Monday, September 21, 2015

Ten Myths About Slavery, Part Two

Ten Myths About Slavery

During my research to write the poem, Two Mistakes (previously described here), I learned much about the American institution of slavery that existed from the colonial times until the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). As I processed a lot of information, I wished that I could have had much of it distilled and in one place. Here it is, a continuation of myths about slavery.

The Ten Myths.

Myth #1. At the time of the establishment of the United States, slavery existed in the Southern states while the Northern states were free.
Myth #2. If a slave escaped from the Southern states to the Northern states, that slave was free.
Myth #3. Slaveowners who chose to, could grant their slaves their freedom.
Myth #4. Slaves were luxury items: few households in the South had slaves.
Myth #5. Many slaveowners treated their slaves as family.
Myth #6. Being a slave was no worse off than a peon during the Industrial Revolution.
Myth #7. Only blacks were slaves.
Myth #8. Pre-Civil War America was a stalemate between the slave states and the free states.
Myth #9. What the Dred Scott decision said.
Myth #10. Slavery is far behind us.

 Myth #1 and 2 were discussed in the previous post.

Myth #3. Slaveowners who chose to, could grant their slaves their freedom.

The institution of slavery outlawed civility, generosity and decency. Manumission was the legal term for freeing a slave. A small percentage of slaves lived in the right time and place to be eligible for manumission. The free black population made up 13.7% of the total black population in 1830 and 11% in 1860. The South treated the free black population as a nuisance and a threat. To limit its growth, rules forbidding manumission became more common during the nineteenth century and after awhile only Virginia allowed unrestricted manumission. Even then Virginia required that the freed slaves move out of state within a year. Most Southern states passed laws to effectively prevent manumission. Typical is the case of South Carolina. In 1820, South Carolina passed a law stating that individual slaves could be freed only through a legislative act. This led to some odd arrangements. Some slaveowners who still wanted to free their slaves responded by transferring ownership of slaves to freed blacks. Alabama allowed manumission as part of wills. Again, the freed slave had one year to get out of the state.

The decennial censuses counted how many slaves were freed during the most recent year. During the year 1850, one out of 2181 slaves were given freedom.

Furthermore, it should be noted that granting a slave freedom after a lifetime of service was sometimes used as a way of dumping property and relinquishing ties after a slave became too old to be useful.

Myth #4. Slaves were luxury items: few households in the South had slaves.

Although slaves became increasingly costly to purchase over time, a better analogy than luxury item would be a major investment. Those who try to diminish how many slaveowners were in the South tend to do so by counting overall population. Households were large and slave ownership was not spread out to each individual member of the house.

On the extreme end, in 1850, 70.3% of Georgian families owned slaves. In South Carolina, the figure was 48.4% and, on the lower end, Maryland had 18.3%.

Myth #5. Many slaveowners treated their slaves as family.

The institution of slavery became an evermore accumulating set of onerous rules that outlawed generosity. In every Southern state it was illegal to teach a slave to read. The physical punishment of slaves was not optional, it was often required by law. Even for those slaves who were well-treated, they could be sold if their owners met financial emergency or ruin. The families of slaves would be divided. No slaveowners treated their families this way.

Did some slaveowners treat their slaves like befriended servants? This speaks to one of the greatest cruelties of slavery. The owner had the right to decide whether to work their slave to death or act within reason. They could decide whether to treat their property as human or animal.

On the other hand, it is true that many slaveholders felt a bond for their possessions. In advertisements to help track runaway slaves, the owners often describe a sense of woundedness, seemingly surprised that their slaves abandoned them.

Source: David Brion Davis, The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. (Page 194), Alfred Knopf.

Myth #6. Being a slave was no worse off than a peon during the Industrial Revolution.

This could be treated as a partial truth. There was certainly some overlap between the worst a worker in the Industrial Revolution could be treated and the best a slave could be treated. It might even be argued that England was willing to abolish chattel slavery because it had developed a new form. There are several lines of argument which point to slavery being the worse of the two.

First, this issue was addressed by ex-slaves. While visiting England, Frederick Douglass was asked to support the movements seeking expanded rights and better treatment of industrial workers. While he did acknowledge the oft-times horridness of the conditions, he also bridled at this being equal to or worse than chattel slavery. He had seen both.

Secondly, for the United States at least, there was enough of a shortage of labor that the Industrial Revolution did not result in quite as cruel conditions as those in Britain.

Thirdly, in cases of areas where slavery was abolished, such as the British colonies in the 1830s, the former slaveowners were hard-pressed to get the workers to produce as much. They needed total slave control in order to work labor under such harsh conditions.

And lastly, of course, this is where individuals such as Douglass were offended by the comparisons. There was a huge difference in that slavery meant being owned, being cruelly punished, being sold at any time, and having your family sold.

Source: Frederick Douglass Confronts the World in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Alfred Knopf, 2014.

 Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. His latest mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


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