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The Slave Culture

Southern slavery wore a more humane aspect than the slave societies which preceded it. By the partial closure of the African slave-trade the supply was limited, and the economic well-being of the planter required such treatment of the slaves as would insure not only a good labor efficiency, but, still more important, would tend to a rapid increase in numbers. The southern slaves, regarded as property, were the most desirable investment open to the generality of people that has ever been known. Their labor was richly remunerative; their market value was constantly rising; they were everywhere more easily convertible into money than the best securities; and their natural increase was so rapid that a part of it could be squandered by a shiftless owner every year to make both ends meet, and he still be left enough of accumulation to enrich him steadily. And so the plantation, or, rather, the slave system, swallowed up everything else.

The South was pre-eminently agricultural, and its ideals were planters' ideals. Though a lawyer himself, Jefferson always held that trade, manufacturing, the professions, all were inferior pur suits, compared with agriculture. He said: "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people," and this ideal, somewhat transformed, influenced the South. The dream of a boy in the richer sections, was not, as today, to become a millionaire, with a yacht, a stable, a private car and a castle in Europe, but to become the owner of a plantation with its broad acres.

In the old South every successful merchant, or professional man, had a plantation, on which he spent a considerablepart of his time, and to Southern which he expected to retire with advancing years. Though a successful planter was forced to give personal attention to his business, there was time for thought as he rode on his tours of inspection. The greater part of his thoughts was given to politics and to constitutional law. The relations between men were chiefly personal, and it was the orator rather than the editor who was influential in forming public opinion.

Before 1830 the old patriarchal system of plantation government, with its personal supervision of the slaves by their owners or masters, was still characteristic. Gradually, however, with the introduction of large-scale cotton production in the lower South, the master gradually ceased to exercise close personal supervision over his slaves, and employed professional overseers charged with exacting from slaves a maximum amount of work. In such circumstances, slavery could become a system of brutality and coercion in which beatings and the breakup of families through the sale of individuals were commonplace. In other settings, however, it could be much milder.

The custom of allowing a slave to hire his own time was a practice by which a slave paid his owner a certain sum of money for his own time and then followed some line of work in which he was proficient. The more industrious negroes who had trades, as blacksmiths, carpenters and bricklayers, often did this. From one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars a year was the amount usually paid by a slave for his own time. Most slaves who hired their time did it with the intention of buying their freedom, and many of them accomplished their purpose. The practice gave the slave more liberty of action and it was considered undesirable both because it increased the number of free negroes and because it removed the slave so hiring from the strict control of the whites.

Very many slaveholders looked on slavery as an incubus, and longed to be rid of it, but they were not able to give up their young and valuable negroes, nor were they willing to set adrift the aged and helpless. To have provided for this class, without any compensation for the loss of the other, would have reduced them to penury. Good masters saw the evil that bad masters could do. It is true, a bad master was universally execrated, and no vocation was held so debasing as the negro traders. Every conscientious proprietor felt that these were helpless creatures, whose life and limb were, in a certain sense, under his control. There were others who felt that slavery was a yoke upon the white man's neck almost as galling as on the slaves; and it was a saying that "the mistress of a plantation was the most complete slave on it."

Charles Dickens suggested in 1847 that the upholders of slavery in America may be divided into three great classes.

"The first, are those more moderate and rational owners of human cattle, who have come into the possession of them as so many coins in their trading capital, but who admit the frightful nature of the Institution in the abstract, and perceive the dangers to society with which it is fraught, dangers which however distant they may be, or howsoever tardy in their coming on, are as certain to fall upon its guilty head as is the Day of Judgment.

The second, consists of all those owners, breeders, users, buyers and sellers of slaves, who will, until the bloody chapter has a bloody end, own, breed, use, buy, and sell them at all hazards; who doggedly deny the horrors of the system, m the teeth of such a mass of evidence as never was brought to bear on any other subject, and to which the experience of every day contributes its immense amount; who would at this or any other moment, gladly involve America in a war, civil or foreign, provided that it had for its sole end and object the assertion of their right to perpetuate slavery, and to whip and work and torture slaves, unquestioned by any lmman authority, and unassailed by any human power; who, when they speak of Freedom, mean the Freedom to oppress their kind, and to be savage, merciless, and cruel; and of whom every man on his own ground, in republican America, is a more exacting, and a sterner, and a less responsible despot than the Caliph Haroun Alraschid in his angry robe of scarlet.

The third, and not the least numerous or influential, is composed of all that delicate gentility which cannot bear a superior, and cannot brook an equal; of that class whose Republicanism means, "I will not tolerate a man above me: and of those below, none must approach too near " ; whose pride, in a land where voluntary servitude is shunned as a disgrace, must be ministered to by slaves; and whose inalienable rights can only have their growth in negro wrongs."




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Page last modified: 30-10-2017 10:45:43 ZULU