Images of Slavery
Duncan McKenzie’s letters of the 1840s reveal information about the lives of slaves during that decade: Prices, the buying and selling of slaves; the unpredictability of an enslaved person’s life – lack of self-determination; and the extent of the enslaved person’s access to justice under the law. Contrary to facts in the McKenzie family correspondence, arguments on the part of some during the decades prior to the Civil War were increasingly promoting slavery as a positive good.
At the turn of the decade of the 1840s, Mississippians were still experiencing the economic hard times brought on by the failure of the economy that resulted from over speculation in land and slaves. In April of 1840 Duncan McKenzie reports that the price of slaves is significantly under par as is land. The juxtaposition of human chattel with other products of the flesh such as cattle and horses or even land is common in publications and letters of the time: He writes, “I have seen negros that cost upwards of $1500 sold for under $500 under the hammer, and land that was praised at $20 per acre by the Mi- Union Bank appraisers sold by the Sheriff as low as 20cts per acre and in many instances there are no bids at all.”
In a December 1840 letter he continues describing the economic climate in this vein by listing the price of “negro” men, women and children along with corn and land.
I was at a sale Monday & Tuesday
last where I saw negro men selling at from 6 to
$800 on a credit of Twelve months women sold at
5 to $600 — corn at 60cts per Bushel, the tract of
land of 400 acres at $15 per acre, on 1 & 2 years credit
making the round sum of $6,000 …
this same tract was sold five years ago
at $11,000 …
I saw a panel of negroes sold for cash under Execution
one man a carpenter was sold for $1,000 a woman
and child for $650 a boy 16 years old $560 a verry
likely girl at $500 small plow boys $350 &c — Duncan McKenzie
By March of 1841, a matter of months later McKenzie comments that “Negro property” has risen in price but not as high as the North Carolina prices. The land in Mississippi, however, is falling in price and, “millions of acres may be purchased from the speculating companys.” A little over a year later, June of 1842, he responds to McLaurin’s comment that the price of horses has fallen in NC then asks, “will you sell negros at the New Orleans prices (i.e.) from $300 to 350 for women & from 4 to 450 for men.” During the same spring of 1841 the free New York black man, Solomon Northup, found himself kidnapped and enslaved. He would write of his experience in Twelve Years a Slave. Such was the desire to profit off of the cotton-driven need for slave labor.
Certainly many of the individuals bought and sold at these sales were helpless when the economic climate forced owners to sell them off, breaking up families and destroying relationships as well as the routines of life they must have been hard put to establish under such circumstances. Still, in 1837 the politician John C. Calhoun was arguing against hearing petitions in Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Calhoun in the following words supports an argument that slavery was not an evil but a positive good. The economic pressure to provide a labor source for the growth of cotton was increasing. Many people of the United States would come to share this view over the two decades before the Civil War:
Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It (the black race) came among us in a low, degrade, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition. — John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senate, February 6, 1837
The irony of Calhoun’s position is astounding to us in the 21st Century. The idea that selling human beings and separating families without their consent “under the fostering care of our institutions” would be considered more civilized and a greater good than a thriving family unit might have been in even a more technologically primitive society in Africa with its own mores and folkways is an example of the arrogance of Western colonialism. The disconnect in Calhoun’s argument is easy for us to see today in the face of scientific evidence, both physical and anthropological.
In an 1842 letter, Duncan McKenzie reports with disdain that an acquaintance was, “committed to gaol for harboring a runaway negro.” Certainly, this enslaved person had made an individual choice to run as many did, but their chances of escaping to a life of freedom were limited. By the 1840s Fugitive Slave laws had reduced the possibility of a successful flight. It is not clear whether Duncan McKenzie’s acquaintance was harboring an escaped enslaved person for humanitarian reasons or because he simply wanted a cost-free slave. What matters is that escape was very difficult if a person did not have outside help.
By May of 1844, McKenzie writes the news that two other acquaintances, citizens of Smith County, MS, were sentenced to a term of seven years for killing, “Kelly’s negro man Jack by whipping.” Apparently one of them was Kelly’s overseer. They are said to have “whipd the poor slave to death,” in a “spree.” When Duncan McKenzie mentions a “spree” he is usually referring to unbridled drunken behavior. May issues of The Mississippi Free Trader newspaper of Natchez, MS confirm Duncan’s story. The two plead “insanity, produced by intoxication,” but Judge Willis explained to the jury that “intoxication did not constitute legal insanity.” However, the story does not end there. According to the Vicksburg Whig newspaper of 3 June 1844, the two were “remanded back to jail, under a writ of error issued by Judge Sharkey.” Kelly’s overseer then, “made his escape.” After the overseer escapes, Kelly, the plantation owner, submits and receives certiorari awarded in December of 1844 to the Mississippi High Court of Appeals. This information appeared in the Southern Reformer of 13 December 1844. Later The Weekly Mississippian of December 18, 1844 in case Number 1344 explains the court has “reversed judgement” on Kelly due to an error, which is likely the overseer’s escape. Several years later in 1846 Duncan McKenzie makes reference to Kelly again. We find that shortly after a trip to North Carolina, he and his family “left for beyond the Mississippi River.” Thus, the two appear to have gotten away with murder. None of the murder victim’s family or friends had any authority as enslaved people to challenge the system.
In both of the previously mentioned situations, the enslaved human beings were at the mercy of those in charge — color making them easily identifiable in the white world off of the plantation and always subject to the whims of white authority. In addition, the simple fact of aging might force drastic changes in lives. In 1845 a relative of McKenzie’s in Scott County, MS sold “carpenter Jack for $800 cash a good price for a negro of his age.” McKenzie adds that “he is a good and valuable servant and has now a good master.”
On the 24th of November 1845, a neighbor of the McKenzies had his life threatened by gunshot. According to Duncan McKenzie, two enslaved men belonging to the neighbor somehow “procured a large pistol which they loaded with … buck shot.” The neighbor and family were evidently outdoors in a visible place. One of the enslaved people, “rested the pistol by the corner of the Shed room fired directly at his masters head but without effect.” It seems evidence of the shot showed that it came very close to hitting its mark. The neighbor and a friend caught the two enslaved men and turned them over to the authorities – probably the sheriff. They were imprisoned awaiting trial. The two spent the winter in jail and under conditions that left them exposed enough to the weather that their legs were frostbitten. One man’s legs had to be amputated. This cruelty happened before they were convicted. In McKenzie’s opinion the neighbor was too honest in turning the slaves over to the authorities. He says they would have “sold well for at least $700 each the day they were lodged in jail.” The neighbor was due $375 each, half of their appraised value at conviction, but this would hardly cover the medical expenses, prison and trial fees. Nothing is said about whether or not they were able to argue for themselves or what difference it might have made. This punishment appears to far exceed the one hundred lashes due a slave found guilty of assault and battery of a white person. However, judges were free to decide the punishment of a “negro or mullatto person” who abused a white person. A slave accused of a capital crime, which attempted murder likely was, had the right to legal counsel. Evidently, the right to counsel did not do these two fellows much good. Duncan laments the waste, but that is all.
Another neighbor during this same year, hired Duncan McKenzie’s son, Dunk, to act as overseer on his plantation for eight bales of cotton compensation. He worked on the plantation in this capacity for a matter of months before, “one of the negroes who became so devious,” was shot by the son of the plantation owner. The plantation owner looked upon the scene with “apparent indifference” only saying that he did not want anyone shot. The planter’s son, “shot the negro tho did not kill him but in all probability has rendered him useless,” by putting a “load of duck shot” in the slave’s thigh. Duncan goes on to tell that a second enslaved person “who took umbrage at the passing events,” extraordinarily escaped being shot by turning “some corner that saved him.” Another of the plantation owner’s family members advised Dunk to leave while he could because the compensation was not worth daily risking “his peace and safety.” The youthful Dunk, having worked all of his life on a small farm with fewer enslaved people, was probably ill-prepared for overseeing a large number of workers — in this case fifty or more. In the coming years the owner of this particular plantation would have further difficulty managing his slaves due to his increasing dementia.
Working in the fields of a small farm in antebellum Mississippi was likely the main focus of daily life for enslaved people and everyone else on the farm. Small farm owner’s slaves worked often side by side with members of the family. This was true on the McKenzie farm. In the following passage, Dunk, Kenneth, Hugh and the first Danl mentioned are Duncan McKenzie’s sons. Elly, Celia and the second Danl mentioned are enslaved people. Evidently, Elly stole some bacon and shared it, for which she received “leg bale.” (Among Duncan McKenzie’s enslaved people, two may have been named Ely or Elly, a man and a woman. Their names may have been pronounced differently – one beginning with a long e and ending with a long i sound – the other beginning with a short e and ending with a long e sound.)
We are trying to gather cotton and not with standing
Elly leaches absence we can gather a parcel per day
Dunk when in good humor can pick out 250 lbs per
day, Kenneth is next best, Hugh & Danl are not good
at it, Say 100 each, Celia is slow but won’t run,
Elly stole some bacon the other day, in consequence she
took leg bale. Celia says she gave it to McBrydes
Dorkas & to her sone Danl — Duncan McKenzie
In the fourteen years that Duncan McKenzie lived to farm in Covington County, MS, he did not grow cotton every year. When times were hard it appears he fell back on profits from corn. His land was likely not able to sustain cotton growing, which depletes the soil rapidly. The family evidently practiced some crop rotation. Just how much cotton a day one worker could pick probably depended a great deal on the cotton too. High growing cotton was preferable in the days before the mechanical cotton picker. The expression to be in “High Cotton” means that one is experiencing good times. A worker would probably be able to gather more without bending so much. Today the mechanical picker works better with short cotton, and often chemicals are used on the cotton to make it grow shorter with more dense bolls. In another 1847 example of cotton picking, Kenneth McKenzie claims that “Miles the oldest of the black boys picked 56 lbs of cotton before dinner. He will pick 100 today.” Two hundred and fifty pounds a day is probably an average day’s work for a grown, young and healthy man. It is questionable whether Kenneth is praising Miles or disparaging him. Was “dinner” the noon meal or the evening meal? and would Miles have to pick the same amount of cotton between noon and quitting time or would he be driven to pick fifty bales in only a few hours of remaining daylight? Miles likely was born and grew up on the McKenzie farm. Though the use of the term “boy” could refer to a grown man, it might be that Miles is still a young person, perhaps a teen. Little context is given to answer these questions.
Race generally precluded whether or not you were a slave in 1840s society of the deep South. Fear of slave rebellion before emancipation prompted Mississippi to force free blacks to leave the state, though census records at the outbreak fo the Civil War reveal almost 800 free blacks living in MS. Duncan mentions a Native American worker on his farm, though he does not make it clear whether this person was enslaved or a “hireling” as McKenzie would have referred to a wage worker. This person was not very helpful on the farm, and it is the only mention of him in the letters: “We have a curse of an Indian boy who we are trying to make work, but it is like the Devils Shearing the hog a great cry but little wool.”
In his 1840s publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes of three American races: white, African American, and Native American (modern terminology). He makes the point that the remnants of the Native Americans have too much pride to assimilate themselves into white society and were doomed to watch the environment in which their culture thrived destroyed by the relentless white movement westward. Tocqueville also contends that the African American enslaved person would never be allowed to assimilate into white society due to white race prejudice. The idea that segregation and separatism would dominate race relations in America for generations to come even after emancipation is present in Tocqueville’s thinking.
Today, authors such as Gene Dattel, a native Mississippian who recently published Reckoning With Race, appear convinced that race relations will not improve without active assimilation socially and particularly economically. Dattel also contends that even though the anti-slavery movement disapproved of slavery, abolitionists did not always argue for or work to assure assimilation of races. In May of 1845, Frederick Douglass published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. His autobiographical account is an attempt to make his emancipation, assimilation, and amalgamation argument more credible through sharing his personal experience.
Pro-slavery Arguments of the 1840s
As the cotton industry grew internationally, the desire on the cotton farms in the American South for slave labor grew. As the abolitionist movement in the American North grew, pro-slavery defense arguments grew. Paternalism was the basis of the argument that slavery was a positive good. Among the strongest voices of the philosophical arguments for the continuation of slavery included the politician John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as a state’s right and a positive good on the floor of Congress during the 1830s. Thomas R. Dew published a “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832” in which he delineates the negative aspects of emancipation. The Virginia legislature was prompted to debate the issue after the Nat Turner rebellion. Years later the Virginia slaveholder George Fitzhugh published a pamphlet at the end of the 1840s decade called “Slavery Justified, by a Southerner.” These arguments supporting slavery as a positive good would increase in force during the decade of the 1850s in the face of westward expansion and efforts to slow the spread of slavery into the territories. Even though the Southerners in Congress were able to stop the 1846 Wilmot Proviso that would have banned slavery in the Mexican War territories gained by the U.S., the ideas in the Wilmot Proviso continued to threaten slaveholders’ political power.
Thomas Roderick Dew (1802-1846) argued that the colonization of American slaves to Liberia was impractical and would destroy Virginia financially. Since slaves were considered property, their masters would have to be reimbursed for their losses. In addition, the supports needed for colonizing would be a heavy monetary burden as well. He also promoted the racist attitude that free blacks in America had been a burden on society; thus, freed slaves would be also. He put it this way, “we cannot get rid of slavery without producing a greater injury to both the masters and slaves.” He did not believe that emancipated slaves would make very good workers. The argument that the “races” could not live together on an equal basis because they were so different appears to have been pervasive enough in the nation, both North and South, to prevent assimilation and to promote separation of the races for many generations following emancipation.
George Fitzhugh (1806-1881) supported the notion that liberty was not necessarily a good thing. He believed that slavery in a socialistic vein was preferable to liberty and unbridled capitalism. Apparently he felt the slavery that existed in the South identified and met the interests of both strong and the weak (master and slave). In his pamphlet he stated that “Domestic slavery does this far better than any other institution.” He disparaged the free laborer and employer relationship saying that “Self-interest makes the employer and free laborer enemies.” Apparently, he was able to ignore the fact that sometimes master and slave became enemies – in either situation one would
be hard put to abolish human self-interest. In other words he continues, “A state of dependence is the only condition in which reciprocal affection can exist among human beings.” In this he was perhaps less racist because he believed that weak whites were better off in a condition of slavery too. In support of paternalism Fitzhugh argues, “We do not set children and women free because they are not capable of taking care of themselves, not equal to the constant struggle of society … society would quickly devour them.”
Both of these arguments are wrought upon the premise that the slaveholder will always be responsible to the needs of the slave and the slave eternally grateful for his or her condition, which was never the case when race prejudice was at the core of slavery. Evidence that every slaveowner did not practice paternalism is clear in the correspondence of Duncan McKenzie and family, nor is there much evidence that enslaved people were happy with their condition.
Final Images from the 1840s
Barbara McKenzie, Duncan’s wife, is from time to time mentioned in the McKenzie correspondence, and in 1845 Duncan reveals her interest in one particular enslaved child on the farm. It is, of course, a little girl – Barbara, who had grown up with six surviving sisters, had lost both of her daughters and found herself completely ensconced in a family of seven males by 1845. Barbara was also the person who watched over all of the children too young to work on the farm. The little girl is Barbara’s constant companion and would sleep in the house if they would allow it. Many yeoman farmer families could not afford separate quarters for their slaves. Evidently, the McKenzies had separate quarters. Ostensibly, if they had the time and energy, enslaved persons could subsistence garden their own plots of ground in order to feed themselves. It is possible they were allowed to trap animals to help feed themselves as well. Likely slaves and master even hunted together in the surrounding areas. Generally, it is said that perhaps the smaller number of slaves on smaller farms led to closer relationships. They shared a great deal including hard times and disease. However, the fact no one can ignore is that the enslaved members of the enterprise were devoid of the ability to command their own destinies beyond decisions of life made under the auspices of slavery. This truth always must have been present in even the closest of relationships:
Barbara wishes to relate her misfortune which is that among her negro children
there is but one girl not yet three years old and she thinks more of her than
all the rest in fact the little one is her constant attendant by day and
would willingly be by night if suffered, — Duncan McKenzie
Other evidence of Barbara’s watching over very young enslaved children occurs in 1847 when one of her grown sons is writing a letter to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. It appears that one of the children has been curious about his writing and approaches him, wrinkling his paper. Perhaps he meant the following comment in jest or mild annoyance at multiple imperfections in his letter: “This ink is pale and a rascally nigger youngun rumpled the paper about the time I was finishing.” It is almost refreshing to imagine an action so childlike and normal and an adult reacting normally with mild irritation.
Evidently, one enslaved woman and possibly Ely (formerly Archibald Lytch) came with the family to Mississippi from North Carolina. The unnamed woman was purchased from a man named John Fairly. Duncan emphasizes what he perceives as her loyalty to Barbara:
you recollect the girl I bot
of John Fairly before we left, She had no child till of late She gave birth
to a likely boy of which Barbara is proud notwithstanding the sex but
had much rather it had been a girl, the mother tho not very brisk has ever
been devoted to her mistress … the family, you know there are some of
the black race whoes dispositions … though it be in a rough way, such is hers that
she never would suffer any other negro to speak ill of her mistress without resenting
it at once with a word and the blow soon followed, her strength is far over that
of any of her sex so far as my observation has extended — Duncan McKenzie
(Here the ellipses indicate damaged paper or illegible words in the original document.)
When Duncan McKenzie died in 1847, his son Kenneth writes that enslaved people on the farm, Ely Lytch and son Jonas, also died leaving the mother Hannah and younger children. They died of what was supposedly an epidemic of typhus pneumonia. According to some researchers, typhus was an uncommon illness in the American South. Illnesses were often labeled typhus that might have been other zoonotic illnesses or even typhoid fever.
When I imagine the problems and conflicts among small farmers and slaveowners multiplied on large plantations, the more difficult it seems to me that the paternalistic argument justifying slavery could find credence even among Southerners. Slavery in the American South grew from the economy of cotton that required great numbers of workers and stability of labor on increasingly larger farms that grew one commercial crop. Evidence on the ground of slaveholders in the McKenzie letters appears to refute the positive good argument, and evidence of race prejudice embedded in paternalism defies the romantic view of a slave population happy in their work and having all of their needs satisfied.
In 1848, a strong congressional voice for emancipation, U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and former President of the U.S. John Quincy Adams, died at work. In 1849 Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a leader of the Underground Railroad.
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Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 2 November 1845. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. January 1846. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 22 February 1846. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
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Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 16 December 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Kenneth McKenzie to his Uncle Duncan McLaurin. 29 April 1847. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
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