Why Paternalism is Meaningless on the Plantation

It’s disheartening to hear people who continue to insist on distinctions between good and bad slaveowners. I’ve never understood such arguments. It’s the commodification of the individual itself along with the possibility and reality of sale of so many that renders the institution by definition as evil.  What takes place between master and slave on any individual plantation/farm matters none in forming such an assessment.

The following passage found in Baptist’s, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, cuts to the heart of the matter.

Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)

I can think of more than a few people who need to read this book.

7 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Sep 14, 2014

    Baptist says that the slavers spoke of being stolen. I like that way of describing it. When we say a slave was “traded” or ” bought” it all sounds so businessy.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2014

      It certainly places Frederick Douglass’s reference to stealing bodies in a different light: I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.

  • Al Mackey Sep 14, 2014

    Holding a person in slavery is by definition mistreating them, so how can someone be a “good mistreater?” The enslaver would not want his own children to be enslaved under the most “enlightened,” for lack of a better word, enslaver. There is no such thing as a “good slaveholder.” There are levels of mistreatment, though, and some enslaved people were not mistreated as badly as others. But they were all mistreated.

  • jfepperson Sep 15, 2014

    Kevin, the people who need to read the book would refuse to accept what it says …

  • Boyd Harris Sep 15, 2014

    We read a lot of primary sources when I cover slavery with students. Harriet Jacobs is a good one in which to discuss the relationships between slave and masters. Students are sometimes confused by the feelings expressed by some owners and some slaves, particularly the notion of love. It is always a good discussion in class, because students gain a better understanding of how the institution of slavery corrupts everything it touches. Love, if backed by fear or violence, is a deformed emotion and cannot be understood in the same way present day Americans view love. That realization, more than any other description of slavery (forced labor, whippings, etc.), destroys the romantic ideals of the “loving master.”

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Sep 15, 2014

    I agree with all of you. North Carolina’s Justice Ruffin’s 1829 opinion in State v. Mann puts things quite clearly: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

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