Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: McDurmon’s Rejection of Christendom and Embrace of Egalitarianism
Part 3: McDurmon’s Use of Sources
Part 4: The Slave Trade and Slave Breeding
Part 5: Rape
Part 6: Separation of Families and Systematic Injustice
In this edition of our review of McDurmon’s new book on slavery, we examine the claims that he makes about the brutality of slave owners.
McDurmon alleges that slaves were often punished in brutal fashion in order to force compliance and break the spirit of those who would resist their masters. McDurmon reproduces modern scholarship which portrays the Antebellum South as a veritable horror film of rapine and torture:
Characteristically, stocks closed on hapless women and children, mothers cried for the infants torn cruelly from their arms, and whimpering black women fought vainly to preserve their virtue in the face of the lash or pleaded for mercy while blood flowed from their bare buttocks. A cacophony of horrendous sounds constantly reverberated throughout such plantations: nauseated black men vomited while strung up over slowly burning tobacco leaves, vicious dogs tore black flesh, black men moaned as they were hung up by the thumbs with the whip raising deep welts on their backs and as they were bent over barrels or tied down to stakes while paddles with holes in them broke blisters on their rumps. Frequently, blacks called God’s name in vain as they fainted from their master’s hundredth stroke or as they had their brains blown out. The slaves described masters of this stripe as besotted, vicious, deceitful, coarse, licentious, bloodthirsty, heartless, and hypocritical Christians who were pitiless fiends.1
McDurmon also asserts that runaway slaves could be punished with mutilation in order to discourage additional slaves from running away. He cites a colonial law that allowed masters to punish slaves “‘by dismembering, or any other way, not touching his life, as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming of such incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from like practices.’ As Morgan notes, ‘This was no idle threat.’ In an exemplary case, the court empowered a slave owner to punish two such ‘Incorrigible negroes’ by ‘cutting of[f] their toes.’”2
The ethics of punishing slaves is treated by Exodus 21:21-22, 26-27. This passage specifically forbids murder or mutilation of servants, but the Law does allow a servant to be chastised to the extent that he or she is put out of commission for “a day or two.” The rationale given is that the servant is the property of the master (in terms of his or her uncompensated labor), and a master would not naturally want to cause excessive harm to his servants which would result in the loss of valuable productivity. If the servant is chastised within reasonable limits, the presumption of the Law is that this punishment is deserved, but masters who could not control their anger and caused permanent damage to slaves were unfit and had to allow the wronged slaves to go free. I mention this because this is anathema to the modern academics whom McDurmon has consulted. They would undeniably consider passages like this from the Bible to be a source of the evils that they report.
McDurmon’s sources are utterly at variance with the scholarship of eminent historian Eugene Genovese, who paints an altogether different picture.
In seventeenth-century Virginia a master could not murder a slave. . . . In time, Virginia and the other slave states thought better of the matter. In 1821, South Carolina became the last of the slave states to declare itself clearly in protection of slave life. During the nineteenth century, despite state-by-state variations, slaveholders theoretically faced murder charges for wantonly killing a slave or for causing his death by excessive punishment. . . . When whites did find before the bar of justice, especially during the late antebellum period, they could expect greater severity than might be imagined. The penalties seldom reached the extreme or the level they would have if the victim had been white, but neither did they usually qualify as a slap on the wrist. . . . Despite so weak a legal structure, the slaves in the United States probably suffered the ultimate crime of violence less frequently than did those in other American slave societies, and white killers probably faced justice more often in the Old South than elsewhere.3
Genovese also offers a different portrayal of the punishment of slaves:
Nor did slaveholders think they were committing a crime by whipping their slaves. Throughout the South whites submitted to public whippings for minor crimes; pupils, especially of the lower classes, suffered more corporal punishment than even its advocates might have approved; white men whipped their wives and parents their children. . . . Ex-slaves told of masters who refused to whip their slaves or who whipped them only rarely. There were such masters, and not so few that they qualified as curiosities.4
Even conservative clergy in the North defended the general conduct of slave owners in the South. John Henry Hopkins was the first Episcopal Bishop of Vermont and one of the most accomplished men of his day. He excelled in many different fields of study, and abandoned a promising legal career in order to pursue the ministry. Hopkins wrote,
The servants at the South, for the most part, receive good treatment, as is evident from the census returns of 1860. During that year there were 3000 servants manumitted, and 803 escaped to the North, making a total loss to the slave population of 3803. Taking this as the average for the past decade, there would have been a loss to the slave population of 38,030. But with these odds against them, the slave population at the South increased during the decade ending in 1860 no less than 23.39 per cent, while the free blacks, after being augmented by about 38,030, increased only 12.33 per cent. The women, at times when their health is delicate, are not required to labor, being taken about as good care of as a member of the white family under similar circumstances.5
Nehemiah Adams was a conservative Congregationalist who defended trinitarian orthodoxy. Adams wrote A South-Side View of Slavery in 1854, describing three months he spent in proximity to Southern slavery, and he drew similar conclusions as Hopkins. Adams wrote of his experience in New Orleans,
No one who has spent a month in New Orleans will deny the fact that the colored population of our city is a happy, well-dressed, and improving race. They are far above the poorer class, or day laborers, of northern towns, in all that tends to comfort and freedom from care. . . . There is no countenance sharpened by want; there is no miserable caricature of humanity, redolent with filth, with rags fluttering in the breeze; there is no infantile visage crushed into the mould of age; but ever varied as our colored population is in features and dress, there is the undoubted proof of enjoyment, of plenty, of kind treatment, and of contentedness.6
Adams’s comments about the South reveal a very different picture from the one that McDurmon has presented from modern sources. If the abuses that McDurmon presents really were as systemic as he believes that they were, then outstanding Christian witnesses like R.L. Dabney, James Henley Thornwell, John Henry Hopkins, and Nehemiah Adams were all malicious liars of the worst sort. It is almost impossible to imagine that the finest Christian witnesses from this period of history were so pernicious. This is undoubtedly the conclusion that modern academics would have us believe.7
How did prominent Southerners treat their slaves? Nathan Bedford Forrest was a prominent general for the Confederacy. It may surprise many to read that his former slave maintained friendly relations with Forrest and his family after Forrest’s death. The same can be said for the former slaves of Jefferson Davis’s family. After the passing of President Davis, his former slaves wrote to his widow, “We, the old servants and tenants of our beloved master, Hon. Jefferson Davis, have cause to mingle our tears over his death, who was always so kind and thoughtful of our peace and happiness. We extend to you our humble sympathy.”
Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were not outliers. A diary of Louisiana slaveowner Bennet H. Barrow provides very interesting insight into plantation life during the antebellum period.8 Diaries are private, so typically their authors aren’t writing for the benefit of posterity. Barrow’s candor is very useful to understanding how a typical Southern slaveowner conducted his plantation. Barrow’s diary catalogues slaves being punished, but it also contains references of Barrow allowing his slaves to go to into town for Christmas and buying presents for his slaves. Records taken from the testimony of former slaves by the Federal Writer’s Project suggest that most slaves had positive experiences with their masters. We can infer that McDurmon’s horrific depiction of slavery is false from the fact that relatively few slaves abandoned their masters even under circumstances in which it would have been favorable to do so.
The aforementioned John Henry Hopkins made this observation in the nineteenth century:
And when, to the ordinary sympathies of nature, we add the duty of religion in the case of those who are Christians, how manifest does it seem that the treatment of the slave, as a general rule, must be in accordance with justice, benevolence, and conscientious care? That it is so, is proved by the direct testimony of the Southern clergy, and by these unquestionable facts besides : First, that notwithstanding all the inducements held out by ultra-abolitionists, only eight hundred and three slaves out of four millions, (or one in five thousand,) abandoned their masters in the year 1860, while three thousand were voluntarily emancipated.9
Thomas Jackson notes,
It is embarrassing to contemporary historians that there were not more slave mutinies in the South. Prof. [David Brion] Davis notes that plantations with 50 slaves or more had an average of only 1.5 white men on the premises, so blacks could have easily overpowered them. Insurrection was more common in Brazil and in the Caribbean, but this is not surprising. All-male gang slaves, who knew they were going to be worked to death, and had no hope of having children or grandchildren had little to lose. In the South, even during the war, when white men were at the front, there were hardly any slave revolts to speak of.10
The lack of slave revolts is perhaps the most damning evidence against McDurmon’s absurd claims. If slavery was anywhere near as brutal as McDurmon claims, we would expect slaves to have rebelled far more than they did. Slave revolts did happen, and the Nat Turner massacre was particularly heinous. Interestingly enough, what McDurmon does not say about the Turner uprising is of interest to us, and this will be discussed in the next article.
Read Part 8: Glaring Omissions and Conclusion
- John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 260-262; Jack Larking, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790—1840 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 262-263, 292-293, 304-24. Cited in McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 8553-8574). McDurmon continues, “The scholar who compiled this list admitted it would have sounded too harsh were it not substantiated by ‘a great deal of evidence in antebellum court records, newspapers, memoirs, and plantation diaries.’ He continues, ‘Quite frequently, even the most cultured of planters were so inured to brutality that they thought little about the punishment meted out to slaves. Floggings of 50 to 75 lashes were not uncommon. On numerous occasions, planters branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burned, shackled, tortured, maimed, crippled, mutilated, and castrated their slaves. Thousands of slaves were flogged so severely that they were permanently scarred. . . . In one outstanding case, a Mississippi planter must have exhausted himself, or held shifts, when he placed a full 1,000 lashes on an unfortunate slave’s back. Make no mistake, either, the reference to ‘court records’ rarely means such men were brought into court to account for justice to the slave, but rather that owners were usually suing overseers or others for damages to their investment. There is no end to the catalogue of atrocities. Whips were used regularly, but so were ‘sticks, pistols, knives, fists, feet, shovels, and tongs’ or virtually any suitable object within reach.” ↩
- William W. Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (New York: R. and W. and G. Bartow, 1819-1823), 3:461 and Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. &. W. Norton, 1975), 312-313. Cited in McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 1441-1445). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Genovese, Eugene D., Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976, pp. 37-39. ↩
- Ibid. p. 64 ↩
- Hopkins, John Henry. A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, 1864, p. 321. ↩
- Adams, Nehemiah. A South-Side View of Slavery: Or Three Months at the South, 1854, p. 188. ↩
- For more information pertaining to the practice of slavery in the South, see “Slavery: Demolishing The Yankee Stereotypes,” “Slavery Myths: Southern Slavery and Human Development,” and “Slavery Myths: Life Expectancy” by Hunter Wallace at Occidental Dissent. ↩
- See here and here for relevant entries from Barrow’s diary. ↩
- Hopkins, John Henry. A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, 1864, p. 330. ↩
- Jackson, Thomas. Slavery in The New World, American Renaissance, December 2006. Review of David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press. ↩