ANTEBELLUM SLAVERY WAS PRIMARILY ECONOMIC IN NATURE Slavery formed the backbone of the South economically. It was just as much the political and social basis of Southern identity, too. With the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, southern plantation owners had to buy more slaves to keep up with the demand for cotton. There was an ever-present demand, particularly by Northern states, for cotton. There became a growing economic dependence on slavery. James Henry Hammond’s manual, Instructions to His Overseer (c. 1840-1850), was designed for use on his large South Carolina estate.
He was a strong supporter of slavery and the originator of the famous line, “Cotton is king. ” Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in February 1818, in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. Frederick would later change his name to Frederick Douglass after his escape from slavery in September 1838, and settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He did this to protect his identity, as he was a fugitive. He never saw his mother, Harriet Bailey, no more than four or five times in his life.
Frequently, before a child reached his twelfth month, its mother is taken from it. She is hired out on a farm a considerable distance off to hinder the natural affection of the mother for her child. His father was white. He never knew him; but, it was whispered that it was his master. His mother died when Frederick was about seven years old. He was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. Later in life, he came to realize that slaveholders had ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women would follow the condition of their mothers.
In his opinion, this was done to administer to their own lusts to make a gratification of their wicked and evil desires profitable as well as pleasurable. Such slaves would suffer greater hardships and cruel punishment because they were a constant offense to their mistress. Thus, the master was frequently compelled to sell this class of slaves who were his own children to appease his white wife. In 1824, Frederick was sent to live on Lloyd Plantation on the Wye River in the house of his master, Aaron Anthony, who was Colonel Lloyd’s clerk and superintendent. It was during this time that Frederick witnessed the horrible exhibition of eatings. He had never seen the bloody scenes that were to become a part of his life during his time of slavery. The home plantation of Colonel Lloyd appeared to be a country village with all of the farms’ operation of businesses being performed there. The slaves called it the “Great House Farm”. Frederick recalls in his writing of his book that he sensed the slaves’ abilities to make the most of their daily lives and of the political and moral economy of slavery. When Frederick was between seven and eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld, brother to his old master’s son-in-law, Captain Thomas Auld.
Hugh’s wife was Sophie Auld. Frederick was sent to take care of their son, Little Thomas. Mrs. Auld was from the north and had never owned a slave. She began to teach Frederick his ABC’s and how to spell words of three or four letters. Mr. Auld soon found out and instructed his wife that it was unlawful to teach a slave to read. Slowly, Mrs. Auld became corrupted and even worse than her teacher, her husband. For Douglass, learning to read and write allowed him to reach his goals of freedom, education, and self-reliance. Education would become his pathway to freedom.
He devised a plan to make friends of all the little white boys that he met in the street. When he was sent to run errands, he took his book with him and bread to give to the hungry boys who would in turn teach him to read. In 1831, Douglass came upon a book entitled “The Columbian Orator”. Through the reading of this book, he learned a great deal about the many layers of slavery and bondage. The book included a guide to the art of oratory that would later lead him to become a great orator and prophet of freedom from slavery. Slavery was ownership of that person.
They were given inadequate provisions as far as clothing, bedding, and food. There were beatings with the utmost cruelty. Bennet H. Barrow was a wealthy Louisiana slaveholder. He drew up a series of strict rules called “Highland Plantation Rules” and recommended them to other owners. In these instructions, he said that no Negro shall leave the place at any time without his permission nor would they be allowed to marry out of the plantation. Mr. Barrow further says that you must create in the slave a habit of perfect dependence upon the slaveholder.
He states in a part of these rules, “If I furnish my Negro with every necessary of life, without the least care on his part-if I support him in sickness, however long he does nothing-if I maintain him in his old age,…am I not entitled to an exclusive right in his time? ” He felt that the security of the plantation required this strict control over the slaves. To slaveholders, ownership of slaves must exist or the economy would suffer. Douglass felt that slavery was an economic institution that was in in contrast to learning; but, for him, knowledge was paramount to empower him to speak out against slavery after his escape.
Douglass points out in his writing that some believed that slavery was justifiable because passages of scripture in the Bible seemed to support it. But, he exposes the hypocritical nature of Southern Christianity by documenting that slave owners broke the laws of God in their treatment of slaves while professing Christianity. According to Douglass, it was by far in the best interest of the slave owner to keep his slaves ignorant of freedom and education because it might make them less useful as slaves. They had to keep slavery a stable institution. In James Henry Hammond’s “Instructions to His Overseer (c. 840-185)”, he points out in item one, “Crop”, the importance of a good crop. “A good crop means one that is good taking into consideration every thing-negroes, land, mules, stock, fences, ditches, farming utensils, &c. , &c. , all of which must be kept up and improved in value. The effort therefore must not be merely to make so many cotton bales or such an amount of other produce, but as much as can be made without interrupting the steady increase in value of the rest of the property. ” There was no question that without slavery the antebellum South would crumble.
The South continued their claim to economic security through slavery until it became legally impossible after the Civil War. When Douglass escaped in 1838 to New Bedford, Massachusetts, he noticed there were no deep oaths or horrible curses on the laborer. He saw no whipping of men. There were splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, finely-cultivated gardens, and happy, clean, and healthy people that seemed to be evident of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement such as he had never before seen. Douglass refuted the mythology of slavery. In the North, he saw many more examples of wealth than he ever saw in the South.
The workers seemed much happier laboring for their own purpose and benefit. Additionally, machines had become more efficient and replaced some of the slave labor. Frederick Douglass married Anna Murray on September 15, 1838. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Soon after that, he began speaking at meetings against slavery. He was hired as a lecturer and traveled extensively across the North as an abolitionist speaker telling his story of having been a slave and the brutality of it. Mr. Douglass became involved in politics and was well known for his many literary achievements.
Through slavery, Douglass was able to develop the tools to become a successful abolitionist writer. His thirst for freedom and knowledge coupled with his intense hatred for slavery inspired him to write Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Many Southerners had a romantic image of slavery and believed it was a part of gracious and grand Southern living. This image of the Old South still exists today. It was further fortified by cultural iconic movies such as “Gone with the Wind”. That myth of the South leads one to believe that slaves were happy.
Frederick Douglass rebuked this image because it was just another myth. He related to his readers that slaves never sang because they were happy. They sang because they were sad. He wanted to show the world how bad slavery was by writing his own account of having been a slave. His well-written book came from the deep burning desire he had as a child to become literate. He had a cause and a story to tell that would debunk the mythology of slavery, particularly in the South. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. James Henry Hammond, Instructions to His Overseer (c. 840-1850), 1, in Readings for History 105-18: The United States to 1877, ed. Anne Twitty (Oxford, Miss. : Blackboard, 2012). [ 2 ]. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Second Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, 41. [ 3 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 116. [ 4 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 42. [ 5 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 46. [ 6 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 49. [ 7 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 60-63. 8 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 67. [ 9 ]. Bennet Barrow, as quoted in Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012), 407. [ 10 ]. 10 Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 120. 11Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 63. 12Hammond, Instructions to His Overseer (c. 1840-1850), 1. [ 13 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 117. [ 14 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 119. [ 15 ]. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 51.