William Prince Ford & Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend

12-Years-a-SlaveIt is being reported that some of the descendants of slaveowner William Prince Ford are not happy with how he has been portrayed in 12 Years A Slave.

One was his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford,  who described the film as ‘too dark  and exaggerated’. He added: ‘By all accounts, my great-great-grandfather treated his slaves well and did his best for them. ‘He was born at a particular time in history when slavery was accepted throughout the South. ‘It wasn’t illegal. That doesn’t make it right or moral by today’s standards but back then it wasn’t an ethical issue. Northup saw him as a kindly person. He was a highly moral man.’ The film, says Mr Ford, ignores the fact that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly’. He said: ‘Good field-hands had worth. They were valued. A skilled craftsman like Northup would have been valued. There might have been a few bad apples, but I don’t think there was widespread brutality.’

The past few decades has witnessed an incredible outpouring of scholarship on the complexity of the master-slave relationship. The institution varied widely depending on both time, place and a host of other factors. No one should be surprised that as much as 12 Years A Slave has made room for meaningful discourse about the history of American slavery, it has also reinforced deeply entrenched positions and ideologies. For many a continued defensive stance is the only response.

That defensive posture is beautifully reflected in Mr. Ford’s comments. Notice how Ford first pushes the past further away by declaring that “back then it wasn’t an ethical issue” but then has no trouble declaring that his own ancestor was “a highly moral man.” Why? Because Solomon Northup supposedly believed this to be the case. This is what we do, but make no mistake such claims have very little to do with history or an interest in the past for its own sake. There is something obscene in a move like this.

Here is the full passage in which Northup reflects on Ford that is often quoted in part.

Our master’s name was William Ford. He resided then in the “Great Pine Woods,” in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.

We would do well to remember that Northup’s evaluation of Ford is his and not ours. It’s Northup’s attempt at making sense of his experience in bondage. As a result it offers  tremendous insight to the complexity of the master-slave relationship in light of his eventual sale to Epps, but it is also incomplete.

Consider his reference to Ford as a “Christian man.” That is a highly seductive reference for modern day slavery apologists who have a need to minimize the inhumanity of the slave system. It’s not surprising that some find the scene in which Ford is preaching while one of his female slaves cries over the loss of her child to be troubling. That rub is the result of a presentist assumption that slavery and Christianity are incompatible when, in fact, they were perfectly compatible during the antebellum period.

Christianity could be used to both assuage both the moral concerns of the slaveowner and encourage obedience among the slaves. We find the same thing at work among those who have become seduced by stories of Stonewall Jackson teaching his slaves to read the Bible in Lexington, Virginia before the war.  Ford and Jackson were not preaching freedom, but working to perpetuate what they understood to be God’s natural order.

We need to stop trying to understand the history of slavery in this country by imagining who we wouldn’t mind being enslaved to.

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50 thoughts on “William Prince Ford & Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend

  1. Michael Lynch

    I’m a little surprised that Ford’s descendant is unhappy with the film; I found the depiction of Ford to be pretty sympathetic, especially contrasted with some of the other characters.

    Reply
    1. Patrick Young

      I agree Michael. Ford is depicted as doing whatever he could within the confines of the slave system to “do the right thing” with the important exception of freeing Northup. The character demonstrates the impossibility of justification for even the most “Christian” slaveowner because of the inherent corruption of the institution itself.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Ford is depicted as doing whatever he could within the confines of the slave system to “do the right thing” with the important exception of freeing Northup.

        Which I don’t believe is what Northup was suggesting. While he praises aspects of Ford’s character he is clear that his master never questioned the morality of the institution itself.

        Reply
  2. msb

    Frederick Douglass said that slavery was an inherently corrupting institution, explaining both the process as it worked on a kind owner and the blind spot of many owners who were held to be exemplary Christians but treated their slaves cruelly. The reaction of Ford’s descendant seems to have missed the complexity of the situation.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The reaction of Ford’s descendant seems to have missed the complexity of the situation.

      And that is because Ford’s descendant, along with plenty of others, are looking to steer clear of minefields and other obstacles that generate feelings of uneasiness.

      Reply
  3. Mike Hawthorne

    It does not surprise me that this landmark of cinematic history was made, not by an American, but by a black British director. One might go so far as to say, an American could not have made anything so unflinching, for both cultural and commercial reasons. Steve McQueen saw the ‘benevolent’ Ford character as more twisted and insidious than the brutal Epps, who was, at least, passionate in his frenzied brutality, and not such a mealy-mouthed, ineffectual hypocrite. The descendant’s reaction is a typical apologist’s defensive attempt to dilute his ancestor’s responsibility for his part in a horrific system that degraded everybody it touched, and whose poisonous racist legacy still pollutes the air.

    Reply
  4. Carmichael

    It’s interesting that when slavery and slave-owners are discussed in the abstract, the system is always described as in absolute terms such as “brutal”, sadistic”, “degrading”, and “cruel”. Then, when there is mention of the fact that Ulysses Grant owned slaves, and that Mary Todd Lincoln was a slave-owner, and that Abraham Lincoln once represented a slave-owner in court, suddenly the discussion changes. Then it is made known that there were exceptions, and that some slave-owners were decent, kind, and treated their slaves well. I wonder how that is possible.

    Reply
    1. Tom Heaney

      Although Grant did own one or two slaves, Mary Todd Lincoln never owned slaves. Her family, though, owned many slaves on their plantation in Kentucky.

      So, you agree with the various other voices here, that the institution of slavery was “complex?”

      Reply
      1. Carmichael

        Complex? Perhaps. But what is very clear to me is the fact that the war was fought between two slave-holding republics. So whatever criticisms there are against slave-owners in the CSA, those very same criticisms are equally valid against slave-owners in the USA.

        Reply
        1. Tom Heaney

          Well, one was a republic in which some people happened to own slaves while the other was a slaveholder’s republic (or attempted-republic). But feel free to believe whatever makes you happy.

          Reply
  5. Ben Allen

    Why would W.M. Ford be bothered about someone, however closely related, who is not him? My namesake and great-great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and our family has a distant connection with Charlemagne. Does that mean I think them both perfect gentlemen? One fought for a cause that I abhor, although his recorded remarks that I have read say he was fighting because his state, Arkansas, had seceded and didn’t want to be considered treasonous (I know not his thoughts on slavery, but I do know that my family did occasionally defy the prejudiced sensibilities in the subsequent Jim Crow South). As for Charlemagne, he was relatively enlightened when compared to his fellow sovereigns at the time; but that doesn’t mean I condone his brutality. Likewise, if I learned that my great-great-great grandfather was in reality a bigoted man who fought to have the opportunity to attain the carrot of the “peculiar institution,” while I might be initially skeptical, I wouldn’t take a defensive posture if I found it to be true. Yes, W.P. Ford is the great-great grandfather of W.M., but they are obviously not the same people. So why is W.M. griping and groaning about how McQueen portrayed his ancestor? W.P.’s conduct does not at all reflect on W.M. Besides, Cumberbatch in this movie is not his other character, Smaug. To use the words of another comment above, McQueen’s portrayal of Ford is “pretty sympathetic, especially contrasted with some of the other characters.”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      It is always interesting to observe people like this who act as if they have some kind of relationship with a distant ancestor or as if they somehow know this individual. Why they believe this based on an accident of biology is beyond me.

      Reply
      1. Forester

        To paraphrase Andy Hall, all of my ancestors were Confederates and all of them are dead — and that’s all I know about them. They’re just dead Confederates.

        When I talk to other Southern people, I ask them how they got along with their father or grandparents or whoever. Most people have disagreements with their parents; some even say how racist their parent was. Parents and grandparents are “Southern ancestors” also, right? If so much disagreement can occur between ancestors and descendants who MEET, imagine what a chasm must exist between the ones who HAVEN’T met.

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      2. Bob Huddleston

        I do wonder about those who claim their ever-so-great grandparents were paragons of virtue. I faintly remember one of my great-grandmothers, a sweet old lady, and have heard stories of several other great grandparents, uniformly remembered as wonderful people. But William is claiming knowledge of another generations further back. Absent letters to and from the first William, I doubt that anything remembered is of much value. He might also reflect that, if I did the genealogy correctly, the first William supplied 1/16 of the genes in the latest Ben’s body. Not much more than the name is still around!

        Reply
  6. Wallace Hettle

    Here’s the clearest quotation from James I. Robertson’s biography:
    “Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution.”
    This passage is not sourced, though Robertson had the professionalism to include “probably.”
    Jackson actively bought and sold slaves, and physically punished them. “Family” prayers were not optional. Ironically, the best single source on this topic is Mary Anna Jackson’s Memoir. And Jackson’s close friend and most influential biographer, Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, defended slavery for a good four decades after the war. I hear that, _Inventing Stonewall Jackson_ is relevant to this discussion.

    Reply
    1. Bryan Cheeseboro

      “Jackson actively bought and sold slaves, and physically punished them.”

      If Stonewall Jackson was willing to have a man shot to death for desertion, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe he would have a slave whipped for punishment.

      Reply
    2. Brendan Bossard

      R. L. Dabney’s _A Defence of Virginia: And Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party_ is a great resource for someone who wants a detailed explanation of the Southern point of view and also the pseudo-Christian apologetic for enslaving Black people. It is interesting to note that Dabney cites the same canards put forth by W. M. Ford.

      Reply
  7. Michael H

    Stonewall Jackson didn’t teach HIS slaves to read the bible. He didn’t own slaves.

    Stonewall Jackson taught children in bondage how to read (which was against the law) the bible so they would be given the Gospel. It seems that there are people that just aren’t satisfied with the notion that not all men of the South were monsters.

    94% of the Southern population did not own slaves. Jackson and Lee were in that category. Facts are strange things aren’t they!

    Reply
    1. Bryan Cheeseboro

      WHo is saying anywhere that all White Civil War Era Southerners were monsters? I think one of the best things about 12 Years a Slave is that it shows the range of diversity that existed within the slave system: Ford is humane and Christian; Epps is a psychotic bastard. The common denominator between the two is slavery.

      Michael H, do you realize how important it was for Steve McQueen to include both characters in the film? I mean, what if the movie only featured slavery under Ford? People would have been upset and complained about the movie leaving out the whippings, the rapes and the cruelties. But if Epps had been the only slaveholder shown, others would have complained saying things like, “not all slaveholders were monsters; some were kind and gracious. Some led their slaves to Christianity.”

      That “94% of the Southern population did not own slaves” is a distorted statistic. Furthermore, 100% of the Southern population refused to end slavery on their own. It had to be ended through war, the Emancipation population, the 13th Amendment and victory over the defined-by-slavery Confederacy.

      Reply
    2. Ken Noe

      “Jackson owned six individuals while he lived in the Washington Street House. Albert had requested that Jackson purchase him and was hired out a local hotel, Rockbridge Alum Springs, and the Virginia Military Institute as a waiter. Amy, who served as a cook, had requested that Jackson purchase her at a public auction. After his marriage to Mary Anna, the couple received Hetty, Mary Anna’s former nursemaid, and Hetty’s two teenage sons Cyrus and George, from Mary Anna’s father as a wedding gift. Jackson purchased the sixth slave, a small child named Emma, as a gift for his wife.” http://www.stonewalljackson.org/faq.html

      Reply
      1. Michael H

        The fact that Albert, and Amy asked Jackson to purchase them speaks volumes for Jackson. In ancient times free people would sell themselves into slavery so they could have better lives. This was common during the Roman era. Life is hard and our sensibilities do not allow us to think such things possible but in fact they were very common.

        Reply
    3. msb

      “Facts are strange things aren’t they!”
      And the fact is that Lee owned slaves and personally supervised the whipping of at least one captured runaway. IIRC, the percentage of slaveholding Southerners was about 4-5 times higher than the 6% you cite, but that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of Southern whites were heavily invested in slavery as the foundation of both their economic and social systems. People always cite the huge percentage of Southern wealth lost in the Civil War – I think we should remember that a large slice of that was the loss of “property” that suddenly became 4 million human beings.

      Reply
      1. Andy Hall

        Slavery apologists habitually cite the percentage of people (generally the head of the household) as slave owners, because it makes slaveholding seem like a relatively rare thing. This is misleading and, frankly, intentionally dishonest. In fact, almost a third of white households across the eleven states of the Confederacy included a slaveholder — and in South Carolina and Mississippi, almost half. Slaveholding was very common.

        To look at it another way, folks like Michael H. would have you believe that Scarlet O’Hara, who never spent a day in her life not being cared for/tended to/assisted by one or more slaves, doesn’t actually count as having a direct interest in the institution because Mammy, Prissy et al. were technically her father’s property.

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        1. Michael H

          Folks like Michael H….Let me set the record straight. I was wrong about Stonewall’s slaves and I stand corrected and am grateful for the new information. As for being an apologist for slavery, I am not nor will I ever be such. I have always held steadfast to the position that Frederick Douglass stated that the institution did as much damage to the owner as the slave. FD saw his mistress turn from kind and caring to mean and resentful once she realized that he was much more than property.

          Statistics are interesting things. I have read time and time again that 10 percent was the high figure for slave ownership. and that 4-6% was the norm. If you are going to add to that figure every person that somehow benefitted from slavery to that number, then it may as well be 90% given the labor that southern slavery accounted for. So again, what is the true statistic? I don’t know if it is 6 or 30%. I do know this:

          There is a current institution in the U.S. that has murdered 60 million Americans since (Roe versus Wade) enacted in this country. Of those 60 Million, over 60% of the murdered have been black children. These black children are the great-great-great-grandchildren of the slaves we are talking about. Who were they murdered by? Their mother and fathers. So when someone wants to cast aspersions on a race of people for their treatment of another race of people, just look what a race of people will do to their own. You will then realize that without Christ we don’t have a chance.

          Reply
          1. Bryan Cheeseboro

            Michael H, I believe that my chance is with Christ, as you put it. But that’s about it here. I think that by bringing up other topics. like abortion, particularly among Black people, you’re still trying to dodge the issue. And in trying to dodge the issue, I think you’re doing exactly what Kevin talks about when he mentions people seduced by the Christianity of William Ford, Thomas Jackson and stories of teaching slaves how to read the Bible. It’s nice that Ford and Jackson claimed to be Christians but I would be far more impressed with their faith had they used to preach AGAINST slavery (“The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with the slaveholder”) as other Christians who were abolitionists did. Michael, you and I are both aware of Christians today who support causes – “agendas,” if you will- that many conservative evangelical Christians do not support. You and I know that some people question the salvation of people who call themselves Christians while they support politically liberal ideologies. I feel the same way about those who proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ while they enslaved other human beings. There are only so many excuses I can make for them.

            It’s always important to remember there is a big difference between how you treat people from how you see people. It’s nice if Thomas J. Jackson taught slaves how to read and if some Black people desired to be his slaves because he might be kind to them. But the problem is, Jackson believed slavery was the right place for Blacks. Too bad.

            Reply
        2. msb

          Well said, Andy. An interesting wrinkle is the dependence of Southern ladies like Scarlet (now called elite women, I think) on slavery for the wealth and leisure that enabled them to maintain their status. For example, Mary Chesnut’s diary abounds with references to her hatred of slavery (and her assertion that all true Southerners hated it, IIRC), her condemnation of Southern white men’s sexual exploitation of female slaves and her assertions that white ladies were in fact the victims of slavery (because they were forced to care for all these “savages”). But she was nevertheless an ardent supporter of the Confederacy, a slave republic, insistent on her status as a lady and perfectly willing to demand the services of people who couldn’t say no. There’s an unintentionally funny bit where she gets angry that a Chesnut slave who has been allowed to become a cobbler (and supplied her with free shoes) doesn’t want to leave his trade to become her butler: “Dissatisfied servants are not to my taste!” Drew Faust covered a lot of this in “Mothers of Invention” …

          Reply
      2. BorderRuffian

        “And the fact is that Lee owned slaves and personally supervised the whipping of at least one captured runaway.”

        He was accused of such…
        …but accusations are not facts.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          He was accused by a number of people including former slaves so the evidence is available. Elizabeth Pryor explores it in her study of R.E. Lee

          Reply
    4. Doug didier

      Southerns lived in slave societies. The percent of people who owned slaves is not a valid measure., all people touched society in one way or another.. And knew well the foundation and protocol .. Actually four slave societies, different start points and evolution.. Had commonality..

      In current history if the slave south.. Expressed quite well..

      The change was incremental and protracted. Like so much else it was easier, it is easier to see in retrospect, when it was over. But it’s clear that in the last third of the 17th Century, and into the early part of the 18th Century, say roughly the period between 1660 and 1820, the English colonies on mainland North America became what only could be called fully committed slave societies.

      I keep using this term slave society. What do I mean by that?

      When I refer to a slave society I mean a new organization of society.
      A new kind of social order, with slavery as it’s foundation.

      And I’m using the term social order or society in the broadest sense.

      To include the organization of human beings in social
      relations by which:
      life is sustained
      production organized,
      and humanity reproduced,

      but also the full range of:
      relations,
      organizations
      and meanings those distinctive relations throw up.

      Including the political philosophies and ideologies.

      Ideas for example, about who best governs:
      in politics
      or in the family,

      but also:
      cultural productions,
      aesthetics,
      and the style of the society as well.

      So by slave society, I mean to identify a social order which has as its foundation the master-slave relationship.

      This is a world in which by law and custom, nearly everything is conceded
      to the slave owner,
      and virtually nothing to the slave.

      It’s a very particular, you might even say peculiar kind of society that relationship produces.

      And as I said, how and why it emerged in the United States is a, is a matter of long and passionate debate.

      Reply
  8. Mary Ellen Maatman

    The quotation from Northup’s account underscores perfectly the point that slavery was wrong. The description sounds like Northrup’s sincere evaluation of Ford. But the rhetorical point being made is that, even when the slaveholder is “good,” slavery might lose some portion of its bitterness, but it it is still slavery and still bitter. Being owned by another person–and with your person and your descendants’ persons completely subject to that person’s will–is, in and of itself, a bitter wrong no matter how kind the owner might or might not be.

    Reply
  9. Kate

    The defense that slavery was not antithetical to Christianity is perfectly true – slavery is supported in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.

    And yet many Christians still believed it to be wrong in defiance of the Bible. Even then, morality was quickly becoming separate from religion. It’s an interesting area of study.

    Reply
    1. Brendan Bossard

      Kate, I don’t want to start a debate with you on your assertion that “many Christians still believed it to be wrong in *defiance* of the Bible.” This is not the place for it. But I would encourage you to explore this topic more deeply. It is too simplistic to say that the Bible *supports* slavery. It says a lot not only about slavery, but also how to treat your fellow man, and gives many examples of acceptance of people from other races and cultures as equals–the exact opposite of the POV of pro-slavery Christians.

      Reply
      1. Kate

        Unfortunately, I can’t respond much in any way that doesn’t continue a debate you say you don’t want to start.

        But if you’re really interested in how antebellum Christians defended slavery, here’s a good place to start –

        A Bible Defense of Slavery

        There’s lots of this stuff on Google Books. Plenty of fodder there.

        Reply
        1. Brendan Bossard

          Kate, I appreciate your attempt to refer me to good literature on the subject, but I am already aware of it. You missed my point.

          My point is that your statements that the Bible *supports* slavery is an over-simplification of what the Bible actually says about it–that’s all. Antebellum Christians *abused* the Bible; abolitionist Christians did not *defy* it.

          Reply
          1. Kate

            Apparently, ‘not wanting to debate’ means a different thing to you than it does to me.

            The ironic thing is, I’d be perfectly happy to debate this – but this is not the place for that discussion, so I’ll bow out now.

            Reply
  10. London John

    I don’t think it’s contested that Lee’s army seized free Blacks in Pennsylvania and sent them south as slaves?

    Reply
  11. Brendan Bossard

    I find it fascinating that the fact that Northup was a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery is being almost completely overlooked in this conversation. Not that anyone is at fault for this; there are many vagaries to this type of conversation. But seeing as how Mr. Ford was a Christian, I wonder whether he missed this fact, overlooked it, or ignored it? Even pro-slavery Christians condemn kidnapping–see Dabney–yet they manage to shove the fact that their slaves were either kidnapped or descendants of kidnapped people aside into a remote corner.

    Reply
  12. Fraser

    Is there a good book that covers the capture of free blacks by Lee’s forces (I hadn’t known about that, though I’m not surprised)? And Kevin, do you have any recommendations for books on the complicated slave/master relationship?

    Reply

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