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Posted on January 19th, 2007, by

Peter Kolchin, the professor at the University of Delaware, US in his book American Slavery 1619-1877 reviews the antebellum age of slavery in such a detailed account that astonishes the reader. He tries to cast a thorough in-depth glance into what he purposefully calls “peculiar institution”; and in doing so manages to make use of a vast array of ideas, perspectives and positions. No doubt, his smart discussion on organization of slavery and paternalist discourse prevalent in the study of the antebellum South (in chapter 4 of his book) is foregrounding its continuation in the following chapter on slave life and the way African Americans managed to survive, form and direct their lives under slavery. The next issue in a row is, predictably, the way Southern whites came to terms with the whole situation and conceived blackness, and whiteness accordingly.

Chapter 4 starts with a brief glance at the way slavery expanded in the South, from almost 700000 in 1790 to over 1190000 by 1810. Then it enters a discussion on the bases of this expansion (cotton export, slaves as commodity, Westward movement) all through the trauma of being seen as such. The way African Americans (then called rootless darkies), he suggests, was not a clichй with any variation; instead, he elaborately argues that the location, size, and the management of the plantations were drastically differing from one state to the other. Besides, the jobs the slaves occupied, the cultural life they developed, and even the god they prayed to, were differing largely. Either driven by a master, an overseer or a slave driver, slaves underwent hardships and were often debased, separated from their families, and faced corporal punishment, usually with no good excuse.

Kolchin then draws attention to slaves long work hours, and distinguishes between elite and common slaves in terms of the level of autonomy each enjoyed. However, he argues, no slave had the right to own property, inherit wealth or register a marriage bond. Correspondingly, Kolchin enables us to see the other side of the coin; paternalism. Very much endeavoring to make it impartial, Kolchin argues that paternalism was dualistic, although favoring a great deal the masters’ side. Rightly though, he concludes that the general situation of blacks, either free or enslaved, had been much better during the antebellum era than the colonial period.

Making another comparison, he argues that the black-property of the slave-owners was so dear to them that it was treated with much more care than the white in the Southern society. Much to the discomfort of the slaves, their lives were in the hands of the masters and it also reinforced the notion of black childishness and dependency. Another issue he deals with is related to the abuses this property underwent, with apparently no power to petition: sexual harassment of women. Although he gives evidence to the purity of the Southern society in terms of women selling themselves, he also tries to make his claim double-edged by quoting someone saying that the black women were prostitutes. These are different aspects of a benevolent paternalism much in the air in the study of US history.

The laws pertaining to slavery are claimed to be vague and liable to biased interpretation by those in authority; thus making it impossible for the slaves to gain rights or make use of the rights they already have. No guns they could bear, no books they could read, and nowhere could they go unless their owners permitted them to.

Chapter 5, in line with the argument presented in the previous chapter, makes some aspects of slave life clear.

However, in doing so, it sometimes exhibits a distorted picture of the blacks’ lives. Neither imitator of the whites, nor independent African individuals, slaves had their own realm of ideology, culture and tradition. “Objectified slaves” as he calls them, were in reality subjects of long adventurous stories told to the black children; the so-called “backward civilization” of the blacks enjoyed a rich repertoire of habits, beliefs and traits specifically Black. They had their own version of Christianity and they practiced it zealously either in their own community or in the church. Religion served doubly for them: it not only made them more humble in relation to their masters, but also opened their eyes to the reality of existence (and this was dangerous if used to defy masters).

What Kolchin is more interested in is the way African Americans tried to make a common identification; he sees it no utopia however. That is why immediately after this, he counts the ways they resisted: insurrection, escape, job slowdown, poisoning and direct confrontation. They mainly identified themselves in terms of race and blackness, rather than class or culture differences. Altogether, Kolchin makes it clear that they lived and loved in their own ways.

The third chapter under surveillance is on how the white South came to understand slavery, and how they responded to the anti-slavery threat from the North and the white trash. The materialistic South elite tried to save slavery as a way of life. But it should be mentioned that the lucrative trade in slavery by no means meant developed economy (as it was later disclosed in the Civil War) in the South. Urban life was backward, industry was nonexistent, and even education was in elementary form.

Another aspect of the white South was its hostility toward reform and abolition. Insofar as slavery was concerned, its defense was synonymous to defense of the South. This simply sheds light on other hidden aspects of southern life: slave-based economy, slave-run politics, slave-dominated geography and slave-managing ideology. All these were justified economically and even religiously by the white South, but unacceptable to the North (and of course to the slaves themselves).

Altogether what he is after is a double-edged discussion on the way slavery developed, expanded and ended in the Civil War. But it should be taken into consideration that his way to develop his argument is very much conservative and ambiguous. He holds one claim, and in the next sentence gives counter-evidence. Thus, the reader is left unable to figure out on whose side he is. However, in trying to remain impartial, one might argue, he has no other way than presenting different, even opposing views.

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