Friday, September 20, 2013

"Our Peculiar Domestic Institutions"

Recently I shared my thoughts on Joshua Rothman's book Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. The above image appears on the book's dust jacket. It is a picture that I had seen before, but never quite connected to its time and place.

The picture is a woodcut engraving and was printed in 1840 in the American Anti-Slavery Almanac. Knowing its source helps explain its perspective. However, it is quite obvious from its depiction the intended message it presents. Abolitionists made political capital with the 1835 Mississippi happenings described in Rothman's book by showing the evil influences that slavery produced in southern society.

In the left foreground are two cocks trained to fight. Behind is a master torturing a slave by raking his naked back with a cat while two shirtless men engage in a knife fight. Directly behind the brawlers a horse race is shown.  Horse racing was a popular source of southern entertainment that often left its betting patrons poverty stricken.

In the front center of the image a group of men sit at a table playing cards wagering their earnings on chance. The man on the right side of the table has fatally shoot the man across the from him in the head, while the man with his back to the image pats a slave child on the head implying that he is using the youngster for betting stakes. Behind the poker players is a tree filled with victims of a local lynch mob. Through images like this Abolitionists tried to show that slavery produced a paranoia within its practitioner's ranks.

The right side of the picture shows two men brawling on the ground, likely caused by the effects of alcohol. To their right a man viciously whips a slave child. Abolitionists wanted to vividly demonstrate that the institution caused a callousness that did not spare even its most innocent victims. Behind the whipping scene two men engage in a duel in effort to preserve their high-minded idea of southern honor. In the upper right hand corner a group of men gather to observe and probably wager on a cockfight.

Rothman sums up the image, "All told, the collage of images delivered a powerful message. Debased by greed and accustomed to the violence on which slavery rested, white southern men had become little better than animals, as indifferent to suffering and conditioned to mutilate and murder one another as the fighting cocks they cheered." Propagandist images like this one brought new converts into the ranks of the abolitionists, and on the opposite side, made southerners feel they were being unfairly depicted and judged.  
Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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