Reading the last four letters reprinted by Project Gutenberg (The Civil War in America, by William Howard Russell) was a soul-draining, but necessary, reminder that this is indeed who we are. What these letters show me is that without directly confronting our history, we will repeat our mistakes. Without recognizing the role of myth in the way our history is taught, we will not learn or grow. The good news is that as long as photos of young girls in tears after being tear-gassed shock us; as long as news of the death of yet another African-American man at the hands of police anger us; as long as we are willing to stand up and speak out, we have a chance. Who we are is not who we have to be.
(Today’s quotes provided without commentary; the parallels are so obvious that commentary seems superfluous.)
Letter XII. May 22, 1861
There is one stereotyped sentence which I am tired of: “Our negroes, Sir, are the happiest, the most contented, and the best off of any people in the world.”
The violence and reiterancy of this formula cause one to inquire whether anything which demands such insistance is really in the condition predicated, and, for myself, I always say, “It may be so, but as yet I do not see the proof of it. The negroes do not look to be what you say they are.” For the present that is enough as to one’s own opinions. Externally the paragraphs which attract attention, and the acts of the authorities, are inconsistent with the notion that the negroes are all very good, very happy, or at all contented, not to speak of their being in the superlative condition of enjoyment; and, as I only see them, as yet, in the most superficial way, and under the most favorable circumstances, it may be that when the cotton-picking season is at its height, and it lasts for several months, when the labor is continuous from sunrise to sunset, there is less reason to accept the assertions as so largely and generally true of the vast majority of the slaves. “There is an excellent gentleman over there,” said a friend to me, “who gives his overseers a premium of $10 on the birth of every child on his plantation.” “Why so?” “Oh, in order that the overseers may not work the women in the family-way overmuch.” There is little use in this part of the world in making use of inferences. But where overseers do not get the premium, it may be supposed they do work the pregnant women too much.
LETTER XII. New Orleans, May 25, 1861.
As to any liberty of opinion or real freedom here, the boldest Southerner would not dare to say a shadow of either exists. It may be as bad in the North, for all I know; but it must be remembered that in all my communications I speak of things as they appear to me to be in the place where I am at the time. The most cruel and atrocious acts are perpetrated by the rabble who style themselves citizens. The national failing of curiosity and prying into other people’s affairs is now rampant, and assumes the name and airs of patriotic vigilance. Every stranger is watched, every word is noted, espionage commands every keyhole and every letter-box; love of country takes to eavesdropping, and freedom shaves men’s heads, and packs men up in boxes for the utterance of “Abolition sentiments.” In this city there is a terrible substratum of crime and vice, violence, misery, and murder, over which the wheels of Cotton King’s chariot rumble gratingly, and on which rest in dangerous security the feet of his throne.
LETTER XIII. NATCHEZ, Miss., June 14.
The huts of the negroes, belonging to the personal service of the house, were separated from the negroes engaged in field labor by a close wooden paling; but there was no difference in the shape and size of their dwellings, which consisted generally of one large room, divided by a partition occasionally into two bed-rooms. Outside the whitewash gave them a cleanly appearance; inside they were dingy and squalid—no glass in the windows, swarms of flies, some clothes hanging on nails in the boards, dressers with broken crockery, a bedstead of rough carpentry; a fireplace in which, hot as was the day, a log lay in embers; a couple of tin cooking utensils; in the obscure, the occupant, male or female, awkward and shy before strangers, and silent till spoken to. Of course there were no books, for the slaves do not read…On all faces there was a gravity which must be the index to serene contentment and perfect comfort, for those who ought to know best declare they are the happiest race in the world. It struck me more and more, as I examined the expression of the faces of the slaves all over the South, that deep dejection is the prevailing, if not universal, characteristic of the race. Let a physiognomist go and see. Here there were abundant evidences that they were well treated, for they had good clothing of its kind, good food, and a master who wittingly could do them no injustice, as he is, I am sure, incapable of it. Still, they all looked exceedingly sad, and even the old woman who boasted that she had held her old master in her arms when he was an infant, did not look cheerful, as the nurse at home would have done, at the sight of her ancient charge.
Next day I left the hospitable house of Governor Roman, full of regard for his personal character and of wishes for his happiness and prosperity, but assuredly in no degree satisfied that even with his care and kindness even the “domestic institution” can be rendered tolerable or defensible, if it be once conceded that the negro is a human being with a soul—or with the feelings of a man. On those points there are ingenious hypotheses and subtle argumentations in print “down South,” which do much to comfort the consciences of the anthropoproprietors. The negro skull won’t hold as many ounces as that of the white man’s. Can there be a more potent proof that the white man has a right to sell and to own a creature who carries a smaller charge of snipe dust in his head? He is plantigrade and curved as to the tibia! Cogent demonstration that he was made expressly to work for the arch-footed, straight-tibia’d Caucasian. He has a rete mucosum and a colored pigment. Surely he cannot have a soul of the same color as that of an Italian or a Spaniard, far less of a flaxen-haired Saxon! See these peculiarities in the frontal sinus—in sinciput or occiput! Can you doubt that the being with a head of that nature was made only to till, hoe, and dig for another race? Besides the Bible says that he is a son of Ham, and prophecy must be carried out in the rice swamps, sugar canes, and maize-fields of the Southern Confederation. It’s flat blasphemy to set yourself against it. Our Saviour sanctions Slavery because he does not say a word against it, and it’s very likely that St. Paul was a slave-owner. Had cotton and sugar been known, he might have been a planter! Besides, the negro is civilized by being carried away from Africa and set to work, instead of idling in native inutility. What hope is there of Christianizing the African races except by the agency of the apostles from New Orleans, Mobile, or Charleston, who sing the sweet songs of Zion with such vehemence, and clamor so fervently for baptism in the waters of the “Jawdam?” If these high, physical, metaphysical, moral and religious reasonings do not satisfy you, and you venture to be unconvinced and to say so, then I advise you not to come within reach of a mass meeting of our citizens, who may be able to find a rope and a tree in the neighborhood.
Steam has enabled them to turn their rivers into highways, to open primeval forests to the light of day and to man. All these, however, would have availed them little had not the demands of manufacture abroad, and the increasing luxury and population of the North and West at home, enabled them to find in these swamps and uplands sources of wealth richer and more certain than all the gold mines of the world. But there must be gnomes to work those mines. Slavery was an institution ready to their hands. In its development there lay every material means for securing the prosperity which Manchester opened to them, and in supplying their own countrymen with sugar. The small, struggling, deeply mortgaged proprietors of swamp and forest set their negroes to work to raise levees, to cut down trees, to plant and sow. As the negro became valuable by his produce, the Irish emigrant took his place in the severer labors of the plantation, and ditched and dug, and cut into the waste land. Cotton at ten cents a pound gave a nugget in every boll. Land could be had for a few dollars an acre. Negroes were cheap in proportion. Men who made a few thousand dollars, invested them in more negroes and more land, and borrowed as much again for the same purpose. They waxed fat and rich—there seemed no bounds to their fortune. But threatening voices came from the North—the echoes of the sentiments of the civilized world repenting of its evil pierced their ears, and they found their feet were of clay, and that they were nodding to their fall in the midst of their power. Ruin inevitable awaited them if they did not shut out these sounds and stop the fatal utterances. The issue is to them one of life and death. Whoever raises it hereafter, if it be not decided now, must expect to meet the deadly animosity which is displayed toward the North. The success of the South—if it can succeed—must lead to complications and results in other parts of the world for which neither it nor Europe is now prepared. Of one thing there can be no doubt—a Slave State cannot long exist without a slave-trade. The poor whites who will have won the fight will demand their share of the spoils. The land is abundant, and all that is wanted to give them fortunes is a supply of slaves. They will have them in spite of their masters, unless a stronger power prevents the accomplishment of their wishes.
Letter IX. Traveling to Cairo, IL. June 19, 1861.
My companion was a very intelligent Southern gentlemen, formerly editor of a newspaper. We talked of the crime of the country, of the brutal shootings and stabbings which disgraced it. He admitted their existence with regret, but he could advise and suggest no remedy. “The rowdies have rushed in upon us, so that we can’t master them.” “Is the law powerless?” “Well, Sir, you see these men got hold of those who should administer the law, or they are too powerful or too reckless to be kept down.” “That is a reign of terror—of mob-ruffianism!” “It don’t hurt respectable people much, but I agree with you it must be put down.?” “When—how?” “Well, Sir, when things are settled we’ll just take the law into our own hands. Not a man shall have a vote unless he’s American born, and by degrees we’ll get rid of these men who disgrace us.?” “Are not many of your regiments composed of Germans and Irish—of foreigners, in fact?” “Yes, Sir.?” I did not suggest to him the thought which rose in my mind, that these gentlemen, if successful, would be very little inclined to abandon their rights while they had arms in their hands, but it occurred to me as well that this would be rather a poor reward for the men who were engaged in establishing the Southern Confederacy. The attempt may fail, but assuredly I have heard it expressed too often to doubt that there is a determination on the part of the leaders in the movement to take away the suffrage from the men whom they do not scruple to employ in fighting their battles. If they cut the throats of the enemy they will stifle their own sweet voices at the same time, or soon afterward—a capital recompense to their emigrant soldiers!