American Tragedy

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So Mr. Stampp lays about him. His basic assumption is simply that there are not two kinds of men—that slaves “were merely ordinary human beings” whose skins chanced to be black instead of white. This, he remarks, gives the whole story of slavery a different meaning. It gives to that story “a relevance to men of all races which it never seemed to have before.” To be more explicit, it helps to explain what he considers the pathos in the history of the South; for he says: “This aura of pathos is more than a delusion of historians, more than the vague sensation one gets when looking down an avenue of somber, moss-draped live oaks leading to stately ruins or to nothing at all. For southerners live in the shadow of a real tragedy; they know, better than most other Americans, that little ironies fill the history of mankind and that large disasters from time to time unexpectedly help to shape its course.”

One of these large disasters happened to southern society; a piece of the larger disaster that struck all of America in the 1860’s. Its roots can be traced; “Few slaves ever really adapted successfully to their servitude, and few whites could defend the system without betraying the emotional stresses to which slavery subjected them. Eventually the omnipresent slave became the symbol of the South, and the cornerstone of its culture. When that happened, disaster was close at hand—in fact, that itself was a disaster.”

It was a disaster, as Mr. Stampp goes on to demonstrate, because both whites and blacks became the victims of an institution which could not conceivably survive into the modern world but which would not collapse unless somebody pushed at it. It would not collapse because, with all of its dreadful deficiencies, it paid —that is, it paid the big slaveholders, who were in a position to prevent its collapse. It was economically profitable to those who had put their money in it. Slave labor, says Mr. Stampp, could and did compete with free labor. (He has some surprising and interesting sections on the use of slave labor in factories, on steamboats and in railroads, and in other places far removed from the plantation.) The rich man who invested in slaves, lodged and fed them for life, and cared for the children and the aged, actually put out less money, year by year and over the long pull, than he would have done if he had hired workers in the free market, providing no food and lodging and caring for no children and no aged; this point Mr. Stampp insists upon, and he goes far toward providing the figures to prove it.

Over-all, then, slavery paid: and it was thus, continues Mr. Stampp, not a patriarchal system at all, but simply a system of forced labor. It was kindly and benevolent in spots, and its asperities were often tempered by the fact that the southern gentleman had a conscience and was a man of good will. But it was still a system of forced labor, which compelled a large body of people to work for someone else’s good rather than for their own. The average slave had a pretty bad time of it, did not like it, wanted it to end, and submitted only because he had to. Ultimately, the system was poised between fear and force.

Nor did it (Mr. Stampp insists) fit the colored man for freedom and ultimately for membership in a more civilized society. On the contrary, it helped to unfit him. His native culture (which was by no means contemptible) was eradicated, except for fragments. “So far from the plantation serving as a school to educate a ‘backward’ people,” says Mr. Stampp, “its prime function in this respect was to train each new generation of slaves. In slavery the Negro existed in a kind of cultural void. He lived in a twilight zone between two ways of life and was unable to obtain from either many of the attributes which distinguish man from beast.”

There is a massive impact to this book—made all the more effective by the fact that its author writes with a dispassionate and scholarly objectivity—which helps to make it one of the most valuable and memorable books ever written in this field. Yet if the book is unemotional, it is in the end keyed toward a better emotional understanding—of all of the victims of slavery, the owned and the owners alike, and of the almost unendurably difficult problem which the peculiar institution bequeathed to the present generation.

“One can feel compassion,” he writes, “for the antebellum southern white man; one can understand the moral dilemma in which he was trapped. But one must also remember that the Negro, not the white man, was the slave, and the Negro gained the most from emancipation. When freedom came—even the quasi-freedom of ‘second-class citizenship’—the Negro, in literal truth, lost nothing but his chains.”