Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown: A suspect view of slaves, for sure; a suspect fashion sense as well?
Image Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia
In a civil war between the North and the South, the slaves will stand squarely in support of their masters. Why, they would even die to protect their owners and advance their owner’s interests. Just wait, you’ll see,
That, in a nutshell, is how Georgia governor Joseph Brown saw things as his home state considered leaving the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Men like Brown believed that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a threat to the institution of slavery, and that the reasonable response to his election was to leave the United States by declaring secession.
Advocates of preserving the Union responded rhetorically in various ways. For example, they argued that secession by the southern states would open the door to all kinds of trouble from their slaves, who would take advantage of a north/south conflict to incite for their freedom. Many white southerners were sensitive to that charge.
Not to worry, said Georgia governor Joe Brown. In November 1860, he issued a “Special Message” to the Georgia legislature, in which stated his support for secession and the creation of a new slaveholding nation. In that message, Brown acknowledged that some northerners had warned that slaves would be a problem if war came. But for reasons both structural (such as laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read) and attitudinal (the slaves had an overwhelming love for their masters), the slaves posed no threat to the breakaway southern states. In Browns’ own words (Source: Journal of the Senate of the State of Georgia, Milledgeville, Georgia, page 50):
The sentiment, no doubt, prevails in the Northern States, that the people of the South would be in great danger from their slaves, in case we should attempt to separate from the Northern States, and to form an independent Government. Insurrection and revolt are already attempted to be held in terror over us. I do not pretend to deny that Northern spies among us, might be able occasionally, to incite small numbers of slaves in different localities to revolt, and murder families of innocent women and children; which would oblige us promptly to execute the slaves who should have departed from the path of duty, under the deceptive influence of abolition incendiaries.
These instances would, however, be rare. Our slaves are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities, except such as their owners allow them to have, and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms. A general revolt would therefore be impossible.
But the more important fact, which is well known in Southern society is, that nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood. They feel and recognize their inferiority as a race, and their dependence upon their owners for their protection and support, whose smile of approbation constitutes their highest enjoyment. They have not been accustomed to claim or exercise political rights, and few of them have any ambition beyond their present comfort and enjoyment.
In case of a plot or conspiracy, the secret could be communicated to but few, till some would learn it, who would immediately communicate it to their masters, and put them upon their guard. This would lead to an immediate seizure and execution of a few of their leaders.
We have therefore but little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.
Two things are notable in governor Brown’s remarks. First, he is not relying solely on the goodwill of the slaves, should the North and South go to war. He cites what I call the white South’s “anti-insurrection infrastructure” as his first reason for being unafraid of a slave uprising. This infrastructure was the sum total of the policies, practices, and processes used to prevent any effective large-scale slave rebellion. For example: slaves were not allowed to read or write; this limited or even prevented slaves from communicating plans for insurrection. Slaves were unarmed, and so lacked the weapons needed to mount a successful attack. Slaves lacked access to modes of transportation that would allow for the mobilization and mobility of their forces. In any fight against their masters, the slaves were bound to fail.
Second, Brown sees the slaves as so utterly dependent on their masters that their sense of self preservation would stifle any rebellious sentiment. Slaves, he says, “recognize their inferiority as a race, and their dependence upon their owners.” Slaves have no “ambition beyond their present comfort and enjoyment”… for them, the master’s “smile of approbation constitutes the highest enjoyment.” Slaves could do naught but that which made their masters happy.
It was always possible that some number of insolent slaves might want to take advantage of wartime circumstances. But Brown was confident that, should plans for an uprising be made, they would be found out by someone who would “immediately communicate it to their masters,” leading “to an immediate seizure and execution of a few of their leaders.” In Brown’s mind, slave owners could rely on someone “snitching” on any slave conspiracy. Many believe this is how the Denmark Vesey conspiracy was discovered.
So, how did Brown’s prediction of “truly and devotedly attached” slaves who would shed “the last drop of their blood” in their master’s defense pan out? I’ll look at that in the next blog post.