Outsiders' Views of Slavery: An Overview

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Outsiders' Views of Slavery: An Overview

In trying to understand outsiders' views of slavery, two problems must be addressed. First, the notion of outsiders to slavery in the U.S. context is a tricky one. If by slavery one means the state or situation of being held as a slave—legal chattel property—then anyone not held as a slave was an outsider to slavery. Slaveholders were outsiders to slavery in that they could not fully comprehend it from slaves' perspectives. But if by slavery one means the entire system that created and enforced the legal category of slave, then no one in the United States was an outsider to slavery. Slavery relied not only on constitutional agreements among the states, but also on sanction from Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court in areas where federal jurisdiction did apply. An economic definition might exclude anyone outside areas dominated by slave labor; but northern financing fueled the expansion of the plantations, just as cotton fed the northern mills. The most useful way to define outsiders here is social and geographic, as those who had not experienced (or who were new to the experiences of) daily social interactions of places where slavery was legal.

Second is the question of views of slavery. By views—especially views on something—one often means opinions, positions, arguments, perspectives, points of view. But, as these last two terms imply, views on slavery can also be taken at face value, meaning what outsiders actually saw of slavery, what they were able to witness, or what they were shown, either firsthand or, by extension, through other pictorial means. The discussion that follows considers all of these meanings of views, especially since what people were shown of slavery often influenced what they thought about slavery.

Eighteenth-century Britain saw the rise of both the first major abolition movement and the first significant use of images as a means of moral suasion against slavery. The movement itself drew on the relatively recent ideological and cultural development of genteel sensibility, which included the notion that emotions legitimately informed thought and action and should therefore be cultivated. British abolitionists took sensibility further into the realm of humanitarianism by asking their citizens to sympathize with and take action on behalf of enslaved Africans in the colonies, people whom bourgeois Britons at home knew little about and felt little connection to.

A key aspect of this effort was the publishing and circulation of images of the implements of the slave trade, with an emphasis on the accuracy and authenticity of these images and on traders' violence toward Africans. An engineer's plan of the slave ship Brookes—today the most recognizable image of the Atlantic slave trade—was first published in 1789 and reproduced numerous times thereafter. Thomas Clarkson's (1760–1846) History of the Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition, published in 1808 in London and Philadelphia, featured the Brookes images along with precise drawings of manacles, leg irons, a thumb screw (for torture), and a speculum oris (for force feeding), all artifacts he said he had purchased in Liverpool. Other abolitionist images depicted spiked collars and iron masks as they would appear on their victims. Both trends—the use of detailed images and the bid for humanitarian sympathy—foreshadowed and influenced the later development of the American abolitionist values and tactics.

Early debates about slavery in the United States, however, had little to do with morality and much to do with politics and economics. Revolutionary leaders decried the tyranny of their own slavery to the British Crown, establishing a principled perception that slavery contradicted American notions of liberty. But the Continental Congress discussed the status of American slaves mainly in terms of whether slaves would count toward a state's representation and taxation. And when debating a ban on the international slave trade, humanitarian rhetoric often went hand in hand with economic self-interest; Virginia delegates supporting the ban were accused of trying to restrict the supply of slaves and therefore raise prices.

Visual images of slavery in the early republic similarly focused on the institution as a political issue, with slaves portrayed merely as tools of slaveholding politicians. A cartoon during the 1820 Missouri crisis, for example, depicted armies of slaves driven by planters to take over the West. An 1828 attack on Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) portrayed him as a slave trader separating families and sending away people in chains. While African Americans were portrayed as unhappy victims, such images also implied the negative impact slavery might have for white northerners—to be squeezed out of western lands or to be ruled by a dishonorable tyrant.

This point of view—that slavery was dangerous because it threatened white men's economic and political liberty—proved widespread and durable. In the 1840s and 1850s, Free-Soilers saw slavery as antithetical to everything they valued: free land, free labor, and free men. In attacking slavery, they were often only attacking planters' political power. At moments, this form of antislavery was even anti-black, as it identified yeoman freedom in racial terms. Free-Soilers' racist underpinnings were spoofed in an 1848 cartoon depicting their fusion with the abolitionist Liberty Party as a mixed-race wedding—with Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) as the groom and a barefoot, kerchiefed African American woman speaking in dialect as the bride. And in the events of sectional crises of the 1850s—the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the caning of Charles Sumner (1811–1874), the Dred Scott (1795–1858) decision, and the debates between Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and Stephen Douglas (1813–1861) among them—many northerners and westerners decried the slave power conspiracy not only or even most importantly because of what it did to African Americans, but because, in their view, it subverted American democratic institutions.

At the same time, however, a group of reformers did take up the abolition of slavery as a moral cause, and they worked creatively to put images of slavery before northern and western readers as a way to generate understanding, sympathy, and action. Abolitionists came to disagree among themselves on all manners of strategic and tactical issues, but they tended to agree that slavery violated Christian morality and rights of humanity. In the early 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) Liberator and other publications illustrated their texts with scenes of physical torture, auctions, and the separation of family members. They sensed that images—often more than words—would persuade their readers to take action. George Bourne (1780–1845) emphasized the importance of visual argument in the very title of his book, Pictures of Slavery in the United States of America (1838). And Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) referred to her descriptions in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as pictures of slavery that would move readers to sympathy and action. Images, to them, often seemed more directly real, more factual. This tactic of emphasizing the visual, even in descriptive work, was closely related to abolitionists' practice or letting firsthand textual evidence of slavery speak for itself. Several books, including Stowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, simply collected and reprinted verbatim slaveholders' runaway advertisements, newspaper reports, legislative actions, judicial decisions, and other documents from within the institution. By these means, they hoped that outsiders could see slavery's cruelties firsthand, in the very words of those most likely to defend the institution.


"No pen, we think, can adequately delineate the choking sense of horror which overcomes one on first witnessing these degrading spectacles" (Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856).

These were the words of British painter Eyre Crowe (1824–1910), on witnessing the ubiquitous public slave auctions of Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond during his tour in 1852 and 1853. Still, he did put pen to paper and attempted to sketch what he witnessed. The results, as published in 1856 in the London Illustrated News, form one of the most enduring and familiar sets of images of American slave auctions, often reproduced in twenty-first-century textbooks. The oil paintings he produced from these and other sketches are less familiar today, but gained him some notoriety when first exhibited in the 1860s. Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, shown at the Royal Academy in 1861, was initially praised by one journal for demonstrating a "rare power in Art—that of successfully and discriminately representing the inward actuality and outward expression of phases of mental thought and human passion" (Art Journal, Vol. VII, p. 165). Exposing the ambivalence outsiders often felt toward enslaved African Americans, however, that same journal in June 1864 noted of the painting, "Neither the colour not the features of the negro race can be associated with European notions of aesthetic beauty; and the system of slavery is too abhorrent to Englishmen to render a representation of it, especially in its most objectionable forms, acceptable" (p. 206). Truth, apparently, did not make for good art, at least not in the minds of Anglo-centric critics.


Art Journal 7 (1861): 165.

"British Artists: Their Style and Character—Eyre Crowe." Art Journal 73 (June 1864): 206.

Crowe, Eyre. "Sketches in the Free and Slave States of America." Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856.

Summerwill, Kathryn J. "Paintings and Sketches Relating to Slavery, by Eyre Crowe." Updated April 3, 2007. Available from http://www.geocities.com/eyre_crowe/art_slavery.html.

Not all such books presented a uniform vision of slavery, however. Nehemiah Adams's 1854 book A South-Side View of Slavery, although written by a New Englander who had long opposed slavery, painted a milder picture than Stowe's book did. In fact, Adams recanted his abolitionism, claiming he never found the "evils" of slavery he had expected to see during his visit there, and questioned Stowe's depiction. This led to a response to his work, in 1856, by yet another Boston abolitionist, Benjamin Drew. Drew's A North-Side View of Slavery was based on his experiences in Canada with escaped slaves.

Like Drew, outsiders to slavery also learned a great deal about the institution from those who had made it out of the system, most notably fugitives. Not only did former slaves commit their experiences to print, but they took them on stage, as well, touring the northern, western, and British lecture circuits. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) was one of the most eloquent of these lecturers, but there were numerous others, many now unknown, who bore witness to their experiences. While some of these narratives took on generic qualities, many others remained authentically idiosyncratic in their organization, prose styles, levels of detail, and ideological points of view. They not only detailed the events of their own lives but also articulated more general understandings of the system and formulated critiques of the values and practices that upheld it. Narrators condemned not simply the regime of forced and uncompensated labor, but more importantly the chattel principle that undergirded it: the fact that slaves were personal property who could be sold, bartered, traded, given as gifts, offered as collateral, seized for credit, and taken anywhere slavery was legal at any time with no regard to family ties whatsoever. Narrators also were quick to highlight—often with caustic wit—the hypocrisy inherent in the land of liberty continuing the practice of slavery. White abolitionists frequently expanded on this theme by illustrating their pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers with images of slavery (auctions, whippings, separation of family) juxtaposed with icons of liberty (the flag, the U.S. Capitol, the liberty cap, Lady Liberty, and the American eagle).

But because white audiences everywhere shared many of the same racial prejudices, these African American publications and presentations were often fraught with tension. Stock images were sometimes used in the autobiographies, reducing individual authors to stereotypes. Numerous narratives were edited or reframed into language more acceptable to genteel white readers but perhaps less authentically that of their African American authors. Some were denounced as frauds because their language seemed too eloquent for former slaves. And at times, African Americans' oratorical and performance practices tested the limits of their audiences' tolerance for creativity and cross-cultural understanding. For example, Henry "Box" Brown's (1815–c.1879) innovative moving diorama impressed viewers, but his irreverent performance style ruffled the feathers of British abolitionists, who expected wholesome piety from ex-slaves seeking support for the cause.

Many other outsiders' views of slavery were similarly shaped by their own ideals, filtered through their other concerns, though sometimes quite productively. For women participating in the ideological reform movement of domesticity, images of and experiences with slavery often served as instructive counterpoints. Where these reformers envisioned home as a feminine haven from the market world, they saw in slavery the continued dominance of patriarchal violence and the intrusion of market forces. Catherine Beecher's (1800–1878) treatises on domestic organization—emphasizing orderliness, cleanliness, and the clear separation of private family space from public work space—found their antithesis in Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrayal of the plantation kitchen in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where home and market intertwined and chaos reigned. Likewise, the English actress Fanny Kemble (1809–1893) was taken aback by the lack of tidiness and privacy on her husband's Georgia plantation. These women's acute awareness of patriarchy and the vagaries of market forces in their own lives made them especially perceptive about how much more embedded these forces were in slaveholding households. Slaves' homes were never havens from the market because family members could be separated by sale at any moment. This was, in fact, the plot premise and central argument of Uncle Tom's Cabin: No matter how benevolent a slaveholder might be—and Stowe's portrayal of Christian, caring slaveholders was rather generous—the fact remained that slaves were capital. Their families were never sheltered from the market. Innumerable abolitionist images of families separated on the auction block testify to the power this criticism held for northerners.

But most northerners and westerners were not abolitionists, and by no means were all portrayals of African Americans in slavery sympathetic. Blackface minstrel shows, wildly popular outside the South before the Civil War (1861–1865), denigrated African Americans' intelligence, mocked their situation, and spoofed their dialect, even when the performers themselves (often Irish and Jewish immigrants, themselves outside the mainstream of white society) recognized and worked to imitate authentic African American musical traditions. In novels, newspapers, and illustrated weeklies such as Harper's, slavery was often described and depicted merely as a curiosity, an emblematic feature of an exotic South. Slaves appeared as colorful characters of this foreign place, often a romanticized realm of genteel plantations. Or, when slavery was addressed directly—as in the raft of pro-slavery novels written in response to Uncle Tom's Cabin and circulated both North and South—slaves were seen as happy and indolent, essentially free from care and as being liberated by the benevolence of caring masters.

Versions of this positive good defense of slavery, articulated fully only in the 1840s and 1850s, carried more serious implications in religious literature, where both Southern and Northern-born theologians justified slavery on racial and biblical grounds, as a civilizing and Christianizing force. While abolitionists relied on the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them to do unto you—most theologians publishing in America worked to document the Bible's sanction of slavery and to further justify the enslavement of Africans and African Americans as a progressive, civilizing mission.

Travelers observing slavery for the first time were often surprised at how little the reality fit these images. In the 1830s, Kemble was shocked at the disorganized and unkempt state of Georgia mansion houses, but even more at that of the slave cabins, whose condition she blamed on a "careless, reckdess, filthy indolence which even the brutes do not exhibit in their lairs and nests" (2004). The racism evident in her judgment was evident, but she also blamed the system itself, which she argued made everyone lazy—slaves because they do only what they are forced to, white people because they associated labor with slavery and with black people. Two decades later, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) came to similar conclusions, taking note of the same shabbiness of housing and general lack of industry and cultivation of much of the land. He attributed it not to laziness but to the inefficiencies of slavery as a labor system—relying as it did on violence and the provision of housing, clothing, food, and infant and elderly care not required in the freewage system. These expenses caused slaveholders to cut corners, leading to the parsimony Olmsted observed in every aspect of life, from the planters' meagerly furnished dinner table to the cheap stucco walls of Thomas Jefferson's (1743–1826) state Capitol building.

Although racist, romantic, and pro-slavery views were common everywhere in the United States, the "moonlight and magnolia" view of slavery never fully took hold before the Civil War. There was far too much evidence to the contrary circulating in the public realm. After the Civil War, however, when ex-Confederates distanced their cause from slavery and planter families published nostalgic memoirs, white audiences across the country imbibed the full-blown myths of benevolent slaveholding, captivated especially by the myth's portrayals in the powerful new medium of film. The fact that two of the most popular and significant films of the twentieth century—Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With The Wind (1939)—carried such pro-slavery overtones suggests that, despite the best efforts of ex-slaves and abolitionists, most outsiders to slavery never fully understood the system.


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                              Philip Troutman