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Some Thoughts About Our Ancestors
The Slave Owner Mentality
UPDATED DEC. 21, 2005

           Genealogy research is an endeavor that holds the promise of revealing who we are today by learning something about our heritage.  I believe our general outlook on life is one of many characteristics influenced by the past, and by better understanding from whence we came, we can better understand why we hold certain attitudes today.  

            I have often observed our society and noticed striking differences in people.  Some people live their lives based on a desire to be helpful and make valuable contributions to the common good.  Others are obsessed with obtaining power and wealth.   Although America was founded on the principal that "all men are created equal", it is apparent that after nearly 230 years, we are still striving to instill that ideal in the hearts and minds of much of the population.

            While performing genealogy research on early American ancestors, it is difficult not to notice how many of them owned slaves.  Many of my ancestors were slave owners in early Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri.   As I thought about this, I became perplexed because I could not conceive of the idea that those who built this wonderful country held the opinion that they were so superior to another race that they felt it was okay to treat them in such a harmful and degrading manner.  This motivated me to think more about the "slave owner mentality" and to learn more about it.

              I realize that when a person is born into a culture that holds certain attitudes, these attitudes are almost automatically instilled within them as being normal and good.  There are exceptions, of course, but in general, this is true.   Slavery is a huge part of the human story and to overcome the "slave owner mentality" is a monumental and painstaking endeavor.  After thousands of years of humanity we have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.

              It would probably be helpful at this point to define what I mean by "slave owner mentality".  Here are a few characteristics that I believe fall into this category:

  1. The inherent belief that the white race was more intelligent than other races.

  2. The belief that the white race's way of life was more civilized than that of other races.

  3. The belief that only white people were made in God's image.

  4. The belief that blacks were not human and they were here to serve the white race.

  5. In some cases, the belief that it was okay for white men to use black females as sexual slaves.  This was also a way of "breeding" in order to produce more slaves.

  6. Slaves were considered to be nothing more than property and this is proven by the fact that  taxes were levied based on the number of slaves owned.

  7. In many cases, the slave owners believed they were "taking care" of their slaves by the act of enslaving them.  They considered it a benevolent act of kindness to give the slaves shelter, thinking they could not survive on their own.

                 As slave ownership in the new world continued, many people began to notice that each new generation of slaves "seemed" more intelligent than the previous generation.  As white men bred with black females, the multi-racial babies were believed to be receiving some of the superior characteristics that they believed came from the white race.  In some cases, this eventually led slave owners to reach the conclusion that their slaves were more equal to them than in the past.    I believe the northern states, in general, held this belief before the southern states because the northern states had utilized slavery for a longer period of time.  Their slaves were more multi-racial and had been in America longer than slaves who were in the south.

                In other cases, people believed the slaves were more pliant because after several generations of living as slaves their generational memory of freedom had been erased.  In other words, they believed the slaves had accepted the belief that they were inferior and would remain loyal to them no matter what happened.   This attitude was more prevalent in the south and they eventually learned that the generational memory of freedom had not been erased.

                Because slaves were used as laborers in the fields and homes of the slaves owners, it was a huge advantage to the financial well-being of the slave owners.   In general, the northern states formed a less restrictive attitude toward the black race long before the south, and began to realize that slavery was wrong.  Many of the northern slave owners gave their slaves freedom upon their deaths, and as black people became productive free citizens, this led to a more open-minded attitude among northern people in general.

                The south, being less open-minded, began to have a huge financial advantage over the north.  Eventually, this led to the Civil War and abolition of slavery.  Although it was touted as being the "right thing to do", much of it was based on economics.

                 In writing this commentary, I am wary of coming across as having a negative viewpoint of the white race.  I am a white person and I'm perfectly content with that, however, I can see some qualities of my race that I don't like.  If we look back on human history, the white race in general has ruled everything.  It was white men who were bent on conquering their neighbors.  Rarely was the black race involved in such endeavors.  It was the white race who came to America and decided to take over the land that once belonged to the native American Indians.  It was a member of the white race who decided his race had the authority to wipe out 6 million Jews.  But - it was also the white race who stopped him.  In short, the white race is a mixture of the worst and best of humanity.

                 Tonight I listened to a PBS program about William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame.  Through his writings we gain a sense of who William Clark was as a human being.  He was apparently a very well-liked and compassionate man who loved his family more than all else.  His character was embedded with a deep sense of responsibility and honor, and he grew to have great affection for his Indian translators.  Clark was revered by Americans for his great sacrifices and his attention to duty.  When he died in 1838, over one thousand people turned out for the funeral.  He was an American hero and icon.  And yet, he was a contradiction in many ways....

                 William Clark had a slave named York whom he had known from childhood.  He took him along on the expedition and York played a vital role in the 28-month trek from St. Charles, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean.  He helped in countless ways - hunting, cooking, setting up camp, rowing, organizing and he obeyed the orders of his master.  York followed Clark around like a shadow, knowing his master's every need and desire, and making sure his needs were met. When the expedition ended and they returned home, York asked Clark for his freedom as repayment for his efforts.  Apparently, Clark was furious and denied York's request, even though he had given freedom to another slave prior to that.  Later, the country honored the members of the expedition by granting them land as repayment for their endeavors - every member of the expedition received a land grant except York.  Even the Indian translators received grants. 

                  Throughout Clark's ownership of York, he was a strict master, punishing York when he felt it was needed by ordering 50 lashes to make him tow the line.  This apparent contradiction in Clark's character is perplexing, but if we were able to place ourselves in the year 1807 we would have a close-up view of a culture that we could not imagine.  Slaves were not considered to be human.  They were looked upon as animals or ignorant sub-humans who were incapable of civility. 

                   During Clark's career he played a vital role in obtaining millions of acres of land from the Indians.  He tried to see to it that they were treated fairly, but whenever he had to choose between the welfare of the Indians or the welfare of white people, he sided with the white people and the government.  Several years after his death, Pres. Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act and the military began moving thousands of Indians off the lands where they had lived for centuries because gold was found there.  Men, women and children were made to walk hundreds of miles through difficult terrain and foul weather.  Many died of hunger and disease.  It was a devastatingly cruel thing to do, but the white man's attitude of superiority and their desire for riches took precedence. 

                    America was founded on the premise that all men are created equal.  There was no mention of women in the official documents.  That's because women were placed in a category not too far above slaves.  Women were considered chattel of their husbands.  It was difficult for women to own land, unless they inherited it.  It was difficult for women to get a good education.  It was difficult for women to gain wealth because they couldn't own businesses that could grow and hire people.  Women had no say in the way they were governed because they couldn't vote.  Men looked at women as mere children who needed to be taken care of.  A lot has changed since America was founded, but as a women I can attest to the fact that attitudes toward women are still not based on equality. 

                   Does the past shame me?  Yes, in many ways it does, but I try to see how far we've come in a relatively short time.  There is so much more to do.  Similar attitudes - or attitudes based on the same mentality - still exist in today's culture.  American political and economic history (and contemporary times) is full of attitudes of avarice, power-grabbing and authoritativeness that harms others and harms the earth.  Our society still consists of three basic classes of people.  There are those at the bottom who live in poverty.  There are those in the middle class to are doing pretty well.  And there are those at the top who have most of the money and power.   Is this just part of humanity?  Is this something that we must live with forever?  Or is it something that will eventually equal out? 

                   Unfortunately, it is often those with the most power and money who have the most influence in national policies.  Why do I say this is unfortunate?  Because many of those people are endowed with characteristics that flow from the slave owner mentality.  There is often (not always) an attitude of feeling more worthy than others and an arrogance and self righteousness that tends to corrupt the values upon which our country was formed.  As America grows older, I'm concerned that we will see more and more influence from the super wealthy, "privileged" class and less influence from the working class.   It was the working class who built this county with their bare hands, sweat and tears, and I include slaves in that class. 

                   This great experiment we call America is an ongoing project.  It involves a delicate act of balancing the rights of people, the rights of corporations, the environment, moral considerations and so much more.  Our civil rights must not be taken for granted, for the day we do that, that's the day they will surely disappear.  We must keep fighting the good fight - to bring freedom and equality to all of our citizens.  We've come a long way but we are still in Kindergarten.  America tends to think of itself as the great moral beacon of the world, and yet we have exploited other races and recently invaded another country on a pre-emptive basis.  This is dangerous territory we are entering.  It is reminiscent of the imperialism of earlier ages that caused the suffering of many innocent people.

                   Considering the history of humanity, I'm very happy to be a part of this great experiment.  I have faith that our heritage has instilled within us the qualities needed to see to it that results of this experiment are unique in the history of mankind and not a repeat of past horrors.

"There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the
government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves.
They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power,
and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone
are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government."
-- Thomas Jefferson

THE HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA

Below are some excerpts from research by others about the history of slavery in America.  Reading these commentaries is painful and yet, I believe we must remain aware of the past so we may never repeat the mistakes that were made.  We can see from the chronology of events that attitudes toward slavery were a source of continual conflict as the new country tried to solidify it's political organizations by including all the states, even those states that believed in slavery.  Economics was the main reason slavery remained legal for so long.

http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html

YEARS 1619 TO 1789

Citing 1662 Virginia statute providing that "[c]hildren got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother". Throughout the late 17th and early 18th century, several colonial legislatures adopted similar rules which reversed the usual common law presumptions that the status of the child was determined by the father. (See id. at 128 (citing 1706 New York statute); id. at 252 (citing a 1755 Georgia Law)). These laws facilitated the breeding of slaves through Black women's bodies and allowed for slaveholders to reproduce their own labor force. (See PAULA GIDDINGS, WHEN AND WHERE I ENTER: THE IMPACT OF BLACK WOMEN ON RACE AND SEX IN AMERICA 37 (1984) (noting that "a master could save the cost of buying new slaves by impregnating his own slave, or for that matter, having anyone impregnate her"). For a discussion of Race and Gender see Cheryl I. Harris, Myths of Race and Gender in the Trials of O.J. Simpson and Susan Smith -- Spectacles of Our Times)

Slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of law developed from the 1660s to the 1860s. Every slave state had its own slave code and body of court decisions. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in the same terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a contract, no slave marriage had any legal standing. All codes also had sections regulating free blacks, who were still subject to controls on their movements and employment and were often required to leave the state after emancipation. (American Treasures of the Library of Congress: MEMORY, Slavery in the Capitol, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm009.html)

1663
Maryland Settlers pass law stipulating that all imported blacks are to be given the status of slaves. Free white women who marry black slaves are to be slaves during the lives of their spouses, Ironically, children born of white servant women and blacks are regarded as free by a 1681 law.
(The Negro Almanac a reference work on the Afro American, compiled and edited by harry A Ploski, and Warren Marr, II. Third Edition 1978 Bellwether Publishing)

1664
Maryland passes a law making lifelong servitude for black slaves mandatory to prevent them from taking advantage of legal precedents established in England which grant freedom under certain conditions, such as conversion to Christianity. Similar laws are later passed in New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas and Virginia.
(The History Place, Early Colonial Era Beginnings to 1700 Chronology)

1664
Slavery introduced into law in Maryland, the law also prohibited marriage between white women and black men. This particular act remained in effect for over 300 years, and between 1935 and 1967 the law was extended to forbid the marriage of Malaysians with blacks or whites. The law was finally repealed in 1967.
(Maryland State Archive, THE ARCHIVISTS' Record Series of the Week, Phebe Jacobsen "Colonial Marriage Records" Bulldog Vol. 2, No. 26 18 July 1988)

There had been a number of marriages between white women and slaves by 1664 when Maryland passed a law which made them and their mixed-race children slaves for life, noting that "divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaves" [Archives of Maryland, 1:533-34]. (FREE AFRICAN AMERICANS OF MARYLAND AND DELAWAREINTRODUCTION By Paul Heinegg, p.heinegg@worldnet.att.net This is the history of the free African American communities of Maryland and Delaware during the colonial period as told through their family histories. http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Intro_md.htm) Also see 1681.

Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the 17th and early 18th centuries came from sharply stratified societies in which the wealthy savagely exploited members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation's belief in natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans. As they sought to mold a docile labor force, planters resorted to harsh, repressive measures that included liberal use of whipping and branding. ("Slavery in the United States," Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation.)

One characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. In other societies, it had been possible for a slave who obtained his freedom to take his place in his society with relative ease. In America, however, when a slave became free, he was still obviously an African. The taint of inferiority clung to him. Not only did white America become convinced of white superiority and black inferiority, but it strove to impose these racial beliefs on the Africans themselves. Slave masters gave a great deal of attention to the education and training of the ideal slave, In general, there were five steps in molding the character of such a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master's superior power, acceptance of the master's standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority. Besides teaching the slave to despise his own history and culture, the master strove to inculcate his own value system into the African's outlook. The white man's belief in the African's inferiority paralleled African self hate. (Norman Coombs, The Immigrant Heritage of America, Twayne Press, 1972. CHAPTER 3, CHAPTER 3, The Shape of American Slavery).

When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together, and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters, bedewing their naked breasts with tears, and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations forever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden. In general, a few roots, not of the nicest kind, usually yams or potatoes, are their food; and two rags, that neither screen them from the heat of the day, nor the cold of the night, their covering. Their sleep is very short, their labour continual, and frequently above their strength; so that death sets many of them at liberty before they have lived out half their days.

YEARS 1790 TO EMANCIPATION

 

           
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