Southern White Slaveholder Guilt Paper

This essay has a total of 3230 words and 13 pages.

Southern White Slaveholder Guilt


Guilt is an inevitable effect of slavery. For no matter how much rhetoric and racism is
poured into such a system, the simple fact remains that men and women are enslaving men
and women. Regardless of how much inferior a slaveholder may perceive his salves, it is
obvious that his "property" looks similar, has similar needs, and has similar feelings.
There is thus the necessary comparison of situations; the slaveholder is free, the slave
is in bondage-certainly a position that the slaveholder would find most disagreeable. So
there is no doubt that any slaveholder with any measure of humanity within himself would
feel guilt. And in fact, as the evidence is considered-including the pro-slavery
propaganda-the reality of southern guilt is overwhelmingly obvious. The guilt is seen in
their words, both private and public, uncovered in the pro-slavery diatribes, and
understandable in their humanity.


Before this discussion of guilt in slaveholders begins, it is necessary to first define
how we will define guilt. Certainly if a man says he is guilt-stricken with conviction we
can take this as adequate evidence of his guilt. However, certainly not everyone takes
this direct an approach. James Oakes makes a good point in recognizing that guilt is not
always starkly obvious. "Guilt is the product of a deeply rooted psychological ambivalence
that impels the individual to behave in ways that violate fundamental norms even as they
fulfill basic desires (Oakes 120)." In other words, guilt creates such inner turmoil that
a guilty man will deviate from normal behavior. In this case, we will have to show two
things: first, a slaveholder is committing detrimental actions (to himself or his family)
that show he is in mental distress, and second, that these actions are a result of his
status as a slaveholder. It is obvious that we cannot prove the latter point, but we can
show it is the most probable situation for his guilt. Finally, if a slaveholder is making
pains above and beyond law and custom, it is most likely that these actions are to
alleviate feelings of guilt. This is because we may assume any deliberate actions taken by
any man are usually taken because he assumes they will benefit him in some manner. And if
such an action is costly (money-wise), then it must have some allure in terms of personal
happiness. So to show guilt, we will set forth examples of open confessions of guilt,
deviant behavior, and uncommonly good treatment of slaves.


The correspondence of slaveholders is a gold mine for evidence of these three signs of
guilt. P.H. Leubal writes about a slave girl, Jeanette, purchased and then injured before
she arrived on his property. Perhaps the common perception of what would happen in this
case would go as follows: he would be upset at the visible destruction of his property,
perhaps get a cursory examination done for legal purposes, and would demand a refund. This
is merely an estimate of what custom might dictate, but this would surely not be out of
line with the picture of slaves as purely property. A lame slave would essentially be a
negative in terms of profit; this would not be advantageous in any sense of the economic
world in which Leubal is embroiled. However, Leubal goes far above and beyond this
baseline version of humanity. He gets a thorough examination from a clearly respected
doctor-presumable his own-and gets a fairly complex story from the slave girl herself to
explain the incident. Upon learning that Jeanette would be fairly useless as economically
valuable property, Leubal goes yet another step; he knows her humanity, listens to her
feelings, and elects to keep her himself. Yes, she is still a salve, and yes, he demands a
refund on his money. And yet his behavior is still unusual if examined from a purely
economic standpoint. A slaveholder who cares enough about money to request a partial
refund from a two-hundred ninety dollar piece of "property", yet he elects to keep the
"property", knowing that it will cost him much in the long run, while he could just send
the slave back for a full refund and then buy another that would be more to what his
expectations for Jeanette were originally. The only answer for this can be because Leubal
was motivated by some internal need to help her because of her humanity. He felt it was
somehow his duty to keep her because she was a human being and he identified with her
suffering. She suffered because she was a slave, and because he was a crucial element of
the system that hurt her so, Leubal felt obliged to make amends. At his personal economic
expense, he decided to ease his conscience and do something that would be
out-of-the-ordinary for any slaveholder of the time. To alleviate his guilt, he offered
humanity. Luebal was a slaveholder whose conscience would not let him treat humans as
property (Leubal 1).


It is impossible to argue that Leubal was simply a kind man, an aberration to the society
of slaveholding men. However, if we examine him closely, we will see that his kindness
toward Jeanette could not be applied universally, because it would cause an economic
disaster. So his action is most realistically viewed as a special circumstance. Leubal
kept slaves to make money, but he certainly deplored certain aspects of slavery, and
because he contributed to the system, those aspects were partly his responsibility. To
accept the peculiar institution, he had to redeem it by easing the weight of its pain upon
him-the pain of guilt.


Likewise, a letter from a slave, Eavans McCrery, to his mistress shows that he is being
treated more as an equal than as property (McCrery). He has been taught to read by a
master, and he writes his mistress quite honestly and tells her why and what he would like
to do with his life. It is more the expectations than the actual wording of the letter
that makes it an evidence of guilt. Because Eavans clearly expects a response that is not
harsh, he is obviously allowed to speak his mind and attempt to influence his own future,
something that is not associated with property. His former masters and current mistress
clearly see him as a human being, and their "kindness"-especially in allowing a slave to
know how to read and write in 1854-is exemplary. Thus the logical conclusion, as discussed
above, is that this stems from a moral responsibility. To avoid the guilt that plagues the
slaveholders, Eavans' owners take steps to treat him as a human being.


These two letters give adequate example of slaveholding guilt, but perhaps a better place
to look is in the pro-slavery dogma of the time. The propaganda of slaveholders seems an
unlikely place to find evidence of guilt, but the bare reality of a necessity for the
defense of slavery is perhaps the most obvious sign of a guilty slaveholding population.
As Charles Sellers recognizes in his essay "The Travail of Slavery", the Great Reaction-as
he calls it-was initiated to convince the slaveholders themselves that slavery was for the
good (Sellers 51).


Ever since cries of liberty and equality first struck the South, the institution's
morality had been questioned by all involved. This questioning was purely out of feelings
of guilt. Some slaveholders were convinced they were going to hell because of their
slaveholding; James Oakes makes much out of this. "'Always I felt the moral guilt of it,'
a Louisiana mistress admitted, 'felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to
win his way to heaven (Oakes 115).'" Because slavery was extremely to defend in the eyes
of the New Testament-the golden rule of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto
you' was a particularly difficult obstacle-it remained for all pious slaveholders to
question the morality of their actions (Sellers 48). However, the institution continued
because the South relied economically on its slaves. Thus slaveholders were tied to
slavery while feeling guilt about the system as a whole.


This scene set the stage for the "Great Reaction". After Nat Turner and the rising surge
of northern abolitionism, the South turned inward to defend itself. Because its identity
and success were so tied to slavery, it could not simply dissolve the system outright.
Simply feeling guilty about slavery does not mean Southerners would dismantle the
institution outright. Slavery was a universal part of Southern heritage and success, and
guilt is a personal experience. Even though a slaveholder feels guilty about the
institution, he sees his neighbors and countrymen following the Southern dream to
prosperity through slavery. It was easier to continue with the current situation than
radically alter the slaveholding world, and so southerners supported the "Great Reaction"
in an attempt mainly to alleviate their own guilt.


Perhaps the best sign that the propaganda of the "Great Reaction" was really slaveholders
convincing themselves is in the writings themselves. Any reasonable defense of position in
debate demands that the contentions brought forth are true in a meaningful way. What James
Henry Hammond and George Fitzhugh write about is nothing more than a pipe dream of slave
society. Genovese gives us clear evidence of this, and Hammond himself knew it to be false
because he had nowhere near the utopian plantation about which he writes. Sleeping with
his salves and sexually assaulting his nieces, it appears that Hammond was not a prime
example of the slaveholder he so lauds. Finally, when the false discussions of this
Southern "Eden" end, all that remains is a criticism of free society. The propaganda
criticizes free labor and capitalism extensively; so much so that it appears that the
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