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Saturday, August 8, 2020


One by one, the things I predicted are coming to pass, which shows not that I am prescient but simply that I am paying attention. Aside from giving bits of money to candidates and larger bits to food programs for those in hard times there is really not much to do but wait for things to play out as they will. So it is, that this morning as I was taking my daily walk I found myself telling an imaginary audience various interesting things about slavery that I learned during my years as a professor of Afro-American studies.

Years ago, I read a fascinating book whose title is Southern Slavery and the Law by Thomas Morris. Morris notes that with the exception of several southern colonies, the colonists brought with them the English common law and they found that it posed a number of curious problems when applied to the institution of slavery. The first problem, of course, was that the English common law had no category of slavery and therefore its traditions had to be distorted and contorted to create a place for slavery. Here are several of the less well-known problems that the colonial legal scholars struggled with.

First of all, the question arose whether slaves were chattels real or chattels movable. Chattels real meant land (hence our term real estate). Chattels movable as the term suggests meant tables or chairs or coaches or the family silver or – in the famous case of Shakespeare – the second best bed. By long tradition, the law dictated that chattels real be the last possessions to be sold off. Now one would think that slaves would fall into the category of chattels movable since they clearly are not land but this posed a practical problem with which the legal experts had to wrestle. If a landowner died and left an estate, say to his oldest son, the law required that the outstanding debts be paid from the estate before it pass to the heir. But land without slaves was virtually useless to a southern plantation owner so the law was contorted to classify slaves as chattels real, thus ensuring that they would be the very last possessions sold off in the settling of debts.

Another problem posed by the traditions of the English common law was that in that tradition the legal status of the child followed that of the father. Thus, the bastard son of a nobleman and a serving girl was an aristocrat for all that he could not inherit since he had been born out of wedlock. But slaves were extremely valuable property and the child of a slave woman was a possession worth a good deal of money to the slave owner so, in one colony after another (there was of course no overarching system of laws for all of the colonies, and even after the establishment of the Republic it was a long time before federal laws governing such matters were enacted) the law was changed so that the status of the child followed that of the mother. In the 19th century, especially after the termination of the slave trade, a healthy adult male slave brought at auction a great deal more than a free laborer could earn in a year.  The rule that came to be applied stated that the issue follows the womb, or since these were of course proper legal scholars and did all their dirty business in Latin, partus sequitur ventrem. Thus it was that a slave owner could rape his way into a considerable increase in his fortune.

Well, this is the sort of thing I think about as I walk. It is better than counting the number of steps. One sad footnote to all of this. I was so entranced by Morris's book that I argued successfully for having it added to the list of 50 major works that every first year doctoral student in our Afro-American Studies PhD program had to read and write a paper on.  But the students hated the book so much that after one year it was removed from the list. You can't win them all.


s. wallerstein said...

You seem to assume that sex between slave women and their owners was always rape. Couldn't there have been mutual sexual attraction at times?

David Palmeter said...

What made American slavery so vicious was that it was coupled with racism. Slavery was nearly universal for millennia, and there was no particular condemnation of it. Societies were stratified by class, and slaves were at the bottom. The attitude seems to have been “better you than me.” We don’t react to the fact that the Parthenon and the Pantheon were built with slave labor in the same way we react to the fact that the White House was. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the remoteness of ancient Greece and Rome from us, whereas we are living today with the results of American slavery, of Jim Crow, of legal segregation.

If American slaves had been white, they, and probably many of their descendants even today, would be considered lower class—they wouldn’t be invited to the country club—but they would be thought of as equally human. That wasn’t true for blacks. Part of the “moral” justification for slavery and later segregation was the claimed inferiority of blacks. In particular, southern gentry used this argument to convince poor whites that they and the planters were on one side and the blacks were on the other. “All men were created equal” meant all white men. I recently watched a rerun of Ken Burns’ WWII series where he noted that, not only was the military segregated, but that it established separate blood banks for blacks and whites, so that whites wouldn’t be tainted with black blood! This was in my lifetime. It wasn’t ancient Greece or Rome.

DDA said...

In answer to Wallerstein: no

LFC said...

Morris's book focuses apparently on the English common law as it was altered in the Southern U.S. (or what became the Southern U.S.). But slavery existed elsewhere of course in the British empire before Parliament abolished it everywhere in the empire in the 1830s if memory serves (I forget the exact date). So I wonder if the existence of slavery in, say, Jamaica posed analogous issues in terms of English common law.

I have a feeling Prof Wolff might find Walter Johnson's book of some years back on the New Orleans slave market to be of interest, but I haven't read it so am guessing.

Eric C said...

@SWallerstein, the issue is lack of full and free consent, regardless of whether the enslaved felt any sexual attraction for the slaveholder.

I'm sure you can recognize parallels with, say, sexual conduct between school teachers and their minor students, coaches and minor athletes, prison guards and inmates, priests and altar boys.

s. wallerstein said...

Eric C.,

The best parallel is that between prison guards and adults inmates since I'm not talking about sex between slave owners and minor slaves.

I get the point but on the other hand, one can imagine a true love relation between a prison guard and an inmate.

By the way, until fairly recently, women were in such a powerless social condition, that they did not exercise full and free consent in general when they married, yet at times marriages developed into loving relationships.

Michael Llenos said...

I think the first three triumvirate books introducing African American literature have historically been: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, & Dubois' The Souls of Black Folk. I've read the first two, but thought the last book was boring so stopped reading it. I don't like the rant Dubois had against B.T. Washington and calling the latter's college education similar to High School. Yes, Booker is one of my heroes, and I don't like the anger against him by Dubois. To give a more positive view concerning the history of African American literature, I think the introduced list of readings should follow this progression: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, some writings and speeches of Marcus Garvey, & some writings and speeches of MLK Jr.

Michael said...

Yes, to echo Eric C., there can't be full and free consent when one of the parties is in a position of vulnerability, and would have to fear the consequences of saying no. And honestly, I think it would be a bad idea, from a standpoint of taste and sensitivity, to use that fact as a springboard into questions about the semantics of "rape"... (I remember an Indiana politician who made the news for asking about "legitimate rape," in the context of some abortion rights controversy.)

By the way, I don't want to come off as self-righteously scolding you, S.W. - I always value your contributions to the blog; and also, I had a similar misstep a while ago, when my friends were ridiculing a news article that referred to Thomas Jefferson's slave as his "mistress," and the point of their ridicule was lost on me. My friends gently corrected me, but I was (and remain) embarrassed anyway.

I have similar reservations, incidentally, with the term "wage slavery," but maybe that's just me. Say what you will about "nothing being taboo" in philosophical circles, but for my part, I think there's good reason to tread with caution on topics like this.

Eric C said...

@DavidPalmeter, slavery was nearly universal for millennia *in large, complex societies based on agriculture and land ownership.* We shouldn't fall into the trap of forgetting about hunter-gatherer societies, which were the kinds of societies in which many of our ancestors lived for most of human existence. As I understand it, many hunter-gatherer societies tend to be rather egalitarian, at least within genders and age cohorts, with very little in the way of the hierarchical divisions of labor and the class distinctions that typify the societies that are the main subjects of written history.

As for "there was no particular condemnation of it"--something tells me that there was a helluva lot of condemnation of it, just not from the people in whose name the histories were written.

DDA said...

It's the middle of the afternoon and MR. HAMMER, who runs the hotel, walks stiffly down the stairs, apparently having just awakened. We first catch sight of him, a cigar in his mouth, putting on his frock coat. He wears glasses and a black greasepaint mustache. A mob of thirteen bellboys confronts him at the landing.
BELLBOY We want to see you, Mr. Hammer!
HAMMER What's the matter? Somebody pay their bill?
BELLBOYS We want our money!
BELLBOY Yes, money.
HAMMER You want your money?
BELLBOY We wanna get paid.
HAMMER Ohhhh! You want my money. Is that fair? Do I want your money? Suppose George Washington's soldiers had asked for money. Where would this country be today?
BELLBOY But they did ask.
HAMMER And where's Washington? No, my friends, no. Money will never make you happy. And happy will never make you money. That might be a wise crack but I doubt it.
BELLBOYS We want our money!
HAMMER I'll make you all a promise. If you'll all stick with me and work hard, we'll forget about money. Let's get together. We'll make a regular hotel out of this place. I'll put writing paper in the hotel. Next year, if you behave yourselves, I'll put in envelopes. I'm gonna put extra blankets free in all your rooms -- there'll be no cover charge.
Having exchanged glances with one another during the above speech, the bellboys [or girls] seem mollified.
HAMMER Think! Think of the opportunities here in Florida. Three years ago, I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now, I've got a nickel in my pocket.
BELLBOY That's all very well, Mr. Hammer, but we haven't been paid in two weeks and we want our wages!
HAMMER Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves, answer me that.
BELLBOYS (unenthusiastic)
HAMMER No, of course not. Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages! I want you to be free. Remember, there's nothing like Liberty -- except Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. Be free, my friends. One for all, and all for me, and me for you, and three for five and six for a quarter.

Charles Pigden said...

Why did the students hate the book?

DDA said...

@Pigden They didn't have the Latin for the judgin'

Robert Paul Wolff said...

They thought it was boring. I found it fascinating.

Elstir said...

Having the list of books would be a great resource to have when looking for something to read. Would you mind sharing it?

J. Fleming said...

You might also consider a female voice…“Only if the black woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” A Voice from the South by a Woman of the South by Anna Julia Cooper (1892)