CHAPTER 3: SLAVERY
. . . there is a day a coming when the servant and master shall both meet at the throne of God--to hear them finding and proving. Won't it be awful indeed that I was prevented from going to Meeting from hearing the Gospel preached . . . but the poor slave has no chance neither in Law nor Gospel. How a Lord shall we groan and weep under the yoke of oppression . . . I often thought being raised in ignorance that the slave holder would have to atone for the sins of the slave--being a child under tutor that its parents have to be accountable for his transgressions. But thank God that I have seen that except we repent we shall all likewise perish . . . We are truly thankful that our old Master John Coles and his wife Rebecca ever had a son born by the name of Edward. We believe that God has made him the means of doing us this great good. We recollect at your father's death that several of the poor oppressed that were choosing their masters--but God chose for us--that we walk around our farm and look at the blessings of God--that we are ready to speak in the language of the psalmist and say that [the] Lord [did] great things for us wherewith we are glad. (Robert Crawford, a former slave of Coles', writing to Coles over twenty years after his emancipation)
|What was slavery like on the Enniscorthy plantation? There is no way of knowing. We have tiny bits of evidence from master and slave, but unlike paleontologists, we cannot reconstruct whole skeletons from bits of bone.
Edward's brother Isaac writes to a Northern friend that slavery is not as bad as Northerners might think, using the common argument that under good masters slaves are better off than laborers in Europe, and when well taken care of are happier and more free of care than free laborers generally are. To be conscious that you have made them happy and that your example may have encouraged other masters to do likewise, he says, is not likely to bring any disagreeable feelings to your heart, and from his experience of managing slaves, one need not be feared to be obeyed.
It seems, however, that at least one of Isaac's slaves decided that he would be happier and more void of care on his own. In 1805, while Isaac was in Washington, a slave named Nim escaped from the Enniscorthy plantation and made his way to Winchester, Virginia, where he convinced a horse dealer named Bailey that he was on his way to Washington to serve his young master there. To Edward's father's chagrin, Bailey did not ask Nim for proof that he had permission to be wandering around and took him to Washington, paying his expenses and receiving his services as a horse handler in return. Bailey kept Nim with him for the annual Washington races, intending, he claimed, to return him after the races were over. But just before the intended restoration, Nim stole the clothes and money of Bailey's black servant and disappeared.
It is of course possible that Bailey and Nim struck a bargain: Nim's temporary services in return for freedom. But whether he made a fool of Bailey, or he and Bailey made a fool of Edward's father, the fact is that Nim "voted with his feet," as the saying goes, choosing the considerable risks of escape and penniless, lonely freedom over the pleasures of being cared for by Isaac.
Isaac advertised for Nim in the Baltimore and Philadelphia newspapers, but whether he was ever retaken is unknown.
And despite Isaac's assertion about the ease of managing "these people," in 1818 he writes to a friend about the difficulty of getting rid of a "vicious slave,"--one whom, presumably, even whipping would not hold in line. We know that slaves were whipped at least occasionally under the management of Coles' father since Coles says that one of the ameliorating alterations in their treatment that he instituted when he took over his share of the estate was to forbid any grown person being whipped, except with my sanction, which was never given but in one case when I thought and still think he deserved and ought to have been thus punished.
The contrast between Isaac's and Robert Crawford's views of slavery measures the abyss that lay between the two races in early-nineteenth-century Virginia. Not that every black felt Crawford's intense joy in freedom, nor every white Isaac's complacency about slavery. But most whites, including Edward Coles, shared at least some of Isaac's complacency, and we can guess that most blacks, like Crawford , yearned for freedom. They exhibited a spirit, John Randolph writes of blacks captured after Gabriel's unsuccessful slave revolt, which, if it becomes general, must deluge the Southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and contempt of danger, and a thirst for revenge which portend the most unhappy consequences.
The witnesses of slavery recorded in the Coles family papers are, with the exception of Crawford, white. Yet even from the white point of view we can see the strain between complacency and fear which suggests that the whites knew more than they liked to admit about black aspirations.
In 1789 Edward's mother writes to her mother that a slave named Cloey, upon hearing that her master lay sick, said she wished he would die so that she could belong to his brother Travis, whom she was sure would free her. If a good and reliable slave such as Cloey would be moved to say such a thing out loud, what, Edward's mother wonders, would a bad one do?
Don't leave your slaves to your widow to be freed at her death, Edward Coles writes to Madison, who seems to have been a model master. Washington's decision to leave his slaves thus to Martha was "injudicious," and to do the same for Dolly "would endanger her life."
We have had considerable alarm in this place , one of Coles' fellow students writes home from Williamsburg in 1806, owing to some suspicions that were excited of an insurrection of the negroes. The students were very active on the occasion. They turned out several nights successively until the apprehension of danger subsided. I begin to have doubts whether there was the smallest cause for alarm.
There was real cause for alarm one frightening night at Enniscorthy, Helen Skipwith Coles writes. For several weeks a slave insurrection was threatened, and all the white men had been out on patrol. On November 19, 1820, the night that it was understood the slaves would rise up, the neighborhood below Dyer's store was on high alert. Four slaves were eventually imprisoned and two whipped and sentenced to transportation.
This fear was not continuously evident in the family record. It seems rather to have lurked just beneath the surface of a rich and pleasant life, breaking out into the open at the slightest sign of danger. The spectre of Santo Domingo, in which the blacks, led by Toussaint L'Overture, massacred the whites and took control of the State, haunted the discussions of the more enlightened aristocrats on the necessity of ending slavery. But how to go about it? Ending slavery would not end fear. What would sharing Virginia with an equal number of blacks mean? As it is, Jefferson writes, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.
The fear arose not only from the institution of slavery. For most white Virginians, getting rid of the problem of slavery meant getting rid of the blacks. To retain the blacks in Virginia as free people was unthinkable. Slavery was not just an economic and social system; it was the expression of a relationship between two races competing, however unequally, on the same soil. The fear was a racial, not merely a class phenomenon. And therefore the fear would not end with the abolition of slavery.
The idea of emancipating the whole at once , Jefferson writes in his famous letter to Coles, the old as well as the young, and retaining them here, is of those only who have not the guide of either knowledge or experience of the subject; for men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought up from infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising the young. In the meantime they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them. Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent.
But what to do? Jefferson's plan, prototype for many such, was for gradual emancipation of those born after a given day with education and expatriation after a given age. Which meant that every black family would be forcibly sundered, every grown child ripped from father and mother to be shipped to a strange country which had not been asked whether it wanted these black millions, the parents left to die alone, the last of their race in their native land. Hardly a humanitarian scheme, and hardly a practical one. For the motive for shipping a million blacks back across the ocean was not nearly as compelling as the motive that had brought them in their masses to these shores.
And what to do until the majority of whites could be persuaded of this impractical scheme? My belief has ever been, Jefferson advises Coles, that until more can be done for [the slaves], we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill-usage, require such reasonable labor as is performed by free men and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good; and to commute them to other property is to commit them to those whose usage we cannot control.
Jefferson saw blood at the end of the slavery road, but for him emancipation was always more terrifying than slavery. The only way to get rid of fear was to get rid of blacks, a step which Jefferson urged but despite his considerable political power did nothing to implement. Jefferson's racism was really not that different from Isaac's. For Isaac slavery was justified by the myth of the happy slave; for Jefferson, by the myth of the black bogeyman. The end result--the perpetuation of slavery--was the same.
Fear was the price the aristocracy paid for enjoying the fruits of oppression. Fear of murder and insurrection. Fear of emancipated blacks. Fear of the perpetuation of fear and guilt and violence from generation to generation. Fear of an eventual cataclysm. Fear of seeing the plain humanity of black slaves. Fear of even suspecting the depth of character revealed in the letter of Robert Crawford to Edward Coles.
But the alternative to continuing to own slaves was not simple either. Some masters did free their slaves--perhaps more than we suppose. In two generations of the Coles family, for example, there were at least four emancipators, and there is no reason to believe that the Coles family was atypical. But the family's experience with private emancipation was not encouraging.
Manumssion, as private emancipation was called, was not common in Virginia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but neither was it rare. From 1782, when manumission became legal in Virginia, until 1806, when freed slaves were prohibited from remaining in the state, the free black population increased by about 25,000 , or 10% of the total number of slaves in Virginia in 1780. Another estimate of an average 1,000 manumissions a year matches these figures roughly if one balances the rate of natural increase against the assumption that at least some manumitted slaves chose not to remain in Virginia.
In the Coles family, manumission did not always bring happy results. For the most famous emancipator in the family, in fact, it brought ruin and early death.
I have already noted that after John Coles I and his brother Williams emigrated from Ireland to Virginia they married the Winston sisters , Mary and Lucy. A third Winston sister, Sarah, was the mother of Patrick Henry.
Isaac Winston, the girls' father, was a Quaker. While Mary and Sarah dropped away from the faith after their marriages to non-Quakers, Lucy converted Williams Coles, and that branch of the family continued its strict adherence to the principles of Quakerism, which included an abhorrence of slavery.
Mary Coles, the daughter of Lucy and Williams, after having been courted by Jefferson, married John Payne--a Quaker--continuing the family tradition. Their oldest daughter Dolley, later Dolley Madison, was born on a pioneer Quaker settlement in North Carolina in 1768. Two years later the family moved back to Virginia, eventually settling at "Scotchtown," a plantation bought from Patrick Henry when he became governor of Virginia.
John Payne suffered the inconsistency of being both a Quaker and a master of slaves until 1782, when the Virginia legislature passed a law permitting the manumission of slaves within the state. Immediately he fulfilled the pledge that he and other members of his Quaker "Meeting" had made years earlier by freeing all of his slaves, retaining only "Mother Amy," an elderly household slave, as a servant for wages.
In 1783, much reduced in fortune, John Payne moved his family to Philadelphia, where the Virginian gentleman tried to become a starch maker. But starch for laundering was considered a luxury, and in the depressed economic conditions of the time business was poor. Payne was new to the trade and ill-suited to business, and by 1789 he was bankrupt. Despite his sacrifices for principle and his lifelong devotion to the Quakers, the members of his Meeting publicly disowned him as a debtor. Broken in spirit, he died three years later, in 1792.
Whether he was a martyr to principle or a fool--or both--is an interesting question, especially since Coles undoubtedly had his tragic precedent in mind as he struggled with his own decision to free his slaves. Dolley Madison clearly disapproved of Edward's plans, and we can speculate that she did not approve of her father's sacrifice, either. Certainly after Madison's death she did not follow her father's example, putting ruthlessly on the block to the highest bidder the slaves that Madison had once intended to free.
Another person who disapproved of Payne's sacrifice seems to have been Mother Amy. Whether John Payne's other slaves appreciated their freedom is not known, but Mother Amy did not. When she died shortly after her former master's death, she left Mary Coles Payne five hundred dollars--every cent of the "wages" she had been paid since she had been given her freedom. What thoughts and emotions had surged within her all those years can only be guessed. But it was ironically the freedom that she seemed to protest from the grave that proved to be the family's salvation. The five hundred dollars that she had been paid was the only money untouched by John Payne's bankruptcy.
The three other emancipators in the Coles family were Edward and Edward's maternal uncles, Travis and John Tucker. Both Travis and John were bachelors who lived in Norfolk, Virginia. Both corresponded with Edward's family regularly and visited Enniscorthy, or received visits from Enniscorthians, at least once a year.
A deeply religious man, Travis freed his slaves sometime in the 1780's, inspiring the slave Cloey--as we have seen--to wish her master John (Travis' brother) dead so that she could become the property of Travis and be freed as well. Doubtless, one reason for the family's disapproval of manumission was that it generated just such murderous sentiments in those forced to remain in bondage. But it is possible, too, that dumping slaves into freedom unprepared and unprovided for may have left some worse off than they had been in slavery.
Edward's father describes some of the slaves that Travis had freed as living almost in a state of starvation. And by 1820, the year after Edward had finally freed his slaves, Helen Skipwith Coles concluded that her slaves no longer thought of emancipation as a blessing after having seen the results in Edward's and Travis' slaves. Thus, she says, the acts of Uncles John and Travis and brother Edward have not had the bad influence they had all feared, and what seems like an evil often proves in the end to be a blessing.
Helen's observations, like those of Edward's father, are of course suspect. We would not expect people who decided to keep their slaves to look at the bright side of manumission. It may not, however, have been a favor to many slaves simply to dump them into freedom. That, at least, seems to have been the conclusion drawn by Edward's Uncle John.
John Tucker did not free the bulk of his slaves during his lifetime, but he did not seem to have had much use for them, either. He packed a number of them off to Enniscorthy at least as early as 1805, hiring them out for whatever Edward's father thought they were worth. When Edward's brother John talked of sending them home after his father's death, Uncle John came up with the excuse that they would be endangered by the British, who were then (1808-9) cruising up and down the coast near Norfolk. But although war with England threatened, it was not declared, and as time went on Uncle John's excuse began to wear thin.
Some attempt was made to hire out Uncle John's slaves to other planters, but the conditions he set made it difficult to find takers. Uncle John insisted that his Negroes be treated well, even if it meant a moderate return on their labor, and that they be hired out in families. The upshot seems to have been that the slaves remained as surplus and unwanted laborers on one or another of the Coles plantations on the Green Mountain.
Since Uncle John's slaves did not seem to be either helpful or profitable to anyone, it is possible that he kept them mainly because he believed that they were better off enslaved. This suspicion is strengthened by the terms of his will , drawn up in April 1811. Travis, who had freed his own slaves years earlier, is given eight slaves with their children. No provision is made for the freedom of adult slaves, most of whom seem to be at or past middle age. The children are to be freed at the age of twenty-one. The same procedure is followed with two families given to Edward's brother Tucker: the adult slaves are given to Tucker and his heirs forever; the children are to be liberated when they come of age.
It is not likely that Travis, having freed his own slaves, had any desire for the slaves John bequeathed him. The reason that John did not free the adult slaves, therefore, must have been that he believed they required care and supervision, while the younger slaves, raised in expectation of eventual manumission, would be more likely to adapt successfully to freedom.
Another group of individuals mentioned in Uncle John's will were probably slaves whom he had freed earlier, for interesting reasons. John gives the first pick of his land to brother Travis, but the half that Travis leaves over is to go to someone named Samuel Tucker, who is identified as the son of his servant Hannah Lewis. Samuel also gets a mare, a colt, and half of John's stock of cattle. Sally, the daughter of his servant Hannah, gets three shares of Virginia bank stock, and Eliza Lewis, another daughter, gets seven shares, presumably because she has children. Hannah Lewis herself, along with someone named Nancy Hindley, gets fifty dollars.
Why Sally's last name--and therefore paternity--is not indicated, and why Nancy Hindley gets the same provision as the mother of John's child or children remain a mystery. What seems clear , however, is that Edward's bachelor uncle lived for some years with at least one of his slaves or former slaves in the "sins" of adultery and miscegenation, raised his mulatto son with his name to take over half his estate, and raised his--or Hannah's--black or mulatto daughters to lives of freedom and property.
What attitudes towards slavery and blacks these actions suggest is difficult to say. Certainly not conventional ones. It is a pity that we don't know more about Uncle John, or about how he and the family's reactions to him influenced Edward. There is no mention of his indiscretion in any of the Coles family letters. We can be sure that those who knew of it would have chosen to speak of it as little as possible.
Perhaps the most striking example of manumission known to Edward Coles was the attempt by George Wythe to provide his former slave, Michael Brown, with a classical education and to settle upon him half his estate. Wythe had been head of the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress and had signed the Declaration of Independence. As the first professor of law in America, he had taught both Jefferson and John Marshall, and retained a strong influence on both men for the rest of his life.
In May 1806, he was a childless widower, 80 years old, living in semi-retirement in Richmond, Virginia. With him were his emancipated slaves, Michael Brown and Lydia Broadnax, and his grand-nephew, George Sweeney. Michael Brown was a mulatto boy of fifteen. Who his parents were and how he adapted to his new station in life are unknown, but he was said to be a quiet, well-mannered boy. George Sweeney, the beneficiary of the other half of Wythe's estate, was a young man of vicious character who stole Wythe's property and forged Wythe's name in order to get money to pay his gambling debts.
On May 25, 1806, for reasons undetermined, Sweeney put arsenic into some coffee that was subsequently drunk by George Wythe, Lydia Broadnax, and Michael Brown. Lydia Broadnax recovered; George Wythe and Michael Brown, after days of suffering, died. Whether Sweeney knew the terms of Wythe's will is unknown, but in any event the murders of his benefactor and rival brought him nothing. Wythe lived long enough to change his will, distributing his estate among Sweeney's brothers and sisters.
Sweeney's trial took place in Richmond in September 1806. Although there was little doubt in anyone's mind that Sweeney was guilty, the jury found him innocent. The most damaging evidence against him, the testimony of Lydia Broadnax, was inadmissible because Virginia law forbade the use of testimony by a Negro in a case brought against a white man. Ironically, Wythe himself had been responsible for the retention of that law when the colonial legal codes had been overhauled in 1779. Thus it was Wythe's own act of injustice that 27 years later allowed his murderer to go free .
Coles was, of course, familiar with the case, as was nearly every literate white Virginian alive at the time. For many Southerners it raised issues that were at the heart of the question of manumission. Of the two beneficiaries of Wythe's charity, Michael Brown, the black, was clearly the moral superior and perhaps the mental superior as well. His superiority suggested that the excuse for slavery--black inferiority--was a lie, and that the only morally defensible route for liberal, enlightened masters was to educate their slaves for eventual freedom.
But what then? What if blacks were educated to be the equals of whites? The paradigm of the aged Wythe and his two "sons"--one white and one black--touched deep and sinister levels of experience.
In the years before the Civil War the myth developed that Sweeney had not intended to kill Wythe at all. The arsenic had been meant only for Michael Brown, whose elevation had consumed Sweeney with jealousy and hatred. Wythe had drunk the poisoned coffee accidentally--a piece of poetic justice meted out by fate to one who had attempted to erase the sacred line between white and black.
Although Sweeney's real motives are unknown, the evidence seems to indicate that Wythe, or Wythe equally with Brown, was the target of his malice. But the myth was more gratifying to Southerners than the reality. In the myth, Sweeney became the expression of white feelings about black emancipation.
Sweeney's reality was Southern nightmare: an inheritance split right down the middle between white and black. Losing the labor of their slaves was only the beginning of white objections to black emancipation. Losing power to their former slaves was much more unsettling. Losing their sexual advantage. Losing the battle for physical control of their own destinies. Losing their wealth and property. Losing their lives.
Sweeney's method of settling the Negro question, horrifying as it was, struck a chord. His jealousy and rage were understandable. White survival depended on black inferiority. Black equality would eventually mean death to one race or the other.
It was the spectre of such an apocalypse that made Sweeney's crime psycho-drama. Sick, guilty fear was as much a part of Virginian aristocratic life as graciousness, luxury, and warmth, which is why for all his love of Virginia, Coles could not continue to live there. In Virginia, two races shared the same soil. Had the slaves been of the same race as the masters, emancipation might not have stirred the same fears for survival. But a slave's race would not change with freedom.
Most masters in the circle to which the Coles family belonged were anti-slavery. They considered slavery a curse inherited from the days of British rule and commiserated on the difficulty of getting rid of it. But under no circumstances would they voluntarily let go of the power they held over a rival race. What ruled their lives was racist fear.