December 30, 2013

All the Presidents' Slaves.

And what they had to say about them. Here are 5 quotes. Before checking the link, try to guess the President.

1. "A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual.  2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned.  3. consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation...  To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White population."

2.  "As far as lenity can be extended to these unfortunate creatures I wish you to do so; subordination must be obtained first, and then good  treatment."

3. "I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery)…  But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them… it introduces more evils than it can cure."

4. "(God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; - the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian."

5. "You tell me, friends, of the liberation of the colored people of the South.  But have you thought of the millions of Southern white  people who have been liberated by the war?"

The link comes via Metafilter, and I can't vouch for the accuracy of all of the quotes, especially ##4 and 5. Apocryphal?


Anonymous said...


Woodrow Wilson.

I Didn't Even Have to Look.

Hagar said...

I misread that and thought it was all from one president, which confused me since I recognized - sort of - the Madison quote and could not reconcile it with the post bellum quote.

As for Ona Judge and the Washingtons, according to Ron Chernow, the Washingtons negotiated at length with Ona in letters about conditions for her voluntary return to Mt. Vernon, but she eventually regretfully to stay free in Boston, though she missed Mt. Vernon very much and had a decidedly low opinion of Boston's climate, not to mention a diet of cod and potatoes.

Hagar said...

... chose ...

Anonymous said...

When I read, "And what they had to say about them," I initially thought that meant we had quotes from the slaves giving their opinions or recollections of the presidents. Now those could be interesting to read...

Freeman Hunt said...

Fascinating website.

Revenant said...


Lyssa said...

pubeditor said: initially thought that meant we had quotes from the slaves giving their opinions or recollections of the presidents.

That was my initial read as well - I wonder if such records exist. Seems like, even though the person was a slave, he would still be considered to have led an extremely interesting life.

Question: Would it be better to be a slave to a very rich and powerful person like a president, or to be a poor wage slave with little prospect (the historical equivalent of today's uneducated minimum wage worker). I can see arguments either way.

Hagar said...

According to Chernow, George Washington also had a dispute with another slave he had bought from another plantation owner to assist with Washington's expansion and remodeling of his Mt. Vernon residence. The slave ran away and went back to his family at his old home and Washington wanted him back, since he was an expert craftsman. So this went into another negotiation by correspondence, which ended by Washington selling the slave back to his previous owner and then leasing him to work at Mt. Vernon at a monthly rate, but only for so many months out of the year and with breaks for family visits. The impression left from Chernow's account is that the slave was very much in charge of setting the conditions on his end.

Edgehopper said...

Of course it's never taught, but it is noteworthy that the only two presidents before Lincoln completely opposed to slavery did so through their deep Christian beliefs--the two Adamses. The education establishment's concealment of the religious nature of the strongest abolitionists is damning.

Peter said...

Surely any moral accounting of slave-owning presidents should note whether they granted manumission to any or all of them, either during their lives or upon their deaths?

David said...

"Yes!—it cannot be denied—the slaveholding lords of the South prescribed, as a condition of their assent to the Constitution, three special provisions to secure the perpetuity of their dominion over their slaves."—John Quincy Adams.

Adams was recognizing that the Constitution was a political compromise on the subject of slavery. The price for having a United States of America was constitutional approval of slavery, in perpetuity or until amendment of the Constitution. It took a costly war to being that amendment.

Paul said...

Keep in mind folks, at the time these presidents were president slavery was accepted (just as it was accepted in England for centuries) and slavery is still accepted in Muslim countries.

David said...

"Peter said...
Surely any moral accounting of slave-owning presidents should note whether they granted manumission to any or all of them, either during their lives or upon their deaths?"

Are you implying that eventual manumission made their slaveholding less susceptible to censure and criticism? The slave was no less a slave during the time of servitude. And manumission usually meant that the slave had to leave family and community to enjoy the freedom. (Virginia required manumitted slaves to leave the state, though the law was inconsistently enforced.)

An equally interesting fact is that President like Washington and Jefferson, who understood that slavery was wrong, maintained their slaves out of economic self interest. They manumitted few slaves, either during their lives or on death.

The underlying truth, which we still find uncomfortable today, is that slavery was an American system, not just a southern system perpetuated by a minority of tyrannical planters. The creation of the nation was predicated on the legalization of slavery. The economy of north and south benefited from slavery. The focus on the slaveholders obscures the fact that the nonslaveholding majority had an equal hand in the constitutional enshrinement of slavery.

Lyssa said...

If the earlier presidents that had objections to the practice(who lived before the road to the Civil War really started to heat up) could come visit us today, I wonder if they would be surprised to learn how universally evil slavery is now regarded.

I wonder what currently-common practices will be considered unquestionably horrible in 200 years.

Carol said...

According to W.E.B. Dubois's thesis, there was plenty of early agitation in some of the southern states to get rid of slavery, not only because it was ugly and evil, but because it brought so many blacks to the states who probably couldn't survive on their own.

But traders in SC and Georgia sensed the danger and went crazy bringing in so many slaves so quickly that freeing them became unthinkable for the same reason. How would they survive?

People knew it was a bad thing *even back then* and I think one of the reasons for the rancid evil after the Civil War was because pro-slavers had lived with the cognitive dissonance so long and had to keep justifying themselves.

William said...

I remember reading Mrs. Trollope's account of her travels in America. She was very much against slavery but what truly aroused her ire was the lack of deference among white servants in the free states. That and the fact that, in an era of long skirts, men chewed tobacco and didn't always hit the spittoon with their expectorations. America was a land of great expectorations............II would be interesting to see a collection of quotes from the contemporaneous kings of Africa. There was that Zulu king who ordered his two thousand wives to commit suicide so grief stricken was he by the death of his mother. He probably had many interesting things to say about woman's rights.

YoungHegelian said...

An often unexamined component of slave economies is the absence of liquid assets (especially, money) in such economies.

When wealth is identified with the owning of land & the products of that land, then there is no available money to pay free labor. For laborers to share in the produce of the land, they must be bound to the household in some way, either as slaves or bonds-men (e.g. sharecroppers).

It's amazing to read in the histories of early US how cash poor these "wealthy" men were. Washington had to borrow the money to make the trip from Mount Vernon to NYC for his inauguration! The most valuable item sin the house holds were things like china, silverware, or a harpsichord that the household had to import from Britain or up North, and actually had to pay cash for!

MrCharlie2 said...

"An often unexamined component of slave economies is the absence of liquid assets (especially, money) in such economies."

Before British industrialization and the cotton boom, that is. I get the idea that conditions for slaves in the US went seriously downhill as they became a part of the global economy.

The older cash crop, tobacco, wasn't as much of a global commodity.

Lydia said...

If the earlier presidents that had objections to the practice (who lived before the road to the Civil War really started to heat up) could come visit us today, I wonder if they would be surprised to learn how universally evil slavery is now regarded.

I don't think they'd be surprised. It was, I think, held by most non-slaveholders even in their time to be an evil. And even by some slaveholders, like Thomas Jefferson who had put this in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence:

"He [King George III] has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

He has prostituted his Negative for Suppressing every legislative Attempt to prohibit or to restrain an execrable Commerce, determined to keep open a Markett where Men should be bought and sold, and that this assemblage of Horrors might want no Fact of distinguished Die"

Check out this timeline on the abolition of slavery, and you'll find stuff like King Louis X of France in 1315 proclaiming that "France" signifies freedom and that any slave setting foot on the French ground should be freed and a 1435 papal encyclical banning enslavement on pain of excommunication.

Kirk Parker said...

Fanny Kemble's memoir is also very much worth reading in this regard.

During her time on her husband's Georgia coast rice plantation, she reports an easily-seen level of fear lurking in the back of everyone's mind. The men, of course, will never mention it, but the women sometimes do.

iowan2 said...

How does this history lesson on slavery square with today's liberal elite <1%'ers paying their servants of illegal status less than minimum wage and not paying FICA taxes?

Mitch H. said...

Young H: The slaveholding south wasn't alone in being currency-poor. Prewar Connecticut and New England in general were so starved of coin that the majority of major transactions may have occurred in deeds of title on real estate rather than currency of any sort. A year or two ago I read a biography of Ethan Allen that went deep into the weeds on his endless sharp-elbowed career through the legal system, all of it conducted in deeds of title because nobody had two bits to rub together. The British imperial system might as well have been designed to drain specie homewards and out of the colonial economies.

Likewise, the southern bias towards slave capital was that it was easily the most remunerative and profitable use of free funds. There was a tendency to take on as much debt as possible in order to a) finance an expanded inventory of slave labor and b) underwrite status-building and status-maintaining conspicuous consumption. Washington may have needed to borrow travel funds, but he, like his plantation-owning peers, lived very high in the instep on debt as a way to demonstrate their worthiness to each other and to the lower classes.

YoungHegelian said...


Washington may have needed to borrow travel funds, but he, like his plantation-owning peers, lived very high in the instep on debt as a way to demonstrate their worthiness to each other and to the lower classes.

Me & the Mrs were having a conversation on that very topic Friday night as we wuz out shopping. Much of the European aristocracy shared the plantation propensity to live at the end of their tether to impress the Lord & Lady Joneses, but they generally had more access to ready money to do so.

The American plantation class reserved a special place in its deep loathing for their creditors, especially banks. They didn't like to be reminded that bills come due. Often, like Jefferson, those bills were put off until death, with ruinous results for the estate.

PS: I still owe you a KMT/Soviet explanation, but I can't find what I think is the right book! I'm still looking!

Kirk Parker said...


"I still owe you a KMT/Soviet explanation"

Hey! Owe it to me, too, if you please. :-)

YoungHegelian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YoungHegelian said...


Since your profile has no email address attached, go to my profile and send me an email. I'll send you whatever I find out. Even if turns out to be my groveling retraction, I'll send it to you.

I'm going with e-mail because this is not our hostess' concern & I don't want to "threadjack" any more than we already are.

John said...

Short of killing someone, holding them against their will in a state of slavery is probably the worst thing that can be done by one person (individually or via govt) against another.

It is a sad part of our history.

But to put it in perspective, in the thousand years ending in 1900, something like 100 million black, sub-Saharan Africans were taken into captivity and sold into slavery.

About 50mm of them died en route.

About 1mm came to the US. Here they had lifespans about the same as most white Americans.

About 10mm went to South America and the Caribbean. Especially in Brazil they had brutish and short lives. Brazilian slaves had a life expectancy of 4-5 years after arrival.

The other 49mm or so went east to Turkey, Iran, Arab parts. Their life expectancy was a year or less.

The US is the only place in history where the population of slaves has increased naturally.

Everywhere else has depended on capturing more slaves to maintain the population.

Religious Brits, primarily Quakers but others as well, managed in less than 100 years to change the world from a place in which slavery, of all races, was the norm to a world in which it is rare.

A good book on this is by Thomas Sowell. I forget the name but one of the volumes of his Migrations and Cultures books is devoted to an in depth look at slavery, its history and practices.

John Henry

John said...

Just to be clear, not all slaves were African. Probably a minority of slaves in history were.

The very word "Slave" comes from "Slav" and the north Africans and Turks captured white people from the slavic regions in great quantities.

They also raided as far north as England capturing slaves.

The Russian Czar, in 1861, freed over 20 million Russian, white, serfs. Yes, there are some technical differences between serfs and slaves but the end result is much the same for the serf/slave.

In other words, black or African and slave are not synonymous.

John Henry

John Henry

Rusty said...

you forgot,"if you like your health insurance you can keep your health insurance."

AlanKH said...

#5 makes me wonder why Andrew Johnson didn't get shot. Ultimately what white Southerners won was the United States Constitution and its protections. But in the Pyrrhic cauldron of 1865 with the South physically destroyed and its postbellum future uncertain, you don't say that out loud.

Mitch H. said...

Alan, Johnson during the war had entire regiments of bodyguards as the wartime Union governor of Tennessee, who kept him from being assassinated by rebel guerrillas. Before that, he was a class-warrior tribune of the (somewhat disenfranchised) white-trash underclasses. They hated the slaves because they represented both the capital of the rich bastards keeping them down, and also the extra 3/5ths margin of the "black counties" which dominated the miserably gerrymandered legislative districts. This is what Johnson meant by "liberation" - the re-balancing of southern power in favor of the poor whites against the shattered aristocracy.

Johnson tried his best to build a constituency based on the theory inherent in that quote. This attempt led him directly into a head-on collision with the Radical Republicans, and his impeachment.

He ended up straddled between the Radicals building up a Republican-dominated black south (by disenfranchising ex-Confederate soldiers and fielding the freedmen at the polls) and the surviving rich men whom he hated with a passion, and hated him right back. That's just in the South - the North didn't know what to do with him, and it was all he could do to finish out Lincoln's term.

Reconstruction wasn't ended by his "poor whites", but by the Hamptons - the rich re-asserting their right to rule based on status, wealth, respect, and the power and leverage all that represented.

Craig said...

According to an 1880 profile of my great great great grandfather, he cast his first presidential vote for Johnson, presumably Andrew Johnson, who was a Democrat and ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket in 1864 as Lincoln's running mate. He served the remainder of Lincoln's term, but never actually ran for president. So perhaps it was a write-in ballot. He was easily one of the most experienced and effective politicians of his day.

Kirk Parker said...

Mitch H.,


So, do you have a different take than Ms. Kemble, who thought the poor whites she encountered were extremely "shiftless" and lazy because they had absorbed the principle that "whites don't have to perform manual labor, that's for slaves"?

Mitch H. said...

Oh, your book rec? She was a sea islands plantation lady, where the slaves vastly outnumbered any free white smallholders. If any part of the prewar south actually resembled the plantation stereotype of Massa, overseers, black slaves, and nobody else, it was the sea islands. For one thing, they would have been malarial as all hell, which tended to eat up those without sickle-cell anemia partial resistence. Those whites that survived a lifetime of fever season would oftentimes suffer from the usual listlessness, slow-wittedness and lack of energy typical of the chronic malarial victim.

Anyways, all that is beside the point when it comes to Johnson. His base wasn't plantation society, but rather the mountain whites of Appalachia. The white hangers-on to the "slavocracy" were part of a different culture than the one that brought up Andrew Johnson. Sometimes described as "Upper South" and "Deep South", or Appalachia and Greater Georgia.

Kirk Parker said...

Ah, thanks!

AlanKH said...


Ah, I had never considered local districts. Rotten boroughs kept slavery legal in Britain. The first of the reforms made abolition possible.


So, not only was the South as a whole overrepresented in Congress (a factor I had long observed), but also the slaveholders were overrepresented in the state governments. I figured that sheer wealth would have given the planters disproportionate power in the legislatures, but now I see the role of gerrymandering.

Still, the electoral gains of the poor whites were offset by the flood of blacks on the voting rolls. People generally don't like rule by outsiders, so the individual redneck's reaction depends on whether he considers the planter or the black man to be more "outside." Of course, after Reconstruction the political machines offset the offset with Jim Crow laws.

Franklin said...

Only approximately 388,000 African slaves came to America via the Atlantic Slave Trade. Brazil received nearly 5 million and Cuba and the Caribbean received the rest.

Ulysses S Grant owned slaves.

Slavery was finally abolished in New Jersey by 13th Amendment. New Jersey was the last state in which slavery was outlawed.

Just some interesting facts about the Atlantic Slave Trade.