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Robert L. Dabney on “chattel” slavery and equal protection of the law |
Joe Salant, our narrator, just posted a screenshot from his reading of Chapter 9, “A Heritage of Lies,” from The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, with the suggestion that reading it would be a good way to upset a nice Saturday afternoon, “getting angry.”
“But Dabney was *so right* on other stuff…”
What are y’alls thoughts…what can a theologian get wrong before you decide it’s best to just stay away from them?
The screenshot—and attendant anger generated—prompted me to go ahead and share the whole section of the book it came from. Joe later called this chapter the “dismantling of Robert Dabney.” I hoped it to be that.
I relate this for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s true. But second, and more importantly, because far too many people either downplay or whitewash his egregious claims in justification of racism and American slavery. I see far too many people speak of cases like Dabney as good men who simply had “blind spots.” Folks, this is not a blind spot. This is a pervasive blindness responsible for much evil.
What follows is bad enough, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. There is far worse in the Chapter, and much of it. In addition, there is enough from Dabney’s own letters to indict him in my opinion as a conscious liar on the subject, too.
Consider what follows, then multiply it 20-fold. Then realize that is only one out of nine main chapters. Then get your copy while it is still on sale.
“Chattel” and Equal Protection of the Law?
To refute the abolitionist argument that American slavery constituted “chattel” slavery, or ownership of the person outright, Dabney argues too much when he presents the case for the “absurdity” of criticizing “African slavery in America” by this standard. He goes so far as to claim the slave codes “first, legislate for the slave, as to his own conduct, as a responsible human being, . . . require of him intelligent obedience to the same moral rules which are enforced on his master. . . . Third, they protect the person, being, and moral responsibility of the slave against his own master. If the master kills him, it is murder, by the law.”
Dabney’s remonstrance here is in part simply wrong, and in part a classic subterfuge, and both aspects are tied together. To begin with, Dabney does not mention that some States openly constructed their laws as involving the ownership of the person specifically as chattel. As we saw in Chapters 1 and 2, Virginia applied the chattel law of partus sequitur ventrem in order to confine black progeny to slavery forever. More explicitly, South Carolina’s 1740 code revision called black slaves “property” of his majesty and “chattels personal.” As if they had not been explicit enough, the State in 1754 reiterated that “negroes and other slaves are deemed to be chattels personal, and are, in every respect, as much the property of their owners, as any other goods or chattels are.” Dabney had to have had some awareness of these facts.
We must not fault only the laws, however, for key clergy and social leaders expressed the same views in popular literature. One of the most widely read defenses of slavery, Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow’s pamphlet Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery (1856), reinforced the views of slaves as chattel and property over and over. Abraham’s servants are “inventoried as property,” “as property which God had given.” In Genesis, “servants are property.” In Exodus, “the same institution which makes property of men and women, is recognized.” At Sinai, God speaks of “servants as property.” Joseph was a friend to “absolute slavery.” The law of God, according to Stringfellow, authorizes people “to purchase men and women as property,” and even “to breed slaves and sell them.” Likewise, in one of the most widely read periodicals of the antebellum South, De Bow’s Review, an anonymous article entitled “Slavery and the Bible” appeared with similar views in 1850. It states that the Bible, Genesis for example, speaks of slaves “always as property.” “No one can doubt,” it says, “that Abraham regarded his servants as property. . . . They were property bought and sold for money.” God’s law recognized “property, in man,” including “the right to trade in that property.” Again, not only would Dabney very likely have been well aware of such publications, he would have known they represented the commonest of perceptions. He may have been technically correct to maintain the legal distinction he did, but it is absolutely inexcusable to blame “abolitionists” for what was the common understanding of slavery as the chattel ownership of the person. It was enshrined explicitly and prominently in some state laws, formed the foundation of others, and the most widely read publications of the day maintained it in the name of the highest authority, the Bible.
Even without the explicit statements and common perception, the law practically bereaved the slaves of protection of their person and even life through various other means—loopholes that were in no way difficult for masters and slave drivers to know and exploit. Dabney says that if a master killed his slave, “it is murder” But was it, really? Technically, on paper, maybe. Remember, however, that proving murder requires the proof of malicious intent. Any master who beat a slave to death in vengeance or heat of passion was safe as long as he had revealed nothing to a witness that could be used to prove malice, and no black could stand as a witness against him. Other loopholes in the law abounded. The Virginia code beginning in 1705 said that blacks who resisted “correction” could “happen to be killed by such correction” by “accident” without any punishment coming to a master. Runaway slaves could be killed on sight by any means necessary with legal impunity. South Carolina by 1740 said any black found off their plantation who resisted a white could be lawfully killed without question. This immunity from prosecution was expanded from the 1735 law which required the black to have resisted with a weapon. Runaway slaves escaped below the Florida line could be killed of a reward. While a live capture could be worth more, the bounty hunter need only return with the “scalp . . . with the two ears” for the immense reward ranging from 20 to 50 pounds.
Anyone injuring or killing a slave was technically presumed guilty, but the guilt was expunged in the court process merely by denying it under oath. He could simply say in any case that the slave had resisted and he feared for his life; or, he was punishing the slave and the slave attacked him. Or he could say he approached a runaway, or whatever. There could be a thousand scenarios made up, and each one would technically purge the complaint against him. His case then could only be rebutted upon the testimony of two white witnesses. Remember, blacks could not testify, and on a plantation where family members and white employees derived their livelihood from the master, who would risk speaking out unless they had clear proof, conviction, and willingness—if even then for a black slave after all? Legal realities and double standards like these are the reason so few masters were ever prosecuted for killing slaves. The threat of death continually hung over the heads of black slaves, despite the law, while the prosecution was rarely ever a threat at all to whites who killed slaves.
Where many critics and abolitionists had pointed out these realities amounted to virtually no check upon a master’s brutality in punishment, Dabney called it “an outrageous misrepresentation.” But we can all read the laws and the cases for ourselves. Dabney’s own contemporary, Dr. James A. Lyon, admitted in 1863 that “the laws of the land did not sufficiently protect the lives of the slaves. A wicked, drunken, or jealous overseer, or a low, malicious white man, might take the life of a slave in the presence of 50 others, and yet if he was not seen by a white man, there was no legal evidence against him, and he could not be punished as his crime deserved.” Dabney is without excuse here.
Did the “same rules” really apply to the slave as to the master, as Dabney claimed? Again, as we have seen, legislation generally only allowed blacks to testify against other blacks. In such cases, they could do so in all causes whatsoever but without oath. This one instance alone falsifies Dabney’s claim. Yet there are literally scores of instances of unequal treatment in the laws, and many of them could be the difference between life and death, or a sever beating, maiming, or other cruel punishments, for a black slave.
Interestingly, Dabney later refutes himself when he actually defends inequities in the laws:
the penal code of Virginia was properly made different in the case of the whites and the blacks, because of the lower moral tone of the latter. Many things, which are severe penalties to the white man, would be no punishment to the negro. . . . The slave was not permitted to testify against a white man, and this was a restriction made proper by his low grade of truthfulness, his difference of race, and the fact that he was to so great a degree subject to the will of another.
Again, when citing the penalty for a white man convicted of rape, he unwittingly acknowledges that “If the ravisher were a negro the penalty was different.” How can anything close to this be considered application of the “same moral rules” for both parties? Are penal sanctions not “moral”? Either way, Dabney confesses the injustice of the system he defends.
At this point, the southern apologist’s only remaining pretense was the classic appeal to the paternalism of the masters:
But the seeming severity of this restriction was almost wholly removed, among us, by the fact that he always had, in his master, an interested and zealous patron and guardian, in all collisions with other white men. From oppression by his own master he found his sufficient protection, usually, in affection and self-interest.”
Except in the thousands of daily cases where they did not. Even George Whitefield, who later approved of and joined the practice of slavery, testified to the frequency of cruelties and the spilling of slave blood throughout the South.
A couple of cases of equal treatment before the law occurred very early, before legislation cemented stark double standards throughout the legal codes. When a white man impregnated a black woman in Virginia in 1640, “The Negress was whipped, as a white woman would have been.” The inequality here was by sex: the offending man was only required to do public penance during a church service in James City. But this was not always the case. In a 1630 case, the man was sentenced to whipping as well for the mere sin of interracial fornication, which the court deemed as “abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro; which fault he is to acknowledge next Sabbath day.”
Lastly, Dabney states that “the law treats the slave so fully as a rational and responsible human, that it even bestows on him the right of litigation against his own master, in one case. Any African setting up a plea of unlawful detention in bondage, against his master, is allowed to sue in forma pauperis [as impoverished], the courts of law.” First, why is it only “in one case”? Does this caveat not create at least some embarrassment for its author? Why does he not rather see this as an exception to the rule? In 99.99 percent of all other cases, the black is not treated fully as a rational and responsible human, if at all. Why is he forbidden to testify against a white or to serve on juries in every case there is, if the law indeed treated him as fully rational and responsible?
Yet even in the “one case” Dabney cites, the slave did not truly have any protection. In South Carolina, for example, the 1740 code did allow for slaves to sue for their freedom, but only if represented by a guardian. Who would this be? A freed black? No, a black could not testify against a white in court. So, what white person would step forward on behalf of a black slave? To ask the question is to answer it. Add to this that later laws throughout most of the southern State forbid any further manumissions of slaves unless the owner also provided financially to transport the freedman out of the state with a matter of days. The states did not necessarily mind an increase in the enslaved black population, for this was revenue, but it did outlaw an increase in the free black population. Even in the rare case that a black could prove before the court that he or she was unlawfully enslaved and should be freed, he would then have to get out of the state in a certain number of days at their own expense, or, in some states, face enslavement as a punishment. All incentive, then, and eventually legal prohibition, worked against any blacks making such appeals before the poor courts.
 Dabney, Defense, 95, 96.
 Quoted in Eric L. McKitrick, Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), 89–93; Paul Finkelman, Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 109–113. Dabney himself, later in Defense, refers to slaves as “property” when he praises southern slavery as “the best relation which has yet been found, between labour and capital.” Finally, something had ended “this universal strife between capital and labour.” But how? Dabney strikes: “by making labour the property of capital”—emphasis added. (Defense, 303, 305–6.)
 Dabney, Defense, 222; Earnest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume Two: 1861–1890 (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1973), 25–26.
 Dabney, Defense, 220, 233.
 Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 1544–1699, 52; http://www.virtualjamestown.org/laws1.html (accessed August 15, 2017).
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