Friday, May 05, 2023

Specters of Slavery's Past

By Douglas V. Gibbs
Author, Speaker, Instructor, Radio Host

Mary Boykin Chesnut, the wife of a slave owner by the name of James Chesnut, Jr., who was a United States Senator before the War Between the States, and Aide to President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army during the war, wrote a diary dated from Abraham Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 to the end of the war in 1865 of which the pages have been preserved and published.

The diary by Mary Chesnut is a view into the world of slavery we seldom receive in such detail.  She had no reason to lie in her diary for she knew not that slavery would be abolished, or that The South would ultimately lose the war and then be punished for its alleged transgressions.  So, Mary Chesnut’s diary serves as an honest view into life on a plantation with a large number of slaves by someone who was intimately involved.

From the pages of Mary Chesnut’s diary, and discussions I’ve had with historians and history professors over the years, I have found that the conditions of the life of slaves in America varied depending upon the plantation.  Most southerners didn’t own slaves, but the people who did sometimes owned thousands.  The Chesnut family owned over 3,000. 

We do know that the Chesnut slaves were not resisting at all times or planning their escapes because they had every opportunity to do so, as suggested by people like Nikole Hannah-Jones of The 1619 Project.  The diary explains that whenever the husband and the couple’s sons were away on various trips, Mary and her daughters were left alone on the plantation with thousands of slaves who could have at any time overwhelmed the women, if they desired to.  The Chesnut slaves were also equipped with guns, for the family wanted them to be able to hunt deer to supplement their food supply.

The Chesnuts, before the war interrupted the life they considered to be perfectly normal at the time, also participated in, and sometimes held, weekly dances.  The slaves participated in their own Saturday Night Dance, as well.  A professor of history told me that typically in The Antebellum South the most common punishment for misbehavior by a slave was disallowance to participate in the Saturday Night Dance.

There is no denying that brutality often accompanied enslavement, and some slavers during the period spanning from the early years of America’s founding to the mid-nineteenth century America were brutal.  While nobody should ever make light of the condition of enslavement, in today’s society we often hear sweeping generalizations painting slavery in America as being as barbaric as the treatment of slaves in places like the Caribbean or Brazil.  The arguments are not only disingenuous, but such claims are thrown out there in the hopes of weaponizing history and then using the ill-defined historical weapon against America’s history, to deconstruct our liberty into simply a cause regarding slavery and racism.  The complexity of history goes beyond being about a couple of issues.  The reality is deeper, based on a more complete view of the entire picture, than that.  And each situation needs to be reasonably viewed individually, not as a generalization on a massive canvas.

The southerners were well aware that slavery was a dark spot of history, and that it was on its way to extinction.  On page 74 of Mary Chesnut’s diary she exclaims that “Slavery has to go, of course.”  But the argument by the confederacy was not regarding whether or not slavery must eventually be abolished.  They knew its days were numbered.  An abolition movement had gained a lot of momentum in The South by the dawn of the War Between the States.  The complaint of the states that seceded was not the threat of abolition, but that if slavery was to be abolished someday in those States it had to be on their terms, not based on the dictatorial demands of an overbearing unconstitutional federal government who was willing to use military action against the Southern States for daring to disagree with the federal government’s opinion of the issue.

As for statistics regarding the life of slavery in the United States, less than five percent of southerners actually owned slaves, and less than four percent of the total of slaves shipped into the Western Hemisphere had made it to America’s Atlantic shore since the first arrival in 1645.  The reason for such a small percentage of slaves being brought to America via the Atlantic Slave Trade was because they lived better, enjoyed better living conditions, were fed better, and were treated better than in any of the other countries or territories practicing slavery in the Americas or on the various inhabited islands in the New World.  As a result, American slaves lived long lives, and they reproduced.

The life of a slave, for some slaves after the war, seemed better than that of liberty.  After spending one’s life dependent upon one’s “master,” it was frightening to suddenly be responsible for all of the things that were provided by one’s owner prior to emancipation.  As a result, many of the slaves after they were freed stayed on with their former masters as employees.  They did the same work, with much of the same things provided, but now they got to remain in the living spaces they had been accustomed to.  Some received a paycheck or a percentage share of the crop, for their work, in addition to the privilege of living where they had grown up.

For the former slaves the idea of freedom was foreign to them.  A story is told that William Lloyd Garrison visited a camp of newly emancipated slaves near Charleston, and he said to them, “Well, my friends, you are free at last.  Let us give three cheers for freedom!”  When he began the cheer the former slaves stood in dead silence.  After a life under the supervision of their owners, they did not know what to do without being directed.  Did freedom mean to be idle for the rest of their lives?  Many thought the old plantations should be divided among them.  “When is the land to be divided,” was a common question.

Didn’t the government promise each one of them forty acres of land and a mule?

Poverty and disease punished the ranks of former slaves who decided not to stay on as employees under their former masters.  Within two years after the end of the War Between the States over 300,000 former slaves died from the consequences of their new found freedom.

Frederick Douglass, who had bought his freedom and educated himself before the advent of emancipation, said of the freedman in 1865, “He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet.  He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and to the frosts of winter.  He … was turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.”

In the North, Maryland and Missouri voluntarily abolished slavery in 1864 and 1865.  By the end of 1865 Kentucky and Delaware followed suit.  The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was fully ratified in December of 1865, forbidding slavery anywhere in the United States.  Nonetheless, New Jersey waited until January 23, 1866 when Governor Marcus L. Ward signed a state constitutional amendment bringing slavery to an absolute end.  New Jersey had banned the importation of slaves into the state in 1788.  When slavery was ultimately abolished in January of 1866 in New Jersey, it freed sixteen slaves that remained in slavery in New Jersey at the time.

-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

how are inalienable rights “a matter for the states”?

Think hard and then recognize your racism. You MAGA inadequates piss and moan about banning AR-15s, but none of you have one word to say about men owning men, women and children like chattle. “Oh! Some slaves had a good deal!” No Doug, they didn’t. They were deprived of their Liberty.

So grow up.