A modern person finds the mind of a Southern slaveholder almost impossible to understand. A slaveholder held dear beliefs that are incomprehensible. I, personally, became interested in penetrating the mind of the slaveholder when I became aware of my own family's history: A g-g-great grandfather whose only slaveholding came when he inherited 1/3 interest in a woman & two toddlers; g-g-grandmother who owned 14 slaves in 1860, North Carolina relation who was an elite level slaveholder & one of the Immortal 600; slaveholding being what it was, no doubt some of the 60% of slaves in the Rockingham NC area who had self-liberated by 1865 were blood relations, as well. That about put me into every slaveholding category but directly from Africa.
The more I studied what slaveholder's wrote, the more I realized that there was no way I was ever going to really understand where they were coming from. The only thing to do was to let them speak for themselves & take them at their word.
Slavery is Our King; Slavery is Our Truth; Slavery is Our Divine Right!
Isaac Franklin & some of the Upper South slaves he brought to his slave jail, in the background, in order to break their spirit before shipping them to his Angola Plantation in Louisiana. The building still exists. The N.P.S. preserves it & Franklin's business papers are in the National Archive.
William Campbell Preston was one of the premier advocates for slavery. His speeches were stocked full of catchy phrases like "Slavery is our King; Slavery is Our Truth; Slavery is our Divine Right!" If I were to paste the entire text of one of his speeches onto this post, it would crash them server. What matters here is that Preston believed every single word of it. He absolutely believed that God in heaven had brought black people onto this earth to serve white people. As a white man, it was Preston's duty to enslave those black people in order to nurture & protect them because they were incapable of doing so on their own.
Belmont Mansion in Nashville, paid for with the proceeds of Isaac Franklin's slave trading fortune is a summer house, built for entertaining. It has been restored & is open for tours on the Belmont University campus.
James Henry Hammond would have been a very interesting man to share a porch & icy julep with on a breezy afternoon. Before the Civil War, his influential writings appeared in news papers all over the South. His erudite pronouncements were fueled by an excellent education. As an advocate for slaveholding, he was about as good as it got.
Hammond was exactly the kind of patriarchal overlord living surrounded by the half cast offspring of himself & his male relatives that Mary Chestnut could not stand. Exhibit 'A' was a woman named Sally Johnson.
Hammond fathered several daughters by Sally Johnson. His eldest son also fathered children by both her & his half sisters. Managing this somewhat complex issue brought about by owning your own (this is like the country song, 'I am my own grandpa!') patchwork of relations was addressed by Hammond in a letter to his eldest son.
"...(Slaves of) may own blood (should be owned by none) but my own blood... slavery in the family will be their happiest earthly condition."
I have attenuated Hammond's statement above for the sake of brevity. His declaration of why "...there were so very few mulattos on Southern Plantations..." as proof of the slaveholder's moral superiority is too cynical for me to cite. However, Hammond's declaration of why Southern slaveholding was God's own plan is a bit easier to swallow.
"In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a lower order of intellect & but little skill. It's requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization & refinement."
"Fortunately for the South, she found a race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in docility in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.'
I think that about sums up the mindset of a slaveholder about as well as it can be stated. Hammond talked the talk & walked the walk. You have to admire him for that even though you probably want to dig him up & crush his bones. Perhaps it is time to turn to religion, perhaps not. There is not a single verse in the Bible that prohibits or denounces slavery as a moral wrong. Quite the contrary, very practical advice on how & when to sell surplus daughters is one of the highlights.
Surely the Lord of Hosts is with us!
Isaac Franklin made his first fortune buying surplus labor in the tidewater $ marching them overland & down the Natchez Trace for up to six months. At the Forks In the Road market in Mississippi he would pocket a substantial profit. Especially valuable were young women. At every stop on the way, Franklin had sex with one or another of the women & girls. We know this because in his correspondence he used a coded system that ranked each according to her performance. This attention to detail made him one of the richest men in America when he retired.
Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot:
"...slavery, as we hold it here (is) a scared trust form God. The South's secession in the cause of slavery (means) Surely, the Lord of Hosts is with us!"
A certain amount of ambiguity is evident in the remarks made by Rev. Charles Jones to the "Leaders of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy" in 1861:
"... no laboring class in any country has remained throughout its existence more quiet, obedient & peacefully associated with their superiors than our (slave) population."
"I appeal (for) such military force... as will be sufficient to keep our colored population under supervision & control (attempts) to abandon the plantation & escape to the enemy."
The hard fact was that being murdered in their beds was the last thing many slaveholders thought about before they went to sleep. Publicly, pronouncements regarding the docility & loyalty of the servile population were everywhere. In private, Jefferson Davis feared that the size of the armed force necessary to keep the slaves in order would be immense" & "...deplete the resources of the country." His office received a stream of petitions to exempt slaveholders from military service. They were accompanied for requests for "good n--ger dogs" trained to keep slaves "in order."
Slaveholders really believed that the non slaveholding population agreed fully with their aggrandized self image. J.D.B. DeBow sums up what slaveholders expected of their neighbors.
"... the Interest of the poorest no-slaveholder among us is to make common cause with, & to die in the last trenches, in defense of the slave property of his more fortunate neighbor."
I suppose DeBow was a bit like the owner of a fancy car that expects passersby will fight off thieves when the alarm sounds. It did not take long for reality to set in. Edmond Ruffin, the lifelong apostle of the doctrine of servile contentment expressed his disillusionment in a frank & heartbroken manner.
"I had before believed in the general prevalence of much attachment & fidelity of (black) slaves for the families of their masters & especially in the more usual circumstances of careful & kind treatment of the slaves. Though some few cases of great attachment & fidelity have ben exhibited, there have been many more of signal ingratitude & treachery of slaves of the most considerate kind of masters---& the far greater number have shown indifference & entire disregard of all such supposes ties of attachment & loyalty."
The slaveholder as victim that permeates post war fiction has its genesis in the genuine hurt feelings inflicted by self-liberating slaves. They really, really believed that slaves loved them & were grateful for their treatment. A shock almost as great was the wholesale abandonment of the slaveholder's cause by their "less fortunate neighbors." In 1864, Jefferson Davis addressed the issue of the less fortunate when he stated:
"2/3 rds of our men are absent, most without leave."
There is something perversely intimate about this wood block etching. The prospective buyer, just like a modern person looking at a used car, is checking this man out. The illustrater who made the drawing the etching was based on would have witnessed the slave auction with an artist's eye. He also censored what he put in the finished work. The slave on sale would have been told to strip. Just like a used car, the buyer would have wanted to see the whip marks. Like an odometer, the marks would show how many times he had been punished. He would in effect open the hood by forcing open his mouth to check out his teeth. If the buyer likes what he seees, the equivalent of the cost of a car would change hands, papers would be signed & the key to the leg irons handed over.
Bottom Rail On Top!
Then, the long nightmare was over. "Bottom rail on top, now massa!" became the new reality. The God ordained order represented in the image above was now nothing but a distant memory. What were the slaveholders to do? How were they going to reconcile the new reality with what they knew was their disgusting, degraded & profoundly immoral past? We all know the answer to that, don't we?
Confronted with the awful truth that slaveholders had gone to war to secure their right to buy & sell other people, only to kill 750,000 soldiers, uncounted civilians & destroy their own culture, they did what all good Southern Storytellers do. The solution was obvious, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The happy fun loving slaves in Shirley Temple movies, deliberate disinformation published by social organizations, rewriting of history in the Lost Cause & a general amnesia of what had really gone on during slaveholding became the accepted reality. In Tennessee, a group of scholars at Vanderbilt & the University of the South deliberately set out to erase any contributions by black people to their own liberation. In a show of reconciliation, the service records of Civil War soldiers, Union & Confederate were brought to the Tennessee State Library & Archives. Well, almost all the service records were made available. The records of the United States Colored Troops were explicitly & deliberately not included.
So, what do I make of my family's participation in all this? How do I explain to my granddaughters & great-grandchildren why my ancestors believed & acted the way they did? How can I explain to them that there are still people who repeat discredited tropes about the Civil War? The only thing I know to do is to take my own oft given advice:
Do your homework, learn everything you can. Then you can simply tell the truth as best you know it. Nobody can ask for more than that.