The Institution of the South Not Chattelism
by J.H. Van Evrie, M.D.
The common European notion (and the American, borrowed from it), regards the American "slave" as a chattel — a thing sold like a horse or dog, and equally the absolute property of his master. Lord Brougham and others have denounced this barbarism, as they have called it, with great bitterness, and this former has declared that it is immoral, abhorrent, and even illegal "for man to hold property in man" — a declaration that might be true enough, perhaps, if negroes were black-white men, as supposed, but which, in view of the actual facts involved, is simply absurd. They supposed that negroes in America are held by the same tenure that the Romans and other nations of antiquity held their slaves. But there is no resemblance whatever, and, in truth, it would be difficult to find anywhere in history conditions so absolutely and so widely different. All the so-called heathen nations had slaves, or rather they had captives taken in war, whose lives were forfeited, and who thus became the property of their conquerors. The rule or custom seems to have been universal, and it was only after the introduction of Christianity that it became obsolete. A Roman army invaded Gaul or Germany — a great battle or series of battles occurred — those captured on the field became the property of the victors, while the nation or country became a Roman province, and ever after paid tribute to the Roman civil officers. Gaul, Britain, most of Germany, indeed, nearly all the then known world, were thus overrun by the Roman armies, and the vast multitudes that were defeated in battle were carried off to Italy to cultivate the lands of the Roman nobility. There was no question of freedom or slavery, or of rights of any kind involved — the man risked his life, and if defeated, his life was forfeited to the victor. The latter might or might not slay him the next morning or the next week, or the next year, or twenty years after, just as he pleased. He might send him to work on his lands in Italy, keep him as a domestic in his household, compel him to enter the arena and combat as a gladiator for the popular amusement, or direct him to be crucified or given to feed his fishes, or he might sell him to others, who, of course, had the same control over him; or, finally, by one supreme act of generosity, he might give him back his forfeited life, when, as a freedman — not freeman — he entered the ranks of ordinary citizenship and was lost in the mighty mass of Romans that made up the population of the great city. Freedom or slavery, or what, in modern times, is called such, had nothing to do with the matter. It was a question of life and death rather than of freedom and slavery. The life, the actual physical existence was forfeited — the man had no right to live, and only did live by the sufferance of the captor or master, and therefore all subordinate considerations were lost in this one great, all-dominating fact. Many wise, learned, and accomplished men were slaves or were of this unfortunate class, and remained thus through life, subject often, doubtless, to the caprices and cruelty of illiterate and brutal owners, who at any moment could put them to the torture or to a cruel death. The rule was universal among all the ancient nations, except the Hebrews, who, in some respects, or as regarded their own people, made some humane modifications. It was entirely personal — the state or government having nothing to do with the matter either as regarded the original forfeit or the canceling of the bonds and the restoration to liberty, or rather to life, of the unfortunate captive.
There was a certain social prejudice in respect to freedmen, or the children of those who had been slaves, but there does not appear to have been any legal or political disability. They had forfeited their lives — they became absolutely dead in law, the government or state took no more account than of horses or oxen, or any other property; but the moment that their lives were restored to them, then they at once entered the ranks of citizenship with all the rights and privileges common in those days, and in those relatively barbarous times.
There were some incidental features or phases of this terrible condition that are too marked to pass over without notice, as they tend to show, in a very striking manner, the wide and indeed unapproachable distance between it and that which, in our own times, has been so generally confounded with it. Servile wars were almost constantly occuring events. Opinion, even in the rudest times, has always, to a certain extent, governed the world, and the universal custom of enslaving those defeated in battle was submitted to in the first instance without murmur. It was the fortune of war, and no one disputed the inexorable rule which doomed them to become the absolute chattels or property of the victor; but when their numbers increased to any considerable extent in any locality, very often the superiors of those who owned them, could not be restrained, and the long and terrible servile wars almost always raging within the bosom of the Roman Empire probably weakened and more than any other thing prepared it for that awful overthrow which finally overtook the Roman colossus. Another equally striking feature distinguished this condition. The slave population never increased itself in the regular and natural order. Most of them were adult males, originally, and the small number of females may sufficiently account for the constant tendency to extinction; but beyond this, the abnormal condition, the terrible and transcendent wrong of forcing beings like themselves, with the same wants and the same instincts as their masters, to lives in absolute and abject subjection to the wills of others, was necessarily incompatible with a permanent existence.
This universal custom prevailed — all men, even the wisest and best, in their profound ignorance of their own nature, believed slavery to be right, just as many good men in our own times believe that the European condition, which dooms the millions to subjection to the few, is right; but it was so utterly in conflict with natural instinct that the servile population tended constantly to extinction, and therefore, as observed, it soon died out when the spirit of Christianity modified the customs of war, and the conquered became prisoners to be exchanged, instead of slaves subject to the caprices and cruelties of creatures like themselves. Some superficial writers, ignorant of the underlying facts, have supposed that Greece and Rome were great and prosperous because they had slaves, a process of reasoning quite equal to saying that a man enjoyed good health because he had a fever-sore on one of his legs! These nations and all other nations have been prosperous and powerful in precise proportion to the number of free men, and weak and contemptible in exact proportion to the multiplicity of slaves — a truth as evident at this day as in any other, and rendered more palpable in our own history and condition than ever before. Greece and Rome were great and powerful, in contrast with the great Oriental empires — Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian, etc. — because there was a large free population in the former, while in the latter they were all slaves, or the slaves of slaves. Of course no such condition could exist in our times, and the most ignorant and abject portion of the European population could not be placed or kept in such position a single hour. The Oriental populations still practice it, to a certain extent, perhaps. The Turks, when they invaded the lower empire and captured Constantinople, made slaves of their prisoners and long trains of unhappy beings, wealthy matrons and delicately nurtured young girls, chained by the wrists to their own servants, or to rude soldiers and uncouth peasants, were marched off to become the abject and miserable slaves of still more gross and brutal masters. The sale of Circassian girls for Turkish harems is altogether a different affair, and however revolting to our notions and habits, has nothing in common with the condition historically known to us as slavery. The essential fact in this condition, as will be seen, was the forfeited life; all other facts hinged on that, and the idea of property or chattelism was incidental — a mere result. When the man's life was forfeited, when he was deemed to be dead in law, when his captor could do as he pleased with him, crucify, torture, or destroy him altogether, then it necessarily followed that he was a chattel, or a thing that he would be apt to make as profitable as possible, and this self-interest was the sole protection of the miserable creature. It therefore was, doubtless, a great interest-some of the Roman nobles owning many thousands of them, though, except in respect to the servile wars, almost constantly raging within some portion of the empire, the government seems to have had nothing to do with slaves or slavery. It was wont, however, to resort to terrible punishments to keep them in subjection, and it was not uncommon to line the highways leading into the city for forty miles with crosses, on which these wretched beings were suspended, and left in sight and hearing of each other, until death relieved them from their sufferings.
Such was Roman slavery, as it has been described by historians of the time — a condition not at all involving what we call freedom or rights of any kind, but simply that of a forfeited existence, and which, if given back by the owner, the man was restored to life, to a legal existence, to his normal condition, and, without the slightest interference of the government, was at once absorbed in the general citizenship. Of course there is no resemblance or even approximation to the social order of the South; indeed, as observed, it is difficult to conceive of conditions more utterly opposed or unlike each other. As has been shown elsewhere, the labor, the service, the industrial forces of the negro were essential to the cultivation of the soil and the growth of the indigenous products that belong to the great intertropical regions of the American continent. Ships, therefore, were fitted out for this purpose to bring negroes to the New World, not to make slaves of them or to transform them into things, but to make their labor available for the common good of mankind. Much wrong, cruelty, and inhumanity, it is quite likely, have been practiced, but the motive and the object were right, of course, for these had their origin in human necessities and human welfare. The abuses we have nothing more to do with; the object and the essential fact — the service — remains, and will remain forever, instead of being transformed into a barren waste. The service of the negro, his industrial capacity, his labor, is a thing that may be estimated as easily and accurately as any other species of property, and therefore is property, and to the precise extent necessary to enforce this labor or this service the owner of it has absolute control over the person of the negro. There is not, nor should there be, any difference between this property and other property, and to this extent it may be called chattelism, for, as observed, it may be as easily and precisely fixed or defined as any other property. The master takes care of him in childhood and in sickness, clothes, feeds, and provides for his old age, for the loss of health, etc., and estimating or comparing these things with his services, he is able to fix a positive value to the labor of the negro, and this, like any other property, he may dispose of to any one else, if he chooses to do so. This property he must have absolute control over, and therefore, to the precise extent needed to make it available, he has absolute control over the person of the negro. The ignorant abolition writer says, "the slave is put upon the auction-block, examined and handled precisely as the horse, or other animal, and knocked off to the highest bidder; he follows his master home, to be dealt with just as any other animal."
It is true, there is a seeming resemblance, but if we follow them home and observe what follows, then it will be seen that there is no resemblance at all. The master takes care of his horse, for such is his interest; he may even have a liking, a kind of affection for him; but if sick or worn out, or if he falls and breaks a leg, he blows his brains out, and after taking off his skin, leaves his carcass to be devoured by the dogs or vultures. In the case of the negro, he also takes care of him and treats him well, for it is his highest interest to do so, and often feels an affection, and a very strong one, for him. If ill, he sends for a surgeon and treats him as men usually treat their children. His own wants are all attended to. He has his cabin, his patch of garden, his poultry, etc., very often his bale of cotton. He is permitted to choose his own wife, to enjoy all the domestic happiness that his nature is capable of, and if he fulfils his duty industriously, promptly, and honestly, then the master may be said to have no more control over him; but should he reach old age, break his leg, or in any way become disabled and useless, if the master should blow his brains out, he would be hanged as a murderer. There is surely no resemblance in these things, none whatever; indeed it may be said that the one essential fact accomplished, the "service" duly rendered, the master's absolute control ceases. He must still care for and protect the negro and provide for him in sickness and old age, but his absolute rule is always within well-defined limits, and beyond them the master may not go. He may enforce service, and if the negro disobeys, punish him, or if he resists the reasonable will of the master, compel obedience. But the laws of every Southern State protect the "slave" from the caprices and cruelties of the master just as in Northern States they protect the child from a sometimes passionate and brutal father.
In the previous chapter it has been shown that the negro is in his normal condition only when in social subordination to the white man — for that is the natural relation of the races whenever or wherever they are in juxtaposition; but the precise form of this subordination may be modified, perhaps by time and circumstances. Subordination and protection exist together — indeed are in separable. The strong should protect the weak; the superior white man, who demands the obedience of the inferior negro, should also protect this feebler being; and such is the social condition at the South. Owning the service of the negro, it is the highest interest of the master to take the utmost care of him, while the latter has an equal interest — relatively considered — in being honest, industrious, and faithful to the master. Indeed, it is impossible to perceive any antagonism of interests in the condition, and compared with any other, it may be said, without chance of successful contradiction, that it is the most harmonious in its essential principles known to our times. It originated in an absolute want — the service of the negro — that industrial capacity which he alone can furnish, and this service is the essential feature of the domestic institutions of the South. It was and is made a property, and the person of the negro is subject to the absolute control of the master to an extent necessary to enforce this power, but no further. There is still a large margin for self-control, for all the self-government that nature demands, for the gratification of all his wants and the full development of all his faculties. This is demonstrated beyond doubt, for he rapidly multiplies, while if he were denied the rights that nature accords him, his instinct repressed, his wants forbidden gratification, like the Roman slave, or like the so-called free negro of the North, he would become languid and diseased, and tend rapidly to extinction. But while the existing condition is thus healthy, natural, and just, as before remarked, it is quite likely that, in the future time, it may be widely changed in its details. This relation — the subordination with the inseparable protection — can never be changed without destruction to both, or without social suicide; but the social condition may some day be modified sufficiently, perhaps, to do away with any defects, if such exist at present.
In another place the subject of climate and industrial adaptation is fully considered, and it will suffice to remark in this place that the tropics are the natural centre of existence of the negro, and some day not very remote our negro population, with a few exceptions, perhaps, will be found within the intertropical region. And when that day comes, it is quite likely that some modification will be worked out which, while the essential principles of the existing condition are preserved, chattelism, or that seeming personal property in the negro now so extensively associated in the popular mind at the North as wrong, may disappear altogether. We are only just emerging, as it were, into a boundless field for progress, for inquiry, for experiment, for social development, for working out the great problem of humanity. All Europe is in utter ignorance and blindness; and if the whole political and social order is not in conflict with the natural order, the latter, is, at all events, repressed, and forbidden a development. We, ourselves, have reached a comparatively far advanced position — the grand position and declaration of the men of 1776, that all men (of course of our own race) are created equal, and designed by the Almighty for the same liberty, etc; and we have based our political order on this fundamental and everlasting truth; but while in theory we have thus recognized the relations that nature has decreed between individuals, in practice we have made but little advance over the people of Europe.
Our cities and towns are filled to overflowing with poverty, ignorance, vice, and misery, and though much of this is the direct result of the wrongs and oppositions of the Old World, and all of it legitimate consequences of the European practice which yet prevails among us, especially in the States most connected by commerce, literature, and opinion with the Old World, our social progress is small, indeed, compared with our political enlightenment. But the masses are, however slow the progress, becoming more and more intelligent, and consequently more virtuous and happy, for, however frequent the exceptions among individuals, morality among the masses always keeps pace with their intelligence. And though the social condition at the South is less, infinitely less defective than at the North, and social progress in the future as a comparatively circumscribed field of action, there are many things, doubtless, which, in the future time, will be widely altered from the present. God has organized and fixed the nature and relations of His creatures, so that there is no conflict of duties, and that which best secures the happiness of ourselves, also accomplishes the happiness of others, whether they be our equals or our inferiors, men of our own race or negroes. Thus, when the dominant race — the citizenship of the South — comprehend most clearly and truly what their own welfare demands, then, too, and of necessity, will the best interests of the negro be secured. The perverse fanatics at the North, who, unmindful of, and indeed dead to the woes of their suffering brethren, imagine the most terrible miseries among negroes of the South, can not continue much longer in their unnatural delusions, and strive to apply the appropriate corrections. What these defects may consist in, the writer does not assume to decide or to understand, but after a long-continued and patient investigation of the social condition of the South, he thinks he can not be mistaken when he declares that they are wholly and absolutely incapable of comprehending any wrong whatever in the fundamental social relations of the races or so-called slavery of the South.
This article was extracted from J.H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (New York: Van Evrie, Horton and Company, 1868). Click HERE to order this book.