After 200 years of digesting Enlightenment ideals of natural rights, and reciting a pledge that concludes with “liberty and justice for all,“ it is hard for us to realize there are circumstances when slavery could be considered a “positive good.” John C. Calhoun has lately been excoriated for taking this position. Yet in 1861 an educated Georgia slave named Harrison Berry wrote a book (while he was still a slave), Slavery and Abolitionism: As Viewed by a Georgia Slave, explaining why he and his fellow slaves preferred their enslaved life in the South to the “so-called” freedom offered by the North. It was a scathing critique of the hypocrisy of Northern abolitionism, and explains why the vast majority of slaves remained loyal to their South.
Examining excerpts from this fascinating primary source lends real world meaning to actual circumstances wherein a universal evil such as slavery abstractly considered, could become an actual “positive good.” Here first is presented a paragraph explaining why there was a close bond between master and slave within the “peculiar institution.” Berry lambasts the “fanatical” abolitionists for their attempts to destroy that bond and make things worse for the slave:
“You must recollect, fanatical sirs, that the Slave children and their young masters and mistresses, are all raised up together. They suck together, play together, go a hunting together, go a fishing together, go in washing together, and, in a great many instances, eat together in the cotton-patch, sing, jump, wrestle, box, fight boy fights, and dance together; and every other kind of amusement that is calculated to bolt their hearts together when grown up. You had better mind how you come here and jump aboard of our masters; for I tell you, though we sometimes fight among ourselves, if another man jumps on either, we both pitch into him. You must recollect that we are not oppressed here like your nominally free there. We can go into our masters’ houses and get plenty of good things to eat; and we can shake hands with the big-bugs of the country, and walk side-by-side with Congress members on the side-walks, and stand and converse with gentlemen of the highest rank, for hours at a time. So, in short, we can do anything, with the exceptions of those privileges wrested from us in consequence of your diabolical, infernal, Black Republican, Abolition, fanatical agitation.”
This paragraph alone challenges the modern historian’s fashionable notions of bad race relations in the antebellum South. It also exposes the Hollywood myth about slavery used to moralize a war and thereby spin a fabricated national identity around “freeing abused slaves.” His words are quite shocking to our modern indoctrinated sensibilities!
Next Harrison Berry contrasts a “Southern slave for life” with a Northern “subordinate slave for life” in the segregated North. He explains why Southern slaves prefer the former to the latter:
“Perhaps the reader has not forgotten what I stated in the first of this address. I there stated that Slavery consisted in the absolute power one individual had over another. It matters not from what source this power is derived; it is all the same with the subordinate, with the single exception that the Slave is a Slave for life, with a master that is bound, by the laws, to protect him; and the other, a subordinate for life, with no protection. So you see, the Slave has some one that is pecuniarily interested in his welfare, who, therefore, extends to him every advantage that will preserve and augment longevity; whereas, the other is in a subordinate condition, in a climate that is not congenial to his health, and no one to care for him. He is restricted to this climate, too, without any thing, or any person, or power, to protect him, other than the common law, and that being over-powered by prejudice against him, buries him in infamy never to rise, only at the option of the oppressor. So, viewing these circumstances in their proper light, I would rather have my wife sold ten thousand miles from me, with a master that I knew was bound by the laws, and his interest, to protect her and the children, than to be with her and the children without food, and no way under God’s heaven to make it–sitting in some damp cellar, almost stifled with the stench arising from the putrefaction and filth; there, sitting and shivering, with scarcely clothing sufficient to hide their nakedness, and nothing to eat. This is a nice fix to leave your colored people in, in the North, to come here and make war upon Slave-holders! It is, indeed!”
Mr. Berry pulls no punches when pointing out the hypocrisy of Northern antislavery in light of the Northern slave trade:
“It is estimated, that in the city of New York, alone, about twelve vessels are fitted out every year, for the Slave Trade; and that Boston and Baltimore furnish, each, about the same number, making a fleet of thirty-six vessels. If to these be added the Slavers fitted out in other Eastern ports, besides Boston, we will have a total of about forty, which is rather under than over the actual number. Each Slaver registers, from 150 to 250 tons, and costs, when ready for sea, with provisions, Slave equipments, and everything necessary for a successful voyage, about $8,000. There, to start with, we have a capital of $320,000, the greater part of which is contributed by Northern men.’ A writer on the subject, states the amount of capital vested in the course of a year, and says that the men engaged in it receive a profit beyond belief. And there is no doubt but most of the men engaged in it are those fanatics who make the most fuss about Slavery.”
A main concern motivating Northern antislavery was the concern of how America looked in the eyes of the world – touting “liberty” while practicing slavery. Another antislavery theme was the racist concern that slavery hurt the poor whites in the South. The following quotes are how Harrison Berry combined and addressed these concerns:
“But the Governor (of Ohio), in his Inaugural, says: ‘Slavery is detrimental to the poor whites; for,’ says he, ‘the poor whites having no land, nor Slaves, are reduced to Slavery themselves.’ A contradiction to that statement would be unnecessary, as every body, in this section, knows that the poor whites are ten times better off here than in the non-Slaveholding States; and the every-day occurrence of their emigrating from there here, is a positive proof without any further comment…
Who are you, who hate your brother Southerner, and accuse him of bringing reproach and disgrace upon the Republic? when he is actually doing more for the protection of the country than you are, for, whereas, you employ men to work in your manufactories until you are overwhelmed with wealth, made on the labor of the poor men working for such small wages, barely sufficient to keep them comfortable while in the bloom of youth. What becomes of them when bowed down with old age, without a penny in their pockets? Are they not thrown on the public? Suppose this money, that is taken to support them, were paid into the public treasury, would it not lessen the national debt, which is now, in 1861, some sixty millions of dollars.
Who pays the physician’s bill of a poor man and his family, if taken sick while working for you at a shilling a day? Do you take the money that they have made for you to pay their expenses? or do you drive them out of your house into a hospital, to be taken care of by the State until they sufficiently recover their health, and go to work for you again? Thus you receive all meat and no bones; for you get all the poor man’s labor, without incurring any risk whatever, by throwing the expenses on the State. The country is impoverished at the expense of your aggrandizement; but, on the other hand, the Southerner only gets the labor of his Slave by paying all expenses during his youthful days, and when he is old and unable to work, he is bound, by the laws of his section, to take care of him with the same money he earned when young. Now, after supporting him during his health, if the Slave should happen to become insane, the authorities would grumble like thunder and lightning to have the insane Slave thrown on their hands. They would say, that the owner ought to take care of him. This looks like bringing reproach and disgrace on the Republic, don’t it? If you would pay attention to the domestic affairs in your own States, it would be more beneficial to your section, and less annoyance to the South.”
Here is another theme usually credited as a fabrication of the post war “Lost Cause” school. The accusation is that Lost Causers made excuses for slavery by claiming the slave was better off than a Northern factory worker. Obviously this wasn’t a Lost Cause fabrication because here is a knowledgeable slave, early in the war, asserting the same truth.
Harrison Berry provides penetrating insight regarding the Southern mind. In the following quote he sets an example of how a true intellectual drills down to the fundamental issue. Unlike the superficial analysis of modern historians, Mr. Berry is able to recognize that the Southern concern is not “expanding slavery in the territories.” He sees the issue as being a “sectional President” unwilling to uphold the Constitution in preference to an allegiance to his Party. In the Southern mind the fundamental issue was infidelity to the Constitution in denying Southerners their “equal rights” under the Constitution. Slavery was merely the “occasion” around which Constitutional infidelity was further exposed, and the spirit of Union destroyed. Hear Mr. Berry:
“With these views before you, I cannot see what grounds you can have to meet and nominate a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, when you know that the President takes an oath that compels him to know no North, no South, no East, and no West. How can he take the oath of fidelity to all sections of the Union, when he is nominated and placed on a sectional platform, which says, in its embodiment of principles, that, coupled with the power, it is the duty of Congress to prohibit, by express enactment, the extension of Slavery into any of the Territories belonging to the United States? Let us view this matter a little. Suppose that in a short time after his inaugural, a Territory should offer herself to Congress for admission with a pro-Slavery Constitution, a majority of its citizens wishing it, what could you do with that petition? what can you promise the people you would do with it? If you were to reject it, you would show that you were not carrying out the principles demanded by the Constitution, and if you were to receive it, you would violate the pledge made to your factional party, who say it is the duty of Congress to prohibit the extension of Slavery into the Territories. So what would you do? If I may be permitted to answer, I say that my opinion is, you would reject the offer, with the pro-Slavery Constitution, upon the Higher Law claims. That not being recognized by the conservative members, Congress would be thrown into anarchy, and cry out encroachment! encroachment!! Out of this would be sent up one eternal cry for equal rights! equal rights! On this being denied the conservative members, what else could be expected than the dissolution of the Union, and the government destroyed? The anarchy in Congress would go with the velocity of a planet; and like the vapor rising from malarious districts, would diffuse itself in every hole and corner of the United States, and dampen the prospects of every conservative man. The last ray of light being exhausted from their hopes, they would be left no alternative, but to unsheath the sword against their brothers, for the protection of their rights. The final result of these proceedings it is not with me to say, but look at it, you factionists, and see if you can not prophesy as Ezekiel did of Jerusalem.”
Slavery in the territories was not THE issue, else the South wouldn’t have seceded cutting off any claim it had to the territories. As Mr. Berry so perceptibly identifies, it was “equal rights” in the territories for all States that was THE issue.
Mr. Berry contrasts black subordination in the North to black subordination in the South. You won’t find this information in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Yet CABIN, written by a white woman, who had never witnessed slavery first hand, is preferred in academia to a book written by a black man who was an actual slave. It makes you wonder why the latter is suppressed and the former championed? Is the historical narrative being manipulated? Hear from Harrison as he writes to his fellow slaves about abolitionists:
“But, perhaps, some of you may say, that, in case they should succeed in getting off with you, you would be free. Just let me say to you, that as soon as you were landed on free soil, your pretended friend would have nothing more to do with you. He would tell you to go to work; but after you had tried in vain to get something to do, and failed, you would, perhaps, hunt him up, and tell him that you were without money, and could not get anything to do. He would point out some other place, and send you there; but after you had tried all over that neighborhood, and were told that they did not employ negroes while there was so many white men, with families, needing work; and that you had better go back to the man that brought you there; then you would begin to think that you had better staid where you had some one to give you plenty of work to do, and plenty of victuals to eat. And, more especially, would you feel the truth of what I say, when you went back to the man that had decoyed you off, and he being tired of your troubling him, might bring you a piece of meat and bread to the door, and handing it to you, drive you away from his house. Such treatment might do for those poor colored people there, who never knew any better, but it would not do for a Slave of the South, accustomed to being treated as a human being. So, whenever one talks to you about being free, tell him that you had rather stay where some one is compelled to take care of you, than to go where no one is, and where you are equally as subordinate as you would be where you had some one to protect you. In fact, I hold that the subordination of the poor colored man North, is greater than that of the Slave South.”
In this next quote, we see a slave’s perspective on the “right of secession,” and the real reason the South seceded:
“The President says, that it is safe to assert that no Government ever had a provision in its own organic Constitution for its termination. That is all very true, but if the people of the Government form it for the protection of their property and themselves, and certain clauses in the Constitution of that Government is violated, the people of one section of the Government being the sole sufferers, while the others are dancing over their misfortunes caused by the very men that were rejoicing over it, it does look to me like the time of its termination had come with the suffering section at least.
Well, then if it gives the Supreme Court the right to settle controversies between States, why do we find the President’s party resisting that settlement? It was agreed on all hands to abide by its decision; but when that infernal party saw that the Supreme Court could not consistently decide their way, they flew all to pieces, and said that honorable body was defective. But now, they having the power in their own hands, can it be hoped they will not carry it out according to their own notions and to Mr. Seward’s Higher Law doctrine? I think not, and if the Slaveholding States are not justifiable in withdrawing from a section that had not only declared hostility to their institutions, but had actually commenced it, by bringing an armed force, with all necessary equipments to carry on a servile war, and placed them at one of the armories of, and in the very heart of a Slave-holding State. But yet we are told by the President that the Southern States had no constitutional right to secede. Notwithstanding, his very party sent them here, letters having been found with Capt. Brown from some of the leading men of the President’s party.
A governmental compact is binding as long as the laws are faithfully executed, but no longer.
I, therefore, hold that the seceding States are perfectly justifiable in seceding; and I also hold that if they had not done so, after they had endeavored for a quarter of a century to quell an evil, that they saw was sure to destroy their property, civil privileges, and the religious morals of their children, would have been, I hold, unworthy the name of free men. They, seeing this evil’s infernal effects upon their lives and property, what more could they do for their children, than to separate as far as possible from this evil, which had been a hindrance to their onward progress for a quarter of a century; and, instead of it’s getting better, was actually getting worse, so much so, that it had actually assumed a formidable position? I hold that had the Slave-holding States, under these inauspicious circumstances, remained in the Union, when every attempt to the claim of an equality in the Union had been contemptuously treated, would have subjected themselves, for a verdict to be given by their rising posterity, against the judgment and patriotism of their forefathers.”
Mr. Berry is spot on. The South seceded seeking independence from a section of the Union that had a history of infidelity to and disdain for the Constitution. He is on point when he states, “every attempt to the claim of an equality in the Union had been contemptuously treated.” All the South wanted was equal treatment under the law, and seceded because that was not happening.
I highly encourage you to read this little book written in 1861 by slave Harrison Berry. It provides significant insight into the Southern mind from a slave’s perspective. You find much here that has been falsely labeled the fabrication of a post war “Lost Cause” school of thought. It appears that lost cause myth was actually a “real cause” school of thought, and not a mere post war fabricated justification. As you read ask yourself why we hear so much about a black man named Frederick Douglass, and nothing about a black man named Harrison Berry? The popular fabricated academic narrative can only stand when much in history is suppressed.