Slavery In US
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 weightif 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 swineanother 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 days 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
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, and we liked it, for we sat down then at
meals,” (50). The slaves did not feel like people for they were treated as
animals. They were beaten regularly, and most of the time unjustly accused.
Henderson describes how one of his masters four sons remained at home to be a
driver. “He would often come to the field and accuse the slave of having taken
so and so. If we denied it, he would whip the grown-up ones to make them own
it” (Drew 51). Though the son would often punish them for idleness, under the
harsh conditions, idleness is obviously an excusable act. “If any had been
idle, the young master would visit him with blows” (51). And perhaps the most
cruel and unmanly act that this masters son committed was his mistreatment of
women. Henderson relates that, “I have known him to kick my aunt, an old woman
who had raised and nursed him, and I have seen him punish my sisters awfully
with hickories from the woods” (52). Perhaps the most blatantly cruel and most
obvious element of slavery is the fact that the slave loses his/her freedom.
Slavery is the possession of another person as ones own property, thereby
relieving them of their basic liberties and freedoms. This total disrespect for
humanity was shown in a variety of ways. The slave had no rights whatsoever.
Henderson tells about the situation with the poor white patrols that would pay
the slaves for goods they (the slaves) stole, and encourage them to steal
whatever they could. Henderson says, “It’s all speculation- – all a matter of
self- interest, and when the slaves run away, these same traders catch them if
they can, to get the reward. If the slave threatens to expose his traffic, he
does not care- – for the slave’s word is good for nothing- – it would not be
taken” (Drew 56). White southerners did not regard slaves as people, and thus
did not treat them as such. Former slave Josiah Henson wrote an autobiography in
which he explains the lack of rights afforded to slaves. He describes a scene in
which his father is being hunted because he attacked the overseer who was trying
to molest his mother.
“The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand
against the sacred temple of a white man’s body…this was all it was necessary
to establish. And the penalty followed: one hundred lashes on the bare back, and
to have the right ear nailed to the whipping- post, and then severed from the
body” (Henson 32). They eventually captured his father and inflicted this
penalty. His father was shipped off and for a while his family lived in relative
peace, until the owner of the plantation died, and they were forced to leave.
Henson laments that: Our term of happy union as one family was now, alas! at an
end. Mournful as was the Doctor’s death to his friends it was a far greater
calamity to us. The estate and the slaves must be sold and the proceeds divided
among the heirs. We were but property- – not a mother, and the children God had
given her” (Henson 35). Henson further describes the slave trade experience
with amazing detail, saying: Common as are slave- auctions in the southern
states, and naturally as a slave may look forward to the time when he will be
put upon the block, still the full misery of the event- – of the scenes which
precede and succeed it- – is never understood till the actual experience comes.
The first sad announcement that the sale is to be; the knowledge that all ties
of the past are to be sundered; the frantic terror at the idea of being
“sent south;” the almost certainty that one member of a family will be
torn from another; the anxious scanning of purchasers’ faces; the agony at
parting, often forever, with husband, wife, child- – these must be seen and felt
to be fully understood (35). In an accurate depiction of what an incredible
burden slavery was on families and how cruel it was, Henson remembers how the
rest of his family was sold. “My brothers and sisters were bid off first, and
one by one, while my mother, paralyzed by grief, held me by the hand. Her turn
came, and she was bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery County.
Then I was offered
to the assembled purchasers” (Henson 36). Hensons mother wept profusely and
begged the man who purchased her to buy him as well, but he simply disregarded
her and kicked her out of the way. This is a fine metaphor for the way that
slaves and African-Americans were treated in the early 1800s. Slavery was a
cruel institution, and the slaves were treated cruelly. The slaves were treated
inhumanely. Perhaps Henson sums it up best with his reaction to the treatment of
his mother at the slave trade: “This was one of my earliest observations of
men; an experience which I only shared with thousands of my race, the bitterness
of which to any individual who suffers it cannot be diminished by the frequency
of its recurrence, while it is dark enough to overshadow the whole after-life
with something blacker than a funeral pall” (36).
Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery. Boston: 1856. Genovese, Eugene. Roll,
Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1972. Halasz,
Nicholas. The Rattling Chains. N.Y.: Van Rees Press, 1966. Henson, Josiah. Uncle
Tom’s Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. London:
1877. Northrup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup.
Auburn, N.Y: 1853. Roark, James. Masters without Slaves. New York: Norton and
Company, 1977. Stroyer, Jacob. My Life in the South. Salem, Mass.: 1898.