Guilt is an inevitable effect of slavery. For no matter how much rhetoric and racism is poured into such a system, the simple fact remains that men are enslaving men. Regardless of how much inferior a slaveholder may perceive his slaves, it is obvious that his “property” looks similar, has similar needs, and has similar feelings. There is thus the necessary comparison of situations; the slaveholder is free, the slaves in bondage – certainly a position that the slaveholder would find most disagreeable. So there is no doubt that any slaveholder with any measure of humanity within himself would feel guilt. And in fact, as the evidence is considered – including the proslavery propaganda – the reality of southern guilt is overwhelmingly obvious. It is seen in their words, both private and public, uncovered in their proslavery diatribes, and understandable in their humanity.
Before this discussion of guilt in slaveholders begins, it is necessary to first define how we will define guilt. Certainly if a man says he is guilt-stricken with conviction we can take this as adequate evidence of guilt. However, certainly not everyone takes this direct an approach. James Oakes makes a good point in recognizing that guilt is not always starkly obvious. “Guilt is the product of a deeply rooted psychological ambivalence that impels the individual to behave in ways that violate fundamental norms even as they fulfill basic desires.”1 In other words, guilt creates such inner turmoil that a guilty man will deviate from normal behavior. In this case, we will have to show two things. First, a slaveholder is committing detrimental actions (to himself or his family) that show he is in mental distress, and second, that these actions are a result of his status as a slaveholder. It is obvious that we cannot prove the latter point, but we can show it is the most probable situation for his guilt. Finally, if a slaveholder is making pains above and beyond law and custom, it is most likely that these actions are to alleviate feelings of guilt. This is because we may assume any deliberate actions taken by any man are usually taken because he assumes they will benefit him in some manner. And if such an action is costly (money-wise), then it must have some allure in terms of personal happiness. So to show guilt, we will set forth examples of open confessions of guilt, deviant behavior, and uncommonly good treatment of slaves.
The correspondence of slaveholders is a gold mine for evidence of these three signs of guilt. P.H. Leubal writes about a slave girl, Jeanette purchased and then injured before she arrived on his property. Perhaps the common perception of what would happen in this case would go as follows: he would be upset at the visible destruction of his property, perhaps get a cursory examination done for legal purposes, and would demand a refund. This is merely an estimate of what custom might dictate, but this would surely not be out of line with the picture of slaves as purely property. A lame slave would essentially be a negative in terms of profit; this wouldn’t be advantageous in any sense of the economic world in which Leubal is embroiled. However, Leubal goes far above and beyond this baseline version of humanity. He gets a thorough examination from a clearly respected doctor – presumably his own – and gets a fairly complex story from the slave girl herself to explain the incident. Upon learning that Jeanette would be fairly useless as economically valuable property, Leubal goes yet another step; he knows her humanity, listens to her feelings, and elects to keep her himself. Yes, she is still a slave, and yes, he demands a refund on his money. However, his behavior is still unusual if examined from a purely economic standpoint. A slaveholder who cares enough about money to request a partial refund from a $290 piece of property, yet he elects to keep the property, knowing that it will cost him much in the long run, while he could just send the slave back for a full refund and then buy another that would be more to what his expectations for Jeanette were originally. The only answer for this can be because Leubal was motivated by some internal need to help her because of her humanity. He felt it was somehow his duty to keep her because she was a human being and he identified with her suffering. She suffered because she was a slave, and because he was a crucial element of the system that hurt her so, Leubal felt obliged to make amends. At his personal economic expense, he decided to ease his conscience and do something that would be out-of-the-ordinary for any slaveholder of the time. To alleviate his guilt, he offered humanity. Leubal was a slaveholder whose conscience would not let him treat humans as property.2
It is possible to argue that Leubal was simply a kind man, an aberration to the society of slaveholding men. However, if we examine him closely, we will see that his kindness toward Jeanette could not be applied universally, because it would cause an economic disaster. So his action is most realistically viewed as a special circumstance. Leubal kept slaves to make money, but he certainly deplored certain aspects of slavery, and because he contributed to the system, those aspects were partly his responsibility. To accept the peculiar institution, he had to redeem it by easing the weight of its pain upon him – the pain of guilt.
Likewise, a letter from a slave, Eavans McCrery, to his mistress shows that he is being treated more as an equal than as property. 3 He has been taught to read by a master, and he writes his mistress quite honestly and tells her why and what he would like to do with his life. It is more the expectations than the actual wording of the letter that that makes it an evidence of guilt. Because Eavans clearly expects a response that is not harsh, he is obviously allowed to speak his mind and attempt to influence his own future, something that is not associated with property. His former masters and current mistress clearly see him as a human being, and their kindness (especially in allowing a slave to know how to read and write in 1854) is exemplary. Thus the logical conclusion, as discussed above, is that this stems from a moral responsibility. To avoid the guilt that plagues the slaveholders, Eavans’ owners take steps to treat him as a human being.
These two letters give adequate example of slaveholding guilt, but perhaps a better place to look is in the proslavery dogma of the time. The propaganda of slaveholders seems an unlikely place to find evidence of guilt, but the bare reality of a necessity for the defense of slavery is perhaps the most obvious sign of a guilty slaveholding population. As Charles Sellers recognizes in his essay “The Travail of Slavery,” the Great Reaction – as he calls it – was initiated to convince the slaveholders themselves that slavery was a good.4 Ever since cries of liberty and equality first struck the South, the institution’s morality had been questioned by all involved. This questioning was purely out of feelings of guilt. Slaveholders were convinced they were going to hell because of their slaveholding; James Oakes makes much out of this. “‘Always I felt the moral guilt of it,’ a Louisiana mistress admitted, ‘felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to win his way to heaven.'”5 Because slavery was extremely to defend in the eyes of the New Testament – the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you was a particularly difficult obstacle – it remained for all pious slaveholders to question the morality of their actions.6 However, the institution continued because the South relied economically on its slaves. Thus slaveholders were tied to slavery while feeling guilt about the system as a whole.
This scene set the stage for the Great Reaction. After Nat Turner and the rising surge of northern abolitionism, the South turned inward to defend itself. Because its identity and success were so tied to slavery, it could not simply dissolve the system outright. Simply feeling guilty about slavery does not mean Southerners would dismantle the institution outright. Slavery was a universal part of Southern heritage and success, and guilt is a personal experience. Even though a slaveholder feels guilty about the institution, he sees his neighbors and countrymen following the Southern dream to prosperity through slavery. It was easier to continue with the current situation than radically alter the slaveholding world, and so southerners supported the Great Reaction in an attempt mainly to alleviate their own guilt.
Perhaps the best sign that the propaganda of the Great Reaction was really slaveholders convincing themselves is in the writings themselves. Any reasonable defense of position in debate demands that the contentions brought forth are true in a meaningful way. What James Henry Hammond and George Fitzhugh write about is nothing more than a pipe dream of slave society. Genovese gives us clear evidence of this, and Hammond himself knew it to be false because he had nowhere near the utopian plantation about which he writes. Sleeping with his slaves and sexually assaulting his nieces, it appears that Hammond was not a prime example of the slaveholder he so lauds.
Finally, when the false discussions of this Southern “Eden” end, all that remains is a criticism of free society. The propaganda criticizes free labor and capitalism extensively – so much so that it appears that the writers do not realize they themselves are profiting because of the freedom of their society. Fitzhugh advocates a type of primitive Marxism over the republic of America. The fact that the claims of the proslavery defenders were not in any way a realistic defense of the institution is a sure indication that they were a desperate measure.
The foolhardiness of this final southern propaganda for slavery has guilt at its root. Slavery was a profitable institution, and if it had been such a benevolent institution as the propaganda declared, then there would be no reason for its dissolution. Although abolitionists presumably would have persisted, their case would have been much more difficult to take if the propagandists were correct. No, the real threat to the peculiar institution was the guilt of slaveholders themselves. Sellers discusses many cases of southerners who tried to follow the “new pro-slavery dogma,” but “found it hard to swallow.”7 Southerners knew the truth of slavery more than anyone else did. Its cruelties made them feel guilty, yet they were bound to the system. So the system attempted to defend itself to its own participants in any way possible. The final proof that this was the real reason for the propaganda comes from the mouths of the pro-slavery dogmatists themselves. “The principal danger was its influence upon ‘the consciences and fears of the slave-holders themselves,” wrote a defender of slavery.8 In spite of this conceived Eden of slavery, slaveholders still needed to alleviate their own guilt. They freed or helped slaves, as P.H. Leubal and the master of Evans McCrery did, because they knew that slaves were more than property and that what they were doing in enslaving fellow men was wrong.
From the beginning, proslavery propaganda was a farce. The discussions in favor of slavery were clear signs of inner turmoil. They attacked the foundation of America society – democracy – and invented a slavery that had never seen the light of day in the South. There is no logical motivation for such a clearly empty defense of slavery, so we must look to an illogical motivation. This driving force was the heart; slavery was wrong, and the slaveholders knew it. They had tried to reconcile their institution with religion, economy, and fantasy, but they had yet to convince their own consciences. The outpouring of abolitionist sentiment from the North combined with their own insecurities struck a nerve. The slaveholders knew that their world was collapsing, and they understood why, for they themselves could not find slavery a utopian way of life. So their guilt inspired the Great Reaction and ultimately caused its failure.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it is certainly safe to say that southern slaveholders as a whole felt guilt because of their status as enslavers. This conclusion should be a shocking or even unexpected because the slaveholders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were first and foremost human beings. The reason why southerners were guilty is because they were human and had true human emotions. Men who did not feel guilt in the face of slavery did so not because they were influenced by propaganda or the society in general. Instead, they were immoral from the beginning. But let me stress that this was not a common situation in the South. Slaveholders in general were guilt-stricken because they recognized themselves in their slaves, and understood, deep down, that what they were doing was wrong.
Examine Solomon Northup’s experience as described in Twelve Years a Slave. He was owned by a wide variety of masters, seemingly encompassing the extremes and the norms of masters. It will thus be an educational experience to show how each of his masters fits into the scheme of guilt in southern slaveholders. From Ford to Tibeats to Epps, each master was carrying a burden on his soul and heart, and it is evident in their actions.
William Ford, his beneficent and kindly Christian master clearly seems to have a clean conscience. This is because he has cleansed the guilt from his palate by providing a uniquely utopian slavery for his slaves. However, the guilt is still evident in small doses, and most obvious when Ford’s releasing of Northup to Tibeats almost causes Northup’s death. Northup is so intent on describing his personal relief at being alive and safe with Ford that he almost misses the guilt and torment that Ford must feel for releasing Northup into the horrific reality that defined slavery away from Ford’s land. But it is still there, in Northup’s description. Ford gives Platt food that “rarely pleased the palate of slave,” insists he rest for a couple days, and offers to let him ride his horse for the long ride back to Tibeats.9 This treatment is because of Ford’s guilt and not simply because he is a kind master. Northup is given treatment above and beyond what Ford normally affords his slaves – in fact; Northup is treated as a white guest might have been treated at Ford’s plantation. Ford gives this treatment because he is directly responsible for Northup’s condition and feels guilt because of it. Ford is guilty because he knows that slavery is a unique evil and he has released a good man into a potentially fatal situation.
It is hard to read Tibeats as clearly as Ford because Northup is nothing but afraid of him, and this does not lead to objective discussion of Tibeats. But he is clearly disturbed mentally, as he cannot handle work or life very well. Tibeats’ behavior is self-destructive: drinking and attempting to kill his own slaves and with them a main source of income. His soul is tormented and it is obvious that Northup as his slave does not alleviate his pain. Tibeats cannot handle the fact that his property is more capable, able, and liked than he, and this causes his rage. Slavery has caused his self-torment, and this defined above is a clear sign of guilt.
Finally, Edwin Epps, perhaps a more “typical” master than either Ford or Tibeats is the most clearly wracked-with-guilt of Northup’s masters. Epps owes his prosperity to the institution of slavery and it has destroyed him mentally and morally. Rising from the position of overseer to slaveholder, he has been working closely with slaves, and this is a sure way of noticing their humanity. Masters who owned plantations from afar may have been able to convince themselves that slaves were members of an inferior race, but when Epps worked alongside his slaves, he realized their similarities. Patsey, who could pick five hundred pounds of cotton a day was clearly not an inferior worker. And yet he owed his lifestyle to slavery, and so he was tormented and helped by the peculiar institution. His guilt comes through in is horrid abuse of alcohol and his slaves. In order to deal with his inner turmoil, he hit the bottle. The pain and guilt he felt as a result of slavery he then blamed on his slaves. They were, in a way, responsible for his immoral actions, and he took it out on them. Cruel and unnecessary whippings marked his reign while Northup was enslaved, and the direct cause of them can only be explained by moral guilt. Epps was clearly a human being. He had loves and desires and hopes, and yet his entire world was clouded by the institution of slavery, and that destroyed him as nothing else could save him.
Solomon Northup’s experience thus serves as a good example of how guilt struck many different kinds of slaveholders and provides an insight into how each man, though guilty, handled the guilt differently. Ford chose the method of doing his best to alleviate his own guilt in his participation of slavery; Epps and Tibeats couldn’t handle the contradictions that stirred inside, and instead moved to violence and alcoholism. And they all felt guilt as a direct cause of the institution.
Simply because slavery corrupted much of the humanity of southerners toward blacks does not mean slaveholders were not responsible for their own actions. It is merely a good way of showing how slaveholders must have felt guilt as a whole. Because if slavery is an immoral institution, then moral men (as we will assume most men are) will feel guilt as participants. And yet southerners allowed slavery to continue in their midst until force stopped them. This stirred the guilt inside them and either led to better treatment of their slaves or much worse treatment. The feeling was the same; the reactions different.
Thus through their writings, their propaganda, and their humanity it is evident that southerners clearly felt that their institution of slavery morally ambiguous. This ambiguity we define as guilt and we can see its results throughout the South in this time period. Slaves were people just as white southerners were people, and despite the propaganda, this was an inevitable conclusion that everyone who had close contact with both had to realize. Through life, sickness, and death, the similarities were impossible to ignore. And thus the enslavement of humans while championing liberty had an obvious effect: guilt. The human heart and soul transcends the mind in matters of morality to warn the conscience, and that’s exactly why southerners felt guilt in the face of slavery.