Reading W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, chapter three: The Planter.

“The Psychological Effect of Slavery on [the Slave Owner] Was Fatal”

“The Psychological Effect of Slavery on [the Slave Owner] Was Fatal”

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Dec. 7 2016 3:27 PM
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The Psychological Effect of Slavery on the Slave Owner

Blogging DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, chapter 3: “The Planter.”

United States slave trade, 1830.
United States slave trade, 1830.

Library of Congress

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

I said I would do two chapters at a time, but this third chapter is so hefty that it deserves its own entry.

Chapter three, titled “The Planter,” deals with the other key actors of the antebellum economy: The slave-owning class itself. It's interesting to read this chapter in light of recent scholarship, like Cornell historian Ed Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which presents the planters as capitalists of a sort: innovative and entrepreneurial, bringing new methods and technologies to the "project" of extracting labor from enslaved people. DuBois touches on some of this, in the context of the planter's dependency on Northern manufacturing, which he describes as a function of the planter's fundamental myopia:

The result was that Northern and European industry set prices for Southern cotton, tobacco and sugar which left a narrow margin of profit for the planter. He could retaliate only by more ruthlessly exploiting his slave labor so as to get the largest crops at the least expense. He was therefore not deliberately cruel to his slaves, but he had to raise cotton enough to satisfy his pretensions and self-indulgence, even if it brutalized and commercialized his slave labor.

Everything has a context, and my hunch is that the context for DuBois' harsh view of the planter class as economic actors is the larger conversation around slavery in the early 20th century, which treated slave owners and the institution itself as fundamentally benign, with the former standing as respectable, decent citizens and leaders. DuBois takes a scalpel to that view, putting the failures and deficiencies of the planters in sharp relief:

The Southern planter suffered, not simply for his economic mistakes—the psychological effect of slavery upon him was fatal. The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets; they issued commands; they made laws; they shouted their orders; they expected deference and self-abasement; they were choleric and easily insulted. [...]
As the world had long learned, nothing is so calculated to ruin human nature as absolute power over human beings.

DuBois saves special condemnation for the "sexual lawlessness" of the planter class, alluding to routine assaults on enslaved women:

Sexually they were lawless, protecting elaborately and flattering the virginity of a small class of women of their social clan, and keeping at command millions of poor women of the two laboring groups of the South. Sexual chaos was always the possibility of slavery, not always realized but always possible: polygamy through the concubinage of black women to white men; polyandry between black women and selected men on plantations in order to improve the human stock of strong and able workers. The census of 1860 counted 588,352 persons obviously of mixed blood—a figure admittedly below the truth.

This later leads to a discussion of the interstate slave trade. What's interesting is that DuBois connects the monstrosity of that trade—ripping children from parents, wives from husbands, etc.—to the base morality of the slaveowners themselves. He argues that the planters maintained a mythology of patriarchal life—of masters as guardians of home and plantation—that served to shield their psyches from the brutal inhumanity of their position:

He denied that there was any considerable interstate sale of slaves; he denied that families were broken up; he insisted that slave auctions were due to death or mischance, and particularly did he insist that the slave traders were the least of human beings and most despised.
This deliberate contradiction of plain facts constitutes itself a major charge against slavery and shows how the system often so affronted the moral sense of the planters themselves that they tried to hide from it. They could not face the fact of Negro women as brood mares and of black children as puppies.

I don't know enough about the lives of slave owners themselves to say much about the truth of this. But it's a fascinating perspective.

There is one other argument from this chapter I wanted to focus on, or at least make note of. Readers familiar with the shape of pro-slavery ideology in the years before the Civil War will know that, as the 1840s turned over into the 1850s, that ideology became even more radical and uncompromising than it had at any point before. DuBois connects this to both the rising economic fortunes of slavery—demand for slave-grown cotton continued to grow at rapid rates—and to the increasing pressures on slavery from Northern abolitionists, which led slave owners to further justify their institution:

The espousal of the doctrine of Negro inferiority by the South was primarily because of economic motives and the inter-connected political urge necessary to support slave industry; but to the watching world it sounded like the carefully thought out result of experience and reason; and because of this it was singularly disastrous for modern civilization in science and religion, in art and government, as well as in industry.

DuBois connects this—and the extent to which the planters were still eclipsed by Northern manufacturers—to a larger drive to turn the political power of planters into a weapon to make slavery an enduring feature of the American landscape:

As the economic power of the planter waned, his political power became more and more indispensable to the maintenance of his income and profits. Holding his industrial system secure by this political domination, the planter turned to the more systematic exploitation of his black labor. One method called for more land and the other for more slaves. Both meant not only increased crops but increased political power. It was a temptation that swept greed, religion, military pride and dreams of empire to its defense.

What is DuBois driving toward with all of this? I think, again, that it's best understood as an assault on the prevailing wisdom. He wants to show the essential criminality of the system they led, and the extent to which it led the whole of the South—black and white—into abject poverty and ruin. Here's how he concludes the chapter:

With all its fine men and sacrificing women, its hospitable homes and graceful manners, the South turned the most beautiful section of the nation into a center of poverty and suffering, of drinking, gambling and brawling; an abode of ignorance among black and white more abysmal than in any modern land; and a system of industry so humanly unjust and economically inefficient that if it had not committed suicide in civil war, it would have disintegrated of its own weight.

I don't know if slavery would have disintegrated of its own weight, but the rest of this is well-taken.