Slavery has many faces. First, let’s begin with your books description and explanation:
Slavery in America was both an intricate web of human relationships and a labor system. Two large themes permeate this chapter. First, after tracing the economic development of the Old South in global context, in which slavery and cotton played vital roles, this chapter will emphasize the dreams, daily lives, and relationships of masters and slaves who lived, loved, learned, worked, and struggled with one another in the years before the Civil War. Perhaps no issue in American history has generated as many interpretations or as much emotional controversy as slavery. Three interpretive schools developed over the years, each adding to our knowledge of “the peculiar institution.” The first saw slavery as a relatively humane institution in which plantation owners took care of helpless, childlike slaves. The second depicted slavery as a harsh and cruel system of exploitation. The third, and most recent, interpretation described slavery from the perspective of the slaves, who, like Douglass, did indeed suffer brutal treatment yet nevertheless survived with integrity, intelligence, and self-esteem supported by community and culture. While the first and second interpretive schools emphasized workaday interactions among powerful masters and seemingly passive, victimized slaves, the third focused on the creative energies, agency, and vibrancy of life in the slave quarters from sundown to sunup. In a unique structure, this chapter follows these masters and slaves through their day, from morning in the Big House through the hot afternoon in the fields to the slave cabins at night. Although slavery crucially defined the Old South, diverse social groups and international trade patterns contributed to the tremendous economic growth of the South from 1820 to 1860. We will look first at these socioeconomic aspects of antebellum southern life and then follow whites and blacks through a southern day from morning to noon to night.
You’ve already seen my previous post titled, Slavery: Then and Now. Now, let’s hear from slaves themselves. One of the best ways to do so is from the HBO series, Unchained Memories. Here’s a student packet from the series. Check it out.
SIGNIFICANT THEMES AND HIGHLIGHTS
- The tremendous growth of agriculture in the Old South was dependent on cotton and slavery. But contrary to myth, the South was an area of great diversity, regionally, socially, and in terms of class and slave ownership. These differences bred tensions among whites as well as between masters and slaves.
- Although slavery was a labor system, the chapter emphasizes the daily life and complex, entangled relationships of white masters and black slaves and points out the difficulties of generalizing about their relationships. The experiences of the family of rice planter Robert Allston suggests some of the dimensions of white slaveholders’ lives, while the youth of Frederick Douglass illuminates the lives of black slaves.
- A unique structure in this chapter discusses slavery in three sections: morning in the Big House, which focuses on white masters; noon in the fields, which looks at daily work and other hardships of the slaves; and nighttime in the quarters, which describes a slave culture and community centered around religion, music, the family, and other adaptive survivals from African culture.
- Racism was not confined to the South but existed throughout American society. Racism as well as slavery limited black freedom. To a much lesser extent, southern slaveholders also suffered limitations on their freedom from the burdens of the slave system.
Familiarity with Basic Knowledge
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
- Distinguish several geographic regions and the main crops; then describe the socioeconomic class variations of slaveholding patterns in the Old South.
- Explain the distribution of slaveholders and nonslaveholders in the South.
- Describe the burdens of slavery from the perspective of the slaveholders and explain five ways in which they justified slavery.
- Describe a typical day on the plantation for slave men and women, both in the house and in the fields.
- Explain the nature of black family life and culture in the slave quarters, including how religion, music, and folklore gave the slaves a sense of identity and self-esteem.
- List five ways in which the slaves protested and resisted their situation.
Practice in Historical Thinking Skills
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
- Develop arguments for and against slavery from the perspective of southern slaveholders, non-slaveholding southerners, northern whites, slaves, and freed blacks.
- Discuss and evaluate the question of who was “free” in southern antebellum society.
- Identify the author’s interpretation of slavery and other possible interpretations.
IMPORTANT DATES AND NAMES TO KNOW
1787 Constitution adopted with proslavery provisions
1793 Eli Whitney invents cotton gin
1794-1800 The Haitian Revolution
1800 Gabriel Prosser conspiracy in Virginia
1808 External slave trade prohibited by Congress
1820 South becomes world’s largest cotton producer
1822 Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina
1827 John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish publish the first African American newspaper Freedom’s Journal
1829 David Walker’s Appeal
1830s Southern justification of slavery changes from a necessary evil to a positive good
1831 Nat Turner’s slave revolt in Virginia
1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass published
1850s Cotton boom
1851 Indiana state constitution excludes free blacks
1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1860 Cotton production and prices peak