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Slavery Southern White Slaveholder Guilt

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Slavery - Southern White Slaveholder Guilt

Guilt is an inevitable effect of slavery. For no matter how much rhetoric and racism is poured into such a system, the simple fact remains that men are enslaving men. Regardless of how much inferior a slaveholder may perceive his slaves, it is obvious that his "property" looks similar, has similar needs, and has similar feelings. There is thus the necessary comparison of situations; the slaveholder is free, the slaves in bondage - certainly a position that the slaveholder would find most disagreeable. So there is no doubt that any slaveholder with any measure of humanity within himself would feel guilt. And in fact, as the evidence is considered - including the proslavery propaganda - the reality of southern guilt is overwhelmingly obvious. It is seen in their words, both private and public, uncovered in their proslavery diatribes, and understandable in their humanity.

Before this discussion of guilt in slaveholders begins, it is necessary to first define how we will define guilt. Certainly if a man says he is guilt-stricken with conviction we can take this as adequate evidence of guilt. However, certainly not everyone takes this direct an approach. James Oakes makes a good point in recognizing that guilt is not always starkly obvious. "Guilt is the product of a deeply rooted psychological ambivalence that impels the individual to behave in ways that violate fundamental norms even as they fulfill basic desires."1 In other words, guilt creates such inner turmoil that a guilty man will deviate from normal behavior. In this case, we will have to show two things. First, a slaveholder is committing detrimental actions (to himself or his family) that show he is in mental distress, and second, that these actions are a result of his status as a slaveholder. It is obvious that we cannot prove the latter point, but we can show it is the most probable situation for his guilt. Finally, if a slaveholder is making pains above and beyond law and custom, it is most likely that these actions are to alleviate feelings of guilt. This is because we may assume any deliberate actions taken by any man are usually taken because he assumes they will benefit him in some manner. And if such an action is costly (money-wise), then it must have some allure in terms of personal happiness. So to show guilt, we will set forth examples of open confessions of guilt, deviant behavior, and uncommonly good treatment of slaves.

The correspondence of slaveholders is a gold mine for evidence of these three signs of guilt. P.H. Leubal writes about a slave girl, Jeanette purchased and then injured before she arrived on his property. Perhaps the common perception of what would happen in this case would go as follows: he would be upset at the visible destruction of his property, perhaps get a cursory examination done for legal purposes, and would demand a refund. This is merely an estimate of what custom might dictate, but this would surely not be out of line with the picture of slaves as purely property. A lame slave would essentially be a negative in terms of profit; this wouldn't be advantageous in any sense of the economic world in which Leubal is embroiled. However, Leubal goes far above and beyond this baseline version of humanity. He gets a thorough examination from a clearly respected doctor - presumably his own - and gets a fairly complex story from the slave girl herself to explain the incident. Upon learning that Jeanette would be fairly useless as economically valuable property, Leubal goes yet another step; he knows her humanity, listens to her feelings, and elects to keep her himself. Yes, she is still a slave, and yes, he demands a refund on his money. However, his behavior is still unusual if examined from a purely economic standpoint. A slaveholder who cares enough about money to request a partial refund from a $290 piece of property, yet he elects to keep the property, knowing that it will cost him much in the long run, while he could just send the slave back for a full refund and then buy another that would be more to what his expectations for Jeanette were originally. The only answer for this can be because Leubal was motivated by some internal need to help her because of her humanity. He felt it was somehow his duty to keep her because she was a human being and he identified with her suffering. She suffered because she was a slave, and because he was a crucial element of the system that hurt her so, Leubal felt obliged to make amends. At his personal economic expense, he decided to ease his conscience and do something that would be out-of-the-ordinary for any slaveholder of the time. To alleviate his guilt, he offered humanity. Leubal was a slaveholder whose conscience would not let him treat humans as property.2

It is possible to argue that Leubal was simply a kind man, an aberration to the society of slaveholding men. However, if we examine him closely, we will see that his kindness toward Jeanette could not be applied universally, because it would cause an economic disaster. So his action is most realistically viewed as a special circumstance. Leubal kept slaves to make money, but he certainly deplored certain aspects of slavery, and because he contributed to the system, those aspects were partly his responsibility. To accept the peculiar institution, he had to redeem it by easing the weight of its pain upon him - the pain of guilt.

Likewise, a letter from a slave, Eavans McCrery, to his mistress shows that he is being treated more as an equal than as property. 3 He has been taught to read by a master, and he writes his mistress quite honestly and tells her why and what he would like to do with his life. It is more the expectations than the actual wording of the letter that that makes it an evidence of guilt. Because Eavans clearly expects a response that is not harsh, he is obviously allowed to speak his mind and attempt to influence his own future, something that is not associated with property. His former masters and current mistress clearly see him as a human being, and their kindness (especially in allowing a slave to know how to read and write in 1854) is exemplary. Thus the logical conclusion, as discussed above, is that this stems from a moral responsibility. To avoid the guilt that plagues the slaveholders, Eavans' owners take steps to treat him as a human being.

These two letters give adequate example of slaveholding guilt, but perhaps a better place to look is in the proslavery dogma of the time. The propaganda of slaveholders seems an unlikely place to find evidence of guilt, but the bare reality of a necessity for the defense of slavery is perhaps the most obvious sign of a guilty slaveholding population. As Charles Sellers recognizes in his essay "The Travail of Slavery," the Great Reaction - as he calls it - was initiated to convince the slaveholders themselves that slavery was a good.4 Ever since cries of liberty and equality first struck the South, the institution's morality had been questioned by all involved. This questioning was purely out of feelings of guilt. Slaveholders were convinced they were going to hell because of their slaveholding; James Oakes makes much out of this. "'Always I felt the moral guilt of it,' a Louisiana mistress admitted, 'felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to win his way to heaven.'"5 Because slavery was extremely to defend in the eyes of the New Testament - the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you was a particularly difficult obstacle - it remained for all pious slaveholders to question the morality of their actions.6 However, the institution continued because the South relied economically on its slaves. Thus slaveholders were tied to slavery while feeling guilt about the system as a whole.

This scene set the stage for the Great Reaction. After Nat Turner and the rising surge of northern abolitionism, the South turned inward to defend itself. Because its identity and success were so tied to slavery, it could not simply dissolve the system outright. Simply feeling guilty about slavery does not mean Southerners would dismantle the institution outright. Slavery was a universal part of Southern heritage and success, and guilt is a personal experience. Even though a slaveholder feels guilty about the institution, he sees his neighbors and countrymen following the Southern dream to prosperity through slavery. It was easier to continue with the current situation than radically alter the slaveholding world, and so southerners supported the Great Reaction in an attempt mainly to alleviate their own guilt.

Perhaps the best sign that the propaganda of the Great Reaction was really slaveholders convincing themselves is in the writings themselves. Any reasonable defense of position in debate demands that the contentions brought forth are true in a meaningful way. What James Henry Hammond and George Fitzhugh write about is nothing more than a pipe dream of slave society. Genovese gives us clear evidence of this, and Hammond himself knew ...

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