ch 9) Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom


The United States government’s support of
slavery was based on an overpowering practicality. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being
produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to
4 million. A system harried by slave rebellions and conspiracies
(Gabriel Prosser, 1800; Denmark Vesey, 1822; Nat Turner, 1831) developed a network of controls
in the southern states, hacked by the laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of
the nation’s political leaders. It would take either a full-scale slave rebellion
or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system. If a rebellion, it might get out of hand,
and turn its ferocity beyond slavery to the most successful system of capitalist enrichment
in the world. If a war, those who made the war would organize
its consequences. Hence, it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the
slaves, not John Brown. In 1859, John Brown was hanged, with federal
complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale
violence several years later-end slavery. With slavery abolished by order of the government-true,
a government pushed hard to do so, by blacks, free and slave, and by white abolitionists-its
end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation. Liberation from the top would go only so far
as the interests of the dominant groups permitted. If carried further by the momentum of war,
the rhetoric of a crusade, it could be pulled back to a safer position. Thus, while the ending of slavery led to a
reconstruction of national politics and economics, it was not a radical reconstruction, but a
safe one- in fact, a profitable one. The plantation system, based on tobacco growing
in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and rice in South Carolina, expanded into
lush new cotton lands in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi-and needed more slaves. But slave importation became illegal in 1808. Therefore, “from the beginning, the law went
unenforced,” says John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom). “The long, unprotected coast, the certain
markets, and the prospects of huge profits were too much for the American merchants and
they yielded to the temptation.” He estimates that perhaps 250,000 slaves were
imported illegally before the Civil War. How can slavery be described? Perhaps not at all by those who have not experienced
it. The 1932 edition of a best-selling textbook
by two northern liberal historians saw slavery as perhaps the Negro’s “necessary transition
to civilization.” Economists or cliometricians (statistical
historians) have tried to assess slavery by estimating how much money was spent on slaves
for food and medical care. But can this describe the reality of slavery
as it was to a human being who lived inside it? Are the conditions of slavery as important
as the existence of slavery? John Little, a former slave, wrote:
THEY SAY SLAVES ARE HAPPY, BECAUSE THEY LAUGH, AND ARE MERRY. I MYSELF AND THREE OR FOUR OTHERS, HAVE RECEIVED
TWO HUNDRED LASHES IN THE DAY, AND HAD OUR FEET IN FETTERS; YET, AT NIGHT, WE WOULD SING
AND DANCE, AND MAKE OTHERS LAUGH AT THE RATTLING OF OUR CHAINS. HAPPY MEN WE MUST HAVE BEEN! WE DID IT TO KEEP DOWN TROUBLE, AND TO KEEP
OUR HEARTS FROM BEING COMPLETELY BROKEN: THAT IS AS TRUE AS THE GOSPEL! JUST LOOK AT IT, MUST NOT WE HAVE BEEN VERY
HAPPY? YET I HAVE DONE IT MYSELF-I HAVE CUT CAPERS
IN CHAINS. A record of deaths kept in a plantation journal
(now in the University of North Carolina Archives) lists the ages and cause of death of all those
who died on the plantation between 1850 and 1855. Of the thirty-two who died in that period,
only four reached the age of sixty, four reached the age of fifty, seven died in their forties,
seven died in their twenties or thirties, and nine died before they were five years
old. But can statistics record what it meant for
families to be torn apart, when a master, for profit, sold a husband or a wife, a son
or a daughter? In 1858, a slave named Abream Scriven was
sold by his master, and wrote to his wife: “Give my love to my father and mother and
tell them good Bye for me, and if we Shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven.” One recent book on slavery (Robert Fogel and
Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross) looks at whippings in 1840-1842 on the Barrow plantation
in Louisiana with two hundred slaves: “The records show that over the course of two years
a total of 160 whippings were administered, an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year. About half the hands were not whipped at all
during the period.” One could also say: “Half of all slaves were
whipped.” That has a different ring. That figure (0.7 per hand per year) shows
whipping was infrequent for any individual. But looked at another way, once every four
or five days, some slave was whipped. Barrow as a plantation owner, according to
his biographer, was no worse than the average. He spent money on clothing for his slaves,
gave them holiday celebrations, built a dance hall for them. He also built a jail and “was constantly devising
ingenious punishments, for he realized that uncertainty was an important aid in keeping
his gangs well in hand.” The whippings, the punishments, were work
disciplines. Still, Herbert Gutman (Slavery and the Numbers
Game) finds, dissecting Fogel and Engerman’s statistics, “Over all, four in five cotton
pickers engaged in one or more disorderly acts in 1840-41 As a group, a slightly higher
percentage of women than men committed seven or more disorderly acts.” Thus, Gutman disputes the argument of Fogel
and Engerman that the Barrow plantation slaves became “devoted, hardworking responsible slaves
who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters.” Slave revolts in the United States were not
as frequent or as large-scale as those in the Caribbean islands or in South America. Probably the largest slave revolt in the United
States took place near New Orleans in 1811. Four to five hundred slaves gathered after
a rising at the plantation of a Major Andry. Armed with cane knives, axes, and clubs, they
wounded Andry, killed his son, and began marching from plantation to plantation, their numbers
growing. They were attacked by U.S. army and militia
forces; sixty-six were killed on the spot, and sixteen were tried and shot by a firing
squad. The conspiracy of Denmark Vesey, himself a
free Negro, was thwarted before it could be carried out in 1822. The plan was to burn Charleston, South Carolina,
then the sixth-largest city in the nation, and to initiate a general revolt of slaves
in the area. Several witnesses said thousands of blacks
were implicated in one way or another. Blacks had made about 250 pike heads and bayonets
and over three hundred daggers, according to Herbert Speaker’s account. But the plan was betrayed, and thirty-five
blacks, including Vesey, were hanged. The trial record itself, published in Charleston,
was ordered destroyed soon after publication, as too dangerous for slaves to see. Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County,
Virginia, in the summer of 1831, threw the slaveholding South into a panic, and then
into a determined effort to bolster the security of the slave system. Turner, claiming religious visions, gathered
about seventy slaves, who went on a rampage from plantation to plantation, murdering at
least fifty-five men, women, and children. They gathered supporters, but were captured
as their ammunition ran out. Turner and perhaps eighteen others were hanged. Did such rebellions set back the cause of
emancipation, as some moderate abolitionists claimed at the time? An answer was given in 1845 by James Hammond,
a supporter of slavery: BUT IF YOUR COURSE WAS WHOLLY DIFFERENT-IF
YOU DISTILLED NECTAR FROM YOUR LIPS AND DISCOURSED SWEETEST MUSIC DO YOU IMAGINE YOU COULD PREVAIL
ON US TO GIVE UP A THOUSAND MILLION’S OF DOLLARS IN THE VALUE OF OUR SLAVES, AND A
THOUSAND MILLION’S OF DOLLARS MORE IN THE DEPRECIATION OF OUR LANDS? The slave owner understood this, and prepared. Henry Tragic (The Southampton Slave Revolt
of 1831), says: IN 1831, VIRGINIA WAS AN ARMED AND GARRISONED
STATE. WITH A TOTAL POPULATION OF 1,211,405, THE
STATE OF VIRGINIA WAS ABLE TO FIELD A MILITIA FORCE OF 101,488 MEN, INCLUDING CAVALRY, ARTILLERY,
GRENADIERS, RIFLEMEN, AND LIGHT INFANTRY! IT IS TRUE THAT THIS WAS A “PAPER ARMY” IN
SOME WAYS, IN THAT THE COUNTY REGIMENTS WERE NOT FULLY ARMED AND EQUIPPED, BUT IT IS STILL
AN ASTONISHING COMMENTARY ON THE STATE OF THE PUBLIC MIND OF THE TIME. DURING A PERIOD WHEN NEITHER THE STATE NOR
THE NATION FACED ANY SORT OF EXTERIOR THREAT, WE FIND THAT VIRGINIA FELT THE NEED TO MAINTAIN
A SECURITY FORCE ROUGHLY TEN PERCENT OF THE TOTAL NUMBER OF ITS INHABITANTS: BLACK AND
WHITE, MALE AND FEMALE, SLAVE AND FREE! Rebellion, though rare, was a constant fear
among slave owners. Ulrich Phillips, a southerner whose American
Negro Slavery is a classic study, wrote: A GREAT NUMBER OF SOUTHERNERS AT ALL TIMES
HELD THE FIRM BELIEF THAT THE NEGRO POPULATION WAS SO DOCILE, SO LITTLE COHESIVE, AND IN
THE MAIN SO FRIENDLY TOWARD THE WHITES AND SO CONTENTED THAT A DISASTROUS INSURRECTION
BY THEM WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE. BUT ON THE WHOLE, THERE WAS MUCH GREATER ANXIETY
ABROAD IN THE LAND THAN HISTORIANS HAVE TOLD OF. Eugene Genovese, in his comprehensive study
of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll, sees a record of “simultaneous accommodation and resistance
to slavery.” The resistance included stealing property,
sabotage and slowness, killing overseers and masters, burning down plantation buildings,
running away. Even the accommodation “breathed a critical
spirit and disguised subversive actions.” Most of this resistance, Genovese stresses,
fell short of organized insurrection, but its significance for masters and slaves was
enormous. Running away was much more realistic than
armed insurrection. During the 1850s about a thousand slaves a
year escaped into the North, Canada, and Mexico. Thousands ran away for short periods. And this despite the terror facing the runaway. The dogs used in tracking fugitives “bit,
tore, mutilated, and if not pulled off in time, killed their prey,” Genovese says. Harriet Tubman, born into slavery, her head
injured by an overseer when she was fifteen, made her way to freedom alone as a young woman,
then became the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She made nineteen dangerous trips back and
forth, often disguised, escorting more than three hundred slaves to freedom, always carrying
a pistol, telling the fugitives, “You’ll be free or die.” She expressed her philosophy: “There was one
of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have
the other; for no man should take me alive.” One overseer told a visitor to his plantation
that “some negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist
you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case.” One form of resistance was not to work so
hard. The United States government’s support of
slavery was based on an overpowering practicality. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being
produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period,
500,000 slaves grew to 4 million. A system harried by slave rebellions and conspiracies
(Gabriel Prosser, 1800; Denmark Vesey, 1822; Nat Turner, 1831) developed a network of controls
in the southern states, hacked by the laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of
the nation’s political leaders. It would take either a full-scale slave rebellion
or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system. If a rebellion, it might get out of
hand, and turn its ferocity beyond slavery to the most successful system of capitalist
enrichment in the world. If a war, those who made the war would organize its consequences.
Hence, it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown. In 1859, John Brown
was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln
would do by large-scale violence several years later-end slavery.
With slavery abolished by order of the government-true, a government pushed hard to do so, by blacks,
free and slave, and by white abolitionists-its end could be orchestrated so as to set limits
to emancipation. Liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant
groups permitted. If carried further by the momentum of war, the rhetoric of a crusade,
it could be pulled back to a safer position. Thus, while the ending of slavery led to a
reconstruction of national politics and economics, it was not a radical reconstruction, but a
safe one- in fact, a profitable one. The plantation system, based on tobacco growing
in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and rice in South Carolina, expanded into
lush new cotton lands in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi-and needed more slaves. But slave
importation became illegal in 1808. Therefore, “from the beginning, the law went unenforced,”
says John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom). “The long, unprotected coast, the certain
markets, and the prospects of huge profits were too much for the American merchants and
they yielded to the temptation.” He estimates that perhaps 250,000 slaves were imported
illegally before the Civil War. How can slavery be described? Perhaps not
at all by those who have not experienced it. The 1932 edition of a best-selling textbook
by two northern liberal historians saw slavery as perhaps the Negro’s “necessary transition
to civilization.” Economists or cliometricians (statistical historians) have tried to assess
slavery by estimating how much money was spent on slaves for food and medical care. But can
this describe the reality of slavery as it was to a human being who lived inside it?
Are the conditions of slavery as important as the existence of slavery?
John Little, a former slave, wrote: THEY SAY SLAVES ARE HAPPY, BECAUSE THEY LAUGH,
AND ARE MERRY. I MYSELF AND THREE OR FOUR OTHERS, HAVE RECEIVED TWO HUNDRED LASHES IN
THE DAY, AND HAD OUR FEET IN FETTERS; YET, AT NIGHT, WE WOULD SING AND DANCE, AND MAKE
OTHERS LAUGH AT THE RATTLING OF OUR CHAINS. HAPPY MEN WE MUST HAVE BEEN! WE DID IT TO
KEEP DOWN TROUBLE, AND TO KEEP OUR HEARTS FROM BEING COMPLETELY BROKEN: THAT IS AS TRUE
AS THE GOSPEL! JUST LOOK AT IT, MUST NOT WE HAVE BEEN VERY HAPPY? YET I HAVE DONE IT MYSELF-I
HAVE CUT CAPERS IN CHAINS. A record of deaths kept in a plantation journal
(now in the University of North Carolina Archives) lists the ages and cause of death of all those
who died on the plantation between 1850 and 1855. Of the thirty-two who died in that period,
only four reached the age of sixty, four reached the age of fifty, seven died in their forties,
seven died in their twenties or thirties, and nine died before they were five years
old. But can statistics record what it meant for
families to be torn apart, when a master, for profit, sold a husband or a wife, a son
or a daughter? In 1858, a slave named Abream Scriven was sold by his master, and wrote
to his wife: “Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good Bye for me, and
if we Shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven.”
One recent book on slavery (Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross) looks
at whippings in 1840-1842 on the Barrow plantation in Louisiana with two hundred slaves: “The
records show that over the course of two years a total of 160 whippings were administered,
an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year. About half the hands were not whipped at all
during the period.” One could also say: “Half of all slaves were whipped.” That has a different
ring. That figure (0.7 per hand per year) shows whipping was infrequent for any individual.
But looked at another way, once every four or five days, some slave was whipped.
Barrow as a plantation owner, according to his biographer, was no worse than the average.
He spent money on clothing for his slaves, gave them holiday celebrations, built a dance
hall for them. He also built a jail and “was constantly devising ingenious punishments,
for he realized that uncertainty was an important aid in keeping his gangs well in hand.”
The whippings, the punishments, were work disciplines. Still, Herbert Gutman (Slavery
and the Numbers Game) finds, dissecting Fogel and Engerman’s statistics, “Over all, four
in five cotton pickers engaged in one or more disorderly acts in 1840-41 As a group, a slightly
higher percentage of women than men committed seven or more disorderly acts.” Thus, Gutman
disputes the argument of Fogel and Engerman that the Barrow plantation slaves became “devoted,
hardworking responsible slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their
masters.” Slave revolts in the United States were not
as frequent or as large-scale as those in the Caribbean islands or in South America.
Probably the largest slave revolt in the United States took place near New Orleans in 1811.
Four to five hundred slaves gathered after a rising at the plantation of a Major Andry.
Armed with cane knives, axes, and clubs, they wounded Andry, killed his son, and began marching
from plantation to plantation, their numbers growing. They were attacked by U.S. army and
militia forces; sixty-six were killed on the spot, and sixteen were tried and shot by a
firing squad. The conspiracy of Denmark Vesey, himself a
free Negro, was thwarted before it could be carried out in 1822. The plan was to burn
Charleston, South Carolina, then the sixth-largest city in the nation, and to initiate a general
revolt of slaves in the area. Several witnesses said thousands of blacks were implicated in
one way or another. Blacks had made about 250 pike heads and bayonets and over three
hundred daggers, according to Herbert Speaker’s account. But the plan was betrayed, and thirty-five
blacks, including Vesey, were hanged. The trial record itself, published in Charleston,
was ordered destroyed soon after publication, as too dangerous for slaves to see.
Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831, threw the
slaveholding South into a panic, and then into a determined effort to bolster the security
of the slave system. Turner, claiming religious visions, gathered about seventy slaves, who
went on a rampage from plantation to plantation, murdering at least fifty-five men, women,
and children. They gathered supporters, but were captured as their ammunition ran out.
Turner and perhaps eighteen others were hanged. Did such rebellions set back the cause of
emancipation, as some moderate abolitionists claimed at the time? An answer was given in
1845 by James Hammond, a supporter of slavery: BUT IF YOUR COURSE WAS WHOLLY DIFFERENT-IF
YOU DISTILLED NECTAR FROM YOUR LIPS AND DISCOURSED SWEETEST MUSIC DO YOU IMAGINE YOU COULD PREVAIL
ON US TO GIVE UP A THOUSAND MILLION’S OF DOLLARS IN THE VALUE OF OUR SLAVES, AND A
THOUSAND MILLION’S OF DOLLARS MORE IN THE DEPRECIATION OF OUR LANDS?
The slave owner understood this, and prepared. Henry Tragic (The Southampton Slave Revolt
of 1831), says: IN 1831, VIRGINIA WAS AN ARMED AND GARRISONED
STATE. WITH A TOTAL POPULATION OF 1,211,405, THE STATE OF VIRGINIA WAS ABLE TO FIELD A
MILITIA FORCE OF 101,488 MEN, INCLUDING CAVALRY, ARTILLERY, GRENADIERS, RIFLEMEN, AND LIGHT
INFANTRY! IT IS TRUE THAT THIS WAS A “PAPER ARMY” IN SOME WAYS, IN THAT THE COUNTY REGIMENTS
WERE NOT FULLY ARMED AND EQUIPPED, BUT IT IS STILL AN ASTONISHING COMMENTARY ON THE
STATE OF THE PUBLIC MIND OF THE TIME. DURING A PERIOD WHEN NEITHER THE STATE NOR THE NATION
FACED ANY SORT OF EXTERIOR THREAT, WE FIND THAT VIRGINIA FELT THE NEED TO MAINTAIN A
SECURITY FORCE ROUGHLY TEN PERCENT OF THE TOTAL NUMBER OF ITS INHABITANTS: BLACK AND
WHITE, MALE AND FEMALE, SLAVE AND FREE! Rebellion, though rare, was a constant fear
among slave owners. Ulrich Phillips, a southerner whose American Negro Slavery is a classic
study, wrote: A GREAT NUMBER OF SOUTHERNERS AT ALL TIMES
HELD THE FIRM BELIEF THAT THE NEGRO POPULATION WAS SO DOCILE, SO LITTLE COHESIVE, AND IN
THE MAIN SO FRIENDLY TOWARD THE WHITES AND SO CONTENTED THAT A DISASTROUS INSURRECTION
BY THEM WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE. BUT ON THE WHOLE, THERE WAS MUCH GREATER ANXIETY ABROAD IN THE
LAND THAN HISTORIANS HAVE TOLD OF. Eugene Genovese, in his comprehensive study
of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll, sees a record of “simultaneous accommodation and resistance
to slavery.” The resistance included stealing property, sabotage and slowness, killing overseers
and masters, burning down plantation buildings, running away. Even the accommodation “breathed
a critical spirit and disguised subversive actions.” Most of this resistance, Genovese
stresses, fell short of organized insurrection, but its significance for masters and slaves
was enormous. Running away was much more realistic than
armed insurrection. During the 1850s about a thousand slaves a year escaped into the
North, Canada, and Mexico. Thousands ran away for short periods. And this despite the terror
facing the runaway. The dogs used in tracking fugitives “bit, tore, mutilated, and if not
pulled off in time, killed their prey,” Genovese says.
Harriet Tubman, born into slavery, her head injured by an overseer when she was fifteen,
made her way to freedom alone as a young woman, then became the most famous conductor on the
Underground Railroad. She made nineteen dangerous trips back and forth, often disguised, escorting
more than three hundred slaves to freedom, always carrying a pistol, telling the fugitives,
“You’ll be free or die.” She expressed her philosophy: “There was one of two things I
had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for
no man should take me alive.” One overseer told a visitor to his plantation
that “some negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist
you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case.”
One form of resistance was not to work so hard. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, in The Gift
of Black Folk: AS A TROPICAL PRODUCT WITH A SENSUOUS RECEPTIVITY
TO THE BEAUTY OF THE WORLD, HE WAS NOT AS EASILY REDUCED TO BE THE MECHANICAL DRAFT-HORSE
WHICH THE NORTHERN EUROPEAN LABOURER BECAME. HE TENDED TO WORK AS THE RESULTS PLEASED HIM
AND REFUSED TO WORK OR SOUGHT TO REFUSE WHEN HE DID NOT FIND THE SPIRITUAL RETURNS ADEQUATE;
THUS HE WAS EASILY ACCUSED OF LAZINESS AND DRIVEN AS A SLAVE WHEN IN TRUTH HE BROUGHT
TO MODERN MANUAL LABOR A RENEWED VALUATION OF LIFE.
Ulrich Phillips described “truancy,” “absconding,” “vacations without leave,” and “resolute efforts
to escape from bondage altogether.” He also described collective actions:
OCCASIONALLY, HOWEVER, A SQUAD WOULD STRIKE IN A BODY AS A PROTEST AGAINST SEVERITIES.
AN EPISODE OF THIS SORT WAS RECOUNTED IN A LETTER OF A GEORGIA OVERSEER TO HIS ABSENT
EMPLOYER: “SIR, I WRITE YOU A FEW LINES IN ORDER TO LET YOU KNOW THAT SIX OF YOUR HANDS
HAS LEFT THE PLANTATION-EVERY MAN BUT JACK. THEY DISPLEASED ME WITH THEIR WORK AND I GIVE
SOME OF THEM A FEW LASHES, TOM WITH THE REST. ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, THEY WERE MISSING.”
The instances where poor whites helped slaves were not frequent, but sufficient to show
the need for setting one group against the other. Genovese says:
THE SLAVEHOLDERS SUSPECTED THAT NON-SLAVEHOLDERS WOULD ENCOURAGE SLAVE DISOBEDIENCE AND EVEN
REBELLION, NOT SO MUCH OUT OF SYMPATHY FOR THE BLACKS AS OUT OF HATRED FOR THE RICH PLANTERS
AND RESENTMENT OF THEIR OWN POVERTY. WHITE MEN SOMETIMES WERE LINKED TO SLAVE INSURRECTIONARY
PLOTS, AND EACH SUCH INCIDENT REKINDLED FEARS. This helps explain the stern police measures
against whites who fraternized with blacks. Herbert Aptheker quotes a report to the governor
of Virginia on a slave conspiracy in 1802: “I have just received information that three
white persons are concerned in the plot; and they have arms and ammunition concealed under
their houses, and were to give aid when the negroes should begin.” One of the conspiring
slaves said that it was “the common run of poor white people” who were involved.
In return, blacks helped whites in need. One black runaway told of a slave woman who had
received fifty lashes of the whip for giving food to a white neighbour who was poor and
sick. When the Brunswick canal was built in Georgia,
the black slaves and white Irish workers were segregated, the excuse being that they would
do violence against one another. That may well have been true, but Fanny Kemble, the
famous actress and wife of a planter, wrote in her journal:
BUT THE IRISH ARE NOT ONLY QUARRELLERS, AND RIOTERS, AND FIGHTERS, AND DRINKERS, AND DESPISERS
OF NIGGERS-THEY ARE A PASSIONATE, IMPULSIVE, WARM HEARTED, GENEROUS PEOPLE, MUCH GIVEN
TO POWERFUL INDIGNATIONS, WHICH BREAK OUT SUDDENLY WHEN NOT COMPELLED TO SMOULDER SULLENLY-PESTILENT
SYMPATHIZERS TOO, AND WITH A SUFFICIENT DOSE OF AMERICAN ATMOSPHERIC AIR IN THEIR LUNGS,
PROPERLY MIXED WITH A RIGHT PROPORTION OF ARDENT SPIRITS, THERE IS NO SAYING BUT WHAT
THEY MIGHT ACTUALLY TAKE TO SYMPATHY WITH THE SLAVES, AND I LEAVE YOU TO JUDGE OF THE
POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES. YOU PERCEIVE, I AM SURE, THAT THEY CAN BY NO MEANS BE ALLOWED
TO WORK TOGETHER ON THE BRUNSWICK CANAL. The need for slave control led to an ingenious
device, paying poor whites themselves so troublesome for two hundred years of southern history-to
be overseers of black labor and therefore buffers for black hatred.
Religion was used for control. A book consulted by many planters was the Cotton Plantation
Record and Account Book, which gave these instructions to overseers: “You will find
that an hour devoted every Sabbath morning to their moral and religious instruction would
prove a great aid to you in bringing about a better state of things amongst the Negroes.”
As for black preachers, as Genovese puts it, “they had to speak a language defiant enough
to hold the high-spirited among their flock but neither so inflammatory as to rouse them
to battles they could not win nor so ominous as to arouse the ire of ruling powers.” Practicality
decided: “The slave communities, embedded as they were among numerically preponderant
and militarily powerful whites, counseled a strategy of patience, of acceptance of what
could not be helped, of a dogged effort to keep the black community alive and healthy-a
strategy of survival that, like its African prototype, above all said yes to life in this
world.” It was once thought that slavery had destroyed
the black family. And so the black condition was blamed on family frailty, rather than
on poverty and prejudice. Blacks without families, helpless, lacking kinship and identity, would
have no will to resist. But interviews with ex-slaves, done in the 1930s by the Federal
Writers Project of the New Deal for the Library of Congress, showed a different story, which
George Rawick summarizes (From Sundown to Sunup):
THE SLAVE COMMUNITY ACTED LIKE A GENERALIZED EXTENDED KINSHIP SYSTEM IN WHICH ALL ADULTS
LOOKED AFTER ALL CHILDREN AND THERE WAS LITTLE DIVISION BETWEEN “MY CHILDREN FOR WHOM I’M
RESPONSIBLE” AND “YOUR CHILDREN FOR WHOM YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE.” A KIND OF FAMILY RELATIONSHIP
IN WHICH OLDER CHILDREN HAVE GREAT RESPONSIBILITY FOR CARING FOR YOUNGER SIBLINGS IS OBVIOUSLY
MORE FUNCTIONALLY INTEGRATIVE AND USEFUL FOR SLAVES THAN THE PATTERN OF SIBLING RIVALRY
AND OFTEN DISLIKE THAT FREQUENTLY COMES OUT OF CONTEMPORARY MIDDLE-CLASS NUCLEAR FAMILIES
COMPOSED OF HIGHLY INDIVIDUATED PERSONS. … INDEED, THE ACTIVITY OF THE SLAVES IN CREATING PATTERNS
OF FAMILY LIFE THAT WERE FUNCTIONALLY INTEGRATIVE DID MORE THAN MERELY PREVENT THE DESTRUCTION
OF PERSONALITY. IT WAS PART AND PARCEL, AS WE SHALL SEE, OF THE SOCIAL PROCESS OUT OF
WHICH CAME BLACK PRIDE, BLACK IDENTITY, BLACK CULTURE, THE BLACK COMMUNITY, AND BLACK REBELLION
IN AMERICA. Old letters and records dug out by historian
Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom) show the stubborn resistance
of the slave family to pressures of disintegration. A woman wrote to her son from whom she had
been separated for twenty years: “I long to see you in my old age. Now my dear son I pray
you to come and see your dear old Mother. I love you Cato you love your Mother-You are
my only son.” And a man wrote to his wife, sold away from
him with their children: “Send me some of the children’s hair in a separate paper with
their names on the paper. I had rather anything to had happened to me most than ever to have
been parted from you and the children. Laura I do love you the same”
Going through records of slave marriages, Gutman found how high was the incidence of
marriage among slave men and women, and how stable these marriages were. He studied the
remarkably complete records kept on one South Carolina plantation. He found a birth register
of two hundred slaves extending from the eighteenth century to just before the Civil War; it showed
stable kin networks, steadfast marriages, unusual fidelity, and resistance to forced
marriages. Slaves hung on determinedly to their selves,
to their love of family, their wholeness. A shoemaker on the South Carolina Sea Islands
expressed this in his own way: “I’se lost an arm but it hasn’t gone out of my brains.”
This family solidarity carried into the twentieth century. The remarkable southern black farmer
Nate Shaw recalled that when his sister died, leaving three children, his father proposed
sharing their care, and he responded: THAT SUITS ME. PAPA. LET’S HANDLE EM LIKE
THIS; DON’T GET THE TWO LITTLE BOYS, THE YOUNGEST ONES, OFF AT YOUR HOUSE AND THE OLDEST ONE
BE AT MY HOUSE AND WE BOLD THESE LITTLE BOYS APART AND WON’T BRING EM TO SEE ONE ANOTHER.
I’LL BRING THE LITTLE BOY THAT I KEEP, THE OLDEST ONE, AROUND TO YOUR HOME AMONGST THE
OTHER TWO. AND YOU FORWARD THE OTHERS TO MY HOUSE AND LET EM GROW UP KNOWIN THAT THEY
ARE BROTHERS. DON’T KEEP EM SEPARATED IN A WAY THAT THEY’LL FORGET ABOUT ONE ANOTHER.
DON’T DO THAT, PAPA. Also insisting on the strength of blacks even
under slavery, Lawrence Levine (Black Culture and Black Consciousness) gives a picture of
a rich culture among slaves, a complex mixture of adaptation and rebellion, through the creativity
of stories and songs: WE RAISE DE WHEAT
DEY GIB US DE CORN WE BAKE DE BREAD
DEY GIB US DE CRUST WE SIF DE MEAL
DEY GIB US DE HUSS WE PEEL DE MEAT
DEY GIB US DE SKIN AND DAT’S DE WAY
DEY TAKE US IN WE SKIM DE POT
DEY GIB US DE LIQUOR AN SAY DAT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR NIGGER.
There was mockery. The poet William Cullen Bryant, after attending a corn shucking in
1843 in South Carolina, told of slave dances turned into a pretended military parade, “a
sort of burlesque of our militia trainings.” Spirituals often had double meanings. The
song “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan” often meant that slaves
meant to get to the North, their Canaan. During the Civil War, slaves began to make up new
spirituals with bolder messages: “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, and
go home to my Lord and be saved.” And the spiritual “Many Thousand Go”:
NO MORE PECK O ‘ CORN FOR ME, NO MORE, NO MORE,
NO MORE DRIVER’S LASH FOR ME, NO MORE, NO MORE.
Levine refers to slave resistance as “pre-political,” expressed in countless ways in daily life
and culture. Music, magic, art, religion, were all ways, he says, for slaves to hold
on to their humanity. While southern slaves held on, free blacks
in the North (there were about 130,000 in 1830, about 200,000 in 1850) agitated for
the abolition of slavery. In 1829, David Walker, son of a slave, but born free in North Carolina,
moved to Boston, where he sold old clothes. The pamphlet he wrote and printed, Walker’s
Appeal, became widely known. It infuriated southern slaveholders; Georgia offered a reward
of $10,000 to anyone who would deliver Walker alive, and $1,000 to anyone who would kill
him. It is not hard to understand why when you read his Appeal.
There was no slavery in history, even that of the Israelites in Egypt, worse than the
slavery of the black man in America, Walker said. “show me a page of history, either sacred
or profane, on which a verse can he found, which maintains, that the Egyptians heaped
the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were
not of the human family.” Walker was scathing to his fellow blacks who
would assimilate: “I would wish, candidly … to be understood, that I would not give
a pinch of snuff to be married to any white person I ever saw in all the days of my life.”
Blacks must fight for their freedom, he said: LET OUR ENEMIES GO ON WITH THEIR BUTCHERIES,
AND AT ONCE FILL UP THEIR CUP. NEVER MAKE AN ATTEMPT TO GAIN OUR FREEDOM OR NATURAL
RIGHT FROM UNDER OUR CRUEL OPPRESSORS AND MURDERERS, UNTIL YOU SEE YOUR WAY CLEAR-WHEN
THAT HOUR ARRIVES AND YOU MOVE, BE NOT AFRAID OR DISMAYED. GOD HAS BEEN PLEASED TO GIVE
US TWO EYES, TWO HANDS, TWO FEET, AND SOME SENSE IN OUR HEADS AS WELL AS THEY. THEY HAVE
NO MORE RIGHT TO HOLD US IN SLAVERY THAN WE HAVE TO HOLD THEM. OUR SUFFERINGS WILL COME
TO AN END, IN SPITE OF ALL THE AMERICANS THIS SIDE OF ETERNITY. THEN WE WILL WANT ALL THE
LEARNING AND TALENTS AMONG OURSELVES, AND PERHAPS MORE, TO GOVERN OURSELVES. “EVERY
DOG MUST HAVE ITS DAY,” THE AMERICAN’S IS COMING TO AN END.
One summer day in 1830, David Walker was found dead near the doorway of his shop in Boston.
Some born in slavery acted out the unfulfilled desire of millions. Frederick Douglass, a
slave, sent to Baltimore to work as a servant and as a labourer in the shipyard, somehow
learned to read and write, and at twenty-one, in the year 1838, escaped to the North, where
he became the most famous black man of his time, as lecturer, newspaper editor, writer.
In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he recalled his first
childhood thoughts about his condition: WHY AM I A SLAVE? WHY ARE SOME PEOPLE SLAVES,
AND OTHERS MASTERS? WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN THIS WAS NOT SO? HOW DID THE RELATION
COMMENCE? ONCE, HOWEVER, ENGAGED IN THE INQUIRY, I WAS
NOT VERY LONG IN FINDING OUT THE TRUE SOLUTION OF THE MATTER. IT WAS NOT COLOR, BUT CRIME,
NOT GOD, BUT MAN, THAT AFFORDED THE TRUE EXPLANATION OF THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY; NOR WAS I LONG
IN FINDING OUT ANOTHER IMPORTANT TRUTH, VIZ: WHAT MAN CAN MAKE, MAN CAN UNMAKE.
I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER BEING, EVEN THEN, MOST STRONGLY IMPRESSED WITH THE IDEA OF BEING
A FREE MAN SOMEDAY. THIS CHEERING ASSURANCE WAS AN INBORN DREAM OF MY HUMAN NATURE-A CONSTANT
MENACE TO SLAVERY-AND ONE WHICH ALL THE POWERS OF SLAVERY WERE UNABLE TO SILENCE OR EXTINGUISH.
The Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 was a concession to the southern states in return
for the admission of the Mexican war territories (California, especially) into the Union as
non-slave states. The Act made it easy for slave owners to recapture ex-slaves or simply
to pick up blacks they claimed had run away. Northern blacks organized resistance to the
Fugitive Slave Act, denouncing President Fillmore, who signed it, and Senator Daniel Webster,
who supported it. One of these was J. W. Loguen, son of a slave mother and her white owner.
He had escaped to freedom on his master’s horse, gone to college, and was now a minister
in Syracuse, New York. He spoke to a meeting in that city in 1850:
THE TIME HAS COME TO CHANGE THE TONES OF SUBMISSION INTO TONES OF DEFIANCE-AND TO TELL MR. FILLMORE
AND MR. WEBSTER, IF THEY PROPOSE TO EXECUTE THIS MEASURE UPON US, TO SEND ON THEIR BLOOD-HOUNDS.
I RECEIVED MY FREEDOM FROM HEAVEN, AND WITH IT CAME THE COMMAND TO DEFEND MY TITLE TO
IT. I DON’T RESPECT THIS LAW-I DON’T FEAR IT-I WON’T OBEY IT! IT OUTLAWS ME, AND I OUTLAW
IT. I WILL NOT LIVE A SLAVE, AND IF FORCE IS EMPLOYED TO RE-ENSLAVE ME, I SHALL MAKE
PREPARATIONS TO MEET THE CRISIS AS BECOMES A MAN. … YOUR DECISION TONIGHT IN FAVOUR
OF RESISTANCE WILL GIVE VENT TO THE SPIRIT OF LIBERTY, AND IT WILL BREAK THE BANDS OF
PARTY, AND SHOUT FOR JOY ALL OVER THE NORTH. HEAVEN KNOWS THAT THIS ACT OF NOBLE DARING
WILL BREAK OUT SOMEWHERE AND MAY GOD GRANT THAT SYRACUSE BE THE HONOURED SPOT, WHENCE
IT SHALL SEND AN EARTHQUAKE VOICE THROUGH THE LAND!
The following year, Syracuse had its chance. A runaway slave named Jerry was captured and
put on trial. A crowd used crowbars and a battering ram to break into the courthouse,
defying marshals with drawn guns, and set Jerry free.
Loguen made his home in Syracuse a major station on the Underground Railroad. It was said that
he helped 1,500 slaves on their way to Canada. His memoir of slavery came to the attention
of his former mistress, and she wrote to him, asking him either to return or to send her
$1,000 in compensation. Loguen’s reply to her was printed in the abolitionist newspaper,
The Liberator: MRS. SARAH LOGUE. YOU SAY YOU HAVE OFFERS
TO BUY ME, AND THAT YOU SHALL SELL ME IF I DO NOT SEND YOU $1000, AND IN THE SAME BREATH
AND ALMOST IN THE SAME SENTENCE, YOU SAY, “YOU KNOW WE RAISED YOU AS WE DID OUR OWN
CHILDREN.” WOMAN, DID YOU RAISE YOUR OWN CHILDREN FOR THE MARKET? DID YOU RAISE THEM FOR THE
WHIPPING POST? DID YOU RAISE THEM TO BE DRIVEN OFF, BOUND TO A COFFLE IN CHAINS? SHAME ON
YOU! BUT YOU SAY I AM A THIEF, BECAUSE I TOOK THE
OLD MARE ALONG WITH ME. HAVE YOU GOT TO LEARN THAT I HAD A BETTER RIGHT TO THE OLD MARE,
AS YOU CALL HER, THAN MANASSETH LOGUE HAD TO ME? IS IT A GREATER SIN FOR ME TO STEAL
HIS HORSE, THAN IT WAS FOR HIM TO ROB MY MOTHER’S CRADLE, AND STEAL ME? HAVE YOU GOT TO LEARN
THAT HUMAN RIGHTS ARE MUTUAL AND RECIPROCAL, AND IF YOU TAKE MY LIBERTY AND LIFE, YOU FORFEIT
YOUR OWN LIBERTY AND LIFE? BEFORE GOD AND HIGH HEAVEN, IS THERE A LAW FOR ONE MAN WHICH
IS NOT A LAW FOR EVERY OTHER MAN? IF YOU OR ANY OTHER SPECULATOR ON MY BODY
AND RIGHTS, WISH TO KNOW HOW I REGARD MY RIGHTS, THEY NEED BUT COME HERE, AND LAY THEIR HANDS
ON ME TO ENSLAVE ME. Yours, etc. J. W. Loguen
Frederick Douglass knew that the shame of slavery was not just the South’s, that the
whole nation was complicit in it. On the Fourth of July, 1852, he gave an Independence Day
address: FELLOW CITIZENS: PARDON ME, AND ALLOW ME TO
ASK, WHY AM I CALLED UPON TO SPEAK HERE TODAY? WHAT HAVE I OR THOSE I REPRESENT TO DO WITH
YOUR NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE? ARE THE GREAT PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL FREEDOM AND OF NATURAL
JUSTICE, EMBODIED IN THAT DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, EXTENDED TO US? AND AM I, THEREFORE, CALLED
UPON TO BRING OUR HUMBLE OFFERING TO THE NATIONAL ALTAR, AND TO CONFESS THE BENEFITS, AND EXPRESS
DEVOUT GRATITUDE FOR THE BLESSINGS RESULTING FROM YOUR INDEPENDENCE TO US?
WHAT TO THE AMERICAN SLAVE IS YOUR FOURTH OF JULY? I ANSWER, A DAY THAT REVEALS TO HIM
MORE THAN ALL OTHER DAYS OF THE YEAR, THE GROSS INJUSTICE AND CRUELTY TO WHICH HE IS
THE CONSTANT VICTIM. ‘TO HIM YOUR CELEBRATION IS A SHAM; YOUR BOASTED LIBERTY AN UNHOLY
LICENSE; YOUR NATIONAL GREATNESS, SWELLING VANITY; YOUR SOUNDS OF REJOICING ARE EMPTY
AND HEARTLESS; YOUR DENUNCIATION OF TYRANTS, BRASS- FRONTED IMPUDENCE; YOUR SHOUTS OF LIBERTY
AND EQUALITY, HOLLOW MOCKERY; YOUR PRAYERS AND HYMNS, YOUR SERMONS AND THANKSGIVINGS,
WITH ALL YOUR RELIGIOUS PARADE AND SOLEMNITY, ARE TO HIM MERE BOMBAST, FRAUD, DECEPTION,
IMPIETY, AND HYPOCRISY-A THIN VEIL TO COVER UP CRIMES WHICH WOULD DISGRACE A NATION OF
SAVAGES. THERE IS NOT A NATION OF THE EARTH GUILTY OF PRACTICES MORE SHOCKING AND BLOODY
THAN ARE THE PEOPLE OF THESE UNITED STATES AT THIS VERY HOUR.
GO WHERE YOU MAY, SEARCH WHERE YOU WILL, ROAM THROUGH ALL THE MONARCHIES AND DESPOTISMS
OF THE OLD WORLD, TRAVEL THROUGH SOUTH AMERICA, SEARCH OUT EVERY ABUSE AND WHEN YOU HAVE FOUND
THE LAST, LAY YOUR FACTS BY THE SIDE OF THE EVERYDAY PRACTICES OF THIS NATION, AND YOU
WILL SAY WITH ME THAT, FOR REVOLTING BARBARITY AND SHAMELESS HYPOCRISY, AMERICA REIGNS WITHOUT
A RIVAL. Ten years after Nat Turner’s rebellion, there
was no sign of black insurrection in the South. But that year, 1841, one incident took place
which kept alive the idea of rebellion. Slaves being transported on a ship, the Creole, overpowered
the crew, killed one of them, and sailed into the British West Indies (where slavery had
been abolished in 1833). England refused to return the slaves (there was much agitation
in England against American slavery), and this led to angry talk in Congress of war
with England, encouraged by Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The Colored Peoples Press
denounced Webster’s “bullying position,” and, recalling the Revolutionary War and the War
of 1812, wrote: IF WAR BE DECLARED WILL WE FIGHT IN DEFENCE
OF A GOVERNMENT WHICH DENIES US THE MOST PRECIOUS RIGHT OF CITIZENSHIP? THE STATES IN WHICH
WE DWELL HAVE TWICE AVAILED THEMSELVES OF OUR VOLUNTARY SERVICES, AND HAVE REPAID US
WITH CHAINS AND SLAVERY. SHALL WE A THIRD TIME KISS THE FOOT THAT CRUSHES US? IF SO,
WE DESERVE OUR CHAINS. As the tension grew, North and South, blacks
became more militant. Frederick Douglass spoke in 1857:
LET ME GIVE YOU A WORD OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF REFORMS. THE WHOLE HISTORY OF THE PROGRESS
OF HUMAN LIBERTY SHOWS THAT ALL CONCESSIONS YET MADE TO HER AUGUST CLAIMS HAVE BEEN BORN
OF STRUGGLE. IF THERE IS NO STRUGGLE THERE IS NO PROGRESS. THOSE WHO PROFESS TO FAVOUR
FREEDOM AND YET DEPRECATE AGITATION, ARE MEN WHO WANT CROPS WITHOUT PLOUGHING UP THE GROUND.
THEY WANT RAIN WITHOUT THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. THEY WANT THE OCEAN WITHOUT THE AWFUL ROAR
OF ITS MANY WATERS. THE STRUGGLE MAY BE A MORAL ONE; OR IT MAY BE A PHYSICAL ONE; OR
IT MAY BE BOTH MORAL AND PHYSICAL, BUT IT MUST BE A STRUGGLE. POWER CONCEDES NOTHING
WITHOUT A DEMAND. IT NEVER DID AND IT NEVER WILL.
There were tactical differences between Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, white abolitionist
and editor of The Liberator-differences between black and white abolitionists in general.
Blacks were more willing to engage in armed insurrection, but also more ready to use existing
political devices-the ballot box, the Constitution-anything to further their cause. They were not as morally
absolute in their tactics as the Garrisonians. Moral pressure would not do it alone, the
blacks knew; it would take all sorts of tactics, from elections to rebellion.
How ever-present in the minds of northern Negroes was the question of slavery is shown
by black children in a Cincinnati school, a private school financed by Negroes. The
children were responding to the question “What do you think most about?” Only five answers
remain in the records, and all refer to slavery. A seven-year-old child wrote:
DEAR SCHOOLMATES, WE ARE GOING NEXT SUMMER TO BUY A FARM AND TO WORK PART OF THE DAY
AND TO STUDY THE OTHER PART IF WE LIVE TO SEE IT AND COME HOME PART OF THE DAY TO SEE
OUR MOTHERS AND SISTERS AND COUSINS IF WE ARE GOT ANY AND SEE OUR KIND FOLKS AND TO
BE GOOD BOYS AND WHEN WE GET A MAN TO GET THE POOR SLAVES FROM BONDAGE. AND I AM SORROW
TO HEAR THAT THE BOAT WENT DOWN WITH 200 POOR SLAVES FROM UP THE RIVER. OH HOW SORROW I
AM TO HEAR THAT, IT GRIEVES MY HEART SO DRAT I COULD FAINT IN ONE MINUTE.
White abolitionists did courageous and pioneering work, on the lecture platform, in newspapers,
in the Underground Railroad. Black abolitionists, less publicized, were the backbone of the
antislavery movement. Before Garrison published his famous Liberator in Boston in 1831, the
first national convention of Negroes had been held, David Walker had already written his
“Appeal,” and a black abolitionist magazine named Freedom’s Journal had appeared. Of The
Liberator’s first twenty five subscribers, most were black.
Blacks had to struggle constantly with the unconscious racism of white abolitionists.
They also had to insist on their own independent voice. Douglass wrote for The Liberator, but
in 1847 started his own newspaper in Rochester, North Star, which led to a break with Garrison.
In 1854, a conference of Negroes declared: “. . . it is emphatically our battle; no one
else can fight it for us. Our relations to the Anti-Slavery movement must be and are
changed. Instead of depending upon it we must lead it.”
Certain black women faced the triple hurdle-of being abolitionists in a slave society, of
being black among white reformers, and of being women in a reform movement dominated
by men. When Sojourner Truth rose to speak in 1853 in New York City at the Fourth National
Woman’s Rights Convention, it all came together. There was a hostile mob in the hall shouting,
jeering, threatening. She said: I KNOW THAT IT FEELS A KIND O’ HISSIN’ AND
TICKLIN’ LIKE TO SEE A COLORED WOMAN GET UP AND TELL YOU ABOUT THINGS, AND WOMAN’S RIGHTS.
WE HAVE ALL BEEN THROWN DOWN SO LOW THAT NOBODY THOUGHT WE’D EVER GET UP AGAIN; BUT WE WILL
COME UP AGAIN, AND NOW I’M HERE WE’LL HAVE OUR RIGHTS; SEE IF WE DON’T; AND YOU CAN’T
STOP US FROM THEM; SEE IF YOU CAN. YOU MAY HISS AS MUCH AS YON LIKE, BUT IT IS COMIN.
I AM SITTIN’ AMONG YOU TO WATCH; AND EVERY ONCE AND AWHILE I WILL COME OUT AND TELL YOU
WHAT TIME OF NIGHT IT IS. After Nat Turner’s violent uprising and Virginia’s
bloody repression, the security system inside the South became tighter. Perhaps only an
outsider could hope to launch a rebellion. It was such a person, a white man of ferocious
courage and determination, John Brown, whose wild scheme it was to seize the federal arsenal
at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and then set off a revolt of slaves through the South.
Harriet Tubman, 5 feet tall, some of her teeth missing, a veteran of countless secret missions
piloting blacks out of slavery, was involved with John Brown and his plans. But sickness
prevented her from joining him. Frederick Douglass too had met with Brown. He argued
against the plan from the standpoint of its chances of success, but he admired the ailing
man of sixty, tall, gaunt, white haired. Douglass was right; the plan would not work.
The local militia, joined by a hundred marines under the command of Robert E. Lee, surrounded
the insurgents. Although his men were dead or captured, John Brown refused to surrender:
he barricaded himself in a small brick building near the gate of the Armory. The troops battered
down a door; a marine lieutenant moved in and struck Brown with his sword. Wounded,
sick, he was interrogated. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his book John Brown, writes:
PICTURE THE SITUATION: AN OLD AND BLOOD-BESPATTERED MAN, HALF-DEAD FROM THE WOUNDS INFLICTED BUT
A FEW HOURS BEFORE; A MAN LYING IN THE COLD AND DIRT, WITHOUT SLEEP FOR FIFTY-FIVE NERVE-WRECKING
HOURS, WITHOUT FOOD FOR NEARLY AS LONG, WITH THE DEAD BODIES OF HIS TWO SONS ALMOST BEFORE
HIS EYES, THE PILED CORPSES OF HIS SEVEN SLAIN COMRADES NEAR AND AFAR, A WIFE AND A BEREAVED
FAMILY LISTENING IN VAIN, AND A LOST CAUSE, THE DREAM OF A LIFETIME, LYING DEAD IN HIS
HEART. Lying there, interrogated by the governor
of Virginia, Brown said: “You had better-all you people at the South-prepare yourselves
for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily-I am nearly disposed
of now, but this question is still to be settled this Negro question, I mean; the end of that
is not yet.” Du Bois appraises Brown’s action:
If his foray was the work of a handful of fanatics, led by a lunatic and repudiated
by the slaves to a man, then the proper procedure would have been to ignore the incident, quietly
punish the worst offenders and either pardon the misguided leader or send him to an asylum.
While insisting that the raid was too hopelessly and ridiculously small to accomplish anything
the state nevertheless spent $250,000 to punish the invaders, stationed from one to three
thousand soldiers in the vicinity and threw the nation into turmoil.
In John Brown’s last written statement, in prison, before he was hanged, he said: “I,
John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away
but with blood.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, not an activist himself, said of the execution
of John Brown: “He will make the gallows holy as the cross.”
Of the twenty-two men in John Brown’s striking force, five were black. Two of these were
killed on the spot, one escaped, and two were hanged by the authorities. Before his execution,
John Copeland wrote to his parents: REMEMBER THAT IF I MUST DIE I DIE IN TRYING
TO LIBERATE A FEW OF MY POOR AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE FROM MY CONDITION OF SERVITUDE WHICH
COD IN HIS HOLY WRIT HAS HURLED HIS MOST BITTER DENUNCIATIONS AGAINST
I AM NOT TERRIFIED BY THE GALLOWS. I IMAGINE THAT I HEAR YOU, AND ALL OF YOU,
MOTHER, FATHER, SISTERS, AND BROTHERS, SAY “NO, THERE IS NOT A CAUSE FOR WHICH WE, WITH
LESS SORROW, COULD SEE YOU DIE.” BELIEVE ME WHEN I TELL YOU, THAT THOUGH SHUT UP IN PRISON
AND UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH, I HAVE SPENT MORE HAPPY HOURS HERE, AND I WOULD ALMOST
AS LIEF THE NOW AS AT ANY TIME, FOR I FEEL THAT I AM PREPARED TO MEET MY MAKER.
John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia with the approval of the national government.
It was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave
trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of fugitives to slavery. It
was the national government that, in Andrew Jackson’s administration, collaborated with
the South to keep abolitionist literature out of the mails in the southern states. It
was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred
Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property.
Such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. It would end
slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political
and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined
perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and
the rhetoric of humanitarianism. He would keep the abolition of slavery not at the top
of his list of priorities, but close enough to the top so it could be pushed there temporarily
by abolitionist pressures and by practical political advantage.
Lincoln could skillfully blend the interests of the very rich and the interests of the
black at a moment in history when these interests met. And he could link these two with a growing
section of Americans, the white, up and coming, economically ambitious, politically active
middle class. As Richard Hofstadter puts it: THOROUGHLY MIDDLE CLASS IN HIS IDEAS, HE SPOKE
FOR THOSE MILLIONS OF AMERICANS WHO HAD BEGUN THEIR LIVES AS HIRED WORKERS AS FARM HANDS,
CLERKS, TEACHERS, MECHANICS, FLATBOAT MEN, AND RAIL- SPLITTERS-AND HAD PASSED INTO THE
RANKS OF LANDED FARMERS, PROSPEROUS GROCERS, LAWYERS, MERCHANTS, PHYSICIANS AND POLITICIANS.
Lincoln could argue with lucidity and passion against slavery on moral grounds, while acting
cautiously in practical politics. He believed “that the institution of slavery is founded
on injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends
to increase rather than abate its evils.” (Put against this Frederick Douglass’s statement
on struggle, or Garrison’s “Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most
tremendous excitement”) Lincoln read the Constitution strictly, to mean that Congress, because of
the Tenth Amendment (reserving to the states powers not specifically given to the national
government), could not constitutionally bar slavery in the states.
When it was proposed to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, which did not have
the rights of a state that was directly under the jurisdiction of Congress, Lincoln said
this would be Constitutional, but it should not be done unless the people in the District
wanted it. Since most there were white, this killed the idea. As Hofstadter said of Lincoln’s
statement, it “breathes the fire of an uncompromising insistence on moderation.”
Lincoln refused to denounce the Fugitive Slave Law publicly. He wrote to a friend: “I confess
I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down but I bite my lips and keep quiet.” And when
he did propose, in 1849, as a Congressman, a resolution to abolish slavery in the District
of Columbia, he accompanied this with a section requiring local authorities to arrest and
return fugitive slaves coming into Washington. (This led Wendell Phillips, the Boston abolitionist,
to refer to him years later as “that slave hound from Illinois.”) He opposed slavery,
but could not see blacks as equals, so a constant theme in his approach was to free the slaves
and to send them back to Africa. In his 1858 campaign in Illinois for the Senate
against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln spoke differently depending on the views of his listeners (and
also perhaps depending on how close it was to the election). Speaking in northern Illinois
in July (in Chicago), he said: LET US DISCARD ALL THIS QUIBBLING ABOUT THIS
MAN AND THE OTHER MAN, THIS RACE AND THAT RACE AND THE OTHER RACE BEING INFERIOR, AND
THEREFORE THEY MUST BE PLACED IN AN INFERIOR POSITION. LET US DISCARD ALL THESE THINGS,
AND UNITE AS ONE PEOPLE THROUGHOUT THIS LAND, UNTIL WE SHALL ONCE MORE STAND UP DECLARING
THAT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL. Two months later in Charleston, in southern
Illinois, Lincoln told his audience: I WILL SAY, THEN, THAT I AM NOT, NOR EVER
HAVE BEEN, IN FAVOR OF BRINGING ABOUT IN ANY WAY THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL EQUALITY OF THE
WHITE AND BLACK RACES (APPLAUSE); THAT I AM NOT, NOR EVER HAVE BEEN, IN FAVOR OF MAKING
VOTERS OR JURORS OF NEGROES, NOR OF QUALIFYING THEM TO HOLD OFFICE, NOR TO INTERMARRY WITH
WHITE PEOPLE. AND INASMUCH AS THEY CANNOT SO LIVE, WHILE
THEY DO REMAIN TOGETHER THERE MUST BE THE POSITION OF SUPERIOR AND INFERIOR, AND I AS
MUCH AS ANY OTHER MAN AM IN FAVOR OF HAVING THE SUPERIOR POSITION ASSIGNED TO THE WHITE
RACE. Behind the secession of the South from the
Union, after Lincoln was elected President in the fall of 1860 as candidate of the new
Republican party, was a long series of policy clashes between South and North. The clash
was not over slavery as a moral institution most northerners did not care enough about
slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the sacrifice of war. It was not a clash
of peoples (most northern whites were not economically favoured, not politically powerful;
most southern whites were poor farmers, not decision makers) but of elites. The northern
elite wanted economic expansion-free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective
tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that;
they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous
way of life impossible in the future. So, when Lincoln was elected, seven southern
states seceded from the Union. Lincoln initiated hostilities by trying to repossess the federal
base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and four more states seceded. The Confederacy was formed;
the Civil War was on. Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, in March
1861, was conciliatory toward the South and the seceded states: “I have no purpose, directly
or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.
I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” And with
the war four months on, when General John C. Fremont in Missouri declared martial law
and said slaves of owners resisting the United States were to be free, Lincoln countermanded
this order. He was anxious to hold in the Union the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky,
Missouri, and Delaware. It was only as the war grew more bitter, the
casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened
to unravel the tattered coalition behind Lincoln that he began to act against slavery. Hofstadter
puts it this way: “Like a delicate barometer, he recorded the trend of pressures, and as
the Radical pressure increased he moved toward the left.” Wendell Phillips said that if Lincoln
was able to grow “it is because we have watered him.”
Racism in the North was as entrenched as slavery in the South, and it would take the war to
shake both. New York blacks could not vote unless they owned $250 in property (a qualification
not applied to whites). A proposal to abolish this, put on the ballot in 1860, was defeated
two to one (although Lincoln carried New York by 50,000 votes). Frederick Douglass commented:
“The black baby of Negro suffrage was thought too ugly to exhibit on so grand an occasion.
The Negro was stowed away like some people put out of sight their deformed children when
company comes.” Wendell Phillips, with all his criticism of
Lincoln, recognized the possibilities in his election. Speaking at the Tremont Temple in
Boston the day after the election, Phillips said:
IF THE TELEGRAPH SPEAKS TRUTH, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN OUR HISTORY THE SLAVE HAS CHOSEN A
PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. NOT AN ABOLITIONIST, HARDLY AN ANTISLAVERY MAN, MR. LINCOLN CONSENTS
TO REPRESENT AN ANTISLAVERY IDEA. A PAWN ON THE POLITICAL CHESSBOARD, HIS VALUE IS IN
HIS POSITION; WITH FAIR EFFORT, WE MAY SOON CHANGE HIM FOR KNIGHT, BISHOP OR QUEEN, AND
SWEEP THE BOARD. (APPLAUSE) Conservatives in the Boston upper classes
wanted reconciliation with the South. At one point they stormed an abolitionist meeting
at that same Tremont Temple, shortly after Lincoln’s election, and asked that concessions
be made to the South “in the interests of commerce, manufactures, agriculture.”
The spirit of Congress, even after the war began, was shown in a resolution it passed
in the summer of 1861, with only a few dissenting votes: “… this war is not waged . . . for
any purpose of… overthrowing or interfering with the rights of established institutions
of those states, but… to preserve the Union.” The abolitionists stepped up their campaign.
Emancipation petitions poured into Congress in 1861 and 1862. In May of that year, Wendell
Phillips said: “Abraham Lincoln may not wish it; he cannot prevent it; the nation may not
will it, but the nation cannot prevent it. I do not care what men want or wish; the negro
is the pebble in the cog-wheel, and the machine cannot go on until you get him out.”
In July Congress passed a Confiscation Act, which enabled the freeing of slaves of those
fighting the Union. But this was not enforced by the Union generals, and Lincoln ignored
the nonenforcement. Garrison called Lincoln’s policy “stumbling, halting, prevaricating,
irresolute, weak, besotted,” and Phillips said Lincoln was “a first-rate second-rate
man.” An exchange of letters between Lincoln and
Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in August of 1862, gave Lincoln a chance to
express his views. Greeley wrote: DEAR SIR. I DO NOT INTRUDE TO TELL YOU-FOR
YOU MUST KNOW ALREADY-THAT A GREAT PROPORTION OF THOSE WHO TRIUMPHED IN YOUR ELECTION ARE
SORELY DISAPPOINTED AND DEEPLY PAINED BY THE POLICY YOU SEEM TO BE PURSUING WITH REGARD
TO THE SLAVES OF REBELS. WE REQUIRE OF YOU, AS THE FIRST SERVANT OF THE REPUBLIC, CHARGED
ESPECIALLY AND PRE-EMINENTLY WITH THIS DUTY, THAT YOU EXECUTE THE LAWS. WE THINK YOU ARE
STRANGELY AND DISASTROUSLY REMISS WITH REGARD TO THE EMANCIPATING PROVISIONS OF THE NEW
CONFISCATION ACT. WE THINK YOU ARE UNDULY INFLUENCED BY THE
COUNCILS OF CERTAIN POLITICIANS HAILING FROM THE BORDER SLAVE STATES.
Greeley appealed to the practical need of winning the war. “We must have scouts, guides,
spies, cooks, teamsters, diggers and choppers from the blacks of the South, whether we allow
them to fight for us or not. I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience
to the law of the land.” Lincoln had already shown his attitude by
his failure to countermand an order of one of his commanders, General Henry Halleck,
who forbade fugitive Negroes to enter his army’s lines. Now he replied to Greeley:
DEAR SIR: I HAVE NOT MEANT TO LEAVE ANY ONE IN DOUBT. MY PARAMOUNT OBJECT IN THIS STRUGGLE
IS TO SAVE THE UNION, AND IS NOT EITHER TO SAVE OR DESTROY SLAVERY. IF I COULD SAVE THE
UNION WITHOUT FREEING ANY SLAVE, I WOULD DO IT; AND IF I COULD SAVE IT BY FREEING ALL
THE SLAVES, I WOULD DO IT; AND IF I COULD DO IT BY FREEING SOME AND LEAVING OTHERS ALONE,
I WOULD ALSO DO THAT. WHAT I DO ABOUT SLAVERY AND THE COLORED RACE, I DO BECAUSE IT HELPS
TO SAVE THIS UNION; AND WHAT I FORBEAR, I FORBEAR BECAUSE I DO NOT BELIEVE IT WOULD
HELP TO SAVE THE UNION. . .. I HAVE HERE STATED MY PURPOSE ACCORDING TO MY VIEW OF OFFICIAL
DUTY, AND I INTEND NO MODIFICATION OF MY OFT-EXPRESSED PERSONAL WISH THAT ALL MEN, EVERYWHERE, COULD
BE FREE. YOURS. A. LINCOLN. So Lincoln distinguished between his “personal
wish” and his “official duty.” When in September 1862, Lincoln issued his
preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, it was a military move, giving the South four
months to stop rebelling, threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight, promising
to leave slavery untouched in states that came over to the North:
THAT ON THE 1ST DAY OF JANUARY, AD 1863, ALL PERSONS HELD AS SLAVES WITHIN ANY STATE OR
DESIGNATED PART OF A STATE THE PEOPLE WHEREOF SHALL THEN BE IN REBELLION AGAINST THE UNITED
STATES SHALL BE THEN, THENCEFORWARD AND FOREVER FREE.
Thus, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it declared slaves
free in those areas still fighting against the Union (which it listed very carefully),
and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines. As Hofstadter put it, the Emancipation
Proclamation “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” The London Spectator wrote
concisely: “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that
he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”
Limited as it was, the Emancipation Proclamation spurred antislavery forces. By the summer
of 1864, 400,000 signatures asking legislation to end slavery had been gathered and sent
to Congress, something unprecedented in the history of the country. That April, the Senate
had adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, declaring an end to slavery, and in January 1865, the
House of Representatives followed. With the Proclamation, the Union army was
open to blacks. And the more blacks entered the war, the more it appeared a war for their
liberation. The more whites had to sacrifice, the more resentment there was, particularly
among poor whites in the North, who were drafted by a law that allowed the rich to buy their
way out of the draft for $300. And so, the draft riots of 1863 took place, uprisings
of angry whites in northern cities, their targets not the rich, far away, but the blacks,
near at hand. It was an orgy of death and violence. A black man in Detroit described
what he saw: a mob, with kegs of beer on wagons, armed with clubs and bricks, marching through
the city, attacking black men, women, children. He heard one man say: “If we are got to be
killed up for Negroes then we will kill everyone in this town.”
The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in human history up to that time: 600,000 dead
on both sides, in a population of 30 million the equivalent, in the United States of 1978,
with a population of 250 million, of 5 million dead. As the battles became more intense,
as the bodies piled up, as war fatigue grew, the existence of blacks in the South, 4 million
of them, became more and more a hindrance to the South, and more and more an opportunity
for the North. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction, pointed this out:
THESE SLAVES HAD ENORMOUS POWER IN THEIR HANDS. SIMPLY BY STOPPING WORK, THEY COULD THREATEN
THE CONFEDERACY WITH STARVATION. BY WALKING INTO THE FEDERAL CAMPS, THEY SHOWED TO DOUBTING
NORTHERNERS THE EASY POSSIBILITY OF USING THEM THUS, BUT BY THE SAME GESTURE, DEPRIVING
THEIR ENEMIES OF THEIR USE IN JUST THESE FIELDS. IT WAS THIS PLAIN ALTERNATIVE THAT BROUGHT
LEE’S SUDDEN SURRENDER. EITHER THE SOUTH MUST MAKE TERMS WITH ITS SLAVES, FREE THEM, USE
THEM TO FIGHT THE NORTH, AND THEREAFTER NO LONGER TREAT THEM AS BONDSMEN; OR THEY COULD
SURRENDER TO THE NORTH WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT THE NORTH AFTER THE WAR MUST HELP THEM
TO DEFEND SLAVERY, AS IT HAD BEFORE. George Rawick, a sociologist and anthropologist,
describes the development of blacks up to and into the Civil War:
THE SLAVES WENT FROM BEING FRIGHTENED HUMAN BEINGS, THROWN AMONG STRANGE MEN, INCLUDING
FELLOW SLAVES WHO WERE NOT THEIR KINSMEN AND WHO DID NOT SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE OR UNDERSTAND
THEIR CUSTOMS AND HABITS, TO WHAT W. E. B. DUBOIS ONCE DESCRIBED AS THE GENERAL STRIKE
WHEREBY HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF SLAVES DESERTED THE PLANTATIONS, DESTROYING THE SMITH’S ABILITY
TO SUPPLY ITS ARMY. Black women played an important part in the
war, especially toward the end. Sojourner Truth, the legendary ex-slave who had been
active in the women’s rights movement, became recruiter of black troops for the Union army,
as did Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin of Boston. Harriet Tubman raided plantations, leading
black and white troops, and in one expedition freed 750 slaves. Women moved with the colored
regiments that grew as the Union army marched through the South, helping their husbands,
enduring terrible hardships on the long military treks, in which many children died. They suffered
the fate of soldiers, as in April 1864, when Confederate troops at Fort Pillow, Kentucky,
massacred Union soldiers who had surrendered-black and white, along with women and children in
an adjoining camp. It has been said that black acceptance of
slavery is proved by the fact that during the Civil War, when there were opportunities
for escape, most slaves stayed on the plantation. In fact, half a million ran away- about one
in five, a high proportion when one considers that there was great difficulty in knowing
where to go and how to live. The owner of a large plantation in South Carolina
and Georgia wrote in 1862: “This war has taught us the perfect impossibility of placing the
least confidence in the negro. In too numerous instances those we esteemed the most have
been the first to desert us.” That same year, a lieutenant in the Confederate army and once
mayor of Savannah, Georgia, wrote: “I deeply regret to learn that the Negroes still continue
to desert to the enemy.” A minister in Mississippi wrote in the fall
of 1862: “On my arrival was surprised to hear that our negroes stampeded to the Yankees
last night or rather a portion of them. I think everyone, but with one or two exceptions
will go to the Yankees. Eliza and her family are certain to go. She does not conceal her
thoughts but plainly manifests her opinions by her conduct-insolent and insulting.” And
a woman’s plantation journal of January 1865: THE PEOPLE ARE ALL IDLE ON THE PLANTATIONS,
MOST OF THEM SEEKING THEIR OWN PLEASURE. MANY SERVANTS HAVE PROVEN FAITHFUL, OTHERS FALSE
AND REBELLIOUS AGAINST ALL AUTHORITY AND RESTRAINT. THEIR CONDITION IS ONE OF PERFECT ANARCHY
AND REBELLION. THEY HAVE PLACED THEMSELVES IN PERFECT ANTAGONISM TO THEIR OWNERS AND
TO ALL GOVERNMENT AND CONTROL. NEARLY ALL THE HOUSE SERVANTS HAVE LEFT THEIR HOMES;
AND FROM MOST OF THE PLANTATIONS THEY HAVE GONE IN A BODY.
Also in 1865, a South Carolina planter wrote to the New York Tribune that:
THE CONDUCT OF THE NEGRO IN THE LATE CRISIS OF OUR AFFAIRS HAS CONVINCED ME THAT WE WERE
ALL LABORING UNDER A DELUSION. I BELIEVED THAT THESE PEOPLE WERE CONTENT, HAPPY, AND
ATTACHED TO THEIR MASTERS. BUT EVENTS AND REFLECTION HAVE CAUSED ME TO CHANGE THESE
POSITIONS. IF THEY WERE CONTENT, HAPPY AND ATTACHED TO THEIR MASTERS, WHY DID THEY DESERT
HIM IN THE MOMENT OF HIS NEED AND FLOCK TO AN ENEMY, WHOM THEY DID NOT KNOW; AND THUS
LEFT THEIR PERHAPS REALLY GOOD MASTERS WHOM THEY DID KNOW FROM INFANCY?
Genovese notes that the war produced no general rising of slaves, but: “In Lafayette County,
Mississippi, slaves responded to the Emancipation Proclamation by driving off their overseers
and dividing the land and implements among themselves.” Aptheker reports a conspiracy
of Negroes in Arkansas in 1861 to kill their enslavers. In Kentucky that year, houses and
barns were burned by Negroes, and in the city of New Castle slaves paraded through the city
“singing political songs, and shouting for Lincoln,” according to newspaper accounts.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, a Negro waiter in Richmond, Virginia, was arrested
for leading “a servile plot,” while in Yazoo City, Mississippi, slaves burned the courthouse
and fourteen homes. There were special moments: Robert Smalls
(later a South Carolina Congressman) and other blacks took over a steamship, The Planter,
and sailed it past the Confederate guns to deliver it to the Union navy.
Most slaves neither submitted nor rebelled. They continued to work, waiting to see what
happened. When opportunity came, they left, often joining the Union army. Two hundred
thousand blacks were in the army and navy, and 38,000 were killed. Historian James McPherson
says: “Without their help, the North could not have won the war as soon as it did, and
perhaps it could not have won at all.” What happened to blacks in the Union army
and in the northern cities during the war gave some hint of how limited the emancipation
would be, even with full victory over the Confederacy. Off- duty black soldiers were
attacked in northern cities, as in Zanesville, Ohio, in February 1864, where cries were heard
to “kill the nigger.” Black soldiers were used for the heaviest and dirtiest work, digging
trenches, hauling logs and camion, loading ammunition, digging wells for white regiments.
White privates received $13 a month; Negro privates received $10 a month.
Late in the war, a black sergeant of the Third South Carolina Volunteers, William Walker,
marched his company to his captain’s tent and ordered them to stack arms and resign
from the army as a protest against what he considered a breach of contract, because of
unequal pay. He was court martialled and shot for mutiny. Finally, in June 1864, Congress
passed a law granting equal pay to Negro soldiers. The Confederacy was desperate in the latter
part of the war, and some of its leaders suggested the slaves, more and more an obstacle to their
cause, be enlisted, used, and freed. After a number of military defeats, the Confederate
secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, wrote in late 1864 to a newspaper editor in Charleston:
“. . . It is well known that General Lee, who commands so largely the confidence of
the people, is strongly in favour of our using the negroes for defence, and emancipating
them, if necessary, for that purpose.” One general, indignant, wrote: “If slaves will
make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
By early 1865, the pressure had mounted, and in March President Davis of the Confederacy
signed a “Negro Soldier Law” authorizing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers, to be freed
by consent of their owners and their state governments. But before it had any significant
effect, the war was over. Former slaves, interviewed by the Federal
Writers’ Project in the thirties, recalled the war’s end. Susie Melton:
I WAS A YOUNG GAL, ABOUT TEN YEARS OLD, AND WE DONE HEARD THAT LINCOLN GONNA TURN THE
NIGGERS FREE. OL’ MISSUS SAY THERE WASN’T NOTHIN’ TO IT. THEN A YANKEE SOLDIER TOLD
SOMEONE IN WILLIAMSBURG THAT LINCOLN DONE SIGNED THE ‘MANCIPATION. WAS WINTERTIME AND
MIGHTY COLD THAT NIGHT, BUT EVERYBODY COMMENCED GETTING READY TO LEAVE. DIDN’T CARE NOTHIN’
ABOUT MISSUS – WAS GOING TO THE UNION LINES. AND ALL THAT NIGHT THE NIGGERS DANCED AND
SANG RIGHT OUT IN THE COLD. NEXT MORNING AT DAY BREAK WE ALL STARTED OUT WITH BLANKETS
AND CLOTHES AND POTS AND PANS AND CHICKENS PILED ON OUR BACKS, ‘CAUSE MISSUS SAID WE
COULDN’T TAKE NO HORSES OR CARTS. AND AS THE SUN COME UP OVER THE TREES, THE NIGGERS STARTED
TO SINGING: Sun, you be here and I’ll be gone
Sun, you be here and I’ll be gone Sun, you be here and I’ll be gone
Bye, bye, don’t grieve after me Won’t give you my place, not for yours
Bye, bye, don’t grieve after me Cause you be here and I’ll be gone.
Anna Woods: WE WASN’T THERE IN TEXAS LONG WHEN THE SOLDIERS
MARCHED IN TO TELL US THAT WE WERE FREE. I REMEMBERS ONE WOMAN. SHE JUMPED ON A BARREL
AND SHE SHOUTED. SHE JUMPED OFF AND SHE SHOUTED. SHE JUMPED HACK ON AGAIN AND SHOUTED SOME
MORE. SHE KEPT THAT UP FOR A LONG TIME, JUST JUMPING ON A BARREL AND BACK OFF AGAIN.
Annie Mae Weathers said: I REMEMBER HEARING MY PA SAY THAT WHEN SOMEBODY
CAME AND HOLLERED, “YOU NIGGERS IS FREE AT LAST,” SAY HE JUST DROPPED HIS HOC AND SAID
IN A QUEER VOICE, “THANK GOD FOR THAT.” The Federal Writers’ Project recorded an ex-slave
named Fannie Berry: NIGGERS SHOUTIN’ AND CLAPPIN’ HANDS AND SINGIN’!
CHILLUN RUNNIN’ ALL OVER THE PLACE BEATIN’ TIME AND YELLIN’! EVERYBODY HAPPY. SHO’ DID
SOME CELEBRATIN’. RUN TO THE KITCHEN AND SHOUT IN THE WINDOW:
“MAMMY, DON’T YOU COOK NO MORE. YOU’S FREE! YOU’S FREE!”
Many Negroes understood that their status after the war, whatever their situation legally,
would depend on whether they owned the land they worked on or would be forced to be semislaves
for others. In 1863, a North Carolina Negro wrote that “if the strict law of right and
justice is to be observed, the country around me is the entailed inheritance of the Americans
of African descent, purchased by the invaluable labor of our ancestors, through a life of
tears and groans, under the lash and yoke of tyranny.”
Abandoned plantations, however, were leased to former planters, and to white men of the
North. As one colored newspaper said: “The slaves were made serfs and chained to the
soil. Such was the boasted freedom acquired by the colored man at the hands of the Yankee.”
Under congressional policy approved by Lincoln, the property confiscated during the war under
the Confiscation Act of July 1862 would revert to the heirs of the Confederate owners. Dr.
John Rock, a black physician in Boston, spoke at a meeting: “Why talk about compensating
masters? Compensate them for what? What do you owe them? What does the slave owe them?
What does society owe them? Compensate the master? It is the slave who ought to be compensated.
The property of the South is by right the property of the slave.”
Some land was expropriated on grounds the taxes were delinquent, and sold at auction.
But only a few blacks could afford to buy this. In the South Carolina Sea Islands, out
of 16,000 acres up for sale in March of 1863, freedmen who pooled their money were able
to buy 2,000 acres, the rest being bought by northern investors and speculators. A freedman
on the Islands dictated a letter to a former teacher now in Philadelphia:
MY DEAR YOUNG MISSUS: DO, MY MISSUS, TELL LINKUM DAT WE WANTS LAND – DIS BERY LAND DAT
IS RICH WID DE SWEAT OB DE FACE AND DE BLOOD OB WE BACK. WE COULD A BIN BUY ALL WE WANT,
BUT DEY MAKE DE LOTS TOO BIG, AND CUT WE OUT. DE WORD CUM FROM MASS LINKUM’S SELF, DAT WE
TAKE OUT CLAIMS AND HOLD ON TER UM, AN’ PLANT UM, AND HE WILL SEE DAT WE GET UM, EVERY MAN
TEN OR TWENTY ACRE. WE TOO GLAD. WE STAKE OUT AN’ LIST, BUT FORE DE TIME FOR PLANT,
DESE COMMISSIONARIES SELLS TO WHITE FOLKS ALL DE BEST LAND. WHERE LINKUM?
In early 1865, General William T. Sherman held a conference in Savannah, Georgia, with
twenty Negro ministers and church officials, mostly former slaves, at which one of them
expressed their need: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and
till it by our labor.” Four days later Sherman issued “Special Field Order No. 15,” designating
the entire southern coastline 30 miles inland for exclusive Negro settlement. Freedmen could
settle there, taking no more than 40 acres per family. By June 1865, forty thousand freedmen
had moved onto new farms in this area. But President Andrew Johnson, in August of 1865,
restored this land to the Confederate owners, and the freedmen were forced off, some at
bayonet point. Ex slave Thomas Hall told the Federal Writers’
Project: LINCOLN GOT THE PRAISE FOR FREEING US, BUT
DID HE DO IT? HE GAVE US FREEDOM WITHOUT GIVING US ANY CHANCE TO LIVE TO OURSELVES AND WE
STILL HAD TO DEPEND ON THE SOUTHERN WHITE MAN FOR WORK, FOOD, AND CLOTHING, AND HE HELD
US OUT OF NECESSITY AND WANT IN A STATE OF SERVITUDE BUT LITTLE BETTER THAN SLAVERY.
The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery,
but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources. Yet, victory required
a crusade, and the momentum of that crusade brought new forces into national politics:
more blacks determined to make their freedom mean something; more whites-whether Freedman’s
Bureau officials, or teachers in the Sea Islands, or “carpetbaggers” with various mixtures of
humanitarianism and personal ambition concerned with racial equality. There was also the powerful
interest of the Republican party in maintaining control over the national government, with
the prospect of southern black votes to accomplish this. Northern businessmen, seeing Republican
policies as beneficial to them, went along for a while.
The result was that brief period after the Civil War in which southern Negroes voted,
elected blacks to state legislatures and to Congress, introduced free and racially mixed
public education to the South. A legal framework was constructed. The Thirteenth Amendment
outlawed slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime
whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any
place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Fourteenth Amendment repudiated the pre-war
Dred Scott decision by declaring that “all persons born or naturalized in the United
States” were citizens. It also seemed to make a powerful statement for racial equality,
severely limiting “states’ rights”: NO STATE SHALL MAKE OR ENFORCE ANY LAW WHICH
SHALL ABRIDGE THE PRIVILEGES OR IMMUNITIES OF CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES; NOR SHALL
ANY STATE DEPRIVE ANY PERSON OF LIFE, LIBERTY, OR PROPERTY, WITHOUT DUE PROCESS OF LAW; NOR
DENY TO ANY PERSON WITHIN ITS JURISDICTION THE EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS.
The Fifteenth Amendment said: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall
not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude.” Congress passed a number of laws in the late
1860s and early 1870s in the same spirit-laws making it a crime to deprive Negroes of their
rights, requiring federal officials to enforce those rights, giving Negroes the right to
enter contracts and buy property without discrimination. And in 1875, a Civil Rights Act outlawed the
exclusion of Negroes from hotels, theatres, railroads, and other public accommodations.
With these laws, with the Union army in the South as protection, and a civilian army of
officials in the Freedman’s Bureau to help them, southern Negroes came forward, voted,
formed political organizations, and expressed themselves forcefully on issues important
to them. They were hampered in this for several years by Andrew Johnson, Vice-President under
Lincoln, who became President when Lincoln was assassinated at the close of the war.
Johnson vetoed bills to help Negroes; he made it easy for Confederate states to come back
into the Union without guaranteeing equal rights to blacks. During his presidency, these
returned southern states enacted “black codes,” which made the freed slaves like serfs, still
working the plantations. For instance, Mississippi in 1865 made it illegal for freedmen to rent
or lease farmland, and provided for them to work under labor contracts which they could
not break under penalty of prison. It also provided that the courts could assign black
children under eighteen who had no parents, or whose parents were poor, to forced labor,
called apprenticeships with punishment for runaways.
Andrew Johnson clashed with Senators and Congressmen who, in some cases for reasons of justice,
in others out of political calculation, supported equal rights and voting for the freedman.
These members of Congress succeeded in impeaching Johnson in 1868, using as an excuse that he
had violated some minor statute, but the Senate fell one vote short of the two thirds required
to remove him from office. In the presidential election of that year, Republican Ulysses
Grant was elected, winning by 300,000 votes, with 700,000 Negroes voting, and so Johnson
was out as an obstacle. Now the southern states could come back into the Union only by approving
the new Constitutional amendments. Whatever northern politicians were doing to
help their cause, southern blacks were determined to make the most of their freedom, in spite
of their lack of land and resources. A study of blacks in Alabama in the first years after
the war by historian Peter Kolchin finds that they began immediately asserting their independence
of whites, forming their own churches, becoming politically active, strengthening their family
ties, trying to educate their children. Kolchin disagrees with the contention of some historians
that slavery had created a “Sambo” mentality of submission among blacks. “As soon as they
were free, these supposedly dependent, childlike Negroes began acting like independent men
and women.” Negroes were now elected to southern state
legislatures, although in all these they were a minority except in the lower house of the
South Carolina legislature. A great propaganda campaign was undertaken North and South (one
which lasted well into the twentieth century, in the history textbooks of American schools)
to show that blacks were inept, lazy, corrupt, and ruinous to the governments of the South
when they were in office. Undoubtedly there was corruption, but one could hardly claim
that blacks had invented political conniving, especially in the bizarre climate of financial
finagling North and South after the Civil War.
It was true that the public debt of South Carolina, $7 million in 1865, went up to $29
million in 1873, but the new legislature introduced free public schools for the first time into
the state. Not only were seventy thousand Negro children going to school by 1876 where
none had gone before, but fifty thousand white children were going to school where only twenty
thousand had attended in 1860. Black voting in the period after 1869 resulted
in two Negro members of the U.S. Senate (Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both from Mississippi),
and twenty Congressmen, including eight from South Carolina, four from North Carolina,
three from Alabama, and one each from the other former Confederate states. (This list
would dwindle rapidly after 1876; the last black left Congress in 1901.)
A Columbia University scholar of the twentieth century, John Burgess, referred to Black Reconstruction
as follows: IN PLACE OF GOVERNMENT BY THE MOST INTELLIGENT
AND VIRTUOUS PART OF THE PEOPLE FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE GOVERNED, HERE WAS GOVERNMENT BY THE
MOST IGNORANT AND VICIOUS PART OF THE POPULATION. A BLACK SKIN MEANS MEMBERSHIP IN A RACE OF
MEN WHICH HAS NEVER OF ITSELF SUCCEEDED IN SUBJECTING PASSION TO REASON; HAS NEVER, THEREFORE,
CREATED CIVILIZATION OF ANY KIND. One has to measure against those words the
black leaders in the post war South. For instance, Henry MacNeal Turner, who had escaped from
peonage on a South Carolina plantation at the age of fifteen, taught himself to read
and write, read law books while a messenger in a lawyer’s office in Baltimore, and medical
books while a handyman in a Baltimore medical school, served as chaplain to a Negro regiment,
and then was elected to the first post war legislature of Georgia. In 1868, the Georgia
legislature voted to expel all its Negro members-two senators, twenty-five representatives- and
Turner spoke to the Georgia House of Representatives (a black woman graduate student at Atlanta
University later brought his speech to light): MR SPEAKER. I WISH THE MEMBERS OF THIS HOUSE
TO UNDERSTAND THE POSITION THAT I TAKE. I HOLD THAT I AM A MEMBER OF THIS BODY. THEREFORE,
SIR, I SHALL NEITHER FAWN OR CRINGE BEFORE ANY PARTY, NOR STOOP TO BEG THEM FOR MY RIGHTS.
I AM HERE TO DEMAND MY RIGHTS, AND TO HURL THUNDERBOLTS AT THE MEN WHO WOULD DARE TO
CROSS THE THRESHOLD OF MY MANHOOD. THE SCENE PRESENTED IN THIS HOUSE, TODAY,
IS ONE UNPARALLELED IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. NEVER, IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD,
HAS A MAN BEEN ARRAIGNED BEFORE A BODY CLOTHED WITH LEGISLATIVE, JUDICIAL OR EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS,
CHARGED WITH THE OFFENSE OF BEING OF A DARKER HUE THAN HIS FELLOWMEN IT HAS REMAINED FOR
THE STATE OF GEORGIA, IN THE VERY HEART OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, TO CALL A MAN BEFORE
THE BAR, AND THERE CHARGE HIM WITH AN ACT FOR WHICH HE IS NO MORE RESPONSIBLE THAN FOR
THE HEAD WHICH HE CARRIES UPON HIS SHOULDERS. THE ANGLO-SAXON RACE, SIR, IS A MOST SURPRISING
ONE. I WAS NOT AWARE THAT THERE WAS IN THE CHARACTER OF THAT RACE SO MUCH COWARDICE,
OR SO MUCH PUSILLANIMITY. I TELL YOU, SIR, THAT THIS IS A QUESTION WHICH WILL NOT DIE
TODAY. THIS EVENT SHALL BE REMEMBERED BY POSTERITY FOR AGES YET TO COME, AND WHILE THE SUN SHALL
CONTINUE TO CLIMB THE HILLS OF HEAVEN. WE ARE TOLD THAT IF BLACK MEN WANT TO SPEAK,
THEY MUST SPEAK THROUGH WHITE TRUMPETS; IF BLACK MEN WANT THEIR SENTIMENTS EXPRESSED,
THEY MUST BE ADULTERATED AND SENT THROUGH WHITE MESSENGERS, WHO WILL QUIBBLE, AND EQUIVOCATE,
AND EVADE, AS RAPIDLY AS THE PENDULUM OF A CLOCK.
THE GREAT QUESTION, SIR IS THIS: AM I A MAN? IF I AM SUCH, I CLAIM THE RIGHTS OF A MAN.
WHY, SIR, THOUGH WE ARE NOT WHITE, WE HAVE ACCOMPLISHED MUCH. WE HAVE PIONEERED CIVILIZATION
HERE; WE HAVE BUILT UP YOUR COUNTRY; WE HAVE WORKED IN YOUR FIELDS, AND GARNERED YOUR HARVESTS,
FOR TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS! AND WHAT DO WE ASK OF YOU IN RETURN? DO WE ASK YOU
FOR COMPENSATION FOR THE SWEAT OUR FATHERS BORE FOR YOU-FOR THE REARS YOU HAVE CAUSED,
AND THE HEARTS YOU HAVE BROKEN, AND THE LIVES YOU HAVE CURTAILED, AND THE BLOOD YOU HAVE
SPILLED? DO WE ASK RETALIATION? WE ASK IT NOT. WE ARE WILLING TO LET THE DEAD PAST BURY
ITS DEAD; BUT WE ASK YOU NOW FOR OUR RIGHTS. As black children went to school, they were
encouraged by teachers, black and white, to express themselves freely, sometimes in catechism
style. The records of a school in Louisville, Kentucky:
TEACHER: Now children, you don’t think white people are any better than you because they
have straight hair and white faces? STUDENTS: No, sir.
TEACHER: No, they are no better, but they are different, they possess great power, they
formed this great government, they control this vast country. Now what makes them different
from you? STUDENTS: Money!
TEACHER: Yes, but what enabled them to obtain it? How did they get money?
STUDENTS: Got it off us, stole it off we all! Black women helped rebuild the postwar South.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born free in Baltimore, self-supporting from the age of
thirteen, working as a nursemaid, later as an abolitionist lecturer, reader of her own
poetry, spoke all through the southern states after the war. She was a feminist, participant
in the 1866 Woman’s Rights Convention, and founder of the National Association of Colored
Women. In the 1890s she wrote the first novel published by a black woman: Iola Leroy or
Shadows Uplifted. In 1878 she described what she had seen and heard recently in the South:
AN ACQUAINTANCE OF MINE, WHO LIVES IN SOUTH CAROLINA, AND HAS BEEN ENGAGED IN MISSION
WORK, REPORTS THAT, IN SUPPORTING THE FAMILY, WOMEN ARE THE MAINSTAY; THAT TWO-THIRDS OF
THE TRUCK GARDENING IS DONE BY THEM IN SOUTH CAROLINA; THAT IN THE CITY THEY ARE MORE INDUSTRIOUS
THAN THE MEN, WHEN THE MEN LOSE THEIR WORK THROUGH THEIR POLITICAL AFFILIATIONS, THE
WOMEN STAND BY THEM, AND SAY, “STAND BY YOUR PRINCIPLES.”
Through all the struggles to gain equal rights for blacks, certain black women spoke out
on their special situation. Sojourner Truth, at a meeting of the American Equal Rights
Association, said: THERE IS A GREAT STIR ABOUT COLORED MEN GETTING
THEIR RIGHTS, BUT NOT A WORD ABOUT THE COLORED WOMEN; AND IF COLORED MEN GET THEIR RIGHTS,
AND NOT COLORED WOMEN THEIRS, YOU SEE THE COLORED MEN WILL BE MASTERS OVER THE WOMEN,
AND IT WILL BE JUST AS BAD AS IT WAS BEFORE. SO I AM FOR KEEPING THE THING GOING WHILE
THINGS ARE STIRRING; BECAUSE IF WE WAIT TILL IT IS STILL, IT WILL TAKE A GREAT WHILE TO
GET IT GOING AGAIN. I AM ABOVE EIGHTY YEARS OLD; IT IS ABOUT TIME
FOR ME TO BE GOING. I HAVE BEEN FORTY YEARS A SLAVE AND FORTY YEARS FREE, AND WOULD BE
HERE FORTY YEARS MORE TO HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL. I SUPPOSE I AM KEPT HERE BECAUSE
SOME-THING REMAINS FOR ME TO DO; I SUPPOSE I AM YET TO HELP BREAK THE CHAIN. I HAVE DONE
A GREAT DEAL OF WORK; AS MUCH AS A MAN, BUT DID NOT GET SO MUCH PAY. I USED TO WORK IN
THE FIELD AND BIND GRAIN, KEEPING WITH THE CRADLER; BUT MEN DOING NO MORE, GOT TWICE
AS MUCH PAY I SUPPOSE I AM ABOUT THE ONLY COLORED WOMAN THAT GOES ABOUT TO SPEAK FOR
THE RIGHTS OF THE COLORED WOMEN. I WANT TO KEEP THE THING STIRRING, NOW THAT THE ICE
IS CRACKED. The Constitutional amendments were passed,
the laws for racial equality were passed, and the black man began to vote and to hold
office. Cut so long as the Negro remained dependent on privileged whites for work, for
the necessities of life, his vote could be bought or taken away by threat of force. Thus,
laws calling for equal treatment became meaningless. While Union troops-including colored troops
remained in the South, this process was delayed. But the balance of military powers began to
change. The southern white oligarchy used its economic
power to organize the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. Northern politicians began
to weigh the advantage of the political support of impoverished blacks-maintained in voting
and office only by force-against the more stable situation of a South returned to white
supremacy, accepting Republican dominance and business legislation. It was only a matter
of time before blacks would be reduced once again to conditions not far from slavery.
Violence began almost immediately with the end of the war. In Memphis, Tennessee, in
May of 1866, whites on a rampage of murder killed forty-six Negroes, most of them veterans
of the Union army, as well as two white sympathizers. Five Negro women were raped. Ninety homes,
twelve schools, and four churches were burned. In New Orleans, in the summer of 1866, another
riot against blacks killed thirty-five Negroes and three whites.
Mrs. Sarah Song testified before a congressional investigating committee:
HAVE YOU BEEN A SLAVE? I HAVE BEEN A SLAVE. WHAT DID YOU SEE OF THE RIOTING? I SAW THEM KILL MY HUSBAND; IT WAS ON TUESDAY
NIGHT, BETWEEN TEN AND ELEVEN O’CLOCK; HE WAS SHOT IN THE HEAD WHILE HE WAS IN BED SICK.
THERE WERE BETWEEN TWENTY AND THIRTY MEN. THEY CAME INTO THE ROOM. THEN ONE STEPPED
BACK AND SHOT HIM HE WAS NOT A YARD FROM HIM; HE PUT THE PISTOL TO HIS HEAD AND SHOT HIM
THREE TIMES. THEN ONE OF THEM KICKED HIM, AND ANOTHER SHOT HIM AGAIN WHEN HE WAS DOWN.
HE NEVER SPOKE AFTER HE FELL. THEY THEN WENT RUNNING RIGHT OFF AND DID NOT COME BACK AGAIN.
The violence mounted through the late 1860s and early 1870s as the Ku Klux Klan organized
raids, lynching’s, beatings, burnings. For Kentucky alone, between 1867 and 1871, the
National Archives lists 116 acts of violence. A sampling:
1. A MOB VISITED HARRODSBURG IN MERCER COUNTY TO TAKE FROM JAIL A MAN NAME ROBERTSON NOV.
14, 1867. 5. SAM DAVIS HUNG BY A MOB IN HARRODSBURG,
MAY 28, 1868. 6. WM. PIERCE HUNG BY A MOB IN CHRISTIAN JULY
12, 1868. 7. GEO. ROGER HUNG BY A MOB IN BRADSFORDVILLE
MARTIN COUNTY JULY 11, 1868. 10. SILAS WOODFORD AGE SIXTY BADLY BEATEN
BY DISGUISED MOB. 109. NEGRO KILLED BY KU KLUX KLAN IN HAY COUNTY
JANUARY 14, 1871. A Negro blacksmith named Charles Caldwell,
born a slave, later elected to the Mississippi Senate, and known as “a notorious and turbulent
Negro” by whites, was shot at by the son of a white Mississippi judge in 1868. Caldwell
fired back and killed the man. Tried by an all-white jury, he argued self-defence and
was acquitted, the first Negro to kill a white in Mississippi and go free after a trial.
But on Christmas Day 1875, Caldwell was shot to death by a white gang. It was a sign. The
old white rulers were taking back political power in Mississippi, and everywhere else
in the South. As white violence rose in the 1870s, the national
government, even under President Grant, became less enthusiastic about defending blacks,
and certainly not prepared to arm them. The Supreme Court played its gyroscopic role of
pulling the other branches of government back to more conservative directions when they
went too far. It began interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment- passed presumably for racial equality-in
a way that made it impotent for this purpose. In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing
discrimination against Negroes using public facilities, was nullified by the Supreme Court,
which said: “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, it said, was aimed at state action only. “No state shall”
A remarkable dissent was written by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, himself a former
slave owner in Kentucky, who said there was Constitutional justification for banning private
discrimination. He noted that the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery, applied to
individual plantation owners, not just the state. He then argued that discrimination
was a badge of slavery and similarly outlaw able. He pointed also to the first clause
of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, and
to the clause in Article 4, Section 2, saying “the citizens of each State shall be entitled
to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”
Harlan was fighting a force greater than logic or justice; the mood of the Court reflected
a new coalition of northern industrialists and southern businessmen-planters. The culmination
of this mood came in the decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, when the Court ruled that
a railroad could segregate black and white if the segregated facilities were equal:
The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two
races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to
abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political
equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.
Harlan again dissented: “Our Constitution is color-blind.”
It was the year 1877 that spelled out clearly and dramatically what was happening. When
the year opened, the presidential election of the past November was in bitter dispute.
The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, had 184 votes and needed one more to be elected:
his popular vote was greater by 250,000. The Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, had
166 electoral votes. Three states not yet counted had a total of 19 electoral votes;
if Hayes could get all of those, he would have 185 and be President. This is what his
managers proceeded to arrange. They made concessions to the Democratic party and the white South,
including an agreement to remove Union troops from the South, the last military obstacle
to the reestablishment of white supremacy there.
Northern political and economic interests needed powerful allies and stability in the
face of national crisis. The country had been in economic depression since 1873, and by
1877 farmers and workers were beginning to rebel. As C. Vann Woodward puts it in his
history of the 1877 Compromise, Reunion and Reaction:
IT WAS A DEPRESSION YEAR, THE WORST YEAR OF THE
SEVEREST DEPRESSION YET EXPERIENCED. IN THE EAST LABOR AND THE UNEMPLOYED WERE IN A BITTER
AND VIOLENT TEMPER. OUT WEST A TIDE OF AGRARIAN RADICALISM WAS RISING. FROM BOTH EAST AND
WEST CAME THREATS AGAINST THE ELABORATE STRUCTURE OF PROTECTIVE TARIFFS, NATIONAL BANKS, RAILROAD
SUBSIDIES AND MONETARY ARRANGEMENTS UPON WHICH THE NEW ECONOMIC ORDER WAS FOUNDED.
It was a time for reconciliation between southern and northern elites. Woodward asks: “could
the South be induced to combine with the Northern conservatives and become a prop instead of
a menace to the new capitalist order?” With billions of dollars’ worth of slaves
gone, the wealth of the old South was wiped out. They now looked to the national government
for help: credit, subsidies, flood control projects. The United States in 1865 had spent
$103,294,501 on public works, but the South received only $9,469,363. For instance, while
Ohio got over a million dollars, Kentucky, her neighbor south of the river, got $25,000.
While Maine got $3 million, Mississippi got $136,000. While $83 million had been given
to subsidize the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, thus creating a transcontinental
railroad through the North, there was no such subsidy for the South. So one of the things
the South looked for was federal aid to the Texas and Pacific Railroad.
Woodward says: “By means of appropriations, subsidies, grants, and bonds such as Congress
had so lavishly showered upon capitalist enterprise in the North, the South might yet mend its
fortunes- or at any rate the fortunes of a privileged elite.” These privileges were sought
with the backing of poor white farmers, brought into the new alliance against blacks. The
farmers wanted railroads, harbor improvements, flood control, and, of course, land-not knowing
yet how these would be used not to help them but to exploit them.
For example, as the first act of the new North-South capitalist cooperation, the Southern Homestead
Act, which had reserved all federal lands-one-third of the area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida,
Louisiana, Mississippi-for farmers who would work the land, was repealed. This enabled
absentee speculators and lumbermen to move in and buy up much of this land.
And so the deal was made. The proper committee was set up by both houses of Congress to decide
where the electoral votes would go. The decision was: they belonged to Hayes, and he was now
President. As Woodward sums it up:
THE COMPROMISE OF 1877 DID NOT RESTORE THE OLD ORDER IN THE SOUTH. IT DID ASSURE THE
DOMINANT WHITES POLITICAL AUTONOMY AND NON-INTERVENTION IN MATTERS OF RACE POLICY AND PROMISED THEM
A SHARE IN THE BLESSINGS OF THE NEW ECONOMIC ORDER. IN RETURN, THE SOUTH BECAME, IN EFFECT,
A SATELLITE OF THE DOMINANT REGION. The importance of the new capitalism in overturning
what black power existed in the post war South is affirmed by Horace Mann Bond’s study of
Alabama Reconstruction, which shows, after 1868, “a struggle between different financiers.”
Yes, racism was a factor but “accumulations of capital, and the men who controlled them,
were as unaffected by attitudinal prejudices as it is possible to be. Without sentiment,
without emotion, those who sought profit from an exploitation of Alabama’s natural resources
turned other men’s prejudices and attitudes to their own account, and did so with skill
and a ruthless acumen.” It was an age of coal and power, and northern
Alabama had both. “The bankers in Philadelphia and New York, and even in London and Paris,
had known this for almost two decades. The only thing lacking was transportation.” And
so, in the mid-1870s, Bond notes, northern bankers began appearing in the directories
of southern railroad lines. J. P. Morgan appears by 1875 as director for several lines in Alabama
and Georgia. In the year 1886, Henry Grady, an editor of
the Atlanta Constitution, spoke at a dinner in New York. In the audience were J. P. Morgan,
H. M. Flagler (an associate of Rockefeller), Russell Sage, and Charles Tiffany. His talk
was called “The New South” and his theme was: Let bygones be bygones; let us have a new
era of peace and prosperity; the Negro was a prosperous labouring class; he had the fullest
protection of the laws and the friendship of the southern people. Grady joked about
the northerners who sold slaves to the South and said the South could now handle its own
race problem. He received a rising ovation, and the band played “Dixie.”
That same month, an article in the New York Daily Tribune:
THE LEADING COAL AND IRON MEN OF THE SOUTH, WHO HAVE BEEN IN THIS CITY DURING THE LAST
TEN DAYS, WILL GO HOME TO SPEND THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS, THOROUGHLY SATISFIED WITH THE BUSINESS
OF THE YEAR, AND MORE THAN HOPEFUL FOR THE FUTURE. AND THEY HAVE GOOD REASON TO BE. THE
TIME FOR WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR NEARLY TWENTY YEARS, WHEN NORTHERN CAPITALISTS
WOULD BE CONVINCED NOT ONLY OF THE SAFETY BUT OF THE IMMENSE PROFITS TO BE GAINED FROM
THE INVESTMENT OF THEIR MONEY IN DEVELOPING THE FABULOUSLY RICH COAL AND IRON RESOURCES
OF ALABAMA, TENNESSEE, AND GEORGIA, HAS COME AT LAST.
The North, it must be recalled, did not have to undergo a revolution in its thinking to
accept the subordination of the Negro. When the Civil War ended, nineteen of the twenty-four
northern states did not allow blacks to vote. By 1900, all the southern states, in new constitutions
and new statutes, had written into law the disfranchisement and segregation of Negroes,
and a New York Times editorial said: “Northern men no longer denounce the suppression of
the Negro vote. The necessity of it under the supreme law of self-preservation is candidly
recognized.” While not written into law in the North, the
counterpart in racist thought and practice was there. An item in the Boston Transcript,
September 25, 1895: A COLORED MAN WHO GIVES HIS NAME AS HENRY
W. TURNER WAS ARRESTED LAST NIGHT ON SUSPICION OF BEING A HIGHWAY ROBBER. HE WAS TAKEN THIS
MORNING TO BLACK’S STUDIO, WHERE HE HAD HIS PICTURE TAKEN FOR THE ”ROGUE’S GALLERY”.
THAT ANGERED HIM, AND HE MADE HIMSELF AS DISAGREEABLE AS HE POSSIBLY COULD. SEVERAL TIMES ALONG
THE WAY TO THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S HE RESISTED THE POLICE WITH ALL HIS MIGHT, AND HAD TO
BE CLUBBED. In the postwar literature, images of the Negro
came mostly from southern white writers like Thomas Nelson Page, who in his novel Red Rock
referred to a Negro character as “a hyena in a cage,” “a reptile,’ “a species of worm,”
“a wild beast.” And, interspersed with paternalistic urgings of friendship for the Negro, Joel
Chandler Harris, in his Uncle Remus stories, would have Uncle Remus say: “Put a spellin
book in a nigger’s han’s, en right den en dar’ you loozes a plowhand. I kin take a bar’l
stave an fling mo’ sense inter a nigger in one minnit dan all de schoolhouses betwixt
dis en de state er Midgigin.” In this atmosphere, it was no wonder that
those Negro leaders most accepted in white society, like the educator Booker T. Washington,
a one-time White House guest of Theodore Roosevelt, urged Negro political passivity. Invited by
the white organizers of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in
1895 to speak, Washington urged the southern Negro to “cast down your bucket where you
are”-that is, to stay in the South, to be farmers, mechanics, domestics, perhaps even
to attain to the professions. He urged white employers to hire Negroes rather than immigrants
of “strange tongue and habits.” Negroes, “without strikes and labor wars,” were the “most patient,
faithful, law-abiding and unresentful people that the world has seen.” He said: “The wisest
among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist
folly.” Perhaps Washington saw this as a necessary
tactic of survival in a time of hangings and burnings of Negroes throughout the South,
It was a low point for black people in America. Thomas Fortune, a young black editor of the
New York Globe, testified before a Senate committee in 1883 about the situation of the
Negro in the United States. He spoke of “widespread poverty,” of government betrayal, of desperate
Negro attempts to educate themselves. The average wage of Negro farm laborers in
the South was about fifty cents a day, Fortune said. He was usually paid in “orders,” not
money, which he could use only at a store controlled by the planter, “a system of fraud.”
The Negro farmer, to get the wherewithal to plant his crop, had to promise it to the store,
and when everything was added up at the end of the year he was in debt, so his crop was
constantly owed to someone, and he was tied to the land, with the records kept by the
planter and storekeeper so that the Negroes “are swindled and kept forever in debt.” As
for supposed laziness, “I am surprised that a larger number of them do not go to fishing,
hunting, and loafing.” Fortune spoke of “the penitentiary system
of the South, with its infamous chain-gang the object being to terrorize the blacks and
furnish victims for contractors, who purchase the labor of these wretches from the State
for a song. The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals
a hog is sent to the chaingang for ten years.” Many Negroes fled. About six thousand black
people left Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and migrated to Kansas to escape violence
and poverty. Frederick Douglass and some other leaders thought this was a wrong tactic, but
migrants rejected such advice. “We have found no leader to trust but God overhead of us,”
one said. Henry Adams, another black migrant, illiterate, a veteran of the Union army, told
a Senate committee in 1880 why he left Shreveport, Louisiana: “We seed that the whole South – every
state in the South had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves.”
Even in the worst periods, southern Negroes continued to meet, to organize in self-defense.
Herbert Aptheker reprints thirteen documents of meetings, petitions, and appeals of Negroes
in the 1880s in Baltimore, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas,
Kansas, showing the spirit of defiance and resistance of blacks all over the South. This,
in the face of over a hundred lynchings a year by this time.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of this situation, there were black leaders who thought
Booker T. Washington wrong in advocating caution and moderation. John Hope, a young black man
in Georgia, who heard Washington’s Cotton Exposition speech, told students at a Negro
college in Nashville, Tennessee: IF WE ARE NOT STRIVING FOR EQUALITY, IN HEAVEN’S
NAME FOR WHAT ARE WE LIVING? I REGARD IT AS COWARDLY AND DISHONEST FOR ANY OF OUR COLORED
MEN TO TELL WHITE PEOPLE OR COLORED PEOPLE THAT WE ARE NOT STRUGGLING FOR EQUALITY. YES,
MY FRIENDS, I WANT EQUALITY. NOTHING LESS. NOW CATCH YOUR BREATH, FOR I AM GOING TO USE
AN ADJECTIVE: I AM GOING TO SAY WE DEMAND SOCIAL EQUALITY. I AM NO WILD BEAST, NOR AM
I AN UNCLEAN THING. RISE, BROTHERS! COME LET US POSSESS THIS LAND.
BE DISCONTENTED. BE DISSATISFIED. BE AS RESTLESS AS THE TEMPESTUOUS BILLOWS ON THE BOUNDLESS
SEA. LET YOUR DISCONTENT BREAK MOUNTAIN-HIGH AGAINST THE WALL OF PREJUDICE, AND SWAMP IT
TO THE VERY FOUNDATION. Another black man, who came to teach at Atlanta
University, W. E. B. Du Bois, saw the late- nineteenth-century betrayal of the Negro as
part of a larger happening in the United States, something happening not only to poor blacks
but to poor whites. In his book Black Reconstruction, written in 1935, he said:
GOD WEPT; BUT THAT MATTERED LITTLE TO AN UNBELIEVING AGE; WHAT MATTERED MOST WAS THAT THE WORLD
WEPT AND STILL IS WEEPING AND BLIND WITH TEARS AND BLOOD. FOR THERE BEGAN TO RISE IN AMERICA
IN 1876 A NEW CAPITALISM AND A NEW ENSLAVEMENT OF LABOR.
Du Bois saw this new capitalism as part of a process of exploitation and bribery taking
place in all the “civilized” countries of the world:
HOME LABOR IN CULTURED LANDS, APPEASED AND MISLED BY A BALLOT WHOSE POWER THE DICTATORSHIP
OF VAST CAPITAL STRICTLY CURTAILED, WAS BRIBED BY HIGH WAGE AND POLITICAL OFFICE TO UNITE
IN AN EXPLOITATION OF WHITE, YELLOW, BROWN AND BLACK LABOR, IN LESSER LANDS.
Was Du Bois right that in that growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War,
whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?

6 thoughts on “ch 9) Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom

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