The rape of female slaves was all-too common during the antebellum period. Female slaves whose masters raped them often had no way of retaliating. They couldn’t band together with other slaves, meaning that whatever retaliation they could muster had to be individual.
In this chapter, McLaurin emphasizes the scale of the tragedy: Celia’s rape was just a drop in the bucket compared to the aggregate cruelty and abuse that female slaves had to endure from their masters.
During the antebellum period, the vast majority of white women from slave-owning families tolerated the rape of female slaves. White women were themselves their husbands’ property, and weren’t in a position where they could easily oppose the rape of slaves.
McLaurin has already established that some white women felt a sense of kinship with female slaves, and opposed slavery because they knew what it was like to be powerless before a white man. However, many more white women tolerated slavery precisely because they were powerless to change their husbands’ behavior.
The case of Celia’s life also touches upon another tragedy of the antebellum period: the helplessness of male slaves to help female slaves. When faced with a choice of protecting himself and protecting Celia, George chose to protect himself, and the jealous tensions between George and Celia were, in all likelihood, typical of the relationship between male and female slaves.
As McLaurin has shown already, George’s decision to protect his own life, rather than risk it by confronting Robert Newsom, is both cowardly and completely understandable. Faced with a “cognitive dissonance”—first, that he had feelings for Celia and second, that he knew Robert Newsom was abusing Celia—George chose to resolve the dissonance by taking out his jealousy and frustration on Celia, in effect passing on the burden of resolving the situation to her.
Celia’s case also raises some important points about antebellum law. Southern laws recognized slave owners’ right to own slaves as property. And yet other Southern laws recognized that slaves were people, who had the right to live. When these two sets of laws came into conflict with each other, the American legal establishment almost always favored the property rights of the master over the human rights of the slave.
From a philosophical perspective, slavery in the antebellum South was a mess of contradictions. Slaveholders insisted that their slaves weren’t human beings—they were just property. But of course, there was abundant evidence that slaves were human beings—even Robert Newsom acknowledged as much when he bought Celia to replace his deceased wife. In short, antebellum slave owners were hypocrites, treating their slaves as people or property whenever it suited them.
Above all, Celia’s case raises the fundamental problem with slavery. Abolitionists argued that slavery was an evil institution, and that slave owners knew, whether they admitted it or not, that it was evil to own another human being. In order to avoid the truth, slave owners hid behind various rationalizations: most notably that slaves were property, not people. It’s impossible to calculate “the psychic cost” of those rationalizations, both for black and white Americans. For white slave owners, the psychic costs of justifying slavery were high. For black slaves, the costs were “incalculable and enduring.”
Throughout the book, McLaurin has been highly critical of the behavior of antebellum slaveholders, calling them hypocrites and monsters. But he’s not without some sympathy for them: it must have been psychologically exhausting, he allows, for slaveholders to come up with elaborate rationalizations for owning human beings. However, the greatest costs of slavery in the United States were, of course, the lives and dignity of the millions of enslaved people. After decades of attempting to address the slavery controversy through peaceful political compromises, Americans finally reached a point where the only solution left was civil war.