Historians and Slavery Essay

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Woodrow Wilson on Slavery
Origins of Slavery
The general merits of the question of slavery in the United States, its establishment, its development, its social, political, and economic effects, it is now possible to discuss without passion [...] It would seem plain, for one thing, that the charges of moral guilt for the establishment and perpetuation of slavery which the more extreme leaders of the anti-slavery party made against the slave holders of the southern States must be very greatly abated, if they are to be rendered in any sense just. Unquestionably most of the colonies would have excluded negro slaves from their territory, had the policy of England suffered them to do so. The selfish commercial policy of the mother-country denied them all choice in the matter; they were obliged to permit the slave-trade and to receive the slaves. Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence made it one of the chief articles of indictment against George the Third that he had " prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce." [...]
Before this tremendous development of cotton culture had taken place, slavery had hardly had more than habit and the perils of emancipation to support it in the South: southern life and industry had shaped themselves to it, and the slaves were too numerous and too ignorant to be safely set free. But when the cotton-gin supplied the means of indefinitely expanding the production of marketable cotton by the use of slave labor, another and even more powerful argument for its retention was furnished. After that, slavery seemed nothing less than the indispensable economic instrument of southern society. (Wilson, pg. 123-125)
Conditions of Slave Life
Of the conditions of slave life it is exceedingly difficult to speak in general terms with confidence or with accuracy. Scarcely any generalization that could be formed would be true for the whole South, or even for all periods alike in any one section of it. Slavery showed at its worst where it was most seen by observers from the North,—upon its edges. In the border States slaves were constantly either escaping or attempting escape, and being pursued and recaptured, and a quite rigorous treatment of them seemed necessary. There was a slave mart even in the District of Columbia itself, where Congress sat and northern members observed. But in the heart of the South conditions were Domestic different, were more normal. Domestic slaves were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters. Among those masters who had the sensibility and breeding of gentlemen, the dignity and responsibility of ownership were apt to produce a noble and gracious type of manhood, and relationships really patriarchal. "On principle, in habit, and even on grounds of self-interest, the greater part of the slave-owners were humane in the treatment of their slaves, — kind, indulgent, not over-exacting, and sincerely interested in the physical well-being of their dependents,"— is the judgment of an eminently competent northern observer who visited the South in 1844. "Field hands on the ordinary plantation came constantly under their master s eye, were comfortably quartered, and were kept from overwork both by their own laziness and by the slack discipline to which they were subjected. They were often commanded in brutal language, but they were not often compelled to obey by brutal treatment.
...Books like Mrs. Stowe's " Uncle Tom's Cabin," which stirred the pity and deep indignation of northern readers, certainly depicted possible cases of inhuman conduct towards slaves. Such cases there may have been; they may even have been frequent; but they were in every sense exceptional, showing what the system could produce, rather than what it did produce as its characteristic spirit and method. For public opinion in the South, while it recognized the necessity for maintaining the