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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Softer Aspects of Slavery

By Henry Woodfin Grady (1851–1889)

[Born in Athens, Ga., 1851. Died in Atlanta, Ga., 1889. From a Series of Articles on “The New South.”—The New York Ledger. 1889.]

PERHAPS no period of human history has been more misjudged and less understood than the slave-holding era in the South. Slavery as an institution cannot be defended; but its administration was so nearly perfect among our forefathers as to challenge and hold our loving respect. It is doubtful if the world has seen a peasantry so happy and so well-to-do as the negro slaves in America. The world was amazed at the fidelity with which these slaves guarded, from 1861 to 1865, the homes and families of the masters who were fighting with the army that barred their way to freedom. If “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had portrayed the rule of slavery rather than the rarest exception, not all the armies that went to the field could have stayed the flood of rapine and arson and pillage that would have started with the first gun of the civil war. Instead of that, witness the miracle of the slave in loyalty to his master, closing the fetters upon his own limbs—maintaining and defending the families of those who fought against his freedom—and at night on the far-off battle-field searching among the carnage for his young master, that he might lift the dying head to his breast and bend to catch the last words to the old folks at home, so wrestling the meantime in agony and love that he would lay down his life in his master’s stead.

History has no parallel to the faith kept by the negro in the South during the war. Often live hundred negroes to a single white man, and yet through these dusky throngs the women and children walked in safety, and the unprotected homes rested in peace. Unmarshalled, the black battalions moved patiently to the fields in the morning to feed the armies their idleness would have starved, and at night gathered anxiously at the big house to “hear the news from marster,” though conscious that his victory made their chains enduring. Everywhere humble and kindly. The body-guard of the helpless. The rough companion of the little ones. The observant friend. The silent sentry in his lowly cabin. The shrewd counsellor. And when the dead came home, a mourner at the open grave. A thousand torches would have disbanded every Southern army, but not one was lighted. When the master, going to a war in which slavery was involved, said to his slave, “I leave my home and loved ones in your charge,” the tenderness between man and master stood disclosed.

The Northern man, dealing with casual servants, querulous, sensitive, and lodged for a day in a sphere they resent, can hardly comprehend the friendliness and sympathy that existed between the master and the slave. He cannot understand how the negro stood in slavery days, open-hearted and sympathetic, full of gossip and comradeship, the companion of the hunt, frolic, furrow, and home, contented in the kindly dependence that has been a habit of his blood, and never lifting his eyes beyond the narrow horizon that shut him in with his neighbors and friends. But this relation did exist in the days of slavery. It was the rule of that régime. It has survived war, and strife, and political campaigns in which the drum-beat inspired and Federal bayonets fortified. It will never die until the last slave-holder and slave has been gathered to rest. It is the glory of our past in the South. It is the answer to abuse and slander. It is the hope of our future.

The relations of the races in slavery must be clearly understood to understand what has followed, and to judge of what is yet to come. Not less important is it to have some clear idea of the civilization of that period.

That was a peculiar society. Almost feudal in its splendor, it was almost patriarchal in its simplicity. Leisure and wealth gave it exquisite culture. Its wives and mothers, exempt from drudgery, and almost from care, gave to their sons, through patient and constant training, something of their own grace and gentleness and to their homes beauty and light. Its people, homogeneous by necessity, held straight and simple faith, and were religious to a marked degree along the old lines of Christian belief. This same homogeneity bred a hospitality that was as kinsmen to kinsmen, and that wasted at the threshold of every home what the more frugal people of the North conserved and invested in public charities. The code duello furnished the highest appeal in dispute. An affront to a lad was answered at the pistol’s mouth. The sense of quick responsibility tempered the tongues of even the most violent, and the newspapers of South Carolina for eight years, it is said, did not contain one abusive word. The ownership of slaves, even more than of realty, held families steadfast on their estates, and everywhere prevailed the sociability of established neighborhoods. Money counted least in making the social status, and constantly ambitious and brilliant youngsters from no estate married into the families of planter princes. Meanwhile the one character utterly condemned and ostracized was the man who was mean to his slaves. Even the coward was pitied and might have been liked. For the cruel master there was no toleration.

The ante-bellum society had immense force. Working under the slavery which brought the suspicion or hostility of the world, and which practically beleaguered it within walls, it yet accomplished good things. For the first sixty-four years of the republic it furnished the president for fifty-two years. Its statesmen demanded the war of 1812, opened it with but five Northern senators supporting it, and its general, Jackson, won the decisive battle of New Orleans. It was a Southern statesman who added the Louisiana territory of more than 1,000,000 square miles to our domain. Under a Southern statesman Florida was acquired from Spain. Against the opposition of the free States, the Southern influence forced the war with Mexico, and annexed the superb empire of Texas, brought in New Mexico, and opened the gates of the republic to the Pacific. Scott and Taylor, the heroes of the Mexican war, were Southern men. In material, as in political affairs, the old South was masterful. The first important railroad operated in America traversed Carolina. The first steamer that crossed the ocean cleared from Savannah. The first college established for girls was opened in Georgia. No naturalist has surpassed Audubon; no geographer equalled Maury; and Sims and McDonald led the world of surgery in their respective lines. It was Crawford Long, of Georgia, who gave to the world the priceless blessing of anæsthesia. The wealth accumulated by the people was marvellous. And, though it is held that slavery enriched the poor at the general expense, Georgia and Carolina were the richest States, per capita, in the Union in 1860, saving Rhode Island. Some idea of the desolation of war may be had from the fact that, in spite of their late remarkable recuperation, they are now, excepting Idaho, the poorest States, per capita, in the Union. So rich was the South in 1860, that Mr. Lincoln spoke but common sentiment when he said: “If we let the South go, where shall we get our revenues?”

In its engaging grace—in the chivalry that tempered even Quixotism with dignity—in the piety that saved master and slave alike—in the charity that boasted not—in the honor held above estate—in the hospitality that neither condescended nor cringed—in frankness and heartiness and wholesome comradeship—in the reverence paid to womanhood and the inviolable respect in which woman’s name was held—the civilization of the old slave régime in the South has not been surpassed, and perhaps will not be equalled, among men.

And as the fidelity of the slave during the war bespoke the kindness of the master before the war, so the unquestioning reverence with which the young men of the South accepted, in 1865, their heritage of poverty and defeat, proved the strength and excellence of the civilization from which that heritage had come. In cheerfulness they bestirred themselves amid the ashes and the wrecks, and, holding the inspiration of their past to be better than their rich acres and garnered wealth, went out to rebuild their fallen fortunes, with never a word of complaint, nor the thought of criticism!