The Immoral Practice of Slavery
The practice of slavery can be traced back to pre-Judeo Christian civilizations. Prior to our American interpretation of this practice, forms of slavery included forced labor and debt bondage. In Colonial America, chattel slavery was the preferred way of holding people in bondage for their labor. As it was becoming more unpopular among self-reliant Americans, chattel slavery’s morality began to be questioned by conscious American minds, minds belonging to individuals like Frederick Douglass and John St. De Crevecoeur. Both Douglass’s and Crevecoeur’s literary exploits inform, highlight, and speak against the atrocities experienced by enslaved Africans and African Americans; their responses toward chattel slavery expose the realities of this barbaric practice. They also expose the contradictions between the teachings of Christianity and the ungodly act of dehumanizing a race of people to property equivalent to that of livestock. The vivid portrayal of slavery depicted in their literature testifies against the horrific act of placing humans in bondage as chattel for the purpose of both sexual and economic gain.
American Chattel Slavery differs from forced labor and debt bondage, where as in forced labor, individuals are held against their will to serve in fear of punishment and violence; a servant’s freedom is restricted. Debt bondage involves people serving others as a mean to pay off a debt; indentured servitude. Chattel slavery is the most severe form of slavery, in which slaves are property that can be bought and sold, and their labor and sexuality were completely at the disposal of the master (Chattel Slavery 2012). This barbaric act which dehumanizes people to a level equivalent to that of agricultural livestock is one that is common throughout colonial America, yet not everyone was in favor of enslaving Africans as chattel for their labor. As slavery was establishing itself into an American institution, conflicting opinions and responses were developing as well.
In the early 1800s, passionate reactions from both opponents and supporters of slavery began to evolve and spread. Main opponents of American chattel slavery consisted of freed African Americans, Quakers, and some whites; non-Americans as well. Some of the most common ways people reacted toward slavery were through revolts, rebellions, and uprisings; reactions by slaves themselves. Another common, more consistent form of resistance was projected through the work of writers in printed literature. Freed slaves and abolitionists strongly agitated against enslavement through their letters, pamphlets, novels, journals, speeches, and narratives. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and John St. De Crevecoeur’s Letter IX. Description of Charles Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene, testify against the atrocities taking place throughout America.
In Frederick Douglass’s memoir, he tells of his own personal experiences with chattel slavery and graphically describes the brutality associated with the practice. Douglass himself being a former slave has seen and felt the devastation created by slavery and how it equally affects both slaves and their masters. Douglass begins by describing the ambiguity that haunted his early childhood years, as it might have haunted many other slave children; born to a slave mother that was sexually assaulted by her master. Children of slaves were unaware of their date of birth and uncertain about their age. By keeping this information away, slaveholders robbed slaves of their identity; a part of the dehumanizing process. At an early age, slave children become aware of the unjustly circumstances they are born into; slaves of their very own fathers.
The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains […] that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father (Douglass 43).
Slave masters were known to visit slave quarters in order to satisfy their sexual needs with female slaves. The consequences that resulted from these visitations were the conception of mixed race, mulatto children. The ambiguity that slave children are born into, slowly and painfully unfolds itself before their innocent eyes, as the origin of their birth begins to reveal itself. Douglass highlights how slaveholders raped female slaves to seek their own sadistic pleasures; many of these female slaves gave birth to children that were the byproduct of rape. By discussing this aspect of slavery, readers become aware of the reality that takes place in plantations throughout the colonies. By using his experience to expose how slave children are introduced into the institution of chattel slavery, Douglass testifies to the horrific environment in which not even the innocent are spared. As children of slaves become young men and women capable of performing laborious tasks, they are sent forth into the slave trade.
The process of buying and selling slaves is told as being a scene of pure heartless cruelty. Frederick Douglass’s account of the slave market reflects how slaves were dehumanized to a state equivalent to that of livestock and the equally devastating affects it has on slave masters.
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection (Douglass 71).
This example of the valuation process links human slaves to their agricultural counterparts in appreciation. Like livestock, slaves underwent the same inspection that examined a slave’s capability to work and reproduce; healthy slaves equaled a high value. By robbing slaves of their identity and dehumanizing them to livestock, slave traders are able to perform their duty without any sentiment which removes any guilt associated with the buying and selling of humans, and the destruction of the family unit which followed. Douglass shows that slave traders had to detach themselves from any sense of connection with people they were selling. Readers become witness to the atrocious practice that decides the fate of voiceless individuals.
Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had no more voice in that decision than the brutes among whom we were ranked. A single word from the white men was enough- against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties- to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings (Douglass 72).
Douglass aims to expose the savagery taking place in order to attract audiences to become conscious and proactive against the institution of slavery and every aspect associated with it. John St. De Crevecoeur too attests to the immorality of chattel slavery being practiced throughout the colonies by describing scenes of contrast realities. Like Douglass, Crevecoeur uses his personal accounts to highlight and protest slavery.
John St. De Crevecoeur, a French diplomat to America, traveled throughout North America and wrote detailed accounts of his travels documenting his experiences and sightings. In his Letter IX Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene, Crevecoeur describes to his audience the contrasting reality of Charles-Town; home to the wealthy and economic hub of the slave trade. Charles-Town is compared to Lima Peru, by Crevecoeur, as both being “capitals of the richest provinces of their respective hemispheres” (Crevecoeur 320), and that Charles-Town, like Lima exhibits the appearance reflecting the means of which it has gained its wealth; the chattel slave trade. Beneath the wealth and prosperity of Charles-Town lies the dark and miserable presence of slavery, from which Charles-Town’s wealthy citizens have gained their economic success.
While all is joy, festive and happiness in Charles-Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, form whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen […] (Crevecoeur 321).
This example which reveals the duality of Charles-Town’s economic success is used by Crevecoeur to show how citizens turn their attention to the horrific practice that is the foundation of their economy. Instead of acknowledging the misery being projected at African slaves, citizens of Charles-Town and other cities like it, turn their eyes and ears to the nightmare being lived out by American slaves. Crevecoeur raises awareness for those who have no voice in colonial society. His contrasting description of how slaves and whites coexist, illustrate the evil human beings are capable of committing. “The chosen race eat, drink, and live happy, while the unfortunate one grubs on the ground, raises indigo, or husks the rice; exposed to a sun full as scorching as their native one; without the support of good food, without the cordials of any cheering liquor” (Crevecoeur 321). A question now arises from this passage, if whites are the race chosen by God, why must they partake in such an uncivilized practice of enslaving others for the purpose of profit from the labor of others?
A race chosen by God, by no means has the right to enslave fellow human beings and threaten then with severe torture and violence. Crevecoeur, like Douglass, describes how slaves are gathered in herds and branded like livestock, before being sent to serve in plantations owned by citizens of the colonies. From a white man’s perspective, Crevecoeur is able to reach audiences that are both for and against slavery simply because of his race. As a testimony, the credibility of this protest is reinforced by the fact that it is being documented by a white male who is witness to the treatment of America’s economic backbone.
The testimonies expressed in the literary works of Frederick Douglass and John St. De Crevecoeur protest the barbaric and unholy practice of chattel slavery. They bring light to a topic that has divided American audiences who are in favor of abolishment and preservation. By exposing the harsh realities of slavery, audiences are left to make their own decision about whether slavery is moral or not. Both writers use their own experiences to persuade their audience to protest the practice of slavery. Frederick Douglass evokes the purpose of his literary response by confronting his audience.
Readers! Are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and purpose, or on the side of their down –trodden victims? If with the former, then are you the foe of God and man. If with the latter, what are you prepared to do and dare in their behalf? Be faithful, be vigilant, ne untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Come what may- cost what it may- inscribe on the banner which you unfurl to the breeze, as your religious and political motto- “NO COMPRIMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVE-HOLDERS!” (Douglass 37-38).
The content within this passage asks the audience to open their eyes and come to grip with the harsh reality of chattel slavery. Both Douglass and Crevecoeur aspired to have the rest of the American population acknowledge and become aware of the barbaric origin in which the nation was gaining its wealth. Through their literary exploits both writers are able to spread their opposable reflections toward the immorality of chattel slavery.
De Crevecoeur, John St. “Letter IX. Description of Charles Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Shorter 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton &, 2008. 320-24. Print.
Douglass, Frederick, and David W. Blight. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: With Related Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print
Dubcovsky, Alejandra. “Slave Narratives: An Overview.” Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America. Ed. Orville Vernon Burton. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008. 195-197. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9 Nov. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com.mms02.cerritos.edu:2048/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3057200258&v=2.1&u=cerritos&it=r&p=GVRL.aahm&sw=w>
Miller, Khadijah O. “Reactions to Slavery Overview.” Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America. Ed. Orville Vernon Burton. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008. 154-155. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9 Nov. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com.mms02.cerritos.edu:2048/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3057200231&v=2.1&u=cerritos&it=r&p=GVRL.aahm&sw=w>