Some attempts at writing fictional early-19th-century documents:
The following are fictional articles from the fictional journal "The Southern Planter"
concerning the so-called "proper" treatment of slaves, as well as the diary entries from
the fictional slave, Nathan. I've tried to capture some of the disturbing, articulate
self-righteousness of a slaveholder, as well as the spirited yet subtle rebelliousness
of a slave.
The negro is determined by his very nature to violate the laws of God and man. Just as young boys who refuse to do their lessons may require a flogging, so likewise it is with the negro. The planter himself may from time to time find it necessary to exact punishment, but as a general rule this practice should be left to the overseer. While the overseer should never let an offence go unpunished, it is of paramount importance that the particulars of his offence be made clear to the negro so that he recognizes the punishment to be one of justice rather than caprice or vengeance. Nothing serves better to extinguish the negro's spirits and industry than for him to live in constant fear of whimsical and irregular discipline.
The overseer should never allow drivers or other negroes to exact punishment. The object of punishment is always and only for the purpose of correction, and for this reason all discipline should be carried out in a calm manner, and never performed so as to gratify the passions. Abusive and violent language should always be avoided when punishing an offence, lest a man find himself lowered to the level of the negro. Consistency in punishment is the order of the day, and the overseer should not be lax at one time and severe at another with respect to the same offence; neither should he show favoritism by punishing one but not another for the same violation. Unless in self-defence, one should never kick a negro, or strike him with his fist, a stick, or the butt end of his whip. The neglect of these strictures will serve only to confuse and damage the negro.
It has always been my belief that the lash should be the punishment of last resort, and then, never to lacerate. There are other less invasive punishments that may serve just as well, such as smacking the head or pulling the ears. In the event of more severe insolence and insubordination the confinement to quarters after the workday and on Saturdays for a period of three to six months is highly effective; so likewise is making the negro work after the others have finished, and of course there are the stocks. Thus it is widely held that in order to maintain conformity to the Christian principles of mercy and humanity the lash should only be used when all other manner of punishment has failed.
Image of Nathan's diary entry, c.1853 (American Historical Society Archives #3762.17:3)
Mr Wilson he the Boss on the Coten Harves Teem To Day he drink on the job and get mean Why do Mas William take him on i dont no is the poor White trash is the wors kine wors than any Nigger Mr Wilson dont no a good job from nuthing but i recon he work for cheep and thas how com Mas William take him on young Nelly she come lat to the feild on a cownt a she gots a new Baby need mineing thas how she esplan it to Mr Wilson but he dont pay no mine tocking bowt lazy Niggers and all he beet her wit the Cow skin on the Back & Neck & even the Face til she cover wit Blud she go tel Mas William but he say she dezerv it and he hit her in the Head wit the wip handel and he say get out a my site or he gun go put the salt water on her what burn her skin Poor Nelly later i hear Mas William ayell at Mr Wilson bowt drink on the job and bowt beeting Niggers in the Face I tolt Nelly and she feel better
The question of whether slaves should be allowed to practice religion was a controversial one in the old South. Protestant Christianity was the only faith available, and this was generally limited to either the Baptist, Methodist, or to a lesser extent, Presbyterian denominations. The practice of traditional African religions, or Islam, would never have been tolerated, and the fear among slaveholders that these so-called heathen beliefs might take hold offered a strong motive for the Christian indoctrination of the slaves. In the following section called On Religious Instruction, Jackson describes some of the many concerns of slaveholders regarding slaves and religious practices.
There are varying convictions set forth concerning the proper moral and religious
instruction of the negro. Some of our own planters who profess the Divine Truth of the
Christian Faith appear unwilling to consider seriously a matter of grave concern. To wit,
the responsibility of tending to the immortal souls of the negroes through proper
instruction in the Holy Bible, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. All men are by
nature religious beings, but without proper religious instruction the negro is certain
to stoop to idleness, absurd superstitions and barbaric practices founded on ignorance;
the whole of which can do no less than afford the devil a vessel for propagating
wickedness. This evil alone should provide sufficient reason to warrant the negro's
religious instruction. Yet there are those planters who would disregard religious
instruction lest it should induce a rebellious spirit and spoil the negro. Such concerns
are groundless provided that a house of worship, of even modest proportions, can be
erected on the plantation premises. Of greater import is the procurement of an
intelligent white preacher who can instruct the servants in their right duties and
responsibilities in accordance with the Divine Principles of the Christian Faith.
By applying these suggestions the planter can ensure that certain doctrinal heresies
as propagated by Northern abolitionists and other confused souls will not corrupt
The main fear for many slaveholders was that the Bible would be interpreted
in a way that viewed slavery as sinful in God's eyes. These anti-slavery
interpretations of the Bible were common among both Northern abolitionists,
and many slaves. A number of Christianized slaves were already identifying with
Moses and the escape of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt as described in the book
of Exodus. The interpretation of the book of Psalms was also troubling to many
slaveholders since it contains prayers to God to liberate the Jews from captivity
in Babylon. You can easily imagine how the following short excerpt might have
appealed to the slaves but not to the slaveholders.
Deliver me in thy righteousness,
and cause me to escape: incline thy ears unto me, and save me. (Psalms 71:2)
From the New Testament, the most troubling passage for slaveholders was what is
commonly known as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
(Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). How could a slaveholder have slaves if he himself would
not wish to be enslaved? This was a difficult predicament, but slaveholders usually
argued that the golden rule does not apply to slavery, in the same way that it does
not apply to childhood. Children should be treated as children, and the question,
How can you treat a child like a child if you yourself would not wish to be
treated like a child? does not really make sense because we believe that
children, in many ways, deserve a different kind of treatment than adults:
protection, tending, etc. By drawing parallels between slaves and children the
slaveholders were often able to wiggle like worms around such questions. Thus it
was clear to many slaveholders that by hiring a white preacher sympathetic to their
interests, and by holding the religious services on the plantation, they could
control which aspects of the Bible were taught to the slaves, and they could
control how the Bible would be interpreted by the preacher.
As concerns the time and frequency of religious instruction there is no more fitting and hallowed day than the Sabbath. During Week-day preaching the negro can not help but attend soiled in both clothing and body. Moreover, much of the congregation is liable to fall prey to sleep; an act that will only serve to discourage the preacher, which in time will remove all that is most sacrosanct from the meeting. When the service is convened on the Sabbath then those present can arrive attired in their best "bib and tucker", and they will be clean, and ready to attend with interest, enthusiasm and proper reverence.
In case there were any doubts about the Biblical justification of slavery the white preacher would point out that many Holy people in Biblical times had servants. All the preacher had to do was convince the slaves that they were no different than the servants mentioned in the Bible. The most telling example from the New Testament is found in the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians:
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
I believe that the interpretation of this line may be problematic for some contemporary
Christians. Regardless of how it ought to be interpreted, this line was recited many times
by slaveholders in order to justify slavery.
Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant (Genesis 9:25-27).This curse of Ham (or Canaan) to servitude was held by many--not only slaveholders--to be a biblical justification for the enslavement of black people.
The slaveholder William Thomas Jackson seems to have held this belief. It is difficult to know whether his decision not to force religious beliefs upon his slaves was because he truly believed that the slaves should choose their own salvation, or because his interests were directed more towards self-justification rather than sincerity. He does, however, believe the preacher should try to persuade the slaves by frightening them with stories of hellfire and eternal damnation.
Jackson's attempt to control the religious practices of his slaves was not altogether successful. He hired a white preacher named Joseph Hillary. After some time Hillary found his services in high demand, since a number of slaveholders were hiring white preachers for their slaves. Hillary eventually persuaded Jackson, against his better judgment, to allow him to take on a slave named Isaac as a preacher's apprentice. Nathan's following diary entry demonstrates one of the many ways in which slaves understood the psychology of the white elite, and were able to adjust their behavior to feign deference and respect while maintaining a clear sense of autonomy and independent thinking.
Image of Nathan's diary entry, c.1853 (American Historical Society Archives #3762.17:11)
evry Sunday we have a servis in the nursry hous by Rev Hillery the White Pricher at 8 1/2 O'Clock no White foks atend sep Rev Hillery & sometime Mas William he look in Rev Hillery is lerning Isaac to prich but Mas William was not keen on it at first but Rev Hillery tell him not to wory so now Isaac a pricher wen Rev Hillery caint not cum Rev Hillery allways prich something abot its the will of God for the servint to obay his master & the way of God is a mistry to the mine of Mankind so be good like God want you to be for yor reword in Hevin Isaac he prith the sam way wen Rev Hillery at the servis but when the Rev Hillery cane not cum &wen the Rev Hillery leev Isaac prich dirfent he prich wit the Spirt & all the foks stan up & sing & mov the feet Isaac tok abot cros the river Jordin & the land of Caynan & Etopia shtrech forth her hand & Mose & Faro in Ejip & Mt Zion 1 time Issac ac lik he the Rev Hillery he put on Rev Hillery voyse & talk abot yall Niggers bes serv yor Master & wash up his smely behin iff you want to enta the gates of Hevin all the foks was lafing & was not no White foks in the hous i never foget that time
The most important rule concerning negroes and marriage is that they should not be allowed to marry outside of the plantation. If the males are permitted to marry outside of the plantation one will soon find them frequently absent, for which they can hardly be blamed. Male negroes who travel to other plantations to be with their wives often become willful, and grow independent of the control of their masters due to their fraternizing with unsavoury negroes. If the females marry outside of the plantation then one is certain to encounter strange and idle negro males loitering on the plantation, which will inevitably lead to resentment and idleness on the part of one's own negroes. As the saying goes, give the negro an inch and he will take an ell. Therefore it is best, when possible, to have an equal number of male and female negroes on the plantation so that they can marry amongst themselves.
With very few exceptions the sacredness of marriage is lost upon the negro,
and due to his inferior nature he is prone to violate his marriage vows since for
him the relation is simply a matter of convenience and gratification. Licentiousness
and immorality run rampant wherever the negro is found. I have yet to encounter a
planter who has succeeded completely in cultivating within his negroes the decency
and virtue necessary to sustain their marital obligations. Negroes should never
be permitted to cohabitate with more than one husband or wife, and neither should
any negro on the plantation be permitted to marry a free negro. A Christian master
cannot ignore the importance of the Holy institution of Matrimony, and upon giving
consent to the parties to unite, he should regard any violation of the conjugal
contract as one deserving of punishment.
It is best to appoint an elderly woman to the task of tending to their needs. She can cook for them, superintend them and care for them when they fall ill. It is most certainly the case that if the children are left to be attended by their parents they will be neglected. As concerns the smaller children it is best to have a nursery set apart for them. One should allow nursing mothers to suckle their young at least three to four times during the workday. When possible, work should be found for the nursing mothers close to the nursery, and not in some distant field, so that the long walks will not overheat them and spoil the milk.
Teething and worms are the most common cause of death among negro children. The best remedy for teething is to cut the gums with a knife when the teeth begin to appear. It is adivisable to feed the entire bevy of children the worming medicine once in the spring and once in the autumn.
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