Dixie as the Third World

A Journey in the Back Country
by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

If you are anything like me this book will, if not stand on its head, at least knock down your picture of the American South in the years just before the Civil War. Olmsted, the same Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York City’s Central and Prospect parks as well as hundreds of others, decided to take a journey through the Cotton Belt in 1853 and write an account of the economic system there. He did not initially intend to produce an exposé of its slave system about which he had been largely ignorant. What he produced was both. Neither was what he expected to find or, more importantly, what we modern readers have typically been taught, at least not in the course of an ordinary education.

Happily he had the writing talents and humanity to take on such a big order. The work is, as its title suggests, a journal bristling with details, including verbatim reproductions of conversations with scores of innkeepers, tenant farmers, landowners and their agents he met along the way, not to mention the slaves and destitute whites who were the victims, though of course not equally, of the system. This book, in fact, is well worth reading for the sake of the narrative alone. How many professional historians can make that claim, never mind present us with a history they have observed with their own eyes and ears?

What Olmsted found was decidedly not the South of Gone with the Wind. (As a more scholarly corrective to that history, though Olmsted is no slouch when it comes to footnotes, I suggest The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth M. Stampp. I discovered the Journal through the notes in that study. The Peculiar Institution may seem tame enough today, but it was a breakthrough study of the nuts and bolts of American slavery when it appeared in the 1950s.) The Cotton Belt Olmsted traveled through on horseback, accompanied from his starting point in Bayou Sara, Mississippi, only by his dog, has more in common with the exploitative behavior of corporations in Third World nations today than with what we imagine the Old South to have been. Putting aside slavery for the moment, the practices of plantation owners (largely absentee) were the agricultural equivalent of strip mining. At that point, 1853-54, cotton was such a lucrative venture, they planted as much as they could and drove both labor and land to produce as much as possible, regardless of cost to either. The result was a rapid degradation of the soil, which was abandoned after a few years for the sake of richer virgin land to the west. The cost to the human beings involved we are more familiar with.

These “entrepreneurs” were not the genteel characters we have become accustomed to imagining them. They were the equivalent of today’s Wall Street sharks — out for the biggest return, and the devil take the consequences to everyone else. They were rough, ignorant men, exacting when it came to profits, which were the responsibility of the plantation managers or “overseers,” who in turn drove the slaves accordingly for the sake of what today we call “bonuses.” The same overseers frequently aspired to and became plantation owners themselves. The sons of these men could be found littering the bars and other disreputable establishments of the South, running through their inheritance gambling and whoring and often ending up dead in a gunfight. The growing of cotton in the American South was a spectacularly profitable business when practiced on large land holdings, which explains most if not all the resistance met by anyone who wanted to change the one essential factor required for it to thrive: chattel slavery. Slaves were regarded as the machines of production — less docile than machines but more useful than horses and mules.

But only about half of the slaves lived on large land holdings. As is pointed out in The Peculiar Institution and documented in this Journal, most slave owners were small farmers who owned a few slaves, or even just one, and typically worked in the fields alongside them. Inevitably, the relationship of owner to slave was very different among these small landowners than it was on large plantations. On the latter, the owner of several hundred slaves could not even know most of them by sight, and that’s assuming he lived on the land himself rather than entrusting it to an overseer while he and his family summered in Saratoga or took the Grand Tour through Europe.

Olmsted does an excellent job of presenting both the situation on the plantations as well as that of the small landholders. We get a good sense for the economics of both as well as a first-hand account of the lives of the slaves he observed there, including word-for-word conversations he had with those in charge (he was welcomed as a guest, usually a paying guest, by the planters and farmers; it’s worth remembering, he did not start out to write an exposé but an economics of the cotton-growing South). The attitudes of owners to slaves runs the gamut from all-but-egalitarian respect to absolute heartlessness.

If you are like me, it’s the little things, (though perhaps I should put “little” in quotes), that are most memorable and sometimes most shocking, perhaps because if we have not actually witnessed atrocity we can not truly grasp the experience. But we have all seen human beings degraded in some way or another. We have all seen injustice. I assume it’s for that reason that the incident that stands out for me among all the encounters Olmsted has with the institution of slavery has to do with a young woman who has been hiding so as not to go out to work in the fields. The very fact that she is recalcitrant makes her more human to me, and the fact that the incident, while brutal, does not involve the most extreme kind of lethal violence, somehow makes it more pathetic. But for me the telling element in the following account is the attitude of the teenage boy. See if you agree:

I had accidentally encountered him [the overseer], and he was showing me his plantation. And going from one side of it to the other, we had twice crossed a deep gully, at the bottom of which was a thick covert of brushwood. We were crossing it a third time, and had nearly passed through the brush, when the overseers suddenly stopped his horse exclaiming, “What’s that? Hallo! Who are you there?”

It was a girl lying at full length on the ground at the bottom of the gully, evidently intending to hide herself from us in the bushes.

“Who are you there?”

“Sam’s Sall, sir.”

“What are you skulking there for?”

The girl half rose, but gave no answer.

“Have you been here all day?”

“No sir.”

“How did you get here?”

The girl made no reply.

“Where have you been all day?”

The answer was unintelligible.

After some further questioning, she said her father accidentally locked her in, when he went out in the morning.

“How did you manage to get out?”

“Pushed the plank off, sir, and crawled out.”

The overseer was silent for a moment, looking at the girl, and then said, “That won’t do — come out here.” The girl arose at once, and walked towards him; she was about eighteen years of age. A bunch of keys hung at her waist, which the overseer espied, and he said, “Your father locked you in; but you got the keys.” After a little hesitation, the girl replied that these were the keys of some other locks; her father had the door-key.

Whether her story were true or false, could’ve been ascertained in two minutes by riding on to the gang with which her father was at work, but the overseer had made up his mind as to the facts of the case.

“That won’t do,” said he, “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide.” They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulky horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” Or “Ah, sir!” Or “Please, sir,” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes — lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and laid down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the raw-hide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! Oh, please stop, master! Please, sir! Oh, that’s enough, master! Oh, Lord! Oh, master, master! Oh, God, master, do stop! Oh, God, master! Oh, God, master!”

A young gentleman of fifteen was with us; he had ridden in front, and now, turning on his horse looked back with an expression only of impatience at the delay. It was the first time I had ever seen a woman flogged. I had seen a man cudgeled and beaten, in the heat of passion, before, but never flogged with one hundredth part of the severity used in this case. I glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy with my emotion. Only my horse chafed with excitement. I gave him rein and spur and we plunged into the bushes and scrambled fiercely up the steep activity. The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road coming diagonally up the ravine ran out upon the cotton-fields. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said,

“She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work — and she has done it, too.”

“Did you succeed in getting another story from her?”

“No; she stuck to it.”

“Was it not perhaps true?”

“Oh no, sir, she slipped out of the gang when they were going to work and she’s been dodging about all day, going from one place to another as she saw me coming. She saw us crossing there a little while ago, and thought we had gone to the quarters, but we turned back so quick, we came into the gully before she knew it, and she could do nothing but lie down in the bushes.”

“I suppose they often slip off so.”

“No, sir; I never had one do so before — not like this; they often run away to the woods and are gone sometime, but I never had a dodge-off like this before.”

“Was it necessary to punish her so severely?”

“Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would’ve done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would’ve followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”…

When the treatment of a human being, who was not, incidentally, free to leave and find employment elsewhere, has been reduced to this level of casual violence, the very foundation of a basic humanity has been breached. I have had the same reaction to accounts by former soldiers who served as part of an occupying force in a land not their own. The tolerance of indignity or outrage that has become ordinary and daily is more disturbing for some reason than statistics of cold-blooded murder.

The book’s cover boasts the following blurbs:

“An admirable picture of man and slavery in the Southern States.” – Charles Darwin;

“Calm and dispassionate.” – John Stuart Mill;

“The most thorough exposé of the economical [sic] view of the subject which has ever appeared…” – Harriet Beecher Stowe;

“I have learned more about the South from your books than from all others put together.” – James Russell Lowell; and,

“Why not…leave us alone? Why not attend to your own business?” – Savannah Republican.

Not a bad lineup of endorsements. And well-deserved.

Note: This is the edition brought out by Schocken Books Sourcebooks in Negro History (c) 1970.

  1. It is extremely difficult for me to continue reading the quoted account, although I am reminded of what Toni Morrison had said, something to the effect that we needed to remember/ acknowledge the horror, & confront the darkness…that there had to be a collective sharing of the information before we could even begin to heal from that past. Note that there were first person accounts written by the slaves themselves, one was by Harriet Jacobs written under the pseudonym of Linda Brent, called ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” .

  2. I had a response similar to Karen’s — my strong impulse was to run away. But I have an additional problem, and that is one of helplessness. Obviously we cannot change what happened 150 years ago. But my question is how much we can use it to change what is happening now?

    The reports in this morning’s news, for instance, is that the Red Crescent was not permitted to enter Homs in Syria until some of the worse atrocities were cleared away. Apparently a group of men whose day job is to slaughter sheep were sent into Homs alongisde the military who engaged in their own executions. The number of people they butchered with knives is still unknown.

    But can we stop what is happening in Syria? So far attempts at negotiations have failed. But has military intervention made things better in Afghanistan or Iraq? The fear in relation to Syria is that intervention from the outside will extend to slaughter across the region and make it worse, not better.

    Are there limits to the amount of anguish we should let ourselves experience in relation to some injustices? Do we not risk debilitating ourselves with useless hand-wringing? Could I use that energy better in a different way? I know this risks indifference, which then makes me not part of the solution but part of the problem. But I am not responsible for everything that happens in this world, and to respond as if I were is ridiculous and unrealistic hubris.

    And yet, not to care at all seems even worse.

    Do you have any wise thoughts?

    • It was the very mundaneness of that incident that affected me so deeply, Karen. I should, of course, be familiar with those slave narratives, as should any American. My awakening to the full extent, or at least a larger part, of our willful ignorance about our history has been all too recent.

      I think when we do confront this issue we do so ineffectively. We get it pushed into our faces sometimes by angry descendants of those slaves who make no distinction between past and present (which has its own issues, for sure). We don’t confront the issue as Americans but as “whites” or “blacks.” There is no common narrative well-understood by everyone. That’s not by accident, of course. It allows us to remain in ignorance and therefore not responsible even for the truth of our history, never mind the situation as it is now.

  3. Thoughts, maybe. Wise, no, Terry. What I was doing in posting that review was responding to the lack of responsibility we as Americans take for our own atrocities, past and present. We commemorate any genocides but our own. In this sense, we are no better than the Turks who refuse to acknowledge what was done to the Armenians there.

    I understand that in Berlin there are plaques on the sidewalk naming the people at that particular address who were taken away to the concentration camps, and the day and hour that it happened. How many such memorials do we have in this country for own sins? We got a statue to MLK, and I understand they are building a Black history museum. Hardly facing the issue square in the face.

    We are in deep denial about our behavior toward African slaves and their descendants and toward American Indians. By commemorating other peoples’ atrocities and genocides we pretend to have our hearts in the right place, but it’s a sham and, literally, a shame.

  4. More specific to your concern about what to do about Homs, etc., if anything…what responsibility we should feel…:

    Do you remember when Madelene Albright said 500,000 dead Iraqi children were “worth it”? That was at a time when no one was bombing American cities, virtually no American blood was being spilled. If you can reach that level of moral indifference under those circumstances, what must the moral atmosphere have been like in 1943-45? I suspect we consider a particular level of violence permissible (see “Just War”), then as the scale of things escalates (“the other guy started it!”) we up the ante. Eventually you get to the point that you find the obliteration of cities morally defensible. We were talking about destroying entire countries not that long ago. And some people are talking that way right now.

    If it weren’t for the Internet, maybe the immediacy of what was about to happen in Libya and what is happening in Syria would not have gotten home to us. We react to individual instances better than to statistics (the little girl crying “Mutti, Mutti!” as the Allied bomber was about to release its incendiaries; and, conversely, the navigator of a B-17who told my class that he was shaking so badly he couldn’t read his coordinates). We can see the mangled body of the child killed by a tank shell in Syria. If we could have seen some of those 500,000 kids Clinton killed in Iraq, would we have ignored them as we did?

    Maybe we’re in new territory, Terry. Maybe we have to make the kind of decisions you are agonizing over now because we have to look at those individual victims. I suppose that’s a good thing, though I’m not sure we know how to behave as a result…”we” as nations as well as individuals. I sure as hell don’t.

  5. It has just occurred to me that my hand-wringing – or what you so graciously call “agonizing” – might give me some comfort in that I feel ever so slightly morally superior to those who would engage in such blatant violence. But as Gandhi or MLK would no doubt point out, I – we – need to learn how to actively oppose violence without using violence ourselves. I’m pretty good a looking at violent interventions – including those of the U.S. – and recognizing that it so often exacerbates the problem rather than solving it. But I don’t know if we will learn in time how to actively intervene to stop violence without doing violence ourselves. I don’t know how to do it. Would it have been possible to stop Hitler without violence? Perhaps not. But perhaps when violence does seem like the only resort under circumstances like this, what we must learn to do is to not to give unfettered expression to what we assure ourselves is our own justified violence. Especially when we have nuclear bombs at our disposal.

    I wonder sometimes if it is part of our genetic survival mechanisms gone mad. Almost all life consumes other life in order to thrive and survive. Do living things kill, driven by our instinct for survival? and power? to be top dog?

    Thank you for listening, Tom. As you can see, I’m thinking out loud.

  1. Pingback: Dixie as the Third World « The Writer's Treehut

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