A letter from a Southerner to his free-state friend.
Editor’s Note: together the missive below that is extracted from his forthcoming book Teaches Us to Hope Southerners regarded as essential their “Peculiar Institution” of keeping people of African descent as slaves. While the letter written from one college chum to another is imaginary, the arguments therein are not. Roland gleaned them from thousands of actual letters and diary entries of the time. staff. But at one time, millions of Americans did believe slavery should be maintained. If that makes you uncomfortable, then good. Sometimes history should make us uncomfortable. That’s how we avoid the past’s mistakes and move forward.
Live Oaks Plantation on Bayou Lafourche
Post Office: Napoleonville, Louisiana
January 20, 1861
To: Mr. Frederick T. Darcy
Postal Box 10, Freeport, Illinois
I take pen in hand to respond to your kind letter of the fourth instant. I fully share your expressed views as to the deplorable and tragic condition in which our beloved nation now finds itself. I fully share your expressed views also that this condition has been brought about by the work of dangerous fanatics both in the North and in the South. Would that all the Southern fire-eaters and Northern abolitionists be hurled together into Satan’s flaming pit of perdition. What the end holds in store for all of us can only be surmised with fear and trembling.
You ask me for a complete statement of my attitude toward the institution of slavery and toward the ominous secession movements now transpiring in the South; you say such a statement may be useful in your conversations with your friends and associates. I shall attempt to summarize my feelings.
To begin, I would remind you of what you already know: that slavery has been a part of the American scene almost from the very beginning of European settlement on this continent. In the year 1619, little more than a decade after the founding of Jamestown in the Virginia colony, a few Africans were sold to the settlers from a Dutch ship that dropped anchor in the harbor. Strictly speaking, these Africans were not then slaves, for the English laws of the colony did not recognize such a condition. They were indentured servants, and they worked in the fields along with the many white indentured servants being sent from England.
This system was soon transformed into slavery. The Africans were found to be ideally suited to Virginia and the other Southern colonies. They seemed to have been formed by God or by nature for working in the heat of the Southern climate. I suggest by God because there has been a persistent belief both in Judaism and in Christianity that the colored people of Africa are the offspring of Ham, the errant son of Noah, whose progeny was cursed by the Almighty for looking on his father’s nakedness on an occasion when Noah was overcome with wine; it is alleged that Ham’s descendants were anathematized both with blackness and with servitude. I suggest the Africans were suited to Southern needs by nature in line with the teachings of the great European scientists such as Buffon, Humboldt, Agassiz and Darwin that the different races of man have been adapted to the variations of the environment.
As time elapsed, more and more Africans were imported into the South, and their numbers grew rapidly through a high birth rate. This proved to be of financial benefit to the landowners; large holdings, plantations, began to develop out of African labor and the growing of tobacco, and later of rice, sugar and cotton.
By the 1660s, statutes recognizing the institution of slavery by name were enacted in the colonies. In time these laws developed into the systematic slave codes that are in place today. As you are aware, a similar situation occurred in the English settlements in New England and in other places north of Virginia, so that by the end of the colonial period, slavery, sanctioned by law, was being practiced in all thirteen of the English colonies that gained their independence to become the United States of America.
In the Northern states, the institution established only shallow roots. It was not an important support of the economy; the number of slaves was small, and their presence was deeply resented by the more numerous non-slaveowning white workers—so much so that the famed founding father John Adams of Massachusetts said that the whites of his state would have eradicated it by exterminating the slaves if the courts had not freed them. Certainly, this is not a compassionate solution to the problem.
Southern slavery received an immense stimulus from the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, a device that led to the spread of the cotton culture across the entire Southern region of the nation, including the area beyond the Mississippi River as far as and throughout the eastern portion of Texas. Though significant amounts of other plantation crops are grown in this region (among the more prominent being tobacco, rice and sugar), so dominant is the cotton interest today that the South is often called “the Cotton Kingdom.” African slavery is the primary labor force for the production of all of the plantation crops.
The number of slaves has continued to increase accordingly. Today there are approximately four million African slaves in the 15 states where slavery is legal. Slaves constitute about one-fourth of the entire population of the region. But the density of their numbers increases to the south. In some of the states of the Deep South, their numbers equal or exceed those of the whites; in South Carolina, for example, they make up some two-thirds of the total population.
These figures demonstrate clearly the vast dependence of the South on slave labor. The abolition of slavery would strike a devastating blow to the plantation system and the general economy of the region. Nor is this the whole picture. The economy of much of the world outside the South would be seriously impaired also. It is common knowledge that most of the slave ships of the colonial period were of Northern registry, adding significantly to Northern wealth. I understand that at least some of the affluence of the more prominent Northern families today is from this source.
You understandably pose the questions: What is the attitude toward slavery of the non-slaveowning portion of the Southern white population? Would they fight to perpetuate it?
My answer is three-fold: First, I need to make clear that the great majority of the white population of the South are independent farmers who possess and work their own land. The more energetic and ambitious among them aspire to become slaveowners and planters, just as the more energetic and ambitious workers in the North aspire to become either land or mill owners.
Second, the white independent farmers of the South, and the considerable number of herdsmen who graze and forage their herds of cattle and swine on the public lands, as well as another considerable number of Southerners who live a more or less frontier mode of life by residing in the back country and hunting and fishing largely for a livelihood, feel no direct competition from slave labor. In most instances, the white workers in the few cities are able—by violence if necessary, if not by local ordinances—to prevent slaves from competing for their jobs. I understand that the colored workers in the North experience similar treatment. Thus a great majority of non-slaveowning whites do not feel threatened or disadvantaged by slavery.
My third point in explaining the attitude of all Southern whites toward the institution is more subtle than the others, but no less powerful. Indeed, it may be the most critical of all. Slavery provides white society with a means, the most convenient and possibly the only available means, of policing and controlling the vast African population in our midst. This is no idle matter. We are convinced that the majority of slaves are incapable of sustaining a civilization comparable to the white man’s civilization, and that the abolition of slavery would plunge us into African barbarism and racial violence.
Obviously, white Americans generally agree with us on this point. Even if this view is not always explicitly set forth outside the South, it is implicit in your laws refusing citizenship to colored persons, denying them the privilege of voting or holding office, barring their children from your common schools, and prohibiting any additional of them to settle in your states. It has not escaped our notice that President-elect Abraham Lincoln has supported the racially restrictive policies of his and your own state of Illinois and has declared repeatedly that he believes that the Federal territories in the West ought to be reserved for free, white settlers only. He also is known to favor returning the colored people to Africa or colonizing them in some other location outside the United States, a solution that Benjamin Franklin advocated earlier.
It follows from these observations that slavery is unshakably sanctioned by all classes of Southern white society. Ironically, there is reason to believe that it is also sanctioned by a majority of the more than 300,000 free persons of color of the South, and by the thousands of colored slaveowners of the region. I am free to admit, however, that this statement about the attitude of the latter two classes is speculative on my part.
Finally, would the non-slaveowning whites fight to preserve slavery? I believe without a doubt that they would do so, and most fiercely.
You say you would like a statement from me concerning the treatment and living and working conditions of the slaves. I am pleased to comply. What I am about to say on this matter applies not only to me but to all of my friends and neighbors among the planters, and many, if not most, of my other acquaintances who own servants. We learned long ago that it was to our material advantage, as well as to that of our peace of mind and the salvation of our immortal souls, to treat our people humanely and provide adequately for their well-being.
This attitude is summed up in such of our sayings as, “A happy servant is a good servant,” or “The best way to ensure that your servants will work diligently is to supply them with plenty of pork.” It is universally known among us that the colored people have an immense preference for this form of meat. In fact, a number of servants whose owners relocated from Louisiana to Texas have run away and returned to Louisiana. When apprehended and asked the reason for their conduct, they replied, “Too much beef out there; not enough pork.”
In addition to the regular allotments of meat, cornmeal and molasses, I assign to each of the servant families a plot of ground to be used as a garden for the growing of fruits and vegetables. I also permit my people to obtain money of their own by the sale of firewood to the passing steamboats and the sale of fruits, vegetables, game, firewood and Spanish moss to the residents of Napoleonville here on the bayou who use the moss to stuff their mattresses and furniture. I regret to say that the servants too often squander their money on trinkets sold to them at outrageous prices by the Yankee peddlers who infest the region.
We house our servants in comfortable quarters and clothe them in wear that is suitable to our climate, though doubtless you would retort that no housing or clothing on earth is suitable to a climate that combines a temperature of 100 degrees with comparable humidity. I provide a plantation infirmary and engage the services of a qualified physician for my servants. Many of my acquaintances do the same. I would challenge anyone interested in the institution to visit my plantation and compare the living arrangements of my people with those of common laborers in your mills and mines or in construction camps for the building of your railroads. You have been a guest here, and you are aware of the conditions of which I speak.
I protect my servants from the more grueling and hazardous labor of clearing the swamps and digging the canals on the back side of my land. For these purposes I hire Irish immigrants who demand but a pittance of money or spirits for their labor and who cost me nothing if they are killed or maimed. It would be imprudent of me in the extreme to expose my $1,800 prime field hands to such risks when I can get the work done so inexpensively by others. I may be charged with a lack of concern for the immigrants, but I feel I must yield to practicality in this matter. I have observed that a similar attitude prevails in the North regarding the immigrants, especially the Irish. Of course, I am addressing in this letter only the one issue of slavery, not that of immigrant laborers.
I would remind critics of slavery that the last Federal census indicates that our servants enjoy longer life expectancy than do your working classes, especially the free persons of color and immigrants among them. I would point out the report of English geologist Sir Charles Lyell, an opponent of slavery and an advocate of emancipation, after his journey throughout the South. He said he found the servants very cheerful and free of care, better fed than a large part of the laboring class of Europe, and although cheaply dressed, and often in patched garments, never scantily clothed for the climate.
He says that a colored woman, upon being asked whether she belonged to a certain family, replied merrily, “Yes, I belong to them and they belong to me.” Mr. Lyell further reported that for days he was accompanied about the plantations by colored guides whom he found to be as talkative and chatty as children, usually, he said, boasting of their master’s wealth, and of their own peculiar virtues.
Foreign observers in the North substantiate such comparisons. They report that in New England textile mills operatives work from daylight till dark six days a week for $1.50 a week plus board. One proprietor explained, “So long as they can do my work for what I choose to pay them, I keep them, getting out of them all I can.” Those who are unable or unwilling to meet his demands are discharged and replaced with workers who can and will do so. I understand the names of laborers who are dismissed are placed on a “black list” that warns other proprietors not to give them employment.
What are the living quarters of these wage laborers like? Here are the words of an observer in Boston: “The whole district [of cotton mill workers] is a perfect hive of human beings without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases huddled together without regard to sex, age, or a sense of decency.” In New York City, laborers live as many as twenty to a room. Neither my desire for productivity nor my conscience would allow me to treat my servants so basely.
There is another aspect of our treatment of the servants that we believe distinguishes it from your treatment of wage laborers. We continue to support the servants at times when they are too ill to work or after they have grown too old for it. I maintain on my place a number of such servants, as do other proprietors of my acquaintance.
Nor do we neglect the spiritual wellbeing of our people. You are aware of the chapel I have constructed for the servants on my place; you have been present during some of their services. You know that, as a dedicated Episcopalian, I require them to follow the dictates of my faith. You know that I have the servants catechized according to the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones’ oral catechism for servants, and that I bring in a fervent and eloquent pastor to deliver sermons to them.
I demand that my servants enter wedlock in their relationships between the sexes, and to abstain from promiscuity. Servant marriages are conducted properly; I do not accept the practice of “jumping the broom handle” that occurs among the servants on some of the places. When the pastor is not available, I conduct the wedding service myself, according to the Episcopal form, of course. I should be less than candid were I not to admit that abuses against servants do occur. Not all owners are conscientious in their treatment of them. Some owners violate the chastity of the colored women. Some inflict unreasonable punishment on their people. This is not to be considered a general condemnation by me of corporal punishment. As already seen, I at times have my overseers administer physical chastisement; I know of no other way to deter petty crimes and misdemeanors or malingering by some of the servants.
The abolitionist bigots accuse us of using the whip to coerce our servants to toil in the fields. This is a gross libel. Permit me to point out that whipping for just purposes has traditionally been inflicted throughout the nation on recalcitrant white indentured servants, soldiers, school pupils even into adulthood, ordinary citizens convicted of certain offenses, and, of course, prison inmates.
It is a lamentable fact that many serious abuses of the colored people are perpetrated by the non-slaveowners, especially by the poorer and less-educated elements among them. A few evenings back, I discovered in town three of my neighbor’s servants who had been put upon and savagely beaten by a group of poor whites who were probably intoxicated; the servants’ clothes had been torn from them and they were terribly lacerated and swollen from the beating. It was a brutal affair. I am convinced that the institution of slavery as a rule protects the servants from such treatment because, if only out of interest in preserving their property, if not out of conscience, the owners do all in their power to prevent it.
You inquire my views on the very principle of slavery. To this, I freely state that I dis- agree with what seems to have become a popular belief among a significant portion of the Southern people: that is, that slavery is a positive good for a society. I know that many of my acquaintances support me in my agreement with such fathers of the Republic as Washington, Jefferson and Mason, who looked upon the institution as an evil. I am told also that Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia has said the same about it. I also agree with something else Colonel Lee is said to have said about slavery, that the white people of the South are the greater victims of it, because the slaves here are immeasurably better off than their kinsmen in Africa.
But we are not dealing today with an abstract principle. We are dealing instead with a very real and difficult situation. Almost from the beginning of the nation’s history, the presence of slavery provoked sectional controversy, especially when the question of its spreading into newly acquired territories arose. These controversies were defused temporarily by political compromise, particularly the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which divided the vast area of the Louisiana Purchase into slave and free territories, and the Compromise of 1850, which made a comparable arrangement regarding slavery for the lands acquired from Mexico in the late war.
These historic agreements were nullified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which opened the Northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, which declared acts of Congress limiting slavery in any Federal territory to be unconstitutional. Legal as the Southern people believe these de – velopments were, they have led directly to the present crisis.
I have already discussed the essential im portance of slavery to the Southern economy and social tranquillity of today. There appears to be no way, short of bloodshed, of eliminating it. The Southern fire-eaters and the Northern abolitionists have brought the situation to that dire point.
As to my own present position on secession, I have strenuously opposed any move in that direction by Louisiana. My opposition to secession at this time does not alter the view that I have expressed to you in the past, which is that a state or group of states have the right to secede at any time if a majority of the people in that state or group of states have the desire and the ability to do so. Nobody has stated that principle more eloquently than did Mr. Lincoln some years back when he was a member of the United States Congress. He considered the principle to be universal, said it was a “most sa – cred right,” one that would ultimately bring freedom to the entire world. My objection to secession at the moment is that it is not the wisest or most expedient option for the South.
I, too, believe as you do, that a majority of the citizens of the entire nation are unionist and moderate in their views toward slavery. I am aware that Senator Douglas is a man who is sympathetic to the Southern attitude in this matter, and that President-elect Lincoln has pledged to make no move against the institution in the states where it is already established. You say also that the rank and file of both Democrats and Republicans of your acquaintance are not abolitionists; that they support Lincoln’s position.
But I fear secession is now inevitable. The election of Mr. Lincoln, a Republican whose platform supports Northern interests only, declares that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature nor any other power (meaning the Supreme Court) possess the right to legitimize slavery in a Federal territory; and, following his election, the Republican rejection of all efforts of the U.S. Senate to effect a new political compromise: These events have cut the ground from under the unionists of Louisiana and other southern states.
Rejection of the Senate’s Crittenden compromise proposal, which would have divided the territories permanently into slave and free areas, is viewed here as a confirmation of the accusation that the Republicans en dorse the expressed attitude of Senator William H. Seward of New York. You are, of course, familiar with Seward’s declarations that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between the interests of slavery and those of freedom, and that the issue of slavery in the federal territories must be decided by a “higher law” than the Constitution of the United States.
It is also generally believed here, as I understand it is in the North, that Seward will be the power behind the throne, the real president, in a Lincoln administration. It is feared that the recent effort of the incendiary John Brown to incite a slave insurrection is but a sample of what lies in store for the South as a result of Seward’s outlook. As I have informed you previously, every expression of veneration or sympathy for Brown has increased the conviction of Southerners that the notion of an irrepressible conflict threatens the destruction of the South. I regret that Mr. Lincoln has refused to explain his own position more fully to the Southern people, to repudiate the accusation that his views are identical to Seward’s, saying that evil men would only misconstrue his words.
What makes the collapse of the compromise efforts the more tragic, in my opinion, is my conviction that two of the great statesmen of late, Mr. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Mr. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, were correct in saying that there is no real threat of slavery expanding into the western territories; that it has already reached its geographic limits. I recall vividly the words of Mr. Webster, a lifelong opponent of slavery, in opposing a congressional prohibition of the institution in the lands obtained from Mexico. He said, “I would not take pains uselessly to re-enact the will of God.”
The editorials of the newspaper the formerly anti-secessionist and, in the recent presiden- New Orleans Bee, tial election, supportive of Senator Douglas, reveal the ominous shift in the Southern attitude. Shortly before the election the Bee wrote a ringing unionist article, saying: “Whether the Presidential election terminates in the choice of Bell, or Douglas, or Lincoln or Breckinridge; whether the next Congress is Black Republican or Conservative; whether Seward counsels irrepressible conflict, or Robert Barnwell Rhett [the great South Carolina fire-eater] strives to muster an armed force to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration; whether John Brown is canonized in New England, or solemn Sanhedrins of Secessionists devote the Union to the infernal Gods, the real Union men [in the South] have not the slightest idea of breaking up the [nation].”
But immediately after the announcement of the collapse of the compromise, the Bee wrote: “The North and South are heterogeneous and are better apart….We are doomed if we proclaim not our political independence.” Though I continue to hope for an amicable settlement of the issue, I now hope against hope. The die seems fatally cast.
On a more pleasant theme, I take this occasion to express again my profound nostalgia for our carefree days together in Princeton.
With sincere wishes for your continued health, prosperity and happiness, I am yr. obt. servant,
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.