Walter Johnson Offers ‘A Better Way to Think About Slavery’
For the past few days I’ve been reading about the expansion of slavery into the southwestern states during the 1830s and 40s. Silas Chandler was two years old when his master, Roy Chandler, moved from Virginia to Mississippi in 1839. This was right in the middle of a severe economic downturn owing to runaway speculation as well as dangerous banking policies (or lack thereof) on the state and federal levels. It all came temporarily crashing down and the Chandler family found itself right in the middle of it. Right now all I have are a lot of questions about the family’s history in Virginia, why they moved to Mississippi, and the challenges of getting settled at such an uncertain moment.
For now I want to share a wonderful passage from Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, which concludes a section that explores the pro-slavery writings of Chancellor Harper and Samuel Cartwright:
Historians have generally concluded that the writings of men like Harper “dehumanize” African-American slaves. This formulation has the virtue of signaling their repudiation of Harper’s views, and of reasserting a normative account of humanity as the standard of historical ethics: these are not the sort of things that human beings should be allowed to say about one another. yet a troubling problem remains. Harper, Cartwright, and indeed countless other slaveholders and racists in the history of the world were fully able to do what they did and say what they said, even as they believed and argued that their victims were human. Imagining that perpetrators must “dehumanize” their victims in order to justify their actions, inserting a normative version of “humanity” into a conversation about the justification of historical violence, let’s them–and us–of the hook. History suggests again and again that this is how human beings treat one another. Even as he continually referred to domestic animals in his essay on slavery, Harper always did so by analogy. He did not say blacks were animals; he said they were like animals. Indeed, he was quite clear in affirming his belief that slaves were “human beings,” members of a “cognate race.” There was a religious reason for his malign precision: to argue otherwise would be to question the biblical account of the origins of mankind in the coupling of one man and one woman in the Garden of Eden. But there is little evidence to suggest that Harper and his class felt any conscious or unconscious need to change their behavior in light of any concern for their common humanity with their slaves. Indeed, it seems quite clear that no small measure of the reliance they placed on their laboring slaves–to nurse their own children, bring in the cows, sow the cotton, select the seeds, weigh the bales, cook the meals–signaled their reliance upon the slaves’ “humanity.” Likewise the satisfaction that they got from violence–threatening, separating, torturing, degrading, raping–depended on the fact that their victims were human beings capable of registering slaveholding power in their pain, terror, grief, submission, and even resistance.
A better way to think about slavery might be as a concerted effort to dishumanize enslaved people. Slaveholders were fully cognizant of slaves’ humanity–indeed, they were completely dependent upon it. But they continually attempted to conscript–simplify, channel, limit, and control–the forms that humanity could take in slavery. The racial ideology of Harper and Cartwright was the intellectual conjugation of the daily practice of the plantations they were defending: human beings, animals, and plants forcibly reduced to limited aspects of themselves, and then deployed in concert to further slaveholding dominion. In the 1830s, this plantation-based version of human history transformed the Mississippi Valley into the Cotton Kingdom. By the 1850s, it was ready to go global. (pp. 207-08)
I am still digesting all of this, but I would love to hear what you think.