Excerpt- On the Definition and Practice of American Slavery

The following is taken from the Introduction to Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, published by a leading group of Southern conservatives in 1860. The unnamed author here succinctly covers some of the characteristics of slavery as practiced in the South. This is important because the question of slavery is at the heart of any analysis of Southern history, and it is wrought with a deep well of preconceived notions that don’t hold up upon closer inspection. I invite all to peruse the work at the above link and compare with a leading anti-slavery work on the subject, Hinton Rower Helper’s The Impending Crisis.  Highlighted passages bolded by me.

In the following pages, the words slave and slavery are not used in the sense commonly understood by the abolitionists. With them these terms are contradistinguished from servants and servitude. According to their definition, a slave is merely a “chattel” in a human form; a thing to be bought and sold, and treated worse than a brute; a being without rights, privileges, or duties. Now, if this is a correct definition of the word, we totally object to the term, and deny that we have any such institution as slavery among us. We recognize among us no class, which, as the abolitionists falsely assert, that the Supreme Court decided “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” The words slave and servant are perfectly synonymous, and differ only in being derived from different languages; the one from Sclavonic, the other from the Latin, just as feminine and womanly are respectively of Latin and Saxon origin. The Saxon synonym thrall has become obsolete in our language, but some of its derivatives, as thralldom, are still in use. In Greek the same idea was expressed by doulos, and in Hebrew by ebed. The one idea of servitude, or of obedience to the will of another, is accurately expressed by all these terms. He who wishes to see this topic thoroughly examined, may consult “Fletcher’s Studies on Slavery.”

The word slavery is used in the following discussions, to express the condition of the African race in our Southern States, as also in other parts of the world, and in other times. This word, as defined by most writers, does not truly express the relation which the African race in our country, now bears to the white race. In some parts of the world, the relation has essentially changed, while the word to express it has remained the same. In most countries of the world, especially in former times, the persons of the slaves were the absolute property of the master, and might be used or abused, as caprice or passion might dictate. Under the Jewish law, a slave might be beaten to death by his master, and yet the master go entirely unpunished, unless the slave died outright under his hand. Under the Roman law, slaves had no rights whatever, and were scarcely recognized as human beings; indeed, they were sometimes drowned in fish-ponds, to feed the eels. Such is not the labor system among us. As an example of faulty definition, we will adduce that of Paley: “Slavery,” says he, “is an obligation to labor for the benefit of the master, without the contract or consent of the servant.” Waiving, for the present, the accuracy of this definition, as far as it goes, we would remark that it is only half of the definition; the only idea here conveyed is that of compulsory and unrequited labor. Such is not our labor-system. Though we prefer the term slave, yet if this be its true definition, we much protest against its being applied to our system of African servitude, and insist that some other term shall be used. The true definition of the term, as applicable to the domestic institution in the Southern States, is as follows: Slavery is the duty and obligation of the slave to labor for the mutual benefit of both master and slave, under a warrant to the slave of protection, and a comfortable subsistence, under all circumstances. The person of the slave is not property, no matter what the fictions of the law may say; but the right to his labor is property, and may be transferred like any other property, or as the right to the services of a minor or an apprentice may be transferred. Nor is the labor of the slave solely for the benefit of the master, but for the benefit of all concerned; for himself, to repay the advances made for his support in childhood, for present subsistence, and for guardianship and protection, and to accumulate a fund for sickness, disability, and old age. The master, as the head of the system, has a right to the obedience and labor of the slave, but the slave has also his mutual rights in the master; the right of protection, the right of counsel and guidance, the right of subsistence, the right of care and attention in sickness and old age. He has also a right in his master as the sole arbiter in all his wrongs and difficulties, and as a merciful judge and dispenser of law to award the penalty of his misdeeds. Such is American slavery, or as Mr. Henry Hughes happily terms it, “Warranteeism.”


One thought on “Excerpt- On the Definition and Practice of American Slavery

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/04/17) | The Reactivity Place

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