Master-Slave Relations in the Antebellum South

How far do you agree with the view that master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal?

There exists much study surrounding the issue of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South; that is, debate regarding whether slaveholders lived up to their arguably propagandist paternal reputation or whether their relations with their slaves were different. Howard McGary defines paternalism in slavery as the belief that ‘slaveholders held slaves because they believed it was in the slaves’ best interests’ and that ‘slaves viewed their masters in a manner similar to the way children see their guardians’.[1] However, Peter Kolchin identifies that a growing America’s economic system was ‘heavily dependent on coerced labor’ and that colonists were merely ‘eager for material gain’.[2] This essay brings to question whether slave owners were father figures who protected and nurtured their slaves or whether they had a distinct economic agenda, putting profit above else – and moreover, whether these two relationships were intrinsically interlinked. Spanning a relatively large sector of American history, master-slave relations, among other plantation relationships, are most likely varying. Analysing a base of primary evidence, as well as investigating slavery scholarship, this study will aim to determine to what extent it is accurate and appropriate to describe such master-slave relations as paternal. This study will first discuss paternalism within existing historiographical theory, followed by an in depth analysis of primary evidence which will enable a conclusion on the issue of whether master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal or otherwise.

The Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, compiled by Randall M. Miller and John David Smith, states that the concept of paternalism became ‘salient in the South after about 1820’; as such, its associations with the 19th Century pro-slavery agenda create controversy about its meaning.[3] Miller and Smith suggest that the concept is intrinsically racist due to ‘its definition of blacks as inherently and permanently inferior’; this being a result of the idea that Africans were safer, happier and healthier within the confines of servitude and were granted some sense of civilisation when under the rule of a master. [4]

The concept is evidently borne of a propagandist attempt to justify and rationalise the capture and enforced labour of millions of Africans across the country at a time when American slavery was perilously close to its ultimate outlawing. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese suggests that whites assigned caricatures which explicitly contradicted their own ideals concerning gender stereotypes and roles to their slaves in an attempt to subvert their discomfort concerning traditional gender roles and the slave experience.[5] Many black slaves were viewed as the stereotypical ‘Sambo’ character, which Fox-Genovese suggests embodies a ‘reversal of white attitudes towards masculinity’; slaves were viewed in ‘an image of docility in direct opposition to the white ideals of male honor’. In this, Africans were naturally subservient and neither wanted nor deserved liberation.[6] This suggests that paternalism is a propagandist idea and not a concept that one could view in action amongst the busy and violent reality of a plantation.

David F. Ericson discusses various factions of the proslavery movement in his works. He suggests that whilst the liberal proslavery argument claims that African Americans are at their most free when enslaved due to their inherent inability to walk equal alongside the white man, the non-liberal proslavery argument firmly states that African Americans are an inferior race, ‘consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo Saxon/Protestant race.’ Ericson discusses at length and identifies three key elements of both proslavery arguments, however. He states that the proslavery movement had to ‘consider themselves on the defensive’, and as such had to highlight three points: firstly, that whilst most racial slavery was unjust, this is not the case in the South. Secondly, whilst it may look dehumanising and lacking freedom, practically, slaves enjoyed greater liberties than free blacks. Finally, that the abolition of slavery would have dire consequences for both existing freemen and the newly created freemen. The concept of paternalism addresses the majority of these arguments. By developing an image of the happy, docile slave who was well-treated within the safe confines of his plantation, away from the evil injustices rife in the outside world, the proslavery campaigners countered any issues raised by the abolitionist movement. It is evident that historians commonly view paternalism as a propagandist ideal, a far stretch from the cruel and punishing reality that was master-slave relations.

This manipulated image, and implication that blacks are naturally at the will of the white man further supports the notion that the concept of paternalism is one which was designed to alleviate stresses of the slaveholder and ultimately justify slavery. Historians, such as James M. Baird, have suggested that as well as proslavery propaganda, the concept of paternalism was created in order to justify and rationalise enforced labour. Baird argues that the concept of paternalism was ‘born of a desire to distance masters from the reality of the exploitation that they otherwise encouraged and in which they were complicit.’[7] However, Baird also states that ordinarily slaveholders managed ‘their bondsmen through other men’, and as such, in reality, they had little contact with their slaves. This suggests that there exists no way in which masters could represent father figures to their slaves, since they were absent. Further, Baird argues that even if one was to suggest that it was the overseers that represented paternalism within the plantation, in reality, these men were provided with a financial incentive to produce the greatest yield in the crop and had ‘little reason to employ paternalistic authority’.[8]


Kenneth M. Stampp offers a thoughtful discussion of paternalism in his The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Whilst his thoughts on paternalism in many ways reflect those aforementioned, Stampp projects a somewhat unique perspective on the concept of paternalism. Firstly, Stampp suggests that nostalgia clouds memory of the ‘the good they think they see in some misty past’ and that any person who looks upon the past seeing generous masters and mollycoddled slaves is wholly misguided in memory.[9] Stampp outlines that the institution of slavery was ‘not so much a patriarchal institution as a practical labor system…slaveholders were more often ambitious entrepreneurs than selfless philanthropists’.[10] However, unlike many of the works cited earlier in this study, Stampp does not deny what he refers to as the ‘kernel of fact’ from which the proslavery paternalism agenda was borne.[11] In reverse of the assumed, it is the slaves themselves that Stampp suggests held ‘paternalistic impulses’; it was not uncommon to find a ‘mammy’ who was devoted to her master’s children or a house servant that loved to feed and care for the family within the ‘Big House’.[12] There do exist examples of such love and devotion within the source material available, as well as examples of masters demonstrating, at the very least, gratitude. Perhaps, there is some morsel of accuracy in referring to master-slave relations as paternal, if the term is used with care.

Ex-slaves, such as Clara Davis, have recorded their memories of their time on the plantation with fondness. Dated July 1937, the testimony of ‘Aunt Clara Davis’ describes her old home on the plantation as a ‘mighty pretty place’.[13] Davis’ fond recount of days gone by includes the phrase ‘when I tell you ‘bout it you gwine to wish you was dar too’.[14] She speaks fondly of her old master, stating that he was ‘de bes’ white man in de lan’’ and that he provided ‘eve’ything dat we could hope to eat’.[15] The way in which Clara Davis recalls her plantation days mimic traditional fond memories of childhood such as a longing to be ‘back dar wid my ole folks’, and ‘playin’ wid de chilluns down by de creek.’[16] The evident care and paternal love with which Master Mosley maintained his slaves suggest that he was certainly a father figure within the plantation, and undoubtedly in cases similar to this it is accurate to refer to master-slave relations as paternal. Similarly, an ex-slave named Mary Edwards recalled in 1937 that her master ‘had lots o’ slaves and he give ‘em good quarters and plenty to eat.’[17] Additionally, in December of the same year, Mom Ryer Emmanuel provided an extensive account of her time on the plantation. Though she was only young during her enslavement, Emmanuel provides useful details regarding childhood on the plantation. She states that her master, Anthony Ross, had many slaves that were well looked after and well fed; ‘my white folks never did let dey colored people suffer no time’[18] Furthermore, Emmanuel very deliberately identifies her master’s stringent policy on child labour – ‘dey had to be over 16 year old fore old Massa would allow dem to work’.[19] These accounts of slavery, coming from the minds and hearts of ex-slaves, suggest that there were many cases across the antebellum South where master-slaves relations were best described as paternal.

Referring back to Kenneth M. Stampp’s debate regarding misplaced nostalgia, it would be pertinent to analyse the perspective from which Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel were writing. Firstly, it must be highlighted that these women were recording their experiences many years after the abolition of slavery, and they would have only been young when it was in practice. Emmanuel states herself that she knows ‘nothin bout slavery’ because she ‘was just a little yearling child den’.[20] Furthermore, Stampp states that ‘the evil that confounds men in the present often causes them to look nostalgically’ at the past.[21] This means that if these women, who were recording their experiences, were at a point in their lives where they considered themselves to be worse off than they were in slavery, their accounts would tell of an inaccurate level of happiness and security of their past.

Though it has not been possible to uncover any more about these women’s personal lives post-abolition, it is possible to speculate. Historian Michael Naragon states that ‘begrudging acceptance of emancipation by former slaveholders and other whites’ under no circumstances ensured that African Americans would see any shift in their ‘legal subordination’.[22] African Americans were, in fact, to suffer over a hundred years of prejudice and continued subjugation. Ex-slaves, following emancipation, were thrust into an unkind world without legal documentation, such as birth certificates, without any sense of identity and with very little by way of personal property or financial support.[23] Newly free African Americans were destined to suffer an economic situation which was defined by destitution and immobility and would cripple the black population for generations.[24] The accounts of slaves who experienced financial security and stability in their younger years, but were later torn from this ‘sanctuary’ with no education and no support, are unsurprisingly nostalgic for bygone times. It is highly possible that, in light of their experience of freedom, these women longed for the paternal bosom of their masters, and as such retold their stories with favourable accounts of masters Ross and Mosley. This does not mean, however, that it is accurate to describe these masters as paternal, but that in some way the confines of servitude represented a familiar and safe father figure for these women.

Turning to the specific relationship of masters with their slaves, and their masters’ ultimate motives, despite some keeping up of appearances, slaveholders were almost without exception eager capitalists, as opposed to well-meaning humanitarians. Ryer Emmanuel’s master was spoken of kindly, however, there appear to be subtle ulterior motives in her master’s philanthropy. Master Anthony Ross held to an inflexible child labour policy; whilst Emmanuel clarifies that this was ‘’cause he never want to see his niggers stunt up while dey was havin de growin pains’, it is possible that this suggests evidence of keen business prowess within the plantation environment.[25] Young slaves were particularly valuable, especially when viewed as an investment. Anthony Ross, who appears to be the slaveholder of a very large plantation, appears to acknowledge this fact, protecting and nurturing young slaves in order to increase their yield later in life. Emmanuel’s account of her master, taken at face value, appears paternalistic, however, it is highly likely that his care stemmed from an ambition to yield the greatest profit from his investment.

Contrasting to the accounts of Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel, Sallie Crane tells a more familiar story in her account of her time in slavery. She states that her master forced her to wear a ‘buck and gag’ for three days whilst withholding food and water and that she was ‘whipped from sunup till sundown; it is also recorded that Crane ‘pulled open her waist and showed scars where the maggots had eaten in’.[26] Similarly, William Colbert of Georgia, discusses his master, stating that he ‘wasn’t good to none of us niggers’ and that everybody hated him.[27] Colbert describes in detail a particular event, when his master whipped a slave, but was infuriated because ‘he couldn’t make January holla’; in this instance, it is evident that the master was neither paternal nor intent on securing profit, he plainly wished to inflict pain.[28] Clearly, master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as varied.

To conclude, the reality of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South, the memory of those relationships and the scholarship surrounding this area of contention are a rich and fascinating point in African American history. Historians, such as Kolchin, Stampp and Fox-Genovese, all offer interesting and thoughtful interpretations of paternalism, ranging from stating that paternalism was a created propagandist ideal to accepting its ‘kernel of fact’.[29] However, delving into the wealth of first-hand testimonial evidence available from the period, enlightens us to the reality of paternalism from the slaves’ perspectives. Certainly, there existed cruel masters or those who were firmly and solely interested in the profitable investment that was slave ownership, it is interesting to note that some ex-slaves looked back on their time on the plantation with a sense of nostalgia. Whilst these examples of slave memories evidently assign a notion of fatherhood to their masters, it is yet not accurate to describe these master-slave relations as paternal for several reasons; this being that, primarily, emotion in slave memory was commonly wrongly placed due to their circumstances post-abolition. Instead, we should understand that whilst masters cared for their slaves, it is the motivation behind this care that is key to separating paternalism from capitalist sensibilities.

[1] H. McGary, ‘Paternalism and Slavery’, in Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery, eds. H. McGary and B. E. Lawson, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp.16-17.

[2] P. Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), pp.3-4.

[3] R. M. Miller and J. D. Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1997), p.559.

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the American Old South, (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp.291-293.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. M. Baird, ‘Paternalism and Profits: Planters and Overseers in Piedmont Virginia, 1750-1825’, in Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America, eds. R. Olwell and A. Tully, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp.147-168.

[8] Ibid.

[9] K. M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 322-323.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Aunt Clara Davis is homesick for old scenes’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith and Francois Ledgere Diard for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (July 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 <,+Clara))> [accessed 14th December 2015]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Stories from Ex-Slaves’, interview recorded by Elmer Turnage for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (June 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[18] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.

[22] M. Naragon, ‘From Chattel to Citizen: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom in Richmond, Virginia’, in After Slavery: Emancipation and its Discontents, ed. H. Temperley, (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000), pp.93-94.

[23] W. A. Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.223-224.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937)

[26] ‘Whipped from Sunup to Sundown’, interview recorded by Samuel S. Taylor for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[27] ‘My Master was a Mean Man’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 16th December 2015]

[28] Ibid.

[29] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.

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