It is difficult to generalize about the "peculiar institution" of slavery because so much depends on the individual owner's behavior. The plantation environment forced the two races to live in close proximity. Every type of human relationship could rise from this circumstance. One plantar could see Negroes as nothing but brutes, but another one would treat them as equals. The United States was the only country in Western Hemisphere where the slave population grew by natural increase. After the ending of the slave trade in 1808, the black population increased at nearly the same rate as white.

 

Slaves were without rights, they developed a distinctive way of live by attempting to resist oppression and injustice while adjusting to the system. Their marriages had no legal status, but their partnership seemed to have been as loving and stable as those of their masters. Certainly they were acutely conscious about family relationships and responsibilities. Slave religion, Christianity tinctured with some African survivals, seemed to most slave owners a useful instrument for teaching meekness and resignation and for providing harmless emotional release.

 

Most whites persuaded themselves that most blacks accepted the system without resentment and indeed preferred slavery to the uncertainties of freedom. There was much talk about "loyal and faithful servants".

 

The injustice of slavery needs no proof. Less obvious is the fact that it had a corrosive effect on the personalities of Southerners, slaves and free alike. The system bore heavily on all slaves' sense of their own worth. Some found the condition absolutely unbearable, but most slaves appeared if not contented, at least resigned to their fate. Some seemed even to accept the whites' evaluation of their inherent abilities and place in society.

 

Slaves had a complex culture, maintained, so to speak, under noses of their masters. By a mixture of subterfuge, accommodation, and passive resistance, they erected subtle defenses against exploitation, achieving a sense of community that helped sustain the psychic integrity of individuals. And if some slaves indeed became jawing "Sambos" and "Uncle Toms", it must be remembered that the slave system was designed to make blacks submissive. It discouraged independence of judgement and self-reliance.


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