Slavery and the New Deal

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Slavery and the civil war fascinated me. Again, this isn't to rationalize it, but the "Roots" narrative, as told by abolitionists, make no sense. If you were beaten and tortured and so on, then why wouldn't these folks fight or run? You have nothing to lose, right? Well, from many first hand reports, it wasn't that bad for most. This isn't to diminish the abuses, or deny the exceptions, it's to understand the truth.

There were fictional pieces of abolitionist propaganda pieces that were popular like Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the more modern Alex Haley's Roots. But if you want a more authentic tales, during the New Deal, President Roosevelt commissioned a number of journalists to get verbal testimony of over 2,300 former slaves, and record the results. The results of this project collected in the multi-volume Slave Narratives. Going through them can be incredible for understanding what it was like for the slaves, from their view (though having listened to many of them, the twangs, drawls, colloquialisms and accents can be a little tricky at times).

You'd think this kind of first hand historical knowledge would be used to form our opinions of the institution, but it's been mostly ignored. It doesn't fit the narrative that anyone wants to accept. For example:

  • out of 331 references to masters, 86% refer to their masters as "good" or "kind." Quite a few would not allow whipping at all, and many only allowed it in their presence.
  • Far more important than whipping in managing the slaves was figuring out how to motivate. No plantation owner wanted slaves who were sullen, discontented, and hostile, who did just enough to get by. They wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible men who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters. Such attitudes cannot be beaten into slaves. They had to be elicited.
  • To achieve the desired response the planters developed a wide-ranging system of rewards. Some rewards were directed toward improving short-run performance (prizes for the individual or the gang with the best picking record on a given day or week). The prizes were such items as clothing, tobacco, whiskey, and very often cash.
  • When slaves worked during times normally set aside for rest, they received extra pay — usually in cash. Planters even devised elaborate schemes for profit sharing with their slaves.
  • The average income received by a prime field hand was roughly fifteen percent greater than the income he would have received for his labor as a free agricultural worker.
  • Some slaves saved their money and were quite wealthy after the war.
  • Data in the 1850 census suggest that the economic condition of the average free northern Negro may have been worse than that of the average free Negro in the South. A comparison between New York and New Orleans reveals that New York Negroes lived in more crowded housing, had a lower proportion of craftsmen, and less wealth per capita than free Negroes in New Orleans.

And so on. There's a lot to be learned about what slavery was and was not. I'm sure there were abusers of the worst kind. (Never underestimate the depths of cruelty of some humans). But that nastiness wasn't just in the South towards slaves, and there's little evidence that bigots in the North were any better (or less common). So the point is there was a spectrum of treatments and incomes in the South. Assuming it was any one way, is naive. That isn't to change anyone's revulsion to the idea of ownership of another man's labor, liberty or health. But if that's what repulses you, then you should probably take a dim view of Socialism, Conscription or tax rates that take more of a mans earnings than he gets to keep for his own work.


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