The Paradoxical Institution:
Complexity and Controversy
In the American South, as elsewhere, slavery rested upon a basic contradiction: Its guiding principle was that slaves were property, but its everyday practice demonstrated the impossibility of living up to, or down to, that denial of the slave's humanity. The master learned to treat his slaves both as property and as men and women; the slaves learned how to express and affirm their humanity even while they were constrained in much of their lives to accept their status as chattel.
For all the harsh lines of status and class, race and color, which divided owners and slaves, both were caught up in a complex web of compromise, adjustment, inconsistency, ambiguity, and deception. Slave society was the society of the double standard, adopted for its own convenience by the slave-owning class and forced upon the slaves by the simple need to survive. For the master, there were the competing needs of profit and paternalism, economic interest and social standing. The master claimed the absolute right of an owner over his property, but he was also restrained by the conventional morality of his time, his own standards of decency, the precepts of his religious faith, and the pressure of the white community. Owners weighed both their interests and their principles when they debated the balance between kindness and severity, the carrot and the stick, persuasion and coercion, in their management of the slaves.
For their part, slaves were obliged to strike their own balance between resignation and rebellion, accommodation to the facts of