Southern White Slaveholder Guilt

Joe Masters

Guilt is an inevitable effect of slavery. For no matter how much rhetoric and racism is poured into such a system, the simple fact remains that men are enslaving men. Regardless of how much inferior a slaveholder may perceive his slaves, it is obvious that his "property" looks similar, has similar needs, and has similar feelings. There is thus the necessary comparison of situations; the slaveholder is free, the slaves in bondage - certainly a position that the slaveholder would find most disagreeable. So there is no doubt that any slaveholder with any measure of humanity within himself would feel guilt. And in fact, as the evidence is considered - including the proslavery propaganda - the reality of southern guilt is overwhelmingly obvious. It is seen in their words, both private and public, uncovered in their proslavery diatribes, and understandable in their humanity.

Before this discussion of guilt in slaveholders begins, it is necessary to first define how we will define guilt. Certainly if a man says he is guilt-stricken with conviction we can take this as adequate evidence of guilt. However, certainly not everyone takes this direct an approach. James Oakes makes a good point in recognizing that guilt is not always starkly obvious. "Guilt is the product of a deeply rooted psychological ambivalence that impels the individual to behave in ways that violate fundamental norms even as they fulfill basic desires." ^1 In other words, guilt creates such inner turmoil that a guilty man will deviate from normal behavior. In this case, we will have to show two things. First, a slaveholder is committing detrimental actions (to himself or his family) that show he is in mental distress, and second, that these actions are a result of his status as a slaveholder. It is obvious that we cannot prove the latter point, but we can show it is the most probable situation for his guilt. Finally, if a slaveholder is making pains above and beyond law and custom, it is most likely that these actions are to alleviate feelings of guilt. This is because we may assume any deliberate actions taken by any man are usually taken because he assumes they will benefit him in some manner. And if such an action is costly (money-wise), then it must have some allure in terms of personal happiness. So to show guilt, we will set forth examples of open confessions of guilt, deviant behavior, and uncommonly good treatment of slaves.

The correspondence of slaveholders is a gold mine for evidence of these three signs of guilt. P.H. Leubal writes about a slave girl, Jeanette purchased and then injured before she arrived on his property. Perhaps the common perception of what would happen in this case would go as follows: he would be upset at the visible destruction of his property, perhaps get a cursory examination done for legal purposes, and would demand a refund. This is merely an estimate of what custom might dictate, but this would surely not be out of line with the picture of slaves as purely property. A lame slave would essentially be a negative in terms of profit; this wouldn't be advantageous in any sense of the economic world in which Leubal is embroiled. However, Leubal goes far above and beyond this baseline version of humanity. He gets a thorough examination from a clearly respected doctor - presumably his own - and gets a fairly complex story from the slave girl herself to explain the incident. Upon learning that Jeanette would be fairly useless as economically valuable property, Leubal goes yet another step; he knows her humanity, listens to her feelings, and elects to keep her himself. Yes, she is still a slave, and yes, he demands a refund on his money. However, his behavior is still unusual if examined from a purely economic standpoint. A slaveholder who cares enough about money to request a partial refund from a $290 piece of property, yet he elects to keep the property, knowing that it will cost him much in the long run, while he could just send the slave back for a full refund and then buy another that would be more to what his expectations for Jeanette were originally. The only answer for this can be because Leubal was motivated by some internal need to help her because of her humanity. He felt it was