John Derbyshire On Abolitionist Porn And Antebellum Economics

It seems I’ve picked up an interest in the Civil War just as America is undergoing a revival of Abolitionist Porn Abolitionist Porn. That, at any rate, is what I take this much-talked-of new movie 12 Years a Slave to be.

No, I haven’t seen the thing, but I’ve read reviews. Also I’ve seen (and reviewed) a specimen of the allied genre: Civil Rights Porn.

And I’ve no doubt there was such a thing as Abolitionist Porn. It would have been surprising if there wasn’t. Whenever there’s a deep and long-standing difference between two sets of social principles, a genre of lurid tales will come up in one camp, denigrating the other.

For example: Back when England was bumptiously Protestant, there was Anti-Catholic Porn: Try the lip-smacking description of two Catholic clerics—a monk and a bishop—being hanged in Chapter 26 of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!

(When I mentioned this to a friend, he told me that Anti-Mormon Porn was popular for some decades around 1900, and urged me to read the 1912 Zane Grey Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage. I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list.)

So I’ve no doubt that antebellum Yankees enjoyed having their flesh made to creep by stories of the dreadful goings-on in Southern plantations.

There was at least enough of this kind of thing for Southerners to poke fun at it. Here is Gone With The Wind ’s Scarlett O’Hara making business calls on occupying Yankees in Reconstruction Atlanta:

Accepting Uncle Tom’s Cabin as revelation second only to the Bible, the Yankee women all wanted to know about the bloodhounds which every Southerner kept to track down runaway slaves. And they never believed her when she told them she had only seen one bloodhound in all her life . . . They wanted to know about the dreadful branding irons which planters used to mark the faces of their slaves . . . and they evidenced what Scarlett felt was a very nasty and ill-bred interest in slave concubinage.

[Gone With the Wind, Chapter 38.]

Reading that, and knowing something of the author’s background, I thought: Well, I bet there were bloodhounds; but I also bet there were young plantation women who had seen only one.

Some googling on the Slave Narrativesconfirms the first, at any rate. The Slave Narratives are recorded reminiscences from ex-slaves, gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936-38. The speaker here was born “around 1852”:

Mars George fed an’ clo’esed well an’ was kin’ to his slaves, but once in a while one would git onruly an’ have to be punished. De worse I ever seen one whupped was a slave man dat had slipped off an’ hid out in de woods to git out of wuk. Dey chased him wid blood hounds, an’ when dey did fin’ him dey tied him to a tree, stroppin’ him ’round an’ ’round. Dey sho’ did gib him a lashin’.

[Mississippi Slave Narratives, Harriet Walker.]

As that extract illustrates, though, the Slave Narratives also remind us how remarkably often ex-slaves spoke well of their masters.

Plainly there was more to American race slavery that white masters brutalizing resentful Negroes. How much more, though? What was slavery actually like?

Trying to get to grips with this, I found it easiest to divide up the topic the way Caesar divided Gaul, into three parts:

  • Slavery as a condition.
  • American slave society as a way of life.
  • The position of blacks in America’s first century.

Of slavery as a condition—the ownership of human beings—the first thing to be said is that any person of feeling and imagination has to think it wrong, on the Golden Rule principle. The liberty to work out your own destiny, by your own volition, is a sweet thing, as the Spartans told the Persian. I wouldn’t deprive anyone of it.

That said, some historical imagination is in order. People are born, raised, educated, and find themselves in a certain kind of society to which those around them are all accustomed. American slave society was a way of life; a settled way that most people took for granted, as most people will anywhere.

There were aspects of life resembling slavery in the communist China where I lived, 1982-3. People had no liberty to find their own employment. You were “assigned” to a “unit.” If unhappy there, it was a devil of a job to get re-assigned.

Families broken up? One of my Chinese colleagues lived alone because his wife was “assigned” to a distant province. He only saw her once a year.

The guy drank a lot.

Yet while there was much grumbling, and some scattered seething rebelliousness, most Chinese got along with the system. A lot of people were very happy with it. You didn’t have to think much, or take much responsibility. And that suits many of us just fine.

You glimpse something similar in the Slave Narratives:

Lak all de fool N—–s o’ dat time I was right smart bit by de freedom bug for awhile. It sounded pow’ful nice to be tol’: “You don`t have to chop cotton no more. You can th’ow dat hoe down an’ go fishin’ whensoever de notion strikes you. An’ you can roam ’roun’ at night a’ court gals jus’ as late as you please. Aint no marster gwine a-say to you, ‘Charlie, you’s got to be back when de clock strikes nine.’”

I was fool ’nough to b’lieve all dat kin’ o’ stuff. But to tell de hones’ truf, mos’ o’ us didn’ know ourse’fs no better off. Freedom meant us could leave where us’d been born an’ bred, but it meant, too, dat us had to scratch for us ownse’fs. Dem what lef’ de old plantation seamed so all fired glad to git back dat I made up my min’ to stay put. I stayed right wid my white folks as long as I could.

[Mississippi Slave Narratives, Charlie Davenport.]

Slavery is more irksome to some than to others; and freedom can be irksome, too. Personally, I’d be a terrible slave—too ornery. I know people, though—and I’m talking about white people—who I quietly suspect would be happy in slavery.

To get some understanding of American slave society as a way of life, you have to go to the academic studies, of which of course there have been a great number.

I can’t claim to have done more than scratch the surface here. Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan Roll seems to me a good narrative survey, with plenty of quotations and diary extracts from people of the time.

Genovese was a Marxist when he wrote the book, but it only shows in patches here and there. His familiarity with Hegel, one of Marx’s inspirations, is actually quite illuminating, for example in the inversion of the master-servant relationship:

A slaveholding Confederate soldier who had to send his body servant home insisted upon his early return. “He is a great darky—worth his weight in gold even in these hard times,” he glowed, explaining. “He can tell you what things I principally need & more fully than I can write—he knows more about it anyway than I do, knows more about what I have and what I need—he attends to it all.”

Time on the Cross: The Economics of American SlaveryFor a more data-rich account, Fogel and Engerman’s Time On The Cross is fascinating, full of counterintuitive insights.

Life expectancy? After crunching the numbers:

U.S. slaves had much longer life expectations than free urban industrial workers in both the United States and Europe.

We’re talking about a period, remember, when life was very wretched for a great many free men: the period of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and of Hugo’s Les Misérables.

And we all know about white plantation overseers; but black overseers? Oh, yeah: After crunching more numbers from census data and plantation records:

The conclusion indicated by these findings is startling: On a majority of the large plantations, the top nonownership management was black.

That’s on the way to arguing that black plantation labor was better—more skillful, more productive—than previous scholars had thought. Fogel and Engerman want to disprove the “false stereotypes of [black] incompetence” that, they say, were imposed on blacks for more than a century.

These good intentions notwithstanding, I am told (by Bob Weissberg, who knows this territory well) that Time On the Cross is in serious disfavor with the current generation of social scientists for painting too nuanced a picture of Southern slave society.

It’s not hard to see why. Take the matter of what Scarlett O’Hara referred to as “slave concubinage.” Where did all those mulattoes come from, if not from plantation owners and white overseers having their way with helpless Negro slave women?

Genovese quotes Mary Chesnut’s diaries on this topic:

Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.

Northerners who visited the South came to similar conclusions.

Fogel and Engerman, however, go to the numbers:

It is not the eyesight of these travelers to the South which is questionable, but their statistical sense. For mulattoes were not distributed evenly through the Negro population. They were concentrated in the cities and especially among freedmen . . . The share of Negro children fathered by whites on slave plantations probably averaged between 1 and 2 percent.

Plantation records and diaries show that overseers were sternly warned against fraternizing with slave women, and were generally dismissed if they did so, as their adventures “could undermine the discipline that planters so assiduously strove to attain.”

Venturing into very seriously un-PC territory, Fogel and Engerman argue that Southern white men anyway did not desire black women, an aversion the authors put down to “racism.” They support this with some data from Nashville:

The 1860 census showed that just 4.3 percent of the prostitutes in that city were Negroes, although a fifth of the population of Nashville was Negro. Moreover, all of the Negro prostitutes were free and light-skinned . . . White men who desired illicit sex had a strong preference for white women.

Again, the authors are on their way here to a refutation of the stereotype of black promiscuity. Fogel and Engerman really meant well.

It has done them no good, of course: their fascinating book is down there with The Bell Curve in liberal esteem. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

For the third of my three divisions of Gaul, the position of blacks in America’s first century, I’ve been getting some insights from Gene Dattel’s 2009 excellent book Cotton and Race in the Making of America .

Dattel’s main focus is on the sheer size and importance of the cotton business to both North and South. Did you know that cotton was America’s leading export from 1803 to 1937?

Northerners played a leading role in the cotton economy of the South and its accompanying racial disaster. Racial animosity and hypocrisy have been an underappreciated but fundamental aspect of the white North, both before and after the Civil War.

As a chronicler of racial hypocrisy, Dattel is unsparing. White Northerners, including abolitionists, did not want free blacks living among them, and invested much energy in keeping blacks in the South picking cotton while white immigrants poured in to the North and West. Remember that the family of Eliza, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, having freed themselves, emigrate to Liberia at last.

Dattel writes:

We forget that anti-slavery for the most part also meant anti-black. White Americans have decoupled the horrors of slavery from the condition of free blacks. In a fit of national self-congratulation, Americans have applauded emancipation and relapsed into historical amnesia with respect to the condition of blacks in the North.

If you’re looking for the roots of present-day liberal hypocrisy on race, here they are.

Civil rights? Dattel writes:

[Reconstruction-era] Republican congressman Samuel W. Moulton of Illinois supported civil rights legislation to contain freedmen in the South. He was quite explicit: “Whenever the colored man is completely and fully protected in the southern states he will never visit Illinois, and he will never visit Indiana, and every northern state will be depopulated of colored people as will be Canada.”

[My italics.]

I’m normally skeptical of economistic explanations for historical events. But Dattel is convincing that the financial power of cotton, combined with the natural racial antipathy between white and black, drove U.S. history for almost a century and a half, through the slave era and beyond.

There’s much to learn here, and I’ll gratefully take (using the email address here) book recommendations from readers.

In the matter of slavery, though, I already feel sure that the shallow good North, bad South simplicities of Abolitionist Porn and popular perception bear little relation to the thorny tangles of reality.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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