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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s