Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview

I
The Function of Race in Southern Slave Law

The Institution of African Service

Code of Mississippi ( 1848)

"These two words, Negro and Slave," the Reverend Morgan Godwyn wrote in 1680, had "by custom grown Homogeneous and convertible; even as Negro and Christian, Englishman and Heathen, are by the like corrupt Custom and Partiality made Opposites."1 later Thomas Jefferson wrote of the "elegant symmetry of form" of whites and the "strong and disagreeable odor" of blacks. Blacks were "much inferior" in intellect, and their "griefs are transient." Jefferson believed that blacks, "whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."2

Long before, Aristotle had written that some were "natural slaves."3 There was a profound debate held in Valladolid, Spain, in 1550-51 between Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas about whether Amerindians were such natural slaves. As inferiors, Sepulveda claimed, they needed "to be placed under the authority of civilized and virtuous princes or nations, so that they may learn . . . worthier customs and a more civilized way of life." Las Casas also accepted the Aristotelian notion but believed that Indians were more accomplished than did Sepulveda. As an alternative he suggested, only to later recant, that Africans rather than Indians ought to be enslaved.4

Especially striking in early observations about Africans were whites' views on the sexuality of the males. Oliver Goldsmith argued that the African's "penis was longer and much wider" than the white's. This was a "scientific" commonplace by the end of the eighteenth century.5 Obsession among whites with the size of the penis has figured prominently in often testy racial relationships, but it is only one element in a larger scientific predisposition to categorize groups of people in terms of physical characteristics. This was linked in Western thought with the notion of a "Great Chain of Being."6 Life was part of a chain that ascended from the lowest to the highest order. Such a view, together with the Aristotelian notion of the natural slave and--finally--the perversion of the so-called curse of Ham in Christianity,7

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