Simply put, slavery was the hottest political, social, and economic issue in the mid-nineteenth century United States. Anti-slavery activists in the North pitched their arguments from the moral high ground and, in their writing and oratory, used extreme examples of cruelty and degradation. Southern defenders of slavery countered with equally extreme examples of benevolence and custodianship. The documents in First Person Narratives of the American South contain sentiments from both ex-slaves and ex-masters. In the former case, slavery is recalled with an uneasy mixture of hatred and tenderness. The latter defend slavery as a noble and necessary institution that became tainted by northern agitation and influence. In either case, the writers acknowledge that the institution supported a way of life that died with emancipation.
The Subject Index heading, Slaves' writings, American, yields fifteen documents including The Narrative of Bethany Veney: a Slave Woman. Although questions of authorship arise in such cases where the "writer's" testimony is transcribed by others with agendas of their own, Ms. Veney's narrative is a compelling story of trial and redemption. Students of the period will benefit from Veney's descriptions of life in the slave South. In the following passage she describes her former master:
Master Kibbler was a Dutchman, - a man of most violent temper, ready to fight anything or anybody who resisted his authority or in any way crossed his path. His one redeeming quality was his love for his horses and dogs. These must be fed before his servants, and their comfort and health always considered. He was a blacksmith by trade, and would have me hold his irons while he worked them. I was awkward one day, and he struck me with a nail-rod, making me so lame my mistress noticed it, and asked Matilda what was the matter with me; and, when she was told, she was greatly troubled, and as I suppose spoke to Kibbler about it, for he called me to him, and bade me go a long way off into a field, and, as he said, cut some sprouts there. But he very soon followed me, and, cutting a rod, beat me severely, and then told me to "go again and tell my mistress that he had hit me with a nail-rod, if I wanted to."
- In what ways is Veney mistreated here?
- Do you think that her story is credible?
- What might the transcriber's motives have been in taking down Veney's story?
- What did former slaves such as Veney have to gain or lose by allowing their stories to be published?
The plantation was a fief in which the master and his mistress ruled -- sometimes cruelly and sometimes with compassion -- over their slaves. The social interactions of these two groups came to form a complex, mutually dependent culture. In the years following the Civil War, many writers sought to glorify the deceased slave/master relationship.
A search on plantation yields twenty-nine texts. Many of these documents were written decades after the defeat of the Confederacy by old men whose memories of youth were directly tied to the glories, imagined or real, of the Old South. For instance, R.Q. Mallard introduces his Plantation Life Before Emancipation with remarks about slavery that are both nostalgic and defensive:
The purpose of the author has been to portray a civilization now obsolete, to picture the relations of mutual attachment and kindness which in the main bound together master and servant, and to give this and future generations some correct idea of the noble work done by Southern masters and mistresses of all denominations for the salvation of the slave.
Page vi, Plantation Life Before Emancipation
- What assumptions does Mallard make about slavery and about his audience?
- What do you think Mallard considers "noble work"?
- Why might Mallard have taken on a defensive attitude in his writing?
- Why might men such as Mallard have written their autobiographies?