Frances Anne Kemble.

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 online

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of intelligence, influence, and education withdrew themselves in greater
disgust, devoting their energies to schemes of mere personal advantage,
and leaving the commonweal with selfish and contemptuous indifference to
the guidance of any hands less nice and less busy than their own.

Nor would the Southern planters - a prouder and more aristocratic race than
the Northern merchants - have relished the companionship of their
fellow-politicians more than the latter, but _their_ personal interests
were at stake, and immediately concerned in their maintaining their
predominant influence over the government; and while the Boston men wrote
and talked transcendentalism, and became the most accomplished of
_aestetische_ cotton spinners and railroad speculators, and made the shoes
and cow-hides of the Southerners, the latter made their laws; (I believe
New Jersey is really the great cow-hide factory); and the New York men,
owners of the fastest horses and finest houses in the land, having made a
sort of Brummagem Paris of their city, were the bankers and brokers of the
Southerners, while the latter were their legislators.

The grip the slaveholders had fastened on the helm of the State had been
tightening for nearly half a century, till the government of the nation
had become literally theirs, and the idea of their relinquishing it was
one which the North did not contemplate, and they would not tolerate.

If I have said nothing of the grievances which the South has alleged
against the North - its tariff, made chiefly in the interest of the
north-eastern manufacturing States, or its inconsiderable but enthusiastic
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Abolition party - it is because I do not
believe these causes of complaint would have had the same effect upon any
but a community of slaveholders, men made impatient (by the life-long
habit of despotism), not only of all control, but of any opposition.
Thirty years ago Andrew Jackson - a man of keen sagacity as well as
determined energy - wrote of them that they were bent upon destroying the
Union, and that, whatever was the pretext of their discontent, that was
their aim and purpose. 'To-day,' he wrote, 'it is the tariff, by and by it
will be slavery.' The event has proved how true a prophet he was. My own
conviction is that the national character produced and fostered by
slaveholding is incompatible with free institutions, and that the
Southern aristocracy, thanks to the pernicious influences by which they
are surrounded, are unfit to be members of a Christian republic. It is
slavery that has made the Southerners rebels to their government, traitors
to their country, and the originators of the bloodiest civil war that ever
disgraced humanity and civilisation. It is for their sinful complicity in
slavery, and their shameful abandonment of all their duties as citizens,
that the Northerners are paying in the blood of their men, the tears of
their women, and the treasure which they have till now held more precious
than their birthright. They must now not merely impose a wise restriction
upon slavery, they must be prepared to extinguish it. They neglected and
despised the task of moderating its conditions and checking its growth;
they must now suddenly, in the midst of unparalleled difficulties and
dangers, be ready to deal summarily with its entire existence. They have
loved the pursuit of personal prosperity and pleasure more than their
country; and now they must spend life and living to reconquer their great
inheritance, and win back at the sword's point what Heaven had forbidden
them to lose. Nor are we, here in England, without part in this tremendous
sin and sorrow; we have persisted in feeding our looms, and the huge
wealth they coin, with the produce of slavery. In vain our vast Indian
territory has solicited the advantage of becoming our free cotton
plantation; neither our manufacturers nor our government would venture,
would wait, would spend or lose, for that purpose; the slave-grown harvest
was ready, was abundant, was cheap - and now the thousand arms of our great
national industry are folded in deplorable inactivity; the countless hands
that wrought from morn till night the wealth that was a world's wonder are
stretched unwillingly to beg their bread; and England has never seen a
sadder sight than the enforced idleness of her poor operatives, or a
nobler one than their patient and heroic endurance.

And now you ask me what plan, what scheme, what project the government of
the United States has formed for the safe and successful emancipation of
four millions of slaves, in the midst of a country distracted with all the
horrors of war, and the male population of which is engaged in military
service at a distance from their homes? Most assuredly none. Precipitated
headlong from a state of apparent profound security and prosperity into a
series of calamitous events which have brought the country to the verge of
ruin, neither the nation or its governors have had leisure to prepare
themselves for any of the disastrous circumstances they have had to
encounter, least of all for the momentous change which the President's
proclamation announces as imminent: a measure of supreme importance, not
deliberately adopted as the result of philanthropic conviction or
far-sighted policy, but (if not a mere feint of party politics) the last
effort of the incensed spirit of endurance in the North - a punishment
threatened against rebels, whom they cannot otherwise subdue, and which a
year ago half the Northern population would have condemned upon principle,
and more than half revolted from on instinct.

The country being in a state of war necessarily complicates everything,
and renders the most plausible suggestions for the settlement of the
question of emancipation futile: because from first to last now it will be
one tremendous chapter of accidents, instead of a carefully considered and
wisely prepared measure of government. But supposing the war to have
ceased, either by the success of the Northern arms or by the consent of
both belligerents, the question of manumission in the Southern States when
reduced to the condition of territories or restored to the sway of their
own elected governors and legislatures, though difficult, is by no means
one of insuperable difficulty; and I do not believe that a great nation of
Englishmen, having once the will to rid itself of a danger and a disgrace,
will fail to find a way. The thing, therefore, most to be desired now is,
that Americans may unanimously embrace the purpose of emancipation, and,
though they have been reluctantly driven by the irresistible force of
circumstances to contemplate the measure, may henceforward never avert
their eyes from it till it is accomplished.

When I was in the South many years ago I conversed frequently with two
highly intelligent men, both of whom agreed in saying that the immense
value of the slaves as property was the only real obstacle to their
manumission, and that whenever the Southerners became convinced that it
was their interest to free them they would very soon find the means to do
it. In some respects the conditions are more favourable than those we had
to encounter in freeing our West India slaves. Though the soil and climate
of the Southern States are fertile and favourable, they are not tropical,
and there is no profuse natural growth of fruits or vegetables to render
subsistence possible without labour; the winter temperature is like that
of the Roman States; and even as far south as Georgia and the borders of
Florida, frosts severe enough to kill the orange trees are sometimes
experienced. The inhabitants of the Southern States, throughout by far the
largest portion of their extent, must labour to live, and will undoubtedly
obey the beneficent law of necessity whenever they are made to feel that
their existence depends upon their own exertions. The plan of a gradual
emancipation, preceded by a limited apprenticeship of the negroes to white
masters, is of course often suggested as less dangerous than their entire
and immediate enfranchisement. But when years ago I lived on a Southern
plantation, and had opportunities of observing the miserable results of
the system on everything connected with it - the souls, minds, bodies, and
estates of both races of men, and the very soil on which they existed
together - I came to the conclusion that immediate and entire emancipation
was not only an act of imperative right, but would be the safest and most
profitable course for the interests of both parties. The gradual and
inevitable process of ruin which exhibits itself in the long run on every
property involving slavery, naturally suggests some element of decay
inherent in the system; the reckless habits of extravagance and
prodigality in the masters, the ruinous wastefulness and ignorant
incapacity of the slaves, the deterioration of the land under the
exhausting and thriftless cultivation to which it is subjected, made it
evident to me that there were but two means of maintaining a prosperous
ownership in Southern plantations: either the possession of considerable
capital wherewith to recruit the gradual waste of the energies of the
soil, and supply by all the improved and costly methods of modern
agriculture the means of profitable cultivation (a process demanding, as
English farmers know, an enormous and incessant outlay of both money and
skill), or an unlimited command of fresh soil, to which the slaves might
be transferred as soon as that already under culture exhibited signs of
exhaustion. Now the Southerners are for the most part men whose only
wealth is in their land and labourers - a large force of slaves is their
most profitable investment. The great capitalists and monied men of the
country are Northern men; the planters are men of large estates but
restricted means - many of them are deeply involved in debt, and there are
very few who do not depend from year to year for their subsistence on the
harvest of their fields and the chances of the cotton and rice crops of
each season.

This makes it of vital importance to them to command an unrestricted
extent of territory. The man who can move a 'gang' of able-bodied negroes
to a tract of virgin soil is sure of an immense return of wealth; as sure
as that he who is circumscribed in this respect, and limited to the
cultivation of certain lands with cotton or tobacco by slaves, will in the
course of a few years see his estate gradually exhausted and unproductive,
refusing its increase, while its black population propagating and
multiplying will compel him eventually, under penalty of starvation, to
make _them_ his crop, and substitute, as the Virginians have been
constrained to do, a traffic in human cattle for the cultivation of
vegetable harvests.

The steady decrease of the value of the cotton crop, even on the famous
sea island plantations of Georgia, often suggested to me the inevitable
ruin of the owners within a certain calculable space of time, as the land
became worn out, and the negroes continued to increase in number; and had
the estate on which I lived been mine, and the laws of Georgia not made
such an experiment impossible, I would have emancipated the slaves on it
immediately, and turned them into a free tenantry, as the first means of
saving my property from impending destruction. I would have paid them
wages, and they should have paid me rent. I would have relinquished the
charge of feeding and clothing them, and the burthen of their old, young,
and infirm; in short, I would have put them at once upon the footing of
free hired labourers. Of course such a process would have involved
temporary loss, and for a year or two the income of the estate would, I
dare say, have suffered considerably; but, in all such diversions of
labour or capital from old into new channels and modes of operation, there
must be an immediate sacrifice of present to future profit, and I do not
doubt that the estate would have recovered from the momentary necessary
interruption of its productiveness, to resume it with an upward instead of
a downward tendency, and a vigorous impulse towards progress and
improvement substituted for the present slow but sure drifting to
stagnation and decay.

As I have told you, the land affords no spontaneous produce which will
sustain life without labour. The negroes therefore must work to eat; they
are used to the soil and climate, and accustomed to the agriculture, and
there is no reason at all to apprehend - as has been suggested - that a race
of people singularly attached to the place of their birth and residence
would abandon in any large numbers their own country, just as the
conditions of their existence in it were made more favourable, to try the
unknown and (to absolute ignorance) forbidding risks of emigration to the
sterner climate and harder soil of the Northern States.

Of course, in freeing the slaves, it would be necessary to contemplate the
possibility of their becoming eventual proprietors of the soil to some
extent themselves. There is as little doubt that many of them would soon
acquire the means of doing so (men who amass, during hours of daily extra
labour, through years of unpaid toil, the means of buying themselves from
their masters, would soon justify their freedom by the intelligent
improvement of their condition), as that many of the present landholders
would be ready and glad to alienate their impoverished estates by parcels,
and sell the land which has become comparatively unprofitable to them, to
its enfranchised cultivators. This, the future ownership of land by
negroes, as well as their admission to those rights of citizenship which
everywhere in America such ownership involves, would necessarily be future
subjects of legislation; and either or both privileges might be withheld
temporarily, indefinitely, or permanently, as might seem expedient, and
the progress in civilisation which might justify such an extension of
rights. These, and any other modifications of the state of the black
population in the South, would require great wisdom to deal with, but
their immediate transformation from bondsmen to free might, I think, be
accomplished with little danger or difficulty, and with certain increase
of prosperity to the Southern States.

On the other hand, it is not impossible that, left to the unimpeded action
of the natural laws that govern the existence of various races, the black
population, no longer directly preserved and propagated for the purposes
of slavery, might gradually decrease and dwindle, as it does at the
North - where, besides the unfavourable influence of a cold climate on a
race originally African, it suffers from its admixture with the whites,
and the amalgamation of the two races, as far as it goes, tends evidently
to the destruction of the weaker. The Northern mulattoes are an unhealthy
feeble population, and it might yet appear that even under the more
favourable influence of a Southern climate, whenever the direct stimulus
afforded by slavery to the increase of the negroes was removed, their
gradual extinction or absorption by the predominant white race would
follow in the course of time.

But the daily course of events appears to be rendering more and more
unlikely the immediate effectual enfranchisement of the slaves: the
President's proclamation will reach with but little efficacy beyond the
mere borders of the Southern States. The war is assuming an aspect of
indefinite duration; and it is difficult to conceive what will be the
condition of the blacks, freed _de jure_ but by no means _de facto_, in
the vast interior regions of the Southern States, as long as the struggle
raging all round their confines does not penetrate within them. Each of
the combatants is far too busily absorbed in the furious strife to afford
thought, leisure, or means, either effectually to free the slaves or
effectually to replace them in bondage; and in the meantime their
condition is the worst possible for the future success of either
operation. If the North succeeds in subjugating the South, its earliest
business will be to make the freedom of the slaves real as well as
nominal, and as little injurious to themselves as possible. If, on the
other hand, the South makes good its pretensions to a separate national
existence, no sooner will the disseverment of the Union be an established
fact than the slaveholders will have to consolidate once more the system
of their 'peculiar institution,' to reconstruct the prison which has half
crumbled to the ground, and rivet afresh the chains which have been all
but struck off. This will be difficult: the determination of the North to
restrict the area of slavery by forbidding its ingress into future
territories and States has been considered by the slaveholders a wrong,
and a danger justifying a bloody civil war; inasmuch as, if under those
circumstances they did not abolish slavery themselves in a given number of
years, it would infallibly abolish them by the increase of the negro
population, hemmed with them into a restricted space by this _cordon
sanitaire_ drawn round them. But, bad as this prospect has seemed to
slaveholders (determined to continue such), and justifying - as it may be
conceded that it does from their point of view - not a ferocious civil war,
but a peaceable separation from States whose interests were declared
absolutely irreconcileable with theirs, the position in which they will
find themselves if the contest terminates in favour of Secession will be
undoubtedly more difficult and terrible than the one the mere anticipation
of which has driven them to the dire resort of civil war. All round the
Southern coast, and all along the course of the great Mississippi, and all
across the northern frontier of the Slave States, the negroes have already
thrown off the trammels of slavery. Whatever their condition may be - and
doubtless in many respects it is miserable enough - they are to all intents
and purposes free. Vast numbers of them have joined the Northern invading
armies, and considerable bodies of them have become organised as soldiers
and labourers, under the supervision of Northern officers and employers;
most of them have learned the use of arms, and possess them; all of them
have exchanged the insufficient slave diet of grits and rice for the
abundant supplies of animal food, which the poorest labourer in that
favoured land of cheap provisions and high wages indulges in to an extent
unknown in any other country. None of these slaves of yesterday will be
the same slaves to-morrow. Little essential difference as may yet have
been effected by the President's proclamation in the interior of the
South in the condition of the blacks, it is undoubtedly known to them, and
they are waiting in ominous suspense its accomplishment or defeat by the
fortune of the war; they are watching the issue of the contest of which
they well know themselves to be the theme, and at its conclusion, end how
it will, they must be emancipated or exterminated. With the North not only
not friendly to slavery, but henceforward bitterly hostile to
slaveholders, and no more to be reckoned upon as heretofore, it might have
been infallibly by the Southern white population in any difficulty with
the blacks (a fact of which the negroes will be as well aware as their
former masters) - with an invisible boundary stretching from ocean to
ocean, over which they may fly without fear of a master's claim following
them a single inch - with the hope and expectation of liberty suddenly
snatched from them at the moment it seemed within their grasp - with the
door of their dungeon once more barred between them and the light into
which they were in the act of emerging - is it to be conceived, that these
four millions of people, many thousands of whom are already free and
armed, will submit without a struggle to be again thrust down into the
hell of slavery? Hitherto there has been no insurrection among the
negroes, and observers friendly and inimical to them have alike drawn from
that fact conclusions unfavourable to their appreciation of the freedom
apparently within their grasp; but they are waiting to see what the North
will really achieve for them. The liberty offered them is hitherto
anomalous, and uncertain enough in its conditions; they probably trust it
as little as they know it: but slavery they _do_ know - and when once they
find themselves again delivered over to _that_ experience, there will not
be ONE insurrection in the South; there will be an insurrection in every
State, in every county, on every plantation - a struggle as fierce as it
will be futile - a hopeless effort of hopeless men, which will baptise in
blood the new American nation, and inaugurate its birth among the
civilised societies of the earth, not by the manumission but the massacre
of every slave within its borders.

Perhaps, however, Mr. Jefferson Davis means to free the negroes. Whenever
that consummation is attained, the root of bitterness will have perished
from the land; and when a few years shall have passed blunting the hatred
which has been excited by this fratricidal strife, the Americans of both
the Northern and Southern States will perceive that the selfish policy of
other nations would not have so rejoiced over their division, had it not
seemed, to those who loved them not, the proof of past failure and the
prophecy of future weakness.

Admonished by its terrible experiences, I believe the nation will reunite
itself under one government, remodel its constitution, and again address
itself to fulfill its glorious destiny. I believe that the country sprung
from ours - of all our just subjects of national pride the greatest - will
resume its career of prosperity and power, and become the noblest as well
as the mightiest that has existed among the nations of the earth.

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Online LibraryFrances Anne KembleJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 → online text (page 26 of 26)