Assignment 1: Discussion Question: Justifying Oppression
How was it that dominant classes of people justified the system of indentured servitude, slavery, and the oppression of women? What sorts of arguments or rationale did they use to argue for separate social positions, economic situations, or political rights for different sorts of groups? Include specific examples from your readings and research you completed this module. Do you agree with this criticism? Where in our current history are similar attitudes expressed or reflected?
Submit your responses to the appropriate Discussion Area. Write your initial response in 3–4 paragraphs.
8 Living and Dying in Bondage: THE SLAVE CONSPIRACY OF 1822
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English textile industry grew at an incredible pace. Work was reorganized so that a relatively small number of individuals controlled the buying of cotton and its spinning, weaving, and sale as cloth. Some of the new technologies were simple, others, complex, involving large factories. But the new industry was characterized by a heightened specialization of labor, the ability of some men to purchase the time of others as cheaply as possible, and the need of masses of people to sell their labor in order to make a living. The growth of the textile industry signaled the beginnings of a general reorganization of production under capitalism.
The freedom of individuals to buy and sell labor—of owners to hire and fire whomever they pleased and of workers to work for whomever they chose—was central to the system. But most of the individuals who produced the raw cotton that eventually became cloth were slaves, people without such freedom. First, long-staple cotton, which grew only in the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia, fed the textile business. Short-staple cotton was hardy and could grow in varied climates, but the seeds stuck in the cotton bolls, making it unfit for spinning. Then, in 1793, an American inventor, Eli Whitney, developed his famous cotton gin, which easily separated fiber from seed. Now cloth could be produced from any kind of cotton.
Soon the cotton culture spread inland from the southern coast, overrunning Alabama and Mississippi by the 1830s, Texas and Louisiana slightly later. Textile mills opened in America and England, and despite ups and downs, the overall demand for cotton products in world markets seemed unlimited. The new industry spurred the expansion of other businesses, including banking, shipping, and insurance, as well as retailing, importing, and exporting. Thus, cotton was one of the most important ingredients in the development of modern capitalism, and where cotton spread, so did slavery. Here was an irony: The same product that had nurtured a free-labor capitalistic economy also was essential to the growth and extension of slavery, an ancient system antithetical to the free-labor marketplace. If cotton cloth production was the great engine of modern capitalism, enslaved men and women drove that engine. Freedom for some, then, depended on the bondage of others.
Before the great boom in cotton demand, the institution of slavery had been on the defensive. Especially in England, evangelical Christians, reformers, and advocates of free labor were beginning to push for outlawing the slave trade with Africa and, in some extreme cases, for the manumission of slaves in the Americas. The new American Constitution allowed Congress to prohibit the slave trade after 1808, and by 1820, the northern states had either outlawed servitude or were in the process of doing so. In the South, however, slavery had always been stronger, and if many whites justified it as a necessary evil, they nevertheless were not about to divest themselves of their most important form of productive property. Once the demand for short-staple cotton developed, slavery in the South became linked with opening up new western lands and providing economic opportunity for ambitious white men. By the early nineteenth century, bondage and a distinct southern way of life were joined, and before long, whites spoke of the enslavement of blacks as a positive good.
It was not a positive good for the slaves. When the importation of new Africans slowed early in the century, black culture began to change. Many African practices, customs, and beliefs remained, but large parts of the culture of whites became part of black ways. English—although in the form of a patois filled with African words and grammatical constructions—became the dominant language of African Americans. Many slaves were converted to Christianity, though in their own religious services, they incorporated African ideas about God and the spiritual world. Memories of an African homeland never disappeared, but increasingly these remembrances were secondhand, passed through the generations. Blacks forged a distinctive hybrid culture, including their own music, family structure, worship, humor, and social hierarchy.
African Americans needed all of their resources to survive a cruel system. At its worst, slavery meant the breakup of families on an owner’s whim, whippings to enforce discipline, and even death for insubordination. Perhaps the daily grind was worse than the atrocities, for African Americans lived with being stigmatized as an inferior race, having no control over their work or the products of their labor, and having little hope that their lives would get better. Most masters provided roughly enough to eat, but the food was too often an unchanging regimen of corn meal, fat pork, molasses, and, for the lucky ones, the produce of their own small gardens. Sometimes work clothes barely kept them covered through the seasons, and housing often consisted of one-room dirt-floor slave cabins, places impossible to keep dry and disease-free. Slaves generally worked from sunrise to sunset, planting, hoeing, and harvesting, mostly in the brutal southern summers. Women labored alongside men except just before and after childbirth; the very elderly took care of the very young, though both groups were given their own tasks.
There was, of course, variation within slavery. Staple crops like rice, indigo, and sugarcane dictated rhythms of production different from those of cotton; slaves on large plantations had the most distance from the whites, meaning less personal kindness if there was any to be had, but also more independence. A minority of blacks worked as house servants or as skilled laborers, jobs with more diversity than field work, but with greater scrutiny by whites. Some sadistic masters worked their slaves nearly to death, but these were relatively rare. In most cases, a battle of wits was waged constantly, African Americans doing their best to preserve a bit of autonomy, free time, or pleasure, masters trying to get as much labor out of their slaves as possible.