Decade of the 1830s: The Slavery Issue

By mid-decade the slave states had begun to live under a growing pall of fear due to several slave insurrections. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and freed slave in South Carolina, is said to have plotted a slave insurrection along with others. The insurrection was uncovered before it could take place, when a slave told of the plan. Vesey and the others were convicted of the crime and executed. At around the same time, the controversy over slaves in the territories, resulting in the Missouri Compromise, was fresh in the minds of slaveholders, and the threat of insurrection served to make them more uneasy and fearful, especially if one lived in a state where enslaved people outnumbered free whites, as they did in Mississippi. In August of 1831 the Nat Turner Rebellion again sent ripples of fear throughout slaveholding states. Though the rebellious people were executed, suspicion of further plots caused militia’s in some slaveholding communities to begin policing. Slaveholding states also began passing laws restricting the movement, assembly, and education of enslaved people.

1-8 The Confessions of Nat Turner...title pg (odyssey)
The publication of Nat Turner’s confession to Thomas R. Gray on November 5, 1831 influenced popular perceptions. Abolitionists perceived Nat Turner’s account as heroic, and slaveholders perceived it as likely to incite further insurrection. A copy to be found at

According to Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller, by 1833 the abolitionist movement had organized, marked by the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. William Loyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Weld were prominent supporters of this organization. The group was largely made up of pacifists, such as Quakers, and many women found an avenue for political influence through social causes such as the abolitionists movement.  The organization’s headquarters was in New York City, Nassau Street, from which anti-slavery pamphlets were sent through the mail to all parts of the country. Slaveholding southerners read abolitionist material as no other group in the U.S. did with the exception of the abolitionists themselves. This fueled their anger, and the term “Nassau Street” evoked threatening connotations. The abolitionist movement was a relatively small and decidedly religious group at first, and they incurred much displeasure and even violent reaction in the North as well as the South. The American Anti-Slavery Society held the philosophy that slavery should end immediately, and were bitterly opposed to another philosophy held by many who did not approve of slavery that enslaved people and free blacks should be relocated out of the country.

However, Mississippi was experiencing such profits from the growth of cotton that the fear of slave insurrection does not come across in the letters of the 1830s. Increasing references to slaves and slavery begin to appear in Duncan McKenzie’s letters by 1837. During the 1830s, the buying and selling of slaves in Mississippi was very profitable. By 1837 speculation in land and cotton in Mississippi was rampant and would soon lead to financial crisis in the state. For example, in April of 1837 Duncan McKenzie writes to Duncan McLaurin of three mutual acquaintances buying slaves on credit. He marvels at the risk they are taking and wonders how long it will take for them to pay off their debt.

“…Archd Anderson, Archd Wilkinson

and Lachlin McLaurin, Black bot each of them a Negro

man for which they are to give $1:650 each, query

how long will it take the boys to pay their prices at

the present rates of hiring which is $175 for Such

boys, allowing 10 percent per annum at compound

interest till paid”

Being much more cautious, McKenzie did not go out of his way to purchase labor he could not afford, though by 1840, according to tax records, he owned eight enslaved people. He further illuminates the speculation in slaves in a June 1837 letter to his brother-in-law.

“You said the National Intelligencer informed you that Negros

were selling in the west at 1/4 less than given last Spring or

fall, yes the Inteligencer may tell you that in many instances they

are sold at 1/4 the sum given or promised and the poor debtor left

3/4 of the sum to be raised from his other property if such be

is it to be feared that the evil will become common

What will become of Black Lachlin the carpenter who bot

a negro man for which he promised $1650 to be paid next Jan.

Many others are similarly situated”

By October of 1837 Duncan has purchased a person from LMcL, perhaps the same Black Lachlin he mentioned taking risks in speculating. Evidently LMcL purchased a “Negro woman & 2 children” for $600. He then sells this person to Duncan McKenzie for $950. Duncan calls it “not a small shave.”

Speculating in the buying and selling of human beings seems cruel enough, but human property was passed from generation to generation in wills. Duncan McKenzie mentions in March of 1837 the dispersal of property by the father of  another mutual acquaintance of his and Duncan McLaurin’s.

“… his father’s Estate was divided. Aunt drew the

old Negro woman & $156 also a bond in $1.000 for her

maintenance in case the property should die the

Negroes increased So that there was one for each heir

and two to divide among the whole, those were valued

and kept in the family”

This magazine for children, published on Nassau Street between 1836 and 1838 by the Anti-Slavery Society, was particularly galling to slaveholders and those who supported the institution.

We are generally stunned at reading the detached tone with which Duncan McKenzie writes of the buying and selling of human beings. He may as well have been talking about horses or cattle. Fathoming such inhumanity to man requires a look at the environment and philosophy slaveholders embraced in the nineteenth century. Especially for the recent Scottish immigrants, it was a decidedly European view based in colonialism. Many justified colonial pursuits by rooting them in the cause of spreading Christianity to pagan people. Where foreign cultures appeared more primitive and less technologically advanced, it was easy to justify “lording it over them,” especially if doing so was going to increase one’s own wealth and position. This is nothing new in our world past or present. It is called racism and has no moral justification. By the Nineteenth Century, as industrialization took hold worldwide, a more enlightened view of slavery and the slave trade began to emerge. England led the world in ending its trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa and abolishing slavery – albeit slavery was most prevalent in her colonies, so it was perhaps more easily accomplished. However, at the same time the emerging textile industry required more and more cotton to meet its market. This demanding crop had been once grown in manageable amounts on small farms before the age of colonialism, but the amounts needed for increased production in textile mills required an enormous labor force. It was simply easier and perhaps more profitable to continue slavery than it was to convert to a system of paid labor, especially in the United States, where newly opened and fertile land suitable for growing labor intensive crops was increasing the demand for labor.

If enslaving another human being is immoral, and you are doing it, you have to find a philosophy to justify your behavior. An easy and common justification was that some human beings, by pseudo-scientific observation, were incapable of functioning on their own in more technologically advanced and “civilized” societies. Therefore, it was more humane and Christian to keep them productively employed than it was to set them free to be overwhelmed in the act of thinking and behaving on their own recognizance. At the same time, the fear of retribution from their own labor force was growing among slaveowners.The bottom line, however, is that a slaveholder might not as easily build a fortune so fast or so sure if a paid labor source were required. Surely, not every person who was forced to work in the fields would, if given the choice, choose to do so.

In addition, the newly-born republic of the United States of America, in the attempt to compromise with slaveholding, which went against the very basic idea of a republic, had installed the mechanism of the 3/5 rule to keep the slaveholding class politically powerful.

In November of 1836 the fear has not yet crept into his correspondence, but Duncan McKenzie finds himself refuting a claim by neighbors, some of whom were relatives and acquaintances of Duncan McLaurin, that his wife, Barbara, is in danger of exhaustion. Barbara is busy with her family of six boys, two of them young enough to be underfoot – too young to do much work in the fields. In addition, she was responsible for keeping watch over the enslaved children on the farm, who were too young to work. It is probable that her workload had increased as had everyone else’s in the move to Mississippi. However, she probably had some household help when someone could be spared from the crops. She is likely responsible for maintaining a garden, providing meals and clothing for everyone working on the place, and watching the small children. A thousand daily tasks had become routine to her and were expected by the rest of the family. Duncan McKenzie replies to his brother-in-law’s concerns, “It is true Barbra has a considerable charge on account of the children but Allan being the oldest takes considerable pains in conducting his little brother John and Jones and Niles (enslaved children) all are very attentive to Jbae Elly sones name he is as handsome a black child as I ever saw.” It would seem that on a small farm with so many daily interactions that the humanity of people would shine through, and eventually, the system would seem to break down. However, this does not seem to have happened.

Some servants were valued more than others in slaveholding families, though the elephant in the room within these relationships was that one party was there by coercion and not by his or her choice. In 1838 when Barbara delivers her daughter Mary Catharine, Elly is there to help Duncan deliver the child. Elly is the most often mentioned of the enslaved people working on the Duncan McKenzie farm, “ … till the morning of the 9th August at one a clock she (Barbara) was delivered of a daughter no one being in attendance but myself and Negro woman Elly, yet all was well and I dressed the little Stranger before anyone had time to come to our assistance.” In 1839 Barbara has been ill, but when illness struck, it potentially struck everyone working on the farm. At the same time Barbara is struck with the diahrea, (in the 19th century often deadly) two other people on the farm: Barbara’s youngest son, John, and Elly’s youngest child. During the same year, Duncan sends his condolences to his brother-in-law for the “loss of the boy Moses,” an evidently valued servant. In another instance, Duncan McKenzie says, “Duncan McBryde is in a peck of trouble as it appears old Dorcas will be Sold to the best bidder and Duncan not able to buy her.” The circumstances of her sale are not clear, but she was clearly valued.

By 1839 Duncan emphasizes the economic prowess of cotton and slaves in Mississippi. “… I find that from the sinner to the Saint that the cotton plant engrosses the chief of the conversation, a few years passd the purchase of Negroes was the hobby but now it is paying for them and that must be done by cotton or by the sale of the Negroes and other stuff of the purchasers.”

I will conclude with a chilling story told by Duncan McKenzie in an 1839 letter to his brother-in-law, “… on last Tuesday week two little girls one 14 years old and the other younger were going to a quilting and were assaulted by a Negro man on the road.” The man caught the horse and removed the girl from it. She began screaming, a neighbor, who happened to own the Negro heard the commotion. He claimed to have seen the Negro attempting to rape the young girl. When he called out, the Negro ran. As a result fourteen white men hunted him down and hanged him. This is an example of what, in my opinion, is absolutely the greatest tragedy of slavery in the United States and the worst affront to a republican system of government, that enslaved people had no recourse to justice at all – no assurance that they were assumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers. They had absolutely no voice in their condition. Laws did exist in most slave states to protect slaves, but generally from the point of view that they were property and not to be abused. In a case like this, it is probable that the slaveowner was within his rights to permit the lynching of his property. This instance manifests the repressive fear of uprising by enslaved people that was growing in Mississippi and across the slaveholding South.


Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1996. 97.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. April 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. June 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. October 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. March 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Duncan McKenzie Letters of the 1830s: The Mail

This letter was addressed in July of 1831 and sent from the Jaynesville, MS post office to the address in North Carolina with the appropriate 25 cent postage whether prepaid or paid upon destination. The paper has been folded and sealed to create an envelope-like space for the address.

The following is the first of a group of posts highlighting the content of Duncan McKenzie’s correspondence from Covington County, Mississippi with his brother-in-law, Duncan McLaurin, in North Carolina during the decade of the 1830’s. Each post will examine a different topic addressed within the letters.

During the decade of the 1830s it cost twenty-five cents to mail a letter of one sheet a distance of more than four hundred miles – a high price for most farming families, especially those living great distances from relatives left behind in the east. For example, a U. S. laborer in the early 1830s might have made an average of seventy-five cents to one dollar a day. According to The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America by David M. Henkin, in the 1830s the bulk of the mail included subscription newspapers, which enjoyed lower rates of delivery. One has only to peruse the long lists of names posted by the Post Office that appeared in the newspapers of this decade to appreciate the difficulties of retrieving one’s mail. If it arrived at the post office in a timely manner, it was likely to take weeks for the busy rural farmer to have time to negotiate the distance to the post office. In addition, this farmer would likely have to pay the postage in order to put hands on his letter. In 1830 the requirement of prepaid postage, reduction in postage, and the use of government issued stamps was still more than a decade coming.

The mail, despite the increased upkeep of the roads, traveled slowly at best by today’s standards, a month or more in passage was not uncommon. Most mail traveled by horseback or stage on roads, the passage upon which was uncertain due to weather conditions. Also, mail was sent via boats on the rivers, also subject to the danger of snags and varying river stages. Many people avoided using the postal system and still sent letters and packages by way of traveling friends and acquaintances, when available.

Every part of Duncan McKenzie’s letter is filled with writing, even the margins. So little space is left on this page that Duncan McLaurin was forced to write his date of receipt notations on the address portion of the page. The postage is marked free on this letter because Duncan McLaurin was serving as postmaster at Laurel Hill and had evidently invoked franking privileges.

In perusing the Duncan McLaurin Papers, it is clear that one sheet created four writing surfaces, and often writing was continued up through the margins of the paper. After all, with mail delivery as expensive as 25 cents a sheet, one could not afford to waste any space. The paper was folded to form an envelope of sorts, which was sealed with wax and upon which the address was written directing the letter to a particular post office. If the letter had been sent by mail the number 25, for 25 cents postage, would appear in the corner, where today a stamp would appear. Mapping postal routes did not begin until around 1837, so especially rural letters, would not bear a street address. Mail was not delivered directly to the home, but had to be retrieved from the nearest post office, which might be someone’s home or a local business. Some of Duncan McKenzie’s letters to his brother-in-laws, Duncan and John McLaurin, bear the 25 cents postage, others do not. Those letters that do not bear the 25, have likely been carried by friends or family members traveling from Covington County, MS to Laurel Hill, NC and directly put into the hands of the person. Sometimes the name of the person charged with delivery is written on the front of the letter.

In 1837 Duncan McKenzie receives a gun he has asked John McLaurin to purchase for him from a reputable gunsmith in Richmond County, such as Mr. Buchanan. The gun is for his older boys, who love hunting and tracking animals in the pine woods of Mississippi. However, it takes nearly a year for the gun to be sent by way of a traveling friend, relative – or someone trustworthy. It took another length of time for Duncan McKenzie to retrieve the gun in Mississippi, because it was delivered to the home of an acquaintance miles away.

In his March 21, 1837 letter, Duncan McKenzie reports to Duncan McLaurin, “I also heard that the gun came — I forward this to you per Mr. John Gilchrist who is on his way to No-ca … he promises to call at your village.” Evidently, this particular letter will not need the 25 cent postage. In this same letter, McKenzie wishes to let his father-in-law know where to direct a letter to a relative in Mississippi, “…to Aunt Catharine Dale Ville po – Ladderdale (Lauderdale) Co. Mi.” In his next letter, a month later, Duncan McKenzie has still not retrieved the gun, “we have not brought the gun down from Mr. McCollum yet tho only 7 miles.” Seven miles does not seem so far, but to a busy farmer and over uncertain roads, life was just not that convenient.

In the letter of April 1837 McKenzie remarks that his letter will be mailed at Mount Carmel since he will be going to vote in an election for a member of the state legislature. It was probably common practice among those who attempted to write regularly to have their mailings coincide with trips to a nearby post office. Indeed the post mark reads Mt. Carmel with the number 25 in the stamp’s corner.

In the western states such as MS, news from families in the east was of such importance that  letters were commonly shared and sometimes purposely passed around the community. McKenzie mentions to his brother-in-law that he had read a letter in which he discovered that a valued mutual friend in Carrolton, MS was in bad health with chills and fever. In 1839 Duncan McKenzie writes that, “Having written so lately to John I do not know what to add more without repetition.” Obviously, Duncan and John McLaurin shared news of their sister’s family with every letter.

The circle at the top of the address portion of this letter is evidence of the wax seal placed on the page after it is folded.

In spite of the precarious nature of the mail delivery during the first half of the 19th century, it was probably more successful than it was not. An example of the concerns that correspondents from west to east harbored each time they used the post are evident in the following comment by Duncan McKenzie of Mississippi to his brother-in-law in North Carolina. In an earlier letter he had mentioned that McLaurin’s sister, Barbara, had not been feeling well. Further information on the matter seems to have been lost in the mail, causing some anxiety. It turned out that Barbara’s complaint was a pregnancy and by the time the issue was sorted out, the baby was very near birth. The following is from McKenzie’s November 1838 letter:

“…my letter of the latter part of Augt.

had not reached,, you before the date of 7th Octr

If it miscarried I beleave it was the first lost

between us in near Six years regular correspondence

The receipt of that letter in due time, I know

would have been to you a Source of some joy, at least

it would dispel the uneasiness that the marginal notice in my letter of the early part of June gave

of Barbras situation — But if need be the treach

-erous or negligent hands who were the cause of the

delay or final miscarryriage of a letter which was

to me a Source of inexpressible pleasure to have

Through the mercy of our kind heavenly Benefac

-tor to communicate to you its contents, who I know

would have received its contents with joy and Thanks

-giving to the dispenser of all mercies to his creation,

I hope my letter to John of October has not been inter

-cepted, for fear that it did not reach you I will give Some

of the contents of both in this and mail it at Williams

Burgh our county Sight”

In this letter McKenzie also mentions the birth of his daughter Mary Catharine and the territorial conflict between local postmasters that he thinks may have been a contributing factor in the miscarried mail. He tells Duncan to continue use the Jaynesville post office as usual if the letters, in reality, have not been lost. If they have, he should send his mail to nearby Mt. Carmel.


Garavaglia, Louis A. To the Wide Missouri: Traveling in America During the First Decades of Westward Expansion. Westholme: Yardley, PA. 2011. 59

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. 2007 . accessed 3 January 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.