Goose Commerce


Boisterous Despotism by goosecommerce

Or, which organ do you thump and twang on?

Passion flower

Since Thomas Jefferson has recently graced the august web pages of the New York Times I thought it might be of interest to share some thinking I’ve been doing on of his more famous predictions.

In The Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson at one point ponders what the American system of slavery means for the ideals of the Revolution, and the formation of individuals reared as masters. Though he ends on a hopeful note, the passage is not a cheerful one:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. … The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.
….
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? … Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust…the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

~Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII: Manners,” in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Jefferson wrote that in 1781, towards the end of the critical days of the Revolution; it was first published in English in 1787. The key point, I think, is that he highlights the dangers to political liberty that flow from American slavery. Those raised to be masters become passionate, wrathful despots; and despots can’t long maintain republican liberty.

This ambivalence on the fate of liberty in a nation supported by slavery came to mind, in a more personal dimension, as I was paging through two diaries the other day, one by a northerner, George Templeton Strong, and one by a southerner, James Henry Hammond. (1)

In many ways these men, though contemporaries and elites, could not be more different. What really struck me, though, in paging through each of these diaries, was how much happier Strong seemed to be, at least compared to Hammond.

You can see the difference even in the way they each begin their diaries. Strong hit the ground running, with a minimal amount of introspection, detailing how he registered for his sophomore year at Columbia. Hammond, on the other hand, left us a pathetic confession:

Columbia, S.C. 6 Feb. 1841
I begin this diary from almost purely selfish motives – Alas how few things do any of us do from better ones. “I want a friend.” Circumstances…have combined to prevent me from having a friend to whose sympathetic bosom I could confide anything. …

Strong populates his pages with notes about his day’s work, his observations of his friends and family, and lots of humor:

February 29, [1836] MONDAY. I have taken up my pen again after an interval of two months, caused partly by my ardor for laziness and partly by my ardor for science, exemplified in blowing up my hand. Memorandum. Never to pound chlorate of potassium and sulphur together again without thick gloves and never to pound them at all when I can help it. …

He took special delight in nerding out on, and playing, the new pipe organ he had commissioned, which, because it took up his entire parlor, he nicknamed “Goliath”:

December 16 [1840] … Post and I thumped and twanged on Goliath to our hearts’ content. I’m pleased with it on the whole. The dulcinia and hautboy are unsurpassable, and the diapasons and flute are very good, quite good enough for me…

Hammond, on the other hand, manages to record even public celebrations with a mixture of hypochondria and condescension:

[Columbia] 28 June [1842]
This is the day of the celebration of the opening of the R[ail] Road. It is to be a much larger affair than I expected. … I am very sick of it and wish I was at Silver Bluff [his plantation]. I have a dull pain in my right side. It is my liver thumping my ribs. … I expect to take no part but must be there. I hate a crowd. …

Partly, this difference in tone – continued, I might add, throughout the entirety of each of their diaries – might be attributed to Strong’s youth; in the 1840s, Strong was in his 20s, still a young man on the make; Hammond, on the other hand, was in his 30s and 40s, and with personal and public responsibilities – and ambitions – that weighed heavily upon him.

But I think the difference runs deeper, and actually has to do with the social and political environment in which each lived. Strong was a young Whig lawyer living in the bustling (and highly flammable, in his account) metropolis of New York. Hammond was one of the richest men in South Carolina, a plantation owner and major politician. Strong defined himself by his refined taste, his wit, and his work ethic. Hammond defined himself by his mastery and power.

That Hammond’s role as master defined him is clear from his diary, and clear to his biographers.(2) By all accounts – including his own – he was the narcissistic, passionately wrathful despot that Jefferson feared slavery would create. One of his biographers calls him, with justice, “a tough-minded son of a bitch,” elaborating further that:

By his own testimony we can judge him flawed. He owned hundreds of slaves, who died off at a great rate. Almost alone among the planter aristocracy, he clearly documents his proclivity for sexually exploiting his female slaves. In addition he debauched the young, the very young daughters of a fellow planter, his brother-in-law, a despicable practice then as now and certainly very dangerous then, when the code duello was still in fashion.
~The Secret and Sacred, viii, xvi

Aside from all the damage that Hammond inflicted on others – not a short list – slavery rotted him from the inside, even as he regarded slavery (and famously so) as a natural and organic part of a just society. He could never be carefree and happy like Strong; his power would not allow it.

This is not a perfect illustration, of course. These are but two individuals, and rare ones at that, for their intensive detailing of their daily lives. But from all my other reading in the archives of urban Northern capitalists and Southern planters, I think it is a pattern that repeats widely in this era.

I think it gets at a larger truth, the truth Jefferson knew, but never could bring himself to act on: liberty and slavery cannot coexist without consequences, even for those that benefit most from the coerced labor of others.


Image Cite: Nganguyen, “Passion fruit flower,” Flickr, CC License

(1) Allan Nevins and Milton H. Thomas, ed. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Vol. 1: Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (New York: Macmillan, 1952)

Carol Bleser, ed. Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)

(2) One of the best works on Hammond is the work of Harvard’s current current president: Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1982)

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