Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction

McPherson, James

Knopf, 1982

p. 33

“Not all Southern whites owned slaves, but they all owned white skins.” Southerners sometimes believed slavery wrong while denying that emancipation would be right. For then blacks would think they were “as good as we are.” Frederick Law Olmstead concluded that “from childhood, the one thing in their condition that has made life valuable to the mass of whites has been that the niggers are yet their inferiors.” John C. Calhoun: “the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class and are respected and treated as equals.” The slaveholding Andrew Jackson interpreted the Declaration of Independence to say that all white men are created equal. Jacksonian democrats and southern non-slaveholders feared emancipation “because it would render their whiteness meaningless . . . Here was the central paradox of American history: slavery became for many Americans the foundation of liberty and equality.”

pp. 36-7

Slavery “undermined the work ethic of southern whites.” If hard labor was “what slaves did,” whites wanted no part of it. “Niggerwork” they called it. Moreover, slavery was terribly inefficient.: “forced labor was reluctant labor.” It screwed up the whole economy. Whites wouldn’t do what blacks did. And slaves sabotaged their own work, partly because they hated being slaves, partly because “their time wasn’t of any value to themselves.” So they’d go through the motions, “feigned illness, ceased to work when the overseer looked the other way, pretended to misunderstand orders, broke tools, abused work animals, ran away to the woods or swamps. Slavery helped cause the technological lag in southern agriculture. Southern hoes were heavy and clumsy because slaves were said to break the lighter ones customarily used on Northern farms.” Moreover, the South used mules, not horses, because they “could better withstand the repeated carelessness and abuse of slaves.”