well-treated (a viewpoint which, incidentally, dominated historical scholarship for the decades between the two World Wars) and Kenneth Stampp’s more recent interpretation of American slavery (The Peculiar Institution) as a harsh and brutal system, practically devoid of any charity at all, have each been so marred by a kind of moral aggression and self-righteousness as to resemble, in the end, a debate between William Lloyd Garrison and John C. Calhoun—and we have had enough of such debates. Granted that it seems inescapable that the plantation slave, at least, often displayed a cheerful, childlike, and submissive countenance, and that plantation life had its sunny aspects; granted, too, that the system was at heart incredibly brutal and inhumane, the question remains: Why? Why was American slavery the unique institution that it was? What was the tragic essence of this system which still casts its shadow not only over our daily life, but over our national destiny as well? Professor Frank Tannenbaum’s brief work, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas, first published by Knopf in 1948 and reprinted this month under the Vintage imprint, is a modest but important attempt to answer these questions.

Tannenbaum’s technique is that of comparison—the comparison of slavery in the United States with that of coexisting slave systems in Latin America. Slavery was introduced by the Spanish and Portuguese into South America at the identical moment that it was brought to North America and the West Indies by the British, and its duration in time as an institution on both continents was roughly the same. But it is a striking fact that today there is no real racial “problem” in Brazil; a long history of miscegenation has blurred the color line, legal sanctions because of race do not exist, and any impediments toward social advancement for the Negro are insignificant. That this is true is due to an attitude toward slavery which had become crystallized in the Portuguese and Spanish ethic even before slaves were brought to the shores of the New World. For slavery (including the slavery of white people), as Tannenbaum points out, had existed on the Iberian peninsula throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Oppressive an institution as it may have been, it contained large elements of humanity, even of equality, which had been the legacy of the Justinian Code. Thus Seneca: “A slave can be just, brave, magnanimous.” Las Sieste Partidas, the body of law which evolved to govern all aspects of slavery, not only partook of the humanitarian traditions of the Justinian Code, but was framed within that aspect of Christian doctrine which regarded the slave as the spiritual equal of his master, and perhaps his better. The law was protective of the slaves, and in conjunction with the Church provided many incentives for freedom; and this attitude persisted when Negro slavery was established in South America. Despite its frequent brutality, the institution of slavery in Brazil, with its recognition of the slave as a moral human being, and its bias in favor of manumission, had become in effect, as Tannenbaum says, “a contractual arrangement between the master and his bondsman and in such a relatively agreeable atmosphere it is not unnatural that full liberty was attained through a slow and genial mingling of the races, and by gradual change rather than through such a cataclysm as Civil War.

We are only beginning to realize the extent to which American slavery worked its psychic and moral devastation upon an entire race. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese, the British and their descendants who became American slaveowners had no historical experience of slavery; and neither the Protestant church nor Anglo-American law was equipped to cope with the staggering problem of the status of the Negro: forced to choose between regarding him as a moral human being and as property, they chose the definition of property. The result was the utter degradation of a people. Manumission was totally discouraged. A slave became only a negotiable article of goods, without rights to property, to the products of his own work, to marriage, without rights even to the offspring of his own despairing, unsanctioned unions—all of these were violations of the spirit so shattering as to beg the question whether the white South was populated either by tolerant, amiable Marse Bobs or by sadistic Simon Legrees. Even the accounts of brutality (and it is difficult even now, when witnessing the moral squabble between those historians who are apologists and those who are neo-abolitionists, to tell whether brutality was insignificant or rampant) fade into inconsequence against a backdrop in which the total dehumanization of a race took place, and a systematic attempt, largely successful, was made to reduce an entire people to the status of children. It was an oppression unparalleled in human history. In the end only a Civil War could try to rectify this outrage, and the war came too late.


In Latin America the Negro achieved complete legal equality slowly, through manumission, over centuries, and after he had acquired a moral personality. In the United States he was given his freedom suddenly, and before the white community credited him with moral status.

That is the problem we are faced with today: too many white Americans still deny the Negro his position as a moral human being.

Unfortunately, history does not give answers to the problems it leaves us. Professor Tannenbaum concludes his excellent study with the reasonable implication that the attainment by the Negro of a moral status may still take a very long time. It seems apparent that a very long time might be too long for our salvation.

This Issue

February 1, 1963