Monday, May 03, 2010

Slave Conditions in the South

Lashes or Love?
By: Jonathan Harris

Perhaps the most common tactic employed by Southern detractors is painting the whole South as a bunch of racists. If you can paint someone as racist in our day, nothing else they say seems to matter. The implications of this are far-reaching. Bill Maher loves to harp on the fact that the South is both racist and predominately Christian. The two have to be related right? It's the Northeast that shows true tolerance in the midst of their secularism. Indeed, the Christian God himself must be a racist if it's His people that exhibit this kind of behavior; you know what I mean, the cliche white male with a Southern accent beating a black man within an inch of his life while shouting racial slurs and sipping lemonade. This kind of perception may play well on the big screen or in the media, but it doesn't match the facts by a long shot. Let's examine what the truth is concerning Southern slave conditions by examining reliable historical sources- not radical abolitionist stereotypes. 

The Data

Our most reliable sources of information are not going to only be from selected first-hand accounts. If we based our whole argument around individual cases we could find ourselves in deep trouble of picking and choosing the cases that match our preconceptions. Let me give you an example. If I were to select accounts of home-schooled children who underwent abuse during their upbringing, and then ignore the vast majority of children who were treated well, I could make a very compelling case that homeschooling is a horrible institution by highlighting the hundreds of cases of abuse. Radical abolitionists were notorious for using this same flawed reasoning. However, by their standards I could demonize any labor system. So what sources of information are available today by which we can judge rightly the Southern slave situation? 

Slave Narratives

My favorite depictions of Chattel slavery comes directly from the slaves themselves and can be found in the  Slave Narratives- the cumulative result of two years of in depth interviews surveying over 2,000 former slaves by the Works Project Administration under FDR. In the book Time on the Cross, noble prize winning scientist Robert Fogel demonstrates that nowhere in the Western Hemisphere were slaves better treated and cared for than in the South. After studying the Slave Narratives Fogel concluded that 60 to 80 percent of all respondents had only positive things to say about their masters and their life during slave days.

The U.S. Census

If you're a big fan of raw data, perhaps the 1860 U.S. Census will have you convinced against radical abolitionist rhetoric. One way to assess the quality of life is to look at the rate of population increase. We can do this by comparing the number of live births with the number of deaths. In 1860, the Southern black population was shown to have increased by 23 percent, while the Northern black population only increased 1.7 percent. If we go back ten years to the 1850 U.S. Census something even more startling emerges. 1 out of every 1,000 white persons was deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. In Northern states 1 out of every 506 black persons had the same handicaps. For Southern blacks it was merely 1 in 1,464 persons who possessed such inabilities. So the question is, based on raw data in which region were blacks treated better?

Foreign Observers 

Certainly if there are any unbiased individuals when it comes to the cultural conflicts between the North and South we should assume that they would be from somewhere other than the United States. Englishman James Silk Buckingham published his observation of Southern slavery in 1842 by stating that slaves were "well-fed, well dressed, and easy to be governed." They were in his view as well off as were English servants in the middle rank of life. In Democracy and America French observer Alex de Tocqueville stated that "the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists." Northerner Frederick L. Olmsted published Journey to the Seaboard Slave States in 1856. His assessment of slavery? According to Facts the Historians Leave Out:

He learned that the slaves were probably fed better than any comparable class of other countries. The labor required of house-servants he described as light, that of field-hands not appreciably heavier than that of laborer in the North. It interested him that slave marriages were frequently made occasions, attended by their owners; those of favorite slaves, performed in the master's house by the master's minister.

Common Sense

If we reasonably think through the topic of slavery in the South and the situation of modern blacks, the official Northern dogma looses credibility pretty quickly. Just ponder with me a minute. If you were to spend $1,000 a worker (what a sum in today's money!) and only receive a 10% profit how would you treat your indentured servant? I doubt you would abuse him/her. Even if you were purely a creature of economics you would want to keep your slaves as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Fortunately, Southerners weren't merely creatures of economics. They cared for their slaves on a personal level, in huge contrast to the way Northerner's in general treated black people at the time. This is why former slaves are almost universally Christian. Would you accept the religion of an abusive master and keep following it even after you were out from under your master's rule? Of course not! Southerners saw the slave trade as an opportunity for evangelism and many slaves were thankful for it. Sure the institution was far removed from what should have been happening Biblically, although this was primarily on the part of the Northern slave merchants (i.e. racism and man capture), but there were many benefits that often get ignored. I'm grateful my ancestors came over as indentured servants because what they left behind was much worse than what they found. Read the slave narratives and you'll find that many slaves felt the same exact way.

In conclusion: If you still aren't convinced that Southerners generally exhibited courtesy to their slaves and free blacks in contrast to the North, I challenge you to offer evidence to the contrary (which shouldn't include individual stories or accounts). In other words, where are the numbers?  Sure there were some nasty slave owners. I've had some nasty bosses in my short life. But what are the best sources of information for making a logical decision on this topic? They aren't stories, they're figures. There's a place for stories, but facts should take precedence. If they aren't, are we really being honest with ourselves?


ConantheCimmerian said...

I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

-Conan from the Republic of Texas

Beauregard P. Lee, VIII said...

Slavery was a great thing. Let's bring it back you doofus.

Jonathan Harris said...

You need to read more of my posts Mr. Lee. Slavery was not a good thing, in fact it was associated with many evils, and I along with Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee would have done away with it just as the Confederate Constitution mandated. However, it is a different thing altogether to claim that slave masters themselves were evil simply because they were part of a system that had evil connections.

Justin said...

Mr. Harris, of course, as a historian, you are undeniably correct. You should also see:
A Southside View of Slavery: Or Three Months at the South, in 1854, by Nehemiah Adams. The book is available online, I recently read it and plan a review of it on my blog soon.

There are practically countless data points all proving the same thing: the slaves were well-treated and content.

Yet this is set against the highly emotional dramatical scene of the poor slave being whipped by his master.

Never mind that 99% of the time, the slave deserved the whipping for some crime. The narrative of the saintly negro has been thoroughly maintained for quite a while.

P.V.E. Wood said...

Very interesting. I remember my surprise studying US history in my first term at university in 1980 (sooo recently), expecting historians to write about slavery in 'Gone With The Wind' terms and finding that, though 1930s US historians did so, 1970s historians blamed slavery for black criminality a century or more later. This seemed unconvincing but historians always write about their own age when they try to understand the past.

There are strong zeitgeist reasons for emphasising the ugliness of slavery nowadays and strong reasons in the 1930s for doing the opposite.

Jacob said...

". In the book Time on the Cross, noble prize winning scientist Robert Fogel demonstrates that nowhere in the Western Hemisphere were slaves better treated and cared for than in the South. After studying the Slave Narratives Fogel concluded that 60 to 80 percent of all respondents had only positive things to say about their masters and their life during slave days."
Not a very good source:

Anonymous said...

"Just like the Confederate Constitution mandated"? That is FALSE. The CSA Constitution PROTECTED and DEFENDED slavery.

Anonymous said...

If slavery was so much better than Northern wage labor, why did so many slaves risk beatings, shipping gs, and death to go North, and why is there not a SINGLE CASE (to my knowledge) of a free Northern Black voluntarily enslaving himself.