Sunday, August 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Lately I have been studying quite a bit about slave insurrections, both those that were only conspiracies and those that were realized. Many of these incidences are very well known such as Nat Turner's actual rebellion, and Gabriel's and Denmark Vesey's planned insurrections. Others have not been as well remembered, such as the 1811 Louisiana incident and the Patrick Doyle led rebellion in Kentucky in 1848. And, while the potential for insurrections never seemed far from the surface, relatively few actually happened from 1619 to 1865. Far more common were everyday means that slaves used to cope with being bound to the institution. Some slaves displayed a level of control over their lives by sabotaging work by feinting sickness, breaking tools, or misusing farm animals. Some slaves were less subtle and gave vent to their frustrations through verbal or physical gestures of insolence.

William E. Wiethoff explores this idea of slave impudence in his book The Insolent Slave. The author sorts the idea of slave insolence into four categories: the legislative perspective, the business perspective, the social perspective, and the moral perspective. In each of these classes Wiethoff provides a case study to provide illustration.

For the legislative perspective, as one might imagine, the author looks at "statutory regulations" against slave insolence. As Wiethoff states "Not only did statutory definitions of who might be punished for insolence vary widely, measures also varied for immunizing whites against civil suits after they had assaulted or killed insolent slaves." As a case study, William Byrd II (1674-1744), who was both large slave owner and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, showed that he believed in an ordered and consistent society and laws were necessary to maintain that ideal. However, Byrd's own indiscretions with his female workers and abuses on slaves for petty infractions made that ideal order difficult to sustain.

The business perspective, too, required vigilance against slave insolence. In order to run a profitable business, especially a plantation or other slave-labor enterprise, order had to be maintained and production focused. But, problems often occurred when drivers and overseers were employed, as slaves' insolence toward these figures were deemed as significant as if directed toward the master, but the slaves did not always see it that way. The case study employed for the business perspective was a look at the string of overseers that handled the plantations of absentee owner and politician James K. Polk.

The social perspective and moral perspective are covered last. Social norms were difficult for slaves to manage. Many simply practiced a silent smiling countenance when in the company of whites and then cursed them when out of ear-shot. The case study Weithoff employs for the social perspective is Fanny Kemble, the famous English actress who married Piece Butler and lived on his Georgia plantation four months. Kemble often empathized with Butler's slaves, hearing their complaints, something most native whites were certainly not used to. The moral perspective was important with slaveholders in that it provided a Biblical justification for keeping slave insolence at a minimum. Judge Henry Lumpkin of Georgia is that perspective's case study. Lumpkin exemplified the patriarch ideal. He believed in a "divinely ordained relationship" between masters and slaves, in which slaves were commanded by providence to obey their earthly masters. He, like many masters, believed that "Slave insolence was a moral problem not because masters should be loved but because they must be revered."

Wiethoff's The Insolent Slave has many positives. The array of primary sources he incorporates for the book is clearly impressive. However, in several places he used Mattie Griffith Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, published in 1857, to provide support. This would be appropriate if Browne had actually been a slave and her book had not been a fictional account. Apparently Wiethoff took Browne's book at face value because, in the index it lists Browne's name and in parentheses is "former slave." Notwithstanding this error, I still enjoyed The Insolent Slave and found it quite informative. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.25. 

No comments:

Post a Comment