Slavery Myths

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“No subject has been more generally misunderstood or more persistently misrepresented.” ~ Jefferson Davis

Much of what we hear today about slavery from the Black community, the news media, the pulpit, the high school classroom, and the university lectern is a myth. This does not mean that slavery was anything but a great evil. It just means many things commonly accepted as slavery facts are actually slavery myths.

This is not an attempt at a scholarly discourse on slavery. It is merely a presentation of some myth-refuting facts that I have assembled from a few books in my own library.

Myth number one: Slavery was a distinctively Southern institution. From Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity (Harvard University Press, 2003), we read:

On the eve of American independence, nearly three-fourths of Boston’s wealthiest quartile of property-holders held slaves. A like proportion could be found in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and Newport. From a position at the top of colonial society, one visitor noted that there was “not a house in Boston” that “has not one or two” slaves — an observation that might be applied to every northern city with but slight exaggeration.

The expansion of slavery followed a similar trajectory in the countryside. Indeed, the rapid growth of rural slavery eclipsed its development in the cities of the North. Throughout the grain-producing areas of Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island — the North’s bread basket — bondage spread swiftly during the eighteenth century, as farmers turned from white indentured servants to black slaves. By mid-century slavery’s tentacles reached into parts of southern New England, especially the area around Narragansett Bay, where large slaveholders — many of whom had originated in Barbados — took on the airs of a planter class. In these places, slaves constituted as much as one-third of the labor force, and sometimes more than half.

In the northern colonies, Africans had difficulty finding mates, establishing families, conceiving, and producing healthy infants. The problem was not new. From the beginning of settlement, northern slaveholders, unlike their counterparts farther south, showed little interest in creating an indigenous slave population. From their perspective, the discomfort and expense of sharing their cramped quarters with slaves outweighed the profits offered by a self-reproducing labor force. Northern slaveholders discouraged their slaves from marrying and did not provide accommodations for slave families to reside in the same abode. They routinely separated husbands from wives and parents from children and only reluctantly extended visitation rights. Seeing but small advantage in the creation of an indigenous, self-reproducing slave population, northern slaveholders sold slave women at the first sign of pregnancy. Such practices constrained the development of residential family units and diminished the chances that black men would assume the roles of husbands and fathers and black women the roles of wives and mothers. Grandparenthood became unknown to most northerners of African descent.

In the middle years of the eighteenth century, northern lawmakers — taking a page from southern statute books — updated, refined, or consolidated the miscellaneous regulations that had been enacted during the seventeenth century and issued more comprehensive slave codes. In every case, legislators strengthened the hand of the slaveowner at the expense of the slave and free black.

Black life in the North increasingly resembled that of the plantation South.

Thomas DiLorenzo has also recently pointed out that Ira Berlin played a role in assembling an exhibit in October at the New York Historical Society entitled “Slavery in New York.” When interviewed about the exhibit, Professor Berlin pointed out that “New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves made up a quarter of New York’s population at various times. . . . New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and slave rebellions. . . . there were over 10,000 slaves in New York in the third decade of the 19th century.”

Myth number two: The White man captured slaves in the African jungles. From Alan Taylor’s American Colonies (Viking, 2001), we read:

Popular myth has it that the Europeans obtained their slaves by attacking and seizing Africans. In fact, the shippers almost always bought their slaves from African middlemen, generally the leading merchants and chiefs of the coastal kingdoms. Determined to profit from the trade, the African traders and chiefs did not tolerate Europeans who foolishly bypassed them to seize slaves on their own initiative. And during the eighteenth century the Africans had the power to defeat Europeans who failed to cooperate. Contrary to the stereotype of shrewd Europeans cheating weak and gullible natives, the European traders had to pay premium, and rising, prices to African chiefs and traders, who drove a hard bargain.

The Europeans exploited and expanded the slavery long practiced by Africans. Some slaves were starving children sold by their impoverished parents. Others were debtors or criminals sentenced to slavery. But most were taken in wars between kingdoms or simply kidnapped by armed gangs.

The African raiders marched their captives to the coast in long lines know as coffles: dozens of people yoked together by the neck with leather thongs to prevent escape. Some marches to the coast exceeded five hundred miles and six months. About a quarter of the captives died along the way from some combination of disease, hunger, exhaustion, beatings, and suicide.

Upon reaching the coast, the captors herded their captives into walled pens called barracoons. Stripped naked, the slaves were closely examined by European traders, who wanted only reasonably healthy and young people, preferably male.

Myth number three: Blacks never owned slaves. From Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation: The Rise & Fall of the Confederacy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), we read:

The free blacks who had prospered in the prewar South had done so by seeking favor with local whites and assuring them of their loyalty. Some of them had owned slaves themselves.

And again, from Berlin’s Generations of Captivity:

As societies engaged in the trade in slaves, the coastal enclaves became societies with slaves. African slavery in its various forms — from pawnage to chattel bondage — was practiced in these towns. Both Europeans and Africans held slaves, imported and exported them, hired them, used them as collateral, and traded them. At Elmina, the Dutch West India Company owned some 300 slaves in the late seventeenth century, and individual Europeans and Africans held others.

Myth number four: Slave masters were brutal taskmasters. From Berlin’s Generations of Captivity, we read:

Other aspects of the new work regimen operated to the slaves’ advantage. Slave lumbermen, many of them hired out for short periods of time, carried axes and, like slave drovers and herdsmen, were generally armed with knives and guns — necessities for men who worked in the wild and hunted animals for food and furs. Woodsmen had access to horses, as did slaves who tended cattle and swine. Periodic demands that slaveowners disarm their slaves and restrict their access to horses and mules confirmed that many believed these to be dangerous practices, but they did nothing to halt them. In short, slave lumbermen and drovers were not to be trifled with. Their work allowed considerable mobility and latitude in choosing their associates and bred a sense of independence, not something planters wanted to encourage. Slaves found it a welcome relief from the old plantation order.

As the slaveholders’ economy faded, the slaves’ economy flourished. Black men and women became full participants in the system of exchange that developed within the lower Mississippi Valley, trading the produce of their gardens and provision grounds, the fruits of their hunting and trapping expeditions, and a variety of handicrafts with European settlers and Indian tribesmen. Many hard-pressed planters turned to the production of foodstuffs for internal consumption and sometimes for export to Saint Domingue and Martinique. To cut costs, they encouraged and sometimes required slaves to feed themselves and their families by gardening, hunting, and trapping on their own time. Indeed, some slaveholders demanded that their slaves not only feed themselves but also provide their own clothes and purchase other necessities. Such requirements forced slaveowners to cede their slaves a portion of their time to work independently. “It is because the slaves are not clothed that they are left free of all work on Sunday,” argued one advocate in an affirmation of the slaves’ right to maintain gardens, market produce, and work independently on Sunday. “On such days some of them go to the neighbors’ plantations who hire them to cut moss and to gather provisions. This is done with the tacit consent of their masters who do not know the where-abouts of their slaves on the said day, nor do they question them, nor do they worry themselves about them and are always satisfied that the Negroes will appear again on the following Monday for work.”

Myth number five: The Civil War was fought entirely over slavery. From Mark Thornton and Robert Ekelund’s Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War (Scholarly Resources, 2004), we read:

Slavery and its opposition were interwoven into the economic, political, social, and religious fabric of America. However, it was not the only factor in the South’s decision to secede and the North’s decision to take up arms to prevent secession. Active abolitionists in the North and slaveholders in the South were relatively small minorities of their populations. Therefore, to get below the surface of these issues we focus on economic interests in the various causes that have been attributed to the Civil War. The evolving relations between the powers of the federal government and the states were certainly an issue. In general, the South’s well-known position was one of states’ rights, while the North increasingly preferred a stronger central government. This question was the underpinning of another incendiary matter — the issue of import duties. Both as a revenue device for the federal government and as a means of industry protection, the tariff was a flashpoint for particular interests, North and South.

We maintain that a multiplicity of issues brought about the conflict and that those economic interests and the interest groups surrounding them were the key factor in explaining these events. While we acknowledge that other dimensions affected the coming of the war, such as the moral and philosophical horrors of slavery, this chapter argues that economic interests, many of them at least somewhat related to slavery, were a major factor in the emergence of the conflict. Political parties, moreover, evolved and coalesced around this embroidery of interests. Many social and economic factors are involved in this connection, including the statues of money and banking in the North and South, canal and railway building, and other public works.

Slaveholders can therefore be viewed as an economic interest group that established secession and thus helped precipitate the war. The very election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by them as an economic loss to slaveholders and as an impetus for secession and war. In other words, the containment policies of the Republican Party were a long-run threat to the wealth of slaveholders, but the party’s protectionist policies were an immediate threat to the profitability of their plantations, having the same effect as one-third of the slave population running away outside the South.

The twin issues of tariffs and slavery were thus at the fore of aligning economic interest groups, North and South.

Myth number six: Slaves never defended the Confederacy. From William W. Freehling’s The South vs. the South (Oxford University Press, 2001), we read:

During the Civil War’s relatively quiet first year, slavery tolerably passed its paternalistic test. Thousands of slaves labored inside army camps and fortifications. More thousand manned new munitions factories. Blacks comprised over half the toilers at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works and over three in four at Selma, Alabama’s, naval ordnance plant. In the fields, slave millions produced a record cotton crop, even with many masters away. A few blacks donated cash to the Confederate cause. Two Mobile slaves bought $400 in Confederate bonds. One New Orleans slave subscribed for $200.

When mutilated masters returned from the bloodbath, some slaves raged as well as wept. “Dey brung” Massa Billy home, one South Carolina slave grieved to a contemporary, “with he jaw split open . . . He teeth all shine through he cheek. . . . I be happy iffen I could kill me jes’ one Yankee. I hated dem ’cause dey hurt my white people.”

And, from a review for the History Book Club by William C. Davis of what promises to be an interesting work, Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005), we read that “there were clear signs that some of the slave population saw themselves as Southerners first and blacks second, and expressed a willingness to take the field.”

Myth number seven: Abraham Lincoln was the Negroes friend. In his debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races — 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 I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. 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.

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln said:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that —

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.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

In his letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, dated August 22, 1862, Lincoln said:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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 save 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 I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Just before Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have protected slavery:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state.

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln specifically mentioned this amendment, and voiced no objection to it:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution — which amendment, however, I have not seen — has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

And who can forget that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves that were under the control of the Confederate government, which means that it basically freed no one. Lincoln declared that only “persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Here are the states and parts of states that Lincoln listed:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, remarked about the Emancipation Proclamation only applying to slaves in areas that were in a state of rebellion against the United States: “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

To keep this article at a reasonable length, there is one book on slavery in my library that I have deliberately refrained from referring to: Walter Kennedy, Myths of American Slavery (Pelican Publishing Company, 2003). It is the antidote to every slavery myth that has ever been perpetrated, and I highly recommend it: For the antidote to the myths of Abraham Lincoln, there is Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln (Three Rivers Press, 2003). And for the antidote to the myths of American history in general, I recommend Thomas Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Regnery Publishing, 2004).

Slavery myths — may they be forever banished to the dustbin of history.

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