Excerpt- Phillips on the Character of Southern Slavery, Pt. III

Introduction and Part I here. Part II here. This section is taken from Chapter XVI, “Plantation Life.”

WHEN Hakluyt wrote in 1584 his Discourse of Western Planting, his theme was the project of American colonization; and when a settlement was planted at Jamestown, at Boston or at Providence as the case might be, it was called, regardless of the type, a plantation. This usage of the word in the sense of a colony ended only upon the rise of a new institution to which the original name was applied. The colonies at large came then to be known as provinces or dominions, while the sub-colonies, the privately owned village estates which prevailed in the South, were alone called plantations. In the Creole colonies, however, these were known as habitations—dwelling places. This etymology of the name suggests the nature of the thing—an isolated place where people in somewhat peculiar groups settled and worked and had their being. The standard community comprised a white household in the midst of several or many negro families. The one was master, the many were slaves; the one was head, the many were members; the one was teacher, the many were pupils.


The lives of the whites and the blacks were partly segregate, partly intertwined. If any special link were needed, the children supplied it. The whites ones, hardly knowing their mothers from their mammies or their uncles by blood from their “uncles” by courtesy, had the freedom of the kitchen and the cabins, and the black ones were their playmates in the shaded sandy yard the livelong day. Together they were regaled with folklore in the quarters, with Bible and fairy stories in the “big house,” with pastry in the kitchen, with grapes at the scuppernong arbor, with melons at the spring house and with peaches in the orchard. The half-grown boys were likewise almost as undiscriminating among themselves as the dogs with which they chased rabbits by day and ‘possums by night. Indeed, when the fork in the road of life was reached, the white youths found something to envy in the freedom of their fellows’ feet from the cramping weight of shoes and the freedom of their minds from the restraints of school. With the approach of maturity came routine and responsibility for the whites, routine alone for the generality of the blacks. Some of the males of each race grew into ruffians, others into gentlemen in the literal sense, some of the females into viragoes, others into gentlewomen; but most of both races and sexes merely became plain, wholesome folk of a somewhat distinctive plantation type. In amusements and in religion the activities of the whites and blacks were both mingled and separate. Fox hunts when occurring by day were as a rule diversions only for the planters and their sons and guests, but when they occurred by moonlight the chase was joined by the negroes on foot with halloos which rivalled the music of the hounds. By night also the blacks, with the whites occasionally joining in, sought the canny ‘possum and the embattled ‘coon; in spare times by day they hied their curs after the fleeing Brer Rabbit, or built and baited seductive traps for turkeys and quail; and fishing was available both by day and by night. At the horse races of the whites the jockeys and many of the spectators were negroes; while from the cock fights and even the “crap” games of the blacks, white men and boys were not always absent.

Festivities were somewhat more separate than sports, though by no means wholly so. In the gayeties of Christmas the members of each race were spectators of the dances and diversions of the other. Likewise marriage merriment in the great house would have its echo in the quarters; and sometimes marriages among the slaves were grouped so as to give occasion for a general frolic. Thus Daniel R. Tucker in 1858 sent a general invitation over the countryside in central Georgia to a sextuple wedding among his slaves, with dinner and dancing to follow. On the whole, the fiddle, the banjo and the bones were not seldom in requisition. It was a matter of discomfort that in the evangelical churches dancing and religion were held to be incompatible. At one time on Thomas Dabney’s plantation in Mississippi, for instance, the whole negro force fell captive in a Baptist “revival” and forswore the double shuffle. “I done buss’ my fiddle an’ my banjo, and done fling ’em away,” the most music-loving fellow on the place said to the preacher when asked for his religious experiences. Such a condition might be tolerable so long as it was voluntary; but the planters were likely to take precautions against its becoming coercive. James H. Hammond, for instance, penciled a memorandum in his plantation manual: “Church members are privileged to dance on all holyday occasions; and the class-leader or deacon who may report them shall be reprimanded or punished at the discretion of the master.”  The logic with which sin and sanctity were often reconciled is illustrated in Irwin Russell’s remarkably faithful “Christmas in the Quarters.” “Brudder Brown” has advanced upon the crowded floor to “beg a blessin’ on dis dance:”


The churches which had the greatest influence upon the negroes were those which relied least upon ritual and most upon exhilaration. The Baptist and Methodist were foremost, and the latter had the special advantage of the chain of camp meetings which extended throughout the inland regions. At each chosen spot the planters and farmers of the countryside would jointly erect a great shed or “stand” in the midst of a grove, and would severally build wooden shelters or “tents” in a great square surrounding it. When the crops were laid by in August, the households would remove thither, their wagons piled high with bedding, chairs and utensils to keep “open house” with heavy-laden tables for all who might come to the meeting. With less elaborate equipment the negroes also would camp in the neighborhood and attend the same service as the whites, sitting generally in a section of the stand set apart for them. The camp meeting, in short, was the chief social and religious event of the year for all the Methodist whites and blacks within reach of the ground and for such non-Methodists as cared to attend. For some of the whites this occasion was highly festive, for others, intensely religious; but for any negro it might easily be both at once. Preachers in relays delivered sermons at brief intervals from sunrise until after nightfall; and most of the sermons were followed by exhortations for sinners to advance to the mourners’ benches to receive the more intimate and individual suasion of the clergy and their corps of assisting brethren and sisters. The condition was highly hypnotic, and the professions of conversion were often quite as ecstatic as the most fervid ministrant could wish. The negroes were particularly welcome to the preachers, for they were likely to give the promptest response to the pulpit’s challenge and set the frenzy going. A Georgia preacher, for instance, in reporting from one of these camps in 1807, wrote: “The first day of the meeting, we had a gentle and comfortable moving of the spirit of the Lord among us; and at night it was much more powerful than before, and the meeting was kept up all night without intermission. However, before day the white people retired, and the meeting was continued by the black people.” It is easy to see who led the way to the mourners’ bench. “Next day,” the preacher continued, “at ten o’clock the meeting was remarkably lively, and many souls were deeply wrought upon; and at the close of the sermon there was a general cry for mercy, and before night there were a good many persons who professed to get converted. That night the meeting continued all night, both by the white and black people, and many souls were converted before day.” The next day the stir was still more general. Finally, “Friday was the greatest day of all. We had the Lord’s Supper at night, . . . and such a solemn time I have seldom seen on the like occasion. Three of the preachers fell helpless within the altar, and one lay a considerable time before he came to himself. From that the work of convictions and conversions spread, and a large number were converted during the night, and there was no intermission until the break of day. At that time many stout hearted sinners were conquered. On Saturday we had preaching at the rising of the sun; and then with many tears we took leave of each other.


In these manifestations the negroes merely followed and enlarged upon the example of some of the whites. The similarity of practices, however, did not promote a permanent mingling of the two races in the same congregations, for either would feel some restraint upon its rhapsody imposed by the presence of the other. To relieve this there developed in greater or less degree a separation of the races for purposes of worship, white ministers preaching to the blacks from time to time in plantation missions, and home talent among the negroes filling the intervals. While some of the black exhorters were viewed with suspicion by the whites, others were highly esteemed and unusually privileged. One of these at Lexington, Kentucky, for example, was given the following pass duly signed by his master: “Tom is my slave, and has permission to go to Louisville for two or three weeks and return here after he has made his visit. Tom is a preacher of the reformed Baptist church, and has always been a faithful servant.”7 As a rule the greater the proportion of negroes in a district or a church connection, the greater the segregation in worship. If the whites were many and the negroes few, the latter would be given the gallery or some other group of pews; but if the whites were few and the negroes many, the two elements would probably worship in separate buildings. Even in such case, however, it was very common for a parcel of black domestics to flock with their masters rather than with their fellows.


Of the progress and effects of religion in the lowlands Allston and Middleton thought well. The latter said, “In every respect I feel encouraged to go on.” The former wrote: “Of my own negroes and those in my immediate neighborhood I may speak with confidence. They are attentive to religious instruction and greatly improved in intelligence and morals, in domestic relations, etc. Those who have grown up under religious training are more intelligent and generally, though not always, more improved than those who have received religious instruction as adults. Indeed the degree of intelligence which as a class they are acquiring is worthy of deep consideration.” Thomas Fuller, the reporter from the Beaufort neighborhood, however, was as much apprehensive as hopeful. While the negroes had greatly improved in manners and appearance as a result of coming to worship in town every Sunday, said he, the freedom which they were allowed for the purpose was often misused in ways which led to demoralization. He strongly advised the planters to keep the slaves at home and provide instruction there.

From the upland cotton belt a Presbyterian minister in the Chester district wrote: “You are all aware, gentlemen, that the relation and intercourse between the whites and the blacks in the up-country are very different from what they are in the lowcountry. With us they are neither so numerous nor kept so entirely separate, but constitute a part of our households, and are daily either with their masters or some member of the white family. From this circumstance they feel themselves more identified with their owners than they can with you. I minister steadily to two different congregations. More than one hundred blacks attend. . . . The gallery, or a quarter of the house, is appropriated to them in all our churches, and they enjoy the preached gospel in common with the whites.” Finally, from the Greenville district, on the upper edge of the Piedmont, where the Methodists and Baptists were completely dominant among whites and blacks alike, it was reported: “About one fourth of the members in the churches are negroes. In the years 1832, ‘3 and ‘4 great numbers of negroes joined the churches during a period of revival. Many, I am sorry to say, have since been excommunicated. As the general zeal in religion declined, they backslid.” There were a few licensed negro preachers, this writer continued, who were thought to do some good; but the general improvement in negro character, he thought, was mainly due to the religious and moral training given by their masters, and still more largely by their mistresses. From all quarters the expression was common that the promotion of religion among the slaves was not only the duty of masters but was to their interest as well in that it elevated the morals of the workmen and improved the quality of the service they rendered.

In general, the less the cleavage of creed between master and man, the better for both, since every factor conducing to solidarity of sentiment was of advantage in promoting harmony and progress. When the planter went to sit under his rector while the slave stayed at home to hear an exhorter, just so much was lost in the sense of fellowship. It was particularly unfortunate that on the rice coast the bulk of the blacks had no co-religionists except among the non-slaveholding whites with whom they had more conflict than community of economic and sentimental interest. On the whole, however, in spite of the contrary suggestion of irresponsible religious preachments and manifestations, the generality of the negroes everywhere realized, like the whites, that virtue was to be acquired by consistent self-control in the performance of duty rather than by the alternation of spasmodic reforms and relapses.


The slaves not only had their own functionaries in mystic matters, including a remnant of witchcraft, but in various temporal concerns also. Foremen, chosen by masters with the necessary sanction of the slaves, had industrial and police authority; nurses were minor despots in sick rooms and plantation hospitals; many an Uncle Remus was an oracle in folklore; and many an Aunt Dinah was arbitress of style in turbans and of elegancies in general. Even in the practice of medicine a negro here and there gained a sage’s reputation. The governor of Virginia reported in 1729 that he had “met with a negro, a very old man, who has performed many wonderful cures of diseases. For the sake of his freedom he has revealed the medicine, a concoction of roots and barks. . . . There is no room to doubt of its being a certain remedy here, and of singular use among the negroes—it is well worth the price (£60) of the negro’s freedom, since it is now known how to cure slaves without mercury.” And in colonial South Carolina a slave named Caesar was particularly famed for his cure for poison, which was a decoction of plantain, hoarhound and golden rod roots compounded with rum and lye, together with an application of tobacco leaves soaked in rum in case of rattlesnake bite. In 1750 the legislature ordered his prescription published for the benefit of the public, and the Charleston journal which printed it found its copies exhausted by the demand. An example of more common episodes appears in a letter from William Dawson, a Potomac planter, to Robert Carter of Nomoni Hall, asking that “Brother Tom,” Carter’s coachman, be sent to see a sick child in his quarter. Dawson continued: “The black people at this place hath more faith in him as a doctor than any white doctor; and as I wrote you in a former letter I cannot expect you to lose your man’s time, etc., for nothing, but am quite willing to pay for same.””

Each plantation had a double head in the master and the mistress. The latter, mother of a romping brood of her own and over-mother of the pickaninny throng, was the chatelaine of the whole establishment. Working with a never flagging constancy, she carried the indoor keys, directed the household routine and the various domestic industries, served as head nurse for the sick, and taught morals and religion by precept and example. Her hours were long, her diversions few, her voice quiet, her influence firm. Her presence made the plantation a home; her absence would have made it a factory. The master’s concern was mainly with the able-bodied in the routine of the crops. He laid the plans, guessed the weather, ordered the work, and saw to its performance. He was out early and in late, directing, teaching, encouraging, and on occasion punishing. Yet he found time for going to town and for visits here and there, time for politics, and time for sports. If his duty as he saw it was sometimes grim, and his disappointments keen, hearty diversions were at hand to restore his equanimity. His horn hung near and his hounds made quick response on Reynard’s trail, and his neighbors were ready to accept his invitations and give theirs lavishly in return, whether to their’houses or to their fields. When their absences from home were long, as they might well be in the public service, they were not unlikely upon return to meet such a reception as Henry Laurens described: “I found nobody there but three of our old domestics—Stepney, Exeter and big Hagar. These drew tears from me by their humble and affectionate salutes. My knees were clasped, my hands kissed, my very feet embraced, and nothing less than a very—I can’t say fair, but full —buss of my lips would satisfy the old man weeping and sobbing in my face. . . . They . . . held my hands, hung upon me; I could scarce get from them. ‘Ah,’ said the old man, I never thought to see you again; now I am happy; Ah, I never thought to see you again.’ ”


Van Buren found the towns in the Yazoo Valley so small as barely to be entitled to places on the map; he found the planters’ houses to be commonly mere log structures, as the farmers’ houses about his own home in Michigan had been twenty years before; and he found the roads so bad that the mule teams could hardly draw their wagons nor the spans of horses their chariots except in dry weather. But when on his horseback errands in search of a position he learned to halloo from the roadway and was regularly met at each gate with an extended hand and a friendly “How do you do, sir? Won’t you alight, come in, take a seat and sit awhile?”; when he was invariably made a member of any circle gathered on the porch and refreshed with cool water from the cocoanut dipper or with any other beverages in circulation; when he was asked as a matter of course to share any meal in prospect and to spend the night or day, he discovered charms even in the crudities of the pegs for hanging saddles on the porch and the crevices between the logs of the wall for the keeping of pipes and tobacco, books and newspapers. Finally, when the planter whose house he had made headquarters for two months declined to accept a penny in payment, Van Buren’s heart overflowed. The boys whom he then began to teach he found particularly apt in historical studies, and their parents with whom he dwelt were thorough gentlefolk.

Toward the end of his narrative, Van Buren expressed the thought that Mississippi, the newly settled home of people from all the older Southern states, exemplified the manners of all. He was therefore prompted to generalize and interpret: “A Southern gentleman is composed of the same material that a Northern gentleman is, only it is tempered by a Southern clime and mode of life. And if in this temperament there is a little more urbanity and chivalry, a little more politeness and devotion to the ladies, a little more suaviter in modo, why it is theirs—be fair and acknowledge it, and let them have it. He is from the mode of life he lives, especially at home, more or less a cavalier; he invariably goes a-horseback. His boot is always spurred, and his hand ensigned with the riding-whip. Aside from this he is known by his bearing—his frankness and firmness.” Furthermore he is a man of eminent leisureliness, which Van Buren accounts for as follows: “Nature is unloosed of her stays there; she is not crowded for time; the word haste is not in her vocabulary. In none of the seasons is she stinted to so short a space to perform her work as at the North. She has leisure enough to bud and blossom—to produce and mature fruit, and do all her work. While on the other hand in the North right the reverse is true. Portions are taken off the fall and spring to lengthen out the winter, making his reign nearly half the year. This crowds the work of the whole year, you might say, into about half of it. This . . . makes the essential difference between a Northerner and a Southerner. They are children of their respective climes; and this is why Southrons are so indifferent about time; they have three months more of it in a year than we have.

A key to Van Buren’s enthusiasm is given by a passage in the diary of the great English reporter, William H. Russell: “The more one sees of a planter’s life the greater is the conviction that its charms come from a particular turn of mind, which is separated by a wide interval from modern ideas in Europe. The planter is a denomadized Arab;—he has fixed himself with horses and slaves in a fertile spot, where he guards his women with Oriental care, exercises patriarchal sway, and is at once fierce, tender and hospitable. The inner life of his household is exceedingly charming, because one is astonished to find the graces and accomplishments of womanhood displayed in a scene which has a certain sort of savage rudeness about it after all, and where all kinds of incongruous accidents are visible in the service of the table, in the furniture of the house, in its decorations, menials, and surrounding scenery.” The Southerners themselves took its incongruities much as a matter of course. The regime was to their minds so clearly the best attainable under the circumstances that its roughnesses chafed little. The plantations were homes to which, as they were fond of singing, their hearts turned ever; and the negroes, exasperating as they often were to visiting strangers, were an element in the home itself. The problem of accommodation, which was the central problem of the life, was on the whole happily solved.

The separate integration of the slaves was no more than rudimentary. They were always within the social mind and conscience of the whites, as the whites in turn were within the mind and conscience of the blacks. The adjustments and readjustments were mutually made, for although the masters had by far the major power of control, the slaves themselves were by no means devoid of influence. A sagacious employer has well said, after long experience, “a negro understands a white man better than the white man understands the negro.”” This knowledge gave a power all its own. The general regime was in fact shaped by mutual requirements, concessions and understandings, producing reciprocal codes of conventional morality. Masters of the standard type promoted Christianity and the customs of marriage and parental care, and they instructed as much by example as by precept; they gave occasional holidays, rewards and indulgences, and permitted as large a degree of liberty as they thought the slaves could be trusted not to abuse; they refrained from selling slaves except under the stress of circumstances; they avoided cruel, vindictive and captious punishments, and endeavored to inspire effort through affection rather than through fear; and they were content with achieving quite moderate industrial results. In short their despotism, so far as it might properly be so called, was benevolent in intent and on the whole beneficial in effect.

Some planters there were who inflicted severe punishments for disobedience and particularly for the offense of running away; and the community condoned and even sanctioned a certain degree of this. Otherwise no planter would have printed such descriptions of scars and brands as were fairly common in the newspaper advertisements offering rewards for the recapture of absconders. When severity went to an excess that was reckoned as positive cruelty, however, the law might be invoked if white witnesses could be had; or the white neighbors or the slaves themselves might apply extra-legal retribution. The former were fain to be content with inflicting social ostracism or with expelling the offender from the district; the latter sometimes went so far as to set fire to the oppressor’s house or to accomplish his death by poison, cudgel, knife or bullet.”

In the typical group there was occasion for terrorism on neither side. The master was ruled by a sense of dignity, duty and moderation, and the slaves by a moral code of their own. This embraced a somewhat obsequious obedience, the avoidance of open indolence and vice, the attainment of moderate skill in industry, and the cultivation of the master’s good will and affection. It winked at petty theft, loitering and other little laxities, while it stressed good manners and a fine faithfulness in major concerns. While the majority were notoriously easy-going, very many made their master’s interests thoroughly their own; and many of the masters had perfect confidence in the loyalty of the bulk of their servitors. When on the eve of secession Edmund Ruffin foretold the fidelity which the slaves actually showed when the war ensued, he merely voiced the faith of the planter class.

In general the relations on both sides were felt to be based on pleasurable responsibility. The masters occasionally expressed this in their letters. William Allason, for example, who after a long career as a merchant at Falmouth, Virginia, had retired to plantation life, declined his niece’s proposal in 1787 that he return to Scotland to spend his declining years. In enumerating his reasons he concluded: “And there is another thing which in your country you can have no trial of: that is, of selling faithful slaves, which perhaps we have raised from their earliest breath. Even this, however, some can do, as with horses, etc., but I must own that it is not in my disposition.”


1 thought on “Excerpt- Phillips on the Character of Southern Slavery, Pt. III

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction Aesthetics (2015/05/08) | The Reactivity Place

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