Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners?

Richard Williams’s new book Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend was reviewed yesterday in the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star.  I know some of you are sick of reading posts about this issue and I don’t gain any pleasure from writing about it, but it is important to respond to what many believe to be a legitimate approach to doing serious Civil War history.  If this book wasn’t shelved in the history sections of bookstores I probably wouldn’t say anything at all. 

The book does not engage in any serious historical analysis; there is little in terms of manuscript material and the author has absolutely no grasp of the secondary literature that is necessary to analyzing any southern slaveowner.  The author relies heavily on postwar material, but unfortunately doesn’t understand the first thing about how to handle these sources.  The methodology is as follows:  find as many pro-Jackson accounts as possible and ask as few questions as possible about why they were written.  As many of you know I ran into Jackson’s wartime servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg.  He was the only black man present and if you didn’t know anything about Jim Crow Virginia you wouldn’t know the first thing about how to handle this fact. My high school students have a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle postwar slave narratives. 

The review of the book doesn’t try to analyze Williams’s argument in any critical way, rather it simply reaffirms the approach and conclusion of the book’s author.  The lack of a historical agenda in both the book and the review is evidenced by the numerous use of moral/ethical concepts.  Since both Williams and the author of the review are interested primarily in affirming a moral picture of Jackson rather than a strictly historical one it is not worth commenting on.  Rather I want to pose a few questions that challenge their working assumptions.

What are those assumptions?  Let’s consider a few choice quotes from the review:

Williams begins this journey by painfully depicting the deplorable trials
faced by African-Americans as they were shipped from the slave-trading colonies
in Africa to the coastal cities of the United States. Along the way, we are
reminded of the horrible conditions and mistreatment faced by these prisoners,
and the author holds nothing back in the telling. He then presents the social,
political and financial aspects of slave trading and the history of its
institution and practice in 18th- and 19th-century America, as well as the
shared shame that fell equally on both the North and the South.

This provocative opening provides a solid foundation for the story that is to
come. Clearly the examples that follow, depicting the compassion and care given
by a percentage of Christian Southerners on behalf of a poor mistreated people,
need to be recognized in order to find something righteous beneath so much
suffering.

Thomas Jackson’s efforts are certainly worthy of such recognition, as
contradictory, at times, as they may sound. Therefore, Williams continues to
focus his attention on Stonewall’s own path to sharing the message of salvation
while citing the positive influence that his fellow believers had, in turn, on
him.

First, let’s forget for a moment that the reviewer is referring to Jackson and instead just imagine  a slaveowner who professes to be a good Christian.  Let me see if I understand this: the suffering that the author of the review is referring to is the result of people being enslaved, but somehow we are to believe that the effort to minimize their suffering is reflective of a good Christian.  Are we to expect that the individual enslaved ought to be grateful for the care that has been bestowed?  If the effort to minimize their suffering is to be applauded then what are we to make of those who worked to free the slaves?  Of course I am thinking about the abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and others.  We might also ask about old John Brown.  He also claimed to be a man of God.  How do we reconcile the tension here?  Does God both sanction Brown and Jackson and if so why?  How do we know if one was mistaken as to what God demanded in reference to slavery?  What is the moral content of a conclusion that both justifies immediate abolition and the attempt on the part of slaveowners to minimize the suffering of their own slaves?

As devout Christians, the Jackson family fervently believed that all people were
welcome at the Lord’s table regardless of their race or social stature.

I would love some clarification here.  How does one approach the "Lord’s table" as someone who is enslaved because of his/her race?  Perhaps it is the kind of table where the children sat during those family reunions.  But wait, it gets even better.  The following passages reflect some of the most distorted moral/ethical analysis that I’ve ever seen:

Although Jackson could not alter the social status of slaves, Williams tells
of how he committed himself to Christian decency and pledged to "assist the
souls of those held in bondage." He also adds that Jackson and his wife were
guilty of practicing civil disobedience by educating slaves.

Eventually the Sunday school grew beyond the allotted facilities and
ultimately blossomed into new churches for African-Americans. In this regard, we
can see how the evangelical white Christian slave owner had a positive influence
on the spiritual education of those held in captivity. As a result, many
ex-slaves became preachers themselves and were later responsible for some of the
largest religious revivals that followed the South’s surrender.

This is nothing less than a disturbed moral outlook.   This is the worst kind of utilitarianism I can imagine as we are being asked to evaluate behavior and ideas simply based on their consequences.  Correct me if I am wrong but Christian morality is not based on consequences: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  The argument implies that since life as a slave could lead to wonderful results those results therefore reflect the moral character of the slaveowner. 

Just a few questions for the advocates of this ridiculous and dangerous moral view:

1. Given the moral character of Jackson as a slaveowner would it be wrong for a slave to run away in an attempt to gain his/her freedom? 
2. Would it be justified if an individual slave killed Jackson in order to gain his/her freedom?

If we answer yes to 1 or 2 than it seems as if we must assume that the actions of the slaveowner were immoral.  I assume we believe this regardless of the "positive influence" that would be gained by remaining Jackson’s property.

3. Since both Williams and the reviewer believe that Jackson was doing God’s work would it be justified today and if not then why? 

In closing I leave you with a few more remarks by the reviewer:

In the end, it is not that difficult to believe the notion of a Christian slave
holder
showing compassion and mercy in fulfilling an obligation to "make
disciples of all nations
." This book reinforces the reasoning as to why a
Christian Confederate would go to such lengths to educate and enlighten slaves.
Simply put, Thomas Jackson did exactly what his Lord had told him to do. He
spread the Good News to everyone. His "students," in turn, accepted Jesus Christ
as their Lord and Savior and eagerly continued to spread this message as they
left the cotton fields and entered the mission field.

One final question: If slaves were able to accept God’s word, were worthy of mercy and education than why were they being enslaved?  This is nothing less than a confused moral outlook.  It is not only incoherent, it also forces us to sacrifice the central concepts that make up our ideas of moral goodness. 

4 comments add yours

  1. Kevin,
    sadly, I have been told by modern-day Confederate sympathizers that it was indeed wrong for slaves to attempt escape, and that it was wrong for them to use violence against their owners to gain freedom. Their reasoning is that such behavior was against the law. These people admire slaveowners such as Jackson, and denounce anti-slavery activists of the time as being the root of national discord by sticking their noses into other peoples’ business. More shocking is that many who hold such views also argue something of a contemporary version of the “positive good” justification of slavery, claiming that slavery ultimately benefitted those enslaved. Have you heard the one about it being a “cradle-to-grave” system of social benefits? I have.

    Marc

  2. I hope readers of this post understand that it is not about Jackson, but about the absurd moral assumptions employed by Williams and the book reviewer. Their reasoning is full of contradictions: my favorite is the implication that Jackson was helpless when it came to owning slaves, but quite capable of making plenty of decisions in the name of religion and God. And to think that something like this is being taught to children is even more disturbing.

  3. Kevin,

    As you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jackson due to my background. But I have little patience with those who claim any slaveowner, even Jackson, was “the black man’s friend” if that slaveowner didn’t at least immediately free his own slaves and work for the freedom of others. John Brown really was “the black man’s friend,” and Jackson was part of the guard at Brown’s execution.

    By the way, Mr. Williams was shown speaking about Jackson last night on C-SPAN 2’s “BookTV.” If you missed it, keep an eye on the schedule because they often repeat their programs in subsequent weekends.

    Can any slaveowner realistically be a “black man’s friend?” Possibly, if they:

    1. Immediately freed their slaves;
    2. worked for the freedom of the rest of the slaves;
    3. worked for equal rights for blacks;
    and
    4. treated blacks as equals in every respect.

    The Sunday School simply doesn’t rise to the standard. As you point out, he didn’t do it due to his concern for the rights of blacks, but rather as part of what he saw as his Christian duty to God.

    I echo your criticisms of Mr. Williams’ methods. For example, in his BookTV talk he referred to a black man born in 1877 named Dwight Oliver Wendell Holmes whose father was one of Jackson’s Sunday School pupils. I find it interesting he refers to this as an example of Jackson’s friendship to blacks yet Mr. Holmes named his son after Oliver Wendell Holmes and not Thomas J. Jackson. Mr. Williams apparently misses the contradiction.

    Regards,
    Cash

  4. Cash, — Thanks for the comment. I really don’t want people to read this post as simply about Jackson since I believe the important observation is what this kind of thinking does to our understanding of the concept of friendship. Think about it, we are to believe that a friendship is even possible between two men one of whom owns the other. We are to believe that acts of “kindness” constitute a sufficient condition of friendship. This is beyond absurd.

    Fortunately I don’t get C-SPAN 2.

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