150 years ago in Arkansas before the Civil War existed a much-debated discussion and debate over the views of the institution of slavery in the South. The following is an account of an 1860 Southern Woman’s views on the “peculiar” institution. As a matter of logistics and ease on the reader, the editor chose not to include the following in block quotes due to the rather long length of the source:[FAYETTEVILLE, ARK.] THE ARKANSIAN, November 24, 1860
A Southern Churchwoman’s View of Slavery .
I have thought it might be interesting to some of your readers, especially the northern portion, to hear something of what the Germans call “Our inner life.” In a word it may be interesting to them to hear, honestly, a southern woman’s opinion on slavery. I know, in spite of the great efforts made to enlighten the world in general, and the northern portion of these United States in particular, by Emerson, Greely, Mrs. Stowe, H. W. Beecher, and others, there is a very great amount of ignorance as to the position and feelings of the white population of the south on this subject. I promise you to express frankly and truly, in the presence of God and the world, as an honest “Daughter of the Church,” my belief on these matters. It may be used as a psychological curiosity by those of your readers who are interested in examining the philosophy of mind. I have spent a great deal of time at the North. Our country is not healthful for white people, for at least three of the Summer months. In Summer, with the majority of southern people, I have spent this time annually in travel. The north attracts us by its coolness and salubrity; we cannot be long among you without hearing ourselves and our institutions freely discussed; and, it has often been amusing and at the same time painful to me, to listen to the fierce argument and fierce vituperation poured out against my country and my people—amusing from the absurdity of the positions and premises of the adversaries, and sorrowful from their ignorance, hate and bitter condemnation. The southern people held up to view are an arrogant, ignorant, uneducated, inhuman, tyrannical set of men and women, lording it over the amiable, unoffending, innocent, oppressed slaves, driving them to work under the cruel lash, loading them with irons; in short, if you will just cut out a few pages of Irving’s matchless “History of Columbus,” detailing the iniquitous cruelty and barbarity, of the early Spanish settlers, under Orando, against the peaceful islanders of San Domingo, you will have a very correct description of the portrait frequently made before me, and to me, of southern masters and their servants. That is terrible! It makes me shudder and breathe hard to read the early history of America; and yet, there are many persons who believe we live in the constant exercise of the same fearful barbarities. “God forgive our enemies, persecutors and slanderers, and turn their hearts.”
In very early times, perhaps, there may have been some excesses committed by slave-owners. There may be, even yet, exceptions; I have heard of such; thank God, I never knew them. but I will say, “setting down naught in malice,” that in every instance these lawless acts were committed, not by southern men and women, born and bred, but by men who came from other portions of the world, who bought negroes and land to make money as fast as possible, then to sell out and go back from whence they came, to spend it, and to become very loud-mouthed abolitionists.—They demanded of the negro more than he is physically capable of performing, broke his spirit by overwork and want of sympathy, and then deserted him in his helplessness and inefficiency. We do not act so. Our interest forbids it, if no other feelings actuate us. Our homes are here; our lives, our fortunes, our associations, past, present, and future are here. The earth is precious to us; the graves of our beloved sanctify it. We are an agricultural people. History proves that they are always most deeply attached to the soil from whence they draw their subsistence. Our negroes, in most instances, were our playmates; our nurses were negroes; our dear old black “mammys” are, to a southern child’s heart, next to the mother that bore him.—We are attached to these people by every tie that can bind a human heart,–by these associations, by pity for their ignorance, their helplessness, their confiding nature, their loyalty, and their warm affection.
God help us—weak, infirm and fallible beings! We err often; but I say boldly, never, as a people, are we cold, indifferent, or systematically cruel to our poor slaves. Again, if we wished to be cruel, we dare not. Do abolitionists know that cruelty to negroes is a criminal offence, by our laws?—that we cannot separate a child from its mother, under ten years of age, without danger of the penitentiary?—that, if a master maltreats a slave, he is “obliged to be presented” by his neighbors before our Grand Juries, which met in every parish in this State?—that the negro is forcibly taken from the master and sold, and the master is compelled to pay a heavy fine? Not only is the negro thus protected by law, but custom—scarcely less inexorable—does not allow families to be separated, if it is possible to avoid it. When estates are sold or divided, negroes are usually sold in flocks, or families; a southern planter never sells, if he can possibly avoid it. What is he to do, if he sells?—There is no other profession or vocation open to him in his own country. Unless he expatriates himself, he has no wish to sell.
As for southern mistresses—noble southern women, whose pecas [sic?] I have never met in any class of women, in any portion of the civilized world!—I throw the gauntlet down, and defy any man to point out such a class of women in the world as they are. Moral, chaste, devoted wives; tender and self-denying mothers; active, industrious housekeepers—not disdaining the most menial occupations, if it but add to the comfort and welfare of their dear ones; faithful mistresses—providing with their own hands, often, the clothing of their negroes—visiting and nursing the sick, day by day, and by night—baring for the little children—teaching to the best of their knowledge—these poor ones; refined, accomplished, intellectual, as many southern mistresses are—thinking it no more than their duty to exhaust their time, their sympathies, their affections, their lives, for these objects of their love; where can their equals be found? I do not know of such women, except in the days when Penelope spun, and Lucretia and Cornelia sat with their maidens. This, I say, is the general, not the exceptional, character of southern women. I honor and reference my sisters beyond any class of women in the world; it is my proudest boast that I, too, am a “southern woman.”
What can you know, our northern sisters, of the life and work of a planter’s wife?—you who are so comfortably fixed—your houses so conveniently arranged—your markets near and well furnished?—If your servants do not suit you they are discharged. Water, gas, coal, social advantages, books, lectures, music—how can you understand the position of a southern mistress—her many cares and anxieties, her responsibilities, her frequent isolation, her daily self-sacrifice? Would you like to spend all day long, with a pair of heavy shears in your hand, and cut out coarse negro clothing, till your hand ached with weariness? I know many hands, small and delicate as yours, that do this!—Would you like to go into the negro houses and stand hour after hour by the bed of the sick and dying, cheering and comforting the poor creatures? I know many as refined as you, who do this, and think nothing of it. Would you like to struggle with ignorance, stupidity, and the fearful tendency to immorality—alas, almost inherent in the negro? All around me, throughout the length and breadth of the land, are women who do this. And these are the women who, I have often been told, were helpless, indolent, weak, tyrannical creatures, who scarcely spoke “good English,” but drawled out their apathetic sentences in a mixed jargon of Africanisms and English! I have been all over England, and my conclusion is that we speak better English than the English themselves; and many of us speak French, and Italian, and Spanish, and German as well as English; and almost every southern woman has some knowledge of music—I have sometimes spent an evening at the north, in the society of fifteen or twenty ladies, (I use the word advisedly), not one among them could play even on the piano! I know of but two Southern women, in all my acquaintance, who are entirely ignorant of music. I recommend to my countrywomen to use the Choral Service for their negroes, because as a usual thing, they all have some knowledge in music.
I could go on, and tell you of the experiments made, and still making, by southern people, to improve and Christianize their servants,–tell you of a neighbor of ours who has even tried to introduce trial by jury among them, making them judge, among themselves, their misdemeanors; but I should be also obliged to inform you that the experiment failed—he finding, as Dr. Krapf, and all other African missionaries have, “that Africans live better under a monarchy than under republics;” that under the latter form of government, “the Africans are profitable in nothing, either to God or man.” Dr. Livingston says, “running away is a disease among these people;” and so, I suppose, we will have to endure that idiosyncrasy as well as we can. I am happy to say it is of much rarer occurrence among us now than formerly.
The times look dark for us now. God only knows what is to become of us and ours. The fearful storm of fanaticism that has been gathering, urged on by demagogues, is about to break over our heads.—The “irrepressible conflict,” as you perceive, is near at hand. We have never sought it; we have retreated before it, step by step. We are driven now to our only fastnesses—our hearths, our homes. We stand at bay. God help us! God help you, and avert this fearful conflict! His arm only can help us now. But man’s extremity is his opportunity. Let us pray, all of us; you, that you may be enlightened as to your true duty, and we, that we may be guided in the right way. Forsake our country, our institutions, we cannot. It is for life we contend—life for ourselves, life for these helpless, improvident people under our care and guardianship, who cannot endure, and exist, but under the protection and fostering care of white people. We cannot be false to this trust. Stir up, if you will, insurrection, rebellion, amongst us; arm with the assassin’s knife the hands we have taught to be lifted in prayer; teach the tongues to curse us which we have taught to sing God’s praises. We can die but once—the “noble army of martyrs praise Thee.” Like Queen Esther, “if we perish, we perish.”