Slavery and Southern Violence: County Court Petitions and the South's Peculiar Institution

Article excerpt

Loren Schweninger [*]

Twenty-eight years ago this month, I began a seminar at the University of Chicago on Alabama Reconstruction with Professor Franklin. As a number of his students who are here now know, Professor Franklin's seminars were life shaping and career molding. Such was the case for myself.

After choosing a topic, "Northern Philanthropy and the American Missionary Association in Reconstruction Alabama," I ventured south to Fisk University, where the American Missionary Association Papers were then housed, and to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, in Montgomery. After seven months of research and writing, I presented my findings. My colleagues complimented the paper as well-researched, and well-done.

Professor Franklin, however, said that he was surprised that the missionaries who went south after the Civil War to teach and assist freedmen encountered so little opposition or violence. I responded with a four minute monologue about how there was indeed a great deal of violence, how some missionaries had been assaulted, attacked, even murdered, how some churches and schools had been burned. Indeed, there had been so much violence that I decided to concentrate on the "positive aspects" of the missionary movement. Professor Franklin said only: "So one church burning is like another."

In subsequent years, and after using From Slavery to Freedom in my African American history classes, I came to appreciate how important it was to understand the place of violence in Southern history. Of course, a number of scholars have focused on this topic, including Edward Ayers, Philip Schwarz, and Professor Franklin himself, especially in The Militant South. We have some knowledge of the force used to keep slaves in line, to intimidate black families, and to curtail slave resistance, although I believe more can and will be said on these topics.

My presentation today is more modest. It seeks to understand the extent and nature of violence "within the plantation household." The current literature emphasizes tranquility, grace, gentility, and calm. Yet, there is ample evidence that such was often not the case. Indeed, slave owners themselves provide the evidence in the form of petitions to county courts. In their petitions, they reveal households that were anything but tranquil.

In South Carolina, for example, divorce was not legal (a number of South Carolinians went to Georgia for that purpose) and the only recourse for a woman caught in a bad marriage was to sue, through her "next [male] friend," for alimony or to preserve a trust estate. In Barnwell District [county] alone, there are perhaps a half-dozen petitions similar to the one presented in 1841 by slave owner Eliza A. Ransom, the wife of Dr. Thomas S. Ransom, a respected physician. In a nine-page remonstrance seeking to retrieve property in a trust estate, she traced her husband's brutal and violent nature (always when visitors were absent) over a three-year period:

'he repeatedly slapped me,' she testified, 'knocked me to the floor, abused and ill-treated me both by words and blows.'

He was 'harsh, un Kind, contemptuous, degrading and cruel"

he treated his slaves in the same manner.

On one occasion, when he ordered a slave girl to bring him some water and Eliza asked her personal servant, Sally, to assist, the husband abruptly stepped out of the house, and began to beat Sally, "whereupon you Oratrix [Eliza Ransom] came down Stairs and mildly observed: 'Doctor, I told Sally to draw the water', on which immediately turning round, and without uttering a word, inflicted a severe blow on your Oratrix by which I was felled to the ground."

On another occasion, Dr. Ransom again became incensed with Sally, and shortly after breakfast commenced whipping her--After whipping her most severely for some time, "your oratrix approached him and observed that he had whipped Sally enough, whereupon he pushed your Oratrix with such violence that she fell and in the attempt to avoid falling she accidentally caught his shirt bosom which was torn, and as she was rising he gave your Oratrix a violent blow in the face which drew blood--after he had ceased beating Sally, he came into the house, and gave your Oratrix as many as thirteen blows over the shoulders, with the whip which he had been beating the servant, the marks of which were visible days afterwards. …