FWD: Du Bois on the slave system

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Oct 21 14:03:57 MDT 2000

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From: "R.Kelly Mickey" <rkmickey at yahoo.com>
To: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com>
Sent: October 21, 2000 6:28:45 PM GMT
Subject: Du Bois on the slave system

Du Bois; Cleveland and New York, Meridian Books, The
World Publishing Company (1964 edition of book first
published 1935)
Chapter 1, "The Black Worker"  pp. 9-13 (footnotes

But there was in 1863 a real meaning to slavery
different from that we may apply to the laborer today.
It was in part psychological, the enforced personal
feeling of inferiority, the calling of another Master;
the standing with hat in hand. It was the
helplessness. It was the defenselessness of family
life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will
of any sort of individual. It was without doubt worse
in these vital respects than that which exists today
in Europe or America. Its analogue today is the
yellow, brown and black laborer in China and India, in
Africa, in the forests of the Amazon; and it was this
slavery that fell in America.

The slavery of Negroes in the South was not usually a
deliberately cruel and oppressive system. It did not
mean systematic starvation or murder. On the other
hand, it is just as difficult to conceive as quite
true the idyllic picture of a patriarchal state with
cultured and humane masters under whom slaves were as
children, guided and trained in work and play, given
even such mental training as was for their good, and
for the well-being of the surrounding world.

The victims of Southern slavery were often happy; had
usually adequate food for their health, and shelter
sufficient for a mild climate. The Southerners could
say with some justification that when the mass of
their field hands were compared with the worst class
of laborers in the slums of New York and Philadelphia,
and the factory towns of New England, the black slaves
were as well off and in some particulars better off.
Slaves lived largely in the country where health
conditions were better; they worked in the open air,
and their hours were about the current hours for
peasants throughout Europe. They received no formal
education, and neither did the Irish peasant, the
English factory-laborer, nor the German Bauer; and in
contrast with these free white laborers, the Negroes
were protected by a certain primitive sort of old-age
pension, job insurance, and sickness insurance; that
is, they must be supported in some fashion, when they
were too old to work; they must have attention in
sickness, for they represented invested capital; and
they could never be among the unemployed.

On the other hand, it is just as true that Negro
slaves in America represented the worst and lowest
conditions among modern laborers. One estimate is that
the maintenance of a slave in the South cost the
master about $19 a year, which means that they were
among the poorest paid laborers in the modern world.
They represented in a very real sense the ultimate
degradation of man. Indeed, the system was so
reactionary, so utterly inconsistent with modern
progress, that we simply cannot grasp it today.  No
matter how degraded the factory hand, he is not real
estate.  The tragedy of the black slave's postition
was precisely this; his absolute subjection to the
indivdual will of an owner and to "the cruely and
injustice which are the invariable consequences of the
exercise of irresponsible power, especially where
authority must be sometimes delegated by the planter
to agents of inferior education and coarser feelings."

The proof of this lies clearly written in the slave
codes. Slaves were not considered men. They had no
right of petition. They were "devisable like any other
chattel." They could own nothing; they could make no
contracts; they could hold no property, nor traffic in
property; they could not hire out; they could not
legally marry nor constitute families; they could not
control their children; they could not appeal from
their master; they could be punished at will. They
could not testify in court; they could be imprisoned
by their owners, and the criminal offense of assault
and battery could not be committed on the person of a
slave. The "willful, malicious and deliberate murder"
of a slave was punishable by death, but such a crime
was practically impossible of proof. The slave owed to
his master and all his family a respect "without
bounds, and an absolute obedience." This authority
could be transmitted to others. A slave could not sue
his master; had no right of redemption; no right to
education or religion; a promise made to a slave by
his master had no force nor validity. Children
followed the condition of the slave mother. The slave
could have no access to the judiciary. A slave might
be condemned to death for striking any white person.

Looking at these accounts, "it is safe to say that the
law regards a Negro slave, so far as his civil status
is concerned, purely and absolutely property, to be
bought and sold and pass and descend as a tract of
land, a horse, or an ox." 2

The whole legal status of slavery was enunciated in
the extraordinary statement of a Chief Justice of the
United States that Negroes had always been regarded in
America "as having no rights which a white man was
bound to respect."

It may be said with truth that the law was often
harsher than the practice. Nevertheless, these laws
and decisions represent the legally permissible
possibilities, and the only curb upon the power of the
master was his sense of humanity and decency, on the
one hand, and the conserving of his investment on the
other. Of the humanity of large numbers of Southern
masters there can be no doubt. In some cases, they
gave their slaves a fatherly care. And yet even in
such cases the strain upon their ability to care for
large numbers of people and the necessity of
entrusting the care of the slaves to other hands than
their own, led to much suffering and cruelty.

The matter of his investment in land and slaves
greatly curtailed the owner's freedom of action. Under
the competition of growing industrial organization,
the slave system was indeed the source of immense
profits. But for the slave owner and landlord to keep
a large or even reasonable share of these profits was
increasingly difficult. The price of the slave produce
in the open market could be hammered down by merchants
and traders acting with knowledge and collusion. And
the slave owner was, therefore, continually forced to
find his profit not in the high price of cotton and
sugar, but in beating even further down the cost of
his slave labor. This made the slave owners in early
days kill the slave by overwork and renew their
working stock; it led to the widely organized
interstate slave trade between the Border States and
the Cotton Kingdom of the Southern South; it led to
neglect and the breaking up of families, and it could
not protect the slave against the cruelty, lust and
neglect of certain owners.

Thus human slavery in the South pointed and led in two
singularly contradictory and paradoxical
directions—toward the deliberate commercial breeding
and sale of human labor for profit and toward the
intermingling of black and white blood. The
slaveholders shrank from acknowledging either set of
facts but they were clear and undeniable.

        In this vital respect, the slave laborer differed
from all others of his day: he could be sold; he
could, at the will of a single individual, be
transferred for life a thousand miles or more. His
family, wife and children could be legally and
absolutely taken from him. Free laborers today are
compelled to wander in search for work and food; their
families are deserted for want of wages; but in all
this there is no such direct barter in human flesh. It
was a sharp accentuation of control over men beyond
the modern labor reserve or the contract coolie

Negroes could be sold—actually sold as we sell cattle
with no reference to calves or bulls, or recognition
of family. It was a nasty business. The white South
was properly ashamed of it and continually belittled
and almost denied it. But it was a stark and bitter
fact. Southern papers of the Border States were filled
with advertisements :—"I wish to purchase fifty
Negroes of both sexes from 6 to 30 years of age for
which I will give the highest cash prices."
"Wanted to purchase—Negroes of every description, age
and sex."
The consequent disruption of families is proven beyond
"Fifty Dollars reward.—Ran away from the subscriber, a
Negro girl, named Maria.  She is of a copper color,
between 13 and 14 years of age -- bareheaded and
barefooted.  She is small for her age -- very
sprightly and very likely.  She stated she was going
to see her mother at Maysville. Sanford Tomson."

"Committed to  jail of Madison County, a Negro woman,
who calls her name Fanny, and says she belongs to
William Miller, of Mobile. She formerly belonged to
John Givins, of this county, who now owns several of
her children. David Shropshire, Jailer."
"Fifty Dollar reward.—Ran away from the subscriber,
his Negro man Pauladore, commonly called Paul. I
understand Gen. R. Y. Hayne has purchased his wife and
children from H. L. Pinckney, Esq., and has them on
his plantation at Goosecreek, where, no doubt, the
fellow is frequently lurking. T. Davis." One can see
Pauladore "lurking" about his wife and children.

The system of slavery demanded a special police force
and such a force was made possible and unusually
effective by the presence of the poor whites. This
explains the difference between the slave revolts in
the West Indies, and the lack of effective revolt in
the Southern United States. In the West Indies, the
power over the slave was held by the whites and
carried out by them and such Negroes as they could
trust. In the South, on the other hand, the great
planters formed proportionately quite as small a class
but they had singularly enough at their command some
five million poor whites; that is, there were actually
more white people to police the slaves than there were
slaves. Considering the economic rivalry of the black
and white worker in the North, it would have seemed
natural that the poor white would have refused to
police the slaves. But two considerations led him in
the opposite direction. First of all, it gave him work
and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and
member of the patrol system. But above and beyond
this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with
the masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike
of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself
as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he
had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and
to own "niggers." To these Negroes he transferred all
the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole
slave system. The result was that the system was held
stable and intact by the poor white. Even with the
late ruin of Haiti before their eyes, the planters,
stirred as they were, were nevertheless able to stamp
out slave revolt. The dozen revolts of the eighteenth
century had dwindled to the plot of Gabriel in i8oo,
Vesey in 1822, of Nat Turner in 1831 and crews of the
Amistad and Creole in 1839and 1841. Gradually the
whole white South became an armed and commissioned
camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black

But even the poor white, led by the planter, would not
have kept the black slave in nearly so complete
control had it not been for what may be called the
Safety Valve of Slavery; and that was the chance which
a vigorous and determined slave had to run away to

Under the situation as it developed between 1830 and
i86o there were grave losses to the capital invested
in black workers. Encouraged by the idealism of those
Northern thinkers who insisted that Negroes were
human, the black worker sought freedom by running away
from slavery. The physical geography of America with
its paths north, by swamp, river and mountain range;
the daring of black revolutionists like Henson and
Tubman; and the extra-legal efforts of abolitionists
made this more and more easy.

One cannot know the real facts concerning the number
of fugitives, but despite the fear of advertising the
losses, the emphasis put upon fugitive slaves by the
South shows that it was an important economic item. It
is certain from the bitter effort to increase the
efficiency of the fugitive slave law that the losses
from runaways were widespread and continuous; and the
increase in the interstate slave trade from Border
States to the deep South, together with the increase
in the price of slaves, showed a growing pressure. At
the beginning of the nineteenth century, one bought an
average slave for $200;  while in 186o the price
ranged from $1,400 to $2,000.

Not only was the fugitive slave important because of
the actual loss involved, but for potentialities in
the future. These free Negroes were furnishing a
leadership for the mass of the black workers, and
especially they were furnishing a text for the
abolition idealists. Fugitive slaves, like Frederick
Douglass and others humbler and less gifted, increased
the number of abolitionists by thousands and spelled
the doom of slavery.

The true significance of slavery in the United States
to the whole social development of America lay in the
ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to
be the limits of democratic control in the United
States? If all labor, black as well as white, became
free— were given schools and the right to vote—what
control could or should be set to the power and action
of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of
Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule
extended to all men regardless of race and color, or
if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and
how would property and privilege be protected? This
was the great and primary question which was in the
minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the
United States and continued in the minds of thinkers
down through the slavery controversy. It still remains
with the world as the problem of democracy expands and
touches all races and nations.

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