Slave Ownership

Most plantations were owner-operated and the planters themselves often worked in the fields. Of the total southern white population of 8,099,760 in 1860, only 384,000 owned slaves. Of these, 10,780 owned fifty or more. It was calculated that about 88 per cent of America's slave-owners owned twenty slaves or less.

The death-rate amongst slaves was high. To replace their losses, plantation owners encouraged the slaves to have children. Child-bearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage child-bearing some population owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children.

The wealth of the South was concentrated in the hands of around a thousand families. These large landowners would usually own well over 100 slaves and relied heavily on overseers to run their plantations. In 1850 it was estimated that these thousand families had an income of about $50,000,000 while the remaining 660,000 families received only $60,000,000.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) William Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)

My master's son Charles, at one time, became impressed with the evils of slavery, and put his notion into practical effect by emancipating about forty of his slaves, and paying their expenses to a free state. Our old master, about this time, being unable to attend to all his affairs himself, employed an overseer whose, disposition was so cruel as to make many of the slaves run away. The change in our treatment was so great, and so much for the worse, that we could not help lamenting that the master had adopted such a change. There is no telling what might have been the result of this new method amongst slaves, so unused to the lash as we were, if in the midst of the experiment our old master had not been called upon to go the way of all the earth. As he was about to expire he sent for my mother and me to come to his bedside; we ran with beating hearts and highly elated feelings, not doubting, in the, least, but that he was about to confer upon us the boon of freedom - for we had both expected that we should be set free when master died - but imagine our deep disappointment when the old man called me to his side and said, Henry yon, will make a good plough-boy, or a good gardener, now you must be an honest boy and never tell an untruth.

(2) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

William Campbell promised my father that his daughter Letitia should be made free in his will. It was with this promise that he married her. I have no doubt that Mr. Campbell was as good as his word, and that by his will, my mother and her nine children were made free. But ten persons in one family, each worth three hundred dollars, are not easily set free among those accustomed to live by continued robbery. We did not, therefore, by an instrument from the hand of the dead, escape the avaricious grab of the slaveholder. It is the common belief that the will was destroyed by the heirs of Mr. Campbell.

(3) Carl Schurz, speech to members of the Republican Party in Massachusetts (18th April, 1859)

I wish the words of the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created free and equal, and are endowed with certain inalienable rights," were inscribed upon every gatepost within the limits of this republic. From this principle the revolutionary fathers derived their claim to independence; upon this they founded the institutions of this country; and the whole structure was to be the living incarnation of this idea.

Shall I point out to you the consequences of a deviation from this principle? Look at the slave states. This is a class of men who are deprived of their natural rights. But this is not the only deplorable feature of that peculiar organization of society. Equally deplorable is it that there is another class of men who keep the former in subjection. That there are slaves is bad; but almost worse is that there are masters.

Are not the masters freemen? No, sir! Where is their liberty of the press? Where is their liberty of speech? Where is the man among them who dares to advocate openly principles not in strict accordance with the ruling system? They speak of a republican form of government, they speak of democracy; but the despotic spirit of slavery and mastership combined pervades their whole political life like a liquid poison. They do not dare to be free lest the spirit of liberty become contagious.

The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way - it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors.

(4) Robert Toombs, speech in the Georgia legislature (13th November, 1860)

In 1790 we had less than 800,000 slaves. Under our mild and humane administration of the system, they have increased about 4 million. The country had expanded to meet the growing want; and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri have received this increasing tide of African labor; before the end of this century, at precisely the same rate of increase, the Africans among us in a subordinate condition will amount to 11 million persons. What shall be done with them?

We must expand or perish. We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slave trade are both death and blind to the history of the last sixty years. For twenty years the Abolition societies, by publications made by them, by the public press, through the pulpit and their own legislative halls, and every effort - by reproaches, by abuse, by vilification, by slander - to disturb our security, our tranquillity - to excite discontent between the different classes of our people, and to excite our slaves to insurrection. No nation in the world would submit to such conduct from any other nation. I will not willingly do so from this Abolition Party.

Mr. Lincoln's Republican Party all speak with one voice, and speak trumpet-tongued their fixed purpose to outlaw $4 billion of our property in the territories, and to put it under the ban of the empire in the states where it exists. They declare their purpose to war against slavery until there shall not be a slave in America, and until the African is elevated to a social and political equality with the white man. Lincoln endorses them and their principles, and in his own speeches declares the conflict irrepressible and enduring, until slavery is everywhere abolished.

My countrymen, "if you have nature in you, bear it not." Withdraw yourselves from such a confederacy; it is your right to do so - your duty to do so. I know not why the Abolitionists should object to it, unless they want to torture and plunder you. If they resist this great sovereign right, make another war of independence, for that then will be the question; fight its battles over again - reconquer liberty and independence. as for me, I will take any place in the great conflict for rights which you may assign. I will take none in the federal government during Mr. Lincoln's administration.

(5) Carl Schurz, speech in St. Louis (1st August, 1860)

Slavery demands extension by an aggressive foreign policy; free labour demands an honourable peace and friendly intercourse with the world abroad for its commerce, and a peaceable and undisturbed development of our resources at home for its agriculture and industry. Slavery demands the absolute ascendency of the planning interest in our economic policy; free labour demands legislation tending to develop all the resources of the land, and to harmonize the agricultural, commercial and industrial interests. Slavery demands the control of the general government for its special protection and the promotion of its peculiar interests; free labour demands that the general government be administered for the purpose of securing to all the blessings of liberty, and for the promotion of the general welfare.

Look around you and see how lonesome you are in this wide world of ours. as far as modern civilization throws its rays, what people, what class of society is there like you? There is no human heart that sympathizes with your cause, unless it sympathizes with the cause of despotism in every form. There is no human voice to cheer you on in your struggle; there is no human eye that has a tear for your reverses; no link of sympathy between the common cause of the great human brotherhood and you. You hear of emancipation in Russia and wish to fail. You hear of Italy rising, and fear the spirit of liberty may become contagious. Where all mankind rejoices, you tremble.

Why not manfully swing round into the grand march of progressive humanity? You say it cannot be done today. Can it be done tomorrow? Will it be easier twenty, fifty years hence, when the fearful increase of the negro population will have aggravated the evils of slavery a hundredfold, and with it the difficulties of its extinction? Did you ever think of this? The final crisis, unless prevented by timely reform, will come with the inexorable certainly of fate, the more terrible the longer it is delayed. Is that the inheritance you mean to leave to coming generations - an inheritance of disgrace, crime, blood, destruction? Hear me, slaveholders of America! If you have no sense for the right of the black, no appreciation of your own interests, I entreat, I implore you, have at least pity on your children!

(6) James Henry Thornwell, a South Carolina Presbyterian clergyman (16th May, 1861)

Do the Scriptures directly or indirectly condemn slavery as a sin? If they do not, the dispute is ended, for the church, without forfeiting her character, dares not go beyond them. Now, we venture to assert that if men had drawn their conclusions upon this subject only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy, or poverty.

Now, when it is said that slavery is inconsistent with human rights, we crave to understand what point in this line is the slave conceived to occupy. There are, no doubt, many rights which belong to other men - to Englishmen, to Frenchmen, to his master, for example - which are denied to him. But is he fit to possess them? Has God qualified him to meet the responsibilities which their possession necessarily implies? His place in the scale is determined by his competency to fulfill its duties.

The truth is, the education of the human race for liberty and virtue is a vast providential scheme, and God assigns to every man, by wise and holy degree, the precise place he is to occupy in the great moral school of humanity.

(7) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

There is no one feature of slavery to which the mind recurs with more gloomy impressions, than to its disastrous influence upon the families of the masters, physically, pecuniarily, and mentally.

It seems to destroy families as by a powerful blight, large and opulent slaveholding families often vanish like a group of shadows at the third or fourth generation. This fact arrested my attention some years before I escaped from slavery, and of course before I had any enlightened views of the moral character of the system. As far back as I can recollect, indeed, it was a remark among slaves, that every generation of slaveholders are more and more inferior. There were several large and powerful families in our county, including that of my master, which affords to my mind a melancholy illustration of this remark. One of the wealthiest slaveholders in the county, was General R., a brother-in-law to my master. This man owned a large and highly valuable tract of land, called R.'s Manor. I do not know how many slaves he owned, but the number was large. He lived in a splendid mansion, and drove his coach and four. He was for some years a member of Congress. He had a numerous family of children.

The family showed no particular signs of decay until he had married a second time, and had considerably increased his number of children. It then became evident that his older children were not educated for active business, and were only destined to be a charge. Of sons (seven or eight), not one of them reached the eminence once occupied by the father. The only one that approached to it, was the eldest, who became an officer in the navy, and obtained the doubtful glory of being killed in the Mexican war.

General R. himself ran through his vast estate, died intemperate, and left a widow and large number of daughters, some minors, destitute, and none of his sons fitted for any employment but in the army and navy.

(8) President Jefferson Davis, war message (29th April, 1861)

The climate and soil of the Northern states soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, while the reverse being the case in the South, made unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections unfriendly.

The Northern states consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery between their limits. The South were willing purchasers of property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of the acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be distributed by those who were not only in want of constitutional authority but, by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves.

As soon, however, as the Northern states that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling vote in the Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern states were inaugurated and gradually extended. A series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves.

Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting among the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt. Means were furnished for their escape from their owners and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond.

(9) Radical Republicans at the end of the American Civil War feared that Abraham Lincoln might allow slavery to continue in the South. On 9th January, 1865, Benjamin Wade, the leader of this group in the Senate, warned Lincoln not to make a pragmatic decision on this issue.

The radical men are the men of principal; they are the men who feel what they contend for. They are not your slippery politicians who can jigger this way or that, or construe a thing any way to suit the present occasion. They are the men who go deeply down for principle, and having fixed their eyes upon a great principle connected with the liberty of mankind or the welfare of the people, are not to be detached by any of your higgling.

Do you suppose we are now to back down and to permit you to make a dishonorable proslavery peace after all the bloodshed and all the sacrifice of life and property? It cannot be. Such revolutions never go backwards, and if God is just, and I think he is, we shall ultimately triumph. If, however, the President does believe as they say, and dare take the position they would ascribe to him, it is so much the worse for the President. The people of the United States are greater than the President. The mandate they have sent forth for the death and execution of this monster, slavery, will be persisted in. The monster must die, and die he shall.