History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Mckinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 - Vol. 1

By James Ford Rhodes | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER IV

IT will be well, at this point of my narrative, to examine, the institution of negro slavery as it existed in the South. So forcibly has the word slavery come in the closing years of our century to signify a practice utterly abhorrent, that we find it difficult to realize how recently it was defended and even extolled. It is my wish to describe the institution as it may have appeared before the war to a fair-minded man. In such an inquiry it is quite easy for one of Northern birth and breeding to extenuate nothing; more care must be taken to set down naught in malice. Nevertheless, this chapter can only be a commentary on the sententious expression of Clay: "Slavery is a curse to the master and a wrong to the slave."

It was the cultivation of the semi-tropical products, cotton, sugar, and rice, that strengthened the hold of slavery on the South. No one was able to contend, with any success, that grain and tobacco could be as well cultivated by slave as by free labor. After a very careful investigation into the agricultural system of Virginia, Olmsted, who worked a farm in New York, arrived at the conclusion that one hand in New York did as much labor as two slave hands in Virginia.1 Yet taking as a basis the price paid for slaves when

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Cotton Kingdom, Frederick Law Olmsted, vol. i. p. 134. This was a low estimate. A New Jersey farmer, who had the superintendence of very large agricultural operations in Virginia, conducted with slave labor, thought four Virginia slaves did not accomplish as much as one ordinary free farm laborer in New Jersey. This statement was confirmed by several who had a similar experience. I shall have frequent occasion to refer to Olmsted's books, The Seaboard Slave States, Texas Journey, A Journey in the Back Country, and The Cotton Kingdom, the last based on the three others. This gentleman made several journeys through the slave States between 1850 and 1857, travelling over a large part of country on horseback, which gave him unusual facilities for seeing the life of the people. His aim was to see things as they were and describe them truthfully. He has admirably succeeded, and his books are in. valuable to one making a study of this subject.

In reviewing A Journey in the Back Country, James R. Lowell wrote in the Atlantic Monthly for Nov., 1860: "No more important contributions to contemporary American history have been made than in this volume and the two that preceded it. We know of no book that offers a parallel to them except Arthur Young's Travels in France. To discuss the question of slavery without passion or even sentiment seemed an impossibility; yet Mr. Olmsted has shown that it can be done, and, having no theory to bolster, has contrived to tell us what he saw, and not what he went to see--the rarest achievement among travellers." This was a happy comparison of the reviewer, for there was a great resemblance between Young and Olmsted in tastes, manner of observing, and impartiality of judgment. But the most important resemblance Lowell could not know in 1860, Both wrote on the eve of a great convulsion. One was the greatest historical event of the eighteenth century, and the other will probably be adjudged the greatest of the nineteenth century.

George Wm. Curtis, in the Atlantic Monthly for Aug., 1863, makes the statement that first of all the literature on the subject of slavery are, "in spirit and comprehension, the masterly, careful, copious, and patient works of Mr. Olmsted." The epithet of "that wise and honest traveller," which John Morley applied to Young, may likewise be said of Olmsted.

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