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Slavery as a Cruel Institution
Slavery as a Cruel Institution
Cruelty can be defined as an inhumane action done to an individual or group of people that causes either physical or mental harm. Slavery, at its very core, was a cruel and inhumane institution. From the idea behind it to the way that it was enforced, it degraded the lives of human beings and forbade the basic liberties that every man deserves under the Constitution of the United States. Three major areas where cruelty was especially prevalent were in the slaves working conditions, living conditions, and loss of fundamental freedoms.
Working conditions for slaves were about as bad as can possibly be imagined. Slaves worked from dawn till dusk and sometimes even longer. Solomon Northrup describes his experience as a slave on his Louisiana plantation:
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning and with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night (Northrup 15).
The slaves lived in constant fear of punishment while at work, and it was that fear that drove them to obey. Northrup continues to say that, “No matter how fatigued and weary he may be…a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight—if he has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows he must suffer” (10). He goes on to explain that after weighing, “follow the whippings” (10). This was not the end of the workday for a common slave though. Each slave had his or her own respective chores to do. “One feeds the mules, another the swine—another cuts the wood, and so forth (Northrop 11). Then there were jobs to do in the slaves’ quarters, jobs that were necessary for their basic needs and survival:
Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil. Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper, and dinner for the next day in the field prepared (Northrup 12).
The slaves got very little sleep because, “an hour before day light the horn is blown,” and it was “an offense invariably followed by flogging, to be found at the quarters after daybreak” (Northrup 14). “Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest…” (Northrup 14).
After an extremely difficult day of labor, the cruelty continued when the slaves returned to housing that could be described as “inadequate” at best. Jacob Stroyer, one of fifteen children, was born on a plantation in South Carolina in 1849. He relates the conditions that his family lived in:
Most of the cabins in the time of slavery were built so as to contain two families; some had partitions, while others had none. When there were no partitions each family would fit up its own part as it could; sometimes they got old boards and nailed them up, stuffing the cracks with rags; when they could not get boards they hung up old clothes (Stroyer 14).
Families were forced to live under less than ideal conditions, and sleeping was a challenge:
When the family increased the children all slept together, both boys and girls, until one got married; then a part of another cabin was assigned to that one, but the rest would have to remain with their mother and father, as in childhood, unless they could get with some of their relatives or friends who had small families, or unless they were sold (Stroyer 14).
The hot summer months made it impossible to sleep indoors so, “when it was too warm for them to sleep comfortably, they all slept under trees until it grew too cold” (Stroyer 16).
Francis Henderson was another slave who, after escaping from a slave plantation outside of Washington, D.C. at the age of 19, described living conditions on his plantation:
Our houses were but log huts- - the tops partly open- - ground floor- - rain would come through. My aunt was quite an old woman, and had been sick several years; in rains I have seen her moving from one part of the house to the other, and rolling her bedclothes about to try to keep dry- - everything would be dirty and muddy. I lived in the house with my aunt. My bed and bedstead consisted of a board wide enough to sleep on- - one end on a stool, the other placed near the fire. My pillow consisted of my jacket- - my covering was whatever I could get. My bedtick was the board itself. And this was the way the single men slept- - but we were comfortable in this way of sleeping, being used to it. I only remember having but one blanket from my owners up to the age of nineteen, when I ran away (Drew 45).
These living conditions caused many to resort to immoral methods of survival, as Henderson relates:
Our allowance was given weekly- - a peck of sifted corn meal, a dozen and a half herrings, two and a half pounds of pork. Some of the boys would eat this up in three days- - then they had to steal, or they could not perform their daily tasks. They would visit the hog- pen, sheep- pen, and granaries. I do not remember one slave but who stole some things- - they were driven to it as a matter of necessity. I myself did this- (Drew 48).
Mealtime was far from a joyous occasion. In regard to cooking, sometimes many had to cook at one fire, and “before all could get to the fire…the overseers horn would sound: then they must go at any rate” (Drew 50). Slaves like Henderson “never sat down at a table to eat except at harvest time” (50). He says, “This (eating at harvest time) was more like people,
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