It’s time for another trip into the wonderful world of antebellum Southern white paternalism. Today we visit with Thomas Jackson, friend of the black man and uplifter of their souls.
Richard G. Williams has recently released Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, which "sheds light on Jackson’s love of God, and his desire to teach God’s word to all his children." Williams writes:
Jackson owned slaves, yet he wanted all people to know God. He asked that his church, Lexington Presbyterian Church, expand by more than 30 seats to accommodate increasing numbers of free blacks and slaves. In 1855 he began a black Sunday school, free for whomever wanted to attend. In violation of Virginia law, he and his wife taught black men, women and children to read, hoping that someday they could read God’s words.
On Sunday evenings, Jackson held prayer sessions with his wife, his slaves and any other black person that wished to partake. He, along with all those in attendance, was breaking the law.
According to Williams, "Jackson believed that for whatever reason, God allowed it (slavery) to happen. It wasn’t his business to thwart the will of God." "Jackson’s example teaches us," continues Williams "that we cannot always change the difficult circumstances and injustices we see around us, but we can change how we react to them. I think Jackson, like a lot of the Southerners, was uncomfortable with it (slavery)."
First, if we are to follow this logic than what is to stop us from praising all Southern slaveholders who fervently believed that they were acting in a way that was beneficial to their "family members." Many slaves in the antebellum South were encouraged to practice Christianity, so this doesn’t single Jackson out in any significant way. And how does a belief that God permitted it to happen help us with any moral assessment of Jackson? People believe all kinds of nutty things about what God allows and does not allow. Perhaps Williams explores the rich literature on the complex interactions between slaves and slaveholders. My guess is that Jackson’s behavior towards his slaves and other free blacks had much to do with the fact that both groups presented themselves in ways that demanded a recognition of their humanity (pace Genovese).
Williams warns us not to judge Jackson and others through the lens of our 21st century values. However, the alternative of judging based on mid-nineteenth century values is fraught with difficulties and are clearly exposed in most of these so-called Christian-inspired biographies. If we are to praise Jackson, Lee and others (typically white Southerners and there is even someone who is going to apply this approach to of all people, Nathan B. Forrest) than what are we to make of those in the abolitionist camp? Are they less praiseworthy because they mistakenly acknowledged that the Christian God and slavery were incompatible?