Chapter 17. The South and Slavery

An ideal of the industrial age

Eli Whitney claimed that his cotton gin “makes the labor fifty times less, without throwing any class of people out of business.” However, the gin made the business of owning slaves more profitable as the production of cotton in the South increased dramatically. Some say that Whitney’s engine more than doubled the number of people enslaved to plant, weed, and harvest cotton.

Effects of slavery

Wealth from owning slaves darkened the background of otherwise generous and liberal white families. Men were quick to quarrel to uphold their supposed honor. Men and women both were addicted to gambling. They were reckless as to the value of money, and likely to live more for pleasure than for reflection or self-improvement. * Slavery was far worse for slaves than for slaveowners— more brutal, cruel, and traumatic, more dehumanizing, more a tragic waste, a destruction of health, a destruction of families.

Cargo of slaves

Branded with irons, like cattle, to identify their owners, manacled and crammed into ships, deprived of water, food, air, and room to move— then cast overboard when they died.

Benevolent master

The benevolent plantation owner was the absolute master of his slaves with strict rules that were never questioned. This might have given his granddaughter the impression his slaves were happy, but they were not free to leave, or to work for themselves, or to marry anyone they chose. Everything was arranged so that the underlying violence of the arrangement never disturbed the orderly production of wealth.

Labor in the rice fields

“Since white men could not labor in the hot, sultry climate, gangs of Negro slaves had to be used.” The Negro men did the heavy work, such as digging trenches and ditches and “back sodding.” The Negro women did the lighter work, planting seed and burning the stubble.

Myth of the happy darky

The myth depended on the false assumption, that the enslaved peoples were inherently inferior. If you believed that myth, then the firm control of the white master seemed justified—even necessary.