Chuck's Fictional Slavery Document Page

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 original artifacts from which these typed reproductions come are approximately 150 years old.

On Discipline

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.

The following is a fictional excerpt from the diary of the slave, Nathan, who was the property of William Thomas Jackson. There are very few writings by slaves (written while they were slaves). As with most slaves, learning to write was usually a forbidden and dangerous activity, thus the degree of literacy was often limited.

   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.

On Religious Instruction

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 negro.


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.

The following is part two of On Religious Instruction.

Proper Biblical instruction of the negro need not require that he be taught to read. Neither is direct recitation of the Bible a necessary means of instruction, being no less than an obscure foreign language to the negro. Rather, the preacher should convey the principles and ideas of the Holy Bible in a language and manner suitable to the negro's capacity. The planter who embarks upon such a course of proper religious instruction is certain to witness a marked elevation in the moral stature of his negroes, particularly as concerns orderliness, harmonious relations, obedience, sobriety, and productivity. The planter should not expect these benefits to accrue within a single night, or even a fortnight, but with due patience and diligence he will in time notice a deepening in the content of the negro's character.

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.


The slaveholder suggests that the slaves are not smart enough to learn how to read and understand the Bible, but that a white preacher would do a better job by interpreting for the slaves all they need to know. By using this strategy the slaveholder could ensure that the slaves would learn only those "turn the other cheek" aspects of Christianity that would keep them passive. The most common interpretation of Christianity offered to slaves was the idea that deliverance from suffering and injustice cannot be had in this life, but will certainly be found in the afterlife if the slave is good and well-behaved.

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.

The following is part three of On Religious Instruction

I oppose the practice of mandating that the negroes attend religious services, excepting the negro children, whose attendance should be compulsory. There is no small disagreement on this matter among Christian planters, but my reasoning is sound. Despite certain speculation to the contrary the negro is descended in direct line from Adam, as are all men, although it is also true that his branch is descended through the line of Ham, who some call Canaan. The first Sin against God in Eden is now the burden of all men: it is no less than the choice to pick freely from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It would appear then that God's Will necessitates that all men are challenged to freely choose or reject the salvation of their own souls. It is also a fact that a man compelled to endorse the tenets of a faith may be found uttering its principles by mouth only. I do strongly maintain, however, that the preacher should on occasion "make the rounds" such as to "bring home" the perils of Hell that await their immortal souls should the negro refuse the proper instruction in God's laws and designs.


There was plenty of disagreement about whether Africans were truly human. Many Christians did not want to believe that Africans were descended from Adam and Eve, and some held the view that the first mother and father of every race was different, or that the different races were originally created as different species. Most slaveholders were willing to grant that blacks were descended from Adam and Eve, and were therefore human. The first black man, many people believed (and many still do), was Ham, one of Noah's sons. Ham is also known as the father of Canaan. In the book of Genesis it tells how, after the flood, Noah got drunk on some wine and fell asleep in his tent. While he slept his garment rode up in such a way that his naked body was exposed. Ham looked at his father's naked body then went to tell his brothers about it, but did nothing to remedy the situation himself. Some say that he laughed at his father's predicament, although the Bible doesn't substantiate this. Noah's other two sons (Ham's brothers), Japheth and Shem walked backwards into Noah's tent so as not to see their father's naked body, and they covered him with a blanket. When Noah awoke he knew that Ham had not come to his aid, and he cursed him, saying:
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


One of the worst experience for slaves was to have their spouse sold, with little hope of ever seeing them again. This would often cause slaves to become rebellious, despondent, and depressed. There was a prominent myth that the people in Africa had no culture, no moral values, and no social institutions worth speaking of. Africans were depicted as barbaric wildmen, whose social organizations were little better than those of dogs or other animals. Slaveholders believed that the slaves should be grateful that they had the opportunity to acquire some of the so-called civilized religious and cultural institutions of the whites. How could a slaveholder punish those slaves who were unfaithful to their spouses, and yet be willing to destroy those same marriages at the auction block? One can only surmise that despite talk of "civilizing" the slaves, the slaveholders were primarily concerned with social and psychological control, and had no genuine interest in the sanctity and cohesion of black family life.

The following are two articles by the slaveholder William Thomas Jackson concerning regulating the family life of slaves.

On Marriage

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.

Concerning Children

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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