Our own heritage of terrorism

Chattel slavery is a system of bondage wherein human beings are the property of their owners. Slaves can be legally sold, beaten, tortured, raped, worked to death or killed as their owners see fit. While terrorism is the use of intentional violence and fear to achieve political or ideological goals, I would argue that chattel slavery — the state-sanctioned threat or implementation of violence to enhance an economic goal, the wealth of slave owners — is no less a form of terrorism.

From the moment Africans were loaded onto slave ships until their death in the Americas, they (and their descendants) lived in fear of what could happen to them. No doubt their dread increased at slave auctions, wondering if they would forever be separated from family and friends.

Slave auctions were routinely publicized in newspapers. Historian Henry Wiencek lists a number of such advertisements from the Virginia Gazette in the 1760s, including the following: “THIRTY choice VIRGINIA born SLAVES consisting chiefly of boys and girls, from 14 or 15 down to the ages of two or three years. Credit will be given …” These advertisements typically noted if a woman to be sold was pregnant. One ad stated that 18-year-old “Charlotte” was “big with her second child,” a two-for-one purchase.

Once on the plantation or location of bondage, the goal of slave owners was to keep their human property productive and docile. Both conditions (especially the latter) were enhanced by the threat of or implementation of violence. For example:

– By 1705 in Virginia cutting off the toes of slaves was a common practice with the amputations often performed by physicians. A slave without toes could walk and work, but could not run fast enough to make a successful escape.

– One slave owner wrote that a captured runaway “must be tyed up Slasht Severly and pickled,” meaning that salty pickle brine was poured into bleeding wounds.

– In 1765 a Virginia slave convicted of stealing was placed in a pillory with his ears nailed to it. Upon completing the mandated pillory time his ears were cut off thereby releasing him.

– The threat of being “sold south” hung over the heads of border state slaves with some forever separated from their families as they toiled on cotton and rice plantations for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the ultimate punishment was being sold to a West Indies sugar plantation owner. Wiencek reports these Caribbean locales “were disease-ridden pest holes” where slaves were routinely worked to death.

Historian Edmund Morgan argues slave generated Virginia tobacco profits helped pay for American independence during the Revolutionary War. Seventeen of the 45 delegates to the Constitutional Convention owned slaves. The owner of Charlotte noted above, was Patrick Henry who exhorted: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

This hypocrisy did not go unnoticed in England. In 1775 — the year the Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought — writer and moralist Samuel Johnson asked: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of N***oes?”

The notion that slavery was acceptable (and, therefore, excusable) because slavers owners were merely acting in accord with the prevailing morals and values of the day is nonsense. German Quakers in Pennsylvania issued a petition against slavery in 1688 and the Quaker Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage was founded in 1775. Historian Ron Chernow notes that Alexander Hamilton was an “unwavering abolitionist who saw emancipation of the slaves as an inseparable part of the struggle for freedom.” While Benjamin Franklin participated in the slave trade as a young man, by the 1780s he was an outspoken abolitionist.

Thomas Paine, who advocated for independence in his widely read Common Sense pamphlet, was an ardent abolitionist. In a 1775 Philadelphia Journal article — “African Slavery in America” — Paine wrote that it was surprising so many “Christianized people should approve of slavery … though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity … Most shocking of all is alleging that sacred scriptures favour this wicked practice.”

Historian William Cohen reports that Thomas Jefferson believed slavery was “morally and politically wrong.” However, Jefferson the businessman — he owned approximately 200 Africans — looked at chattel slavery from a calculated, economic perspective noting that “a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man of the farm.” Cohen argues that Jefferson’s wealth as well as his social and political status “were tied to the system of slavery” — a system he never challenged.

Although George Washington never publicly spoke out against slavery, he once described human bondage as his life’s “only unavoidable subject of regret.” In a 1786 letter Washington wrote that “I never mean … to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this Country is abolished.” In his will of July 1799 — written five months before he died — Washington decreed the 123 slaves he owned would be freed upon his wife’s death. He noted the remaining 153 slaves were not “in my power” to free as they were owned by the Custis estate via Martha’s first marriage.

Washington freeing his slaves was remarkable for two other reasons: First, he stipulated that all emancipated people under 25 years of age must be “taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation.” Second, while virtually all abolitionists of that era proposed that freed slaves be sent to Africa or the West Indies, Washington insisted that Black people had a right to live in the United States.

Both Washington and Jefferson knew that democracy and slavery were incompatible. Washington wrote: “I can foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union …” In a 1786 letter Jefferson stated: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism.”

Neither man would have been surprised to learn the American Civil War almost destroyed the republic and that virulent racism would long endure.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. A list of sources accompanies this guest commentary online.


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