In response to my last article on the deplorable racism and slavery of the American Revolutionary era, among other things, one reader commented, “you paint the picture a good deal worse than it really was in many cases.” I asked her to be more specific. What exactly did I say that was actually “a good deal worse,” or what exactly are some of these “many cases” that were so much better? What follows is a good case study in how the propaganda of the “Lost Cause” and neoconfederate-style rewrites of history have misinformed and deceived even well-intentioned believers.
My commenter explained her statement:
It’s what you omit or leave out. There is a plantation on the West Bank in New Orleans owned by a white men who bought a huge number of slaves, I believe it was over 2000. He bought mostly young boys, taught them to read and write and they learned a trade. After they had mastered these things and had worked off the price for their purchase, he gave them their freedom and helped them get established. It was a gradual abolition and he was not the only one who was working towards this gradual end to slavery.
Far from a substantial corrective, this ideal is rather a good example of how tidbits of history get rewritten and generalized as broader mythologies about “what really happened” or “how it really was.” This is one big reason I wrote The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: to provide an undeniable background of historical fact to prevent the continued perpetuation of such myths.
The reader is from New Orleans, and her reference here is to the case of John McDonogh, who at one time was one of the richest men in America (not just the South!). McDonogh was a highly prosperous merchant and plantation owner in New Orleans, a rejected suitor and failed Senate candidate, an eccentric and famously miserly strict Scottish Presbyterian. As the commenter relates, he did in fact come up with a plan for his slaves to work for their freedom and he followed through with it.
McDonogh ran a highly organized slave plantation on which the slaves themselves performed all their own overseeing, collected rents from his white tenants, and managed his accounts for him. In 1825, he conceived of what was later referred to as “the plan” by which slaves could work Saturday afternoons for an agreed-upon sum which would be applied to the cost of their freedom. After 15 years in this plan, a slave could have saved up the full price of his freedom (the price of buying a new slave), and could thus be freed.
McDonogh was largely resented by his white peers for this plan, but was also widely envied because of the marked improvement that the profit incentive brought to the work ethic of his slaves. Meager as it may have been, some incentive was at least there, and relative to the vast majority of the slave culture and other planters, it was an improvement.
Does McDonogh’s case, however, exhibit the levels of goodwill and “gradual abolition” that prove my writings render the story “a good deal worse” than the reality? Now that we’ve allegedly got the rest of the story, does that change things?
Well, perhaps you should consider the rest of the rest of the story.
What the southern propagandists left out
Among the few places one can read about McDonogh’s special case is in Carl Degler’s wonderful book, The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century. Degler was a respected academic, more conservative than most, hated by the Marxists, and published by reputable outlets. His book details a plethora of odd cases and lesser-known aspects of southern history. All of them are interesting, yet none of them overturn my case.
While McDonogh may have been a relative improvement over his peers, he was hardly laudable. He was not freeing his slaves so much for their benefit, or out of principle, unless that principle is the same racism that the rest of the South (and indeed much of the country) shared. He stated his true opinion:
[W]ithout separation of the races, extermination of one or the other must inevitably take place. The two races can never inhabit together in a state of equality in the same country. They may for a short time, even in the capacity of master and slave; as equals and brethren, never.
Those partisan southerners who condemn Lincoln for expressing virtually the same views ought therefore to loathe McDonogh as much as they do the Great Emancipator.
Like Lincoln, too, McDonogh was a strong supporter of the ill-fated but powerfully deceptive American Colonization Society (ACS), which raised tons of money to end slavery gradually, but only on the condition that all freed slaves be shipped back to Africa. Since anti-black sentiment was so pervasive and so strong in both North and South, this was widely seen as the most viable alternative for ending the blight of slavery.
But it was also highly expensive and therefore ineffective. Some savvy slaveowners soon saw it as a means to unload their aged and infirm slaves, or more rebellious, troublesome subjects at government/society expense. Thus, it freed such slaveowners of the burden of paying for unproductive or retired slaves, and freed capital for owners to buy younger more productive ones. Thus, the ACS indirectly only subsidized slavery.
McDonogh wanted to send “the whole company” of his slaves back to Africa this way. “My object is your freedom and happiness in Liberia,” he said (emphasis added), “without loss or cost of a cent to myself.”
Those are his words, not the scholar’s. While he claimed to do this for the glory of God, he also did not hesitate to threaten that those who did not live exemplary moral loves while under the plan would be sold to other slaveowners, and thus remain slaves permanently without hope.
McDonogh was also quite conscious of the financial turn-around his system conferred upon him. He told one New Orleans newspaper that his plan “will enable me to go to Virginia or Carolina and purchase a gang of people of nearly double the number of those I have sent away.”
Perhaps he would free these as well under the same system, but he would thus be able to keep buying more slaves, and thus would never live free of the benefits of slave labor until he died. Again, the racism held sway, as he told one of his slaves, “I would never consent to give freedom to a single individual among you, to remain on the same soil as the white man.”
While there could be more said about McDonogh, here is enough to show you that the myths that some have perpetuated about him are hardly an accurate or helpful picture. In the larger view, not much that he did was laudable—certainly not from a biblical standard—even if it was a relative improvement over the vast lot of the system around him, and even if a few of his slaves remembered him affectionately afterwards.
Among the most important lessons is the correction of the commenter’s suggestion that McDonogh is one of “many cases” that dispute my view. Not only do we have to scrape the history books in order just to find one McDonogh, the fact that very few whites even attended this most wealthy and famous of plantation owners’ funeral attests to how popular his example really was. (Hint: it wasn’t.)
If this image alone does not persuade you, be aware that there is scant evidence at all of southern slaveowners who either bought slaves out of altruistic motives or who freed them under such plans. Even the self-interested and compromised form of McDonough is a rare outlier of extraordinary means and execution.1
And when you hold up the tiny handful of McDonoghs in the records against the superabundance of evidence that demonstrates widespread rape, torture, murder, and abuse of slaves which not only occurred but was protected or overtly sanctioned by law, in the thousands of cases, you can see what a pitiful objection it really amounts to.
Far from proving that my omissions portray the case worse than it was, the rarity of a John McDonogh, and the regrettable nature of even his case, rather prove the thesis of my book and my approach to this topic to be all the stronger and more solidly confirmed.
So, you see, it’s not what I “omit or leave out” of the story that makes the difference, but what the propagandists of the Lost Cause purposefully left out, and what those who repeat these whitewashed versions of history themselves leave out, even if unknowingly.
I do not fault my commenter for having such beliefs about her history. She, like many others, has been misinformed by people who were perpetuating lies some influential southerners once told to cover their shame. Some (in fact most) people repeating these lies are not doing so maliciously, for they themselves have been deceived; but ultimately the men (some theologians) who created these lies were conscious liars and we ought not to respect them.
There are many such myths to be debunked, and we ought to give much respect to that activity. You can start with the fuller history in my The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, and the roles that our churches played in the worst of it.
- For these and other notes and quotations of McDonogh, see Carl Degler, The Other South, 41–46.(↩)