In a series of editorials, beginning in December 1809, the editor of the local newspaper, The Virginian, discusses issues concerning slavery. Regarding the use of slaves’ physical punishment, the editor considers that violence in the name of a greater good—in this case, the maintenance of economic prosperity—is justifiable. Brutality, though, he notes, must never be the objective in itself. Rather, a man who remains an honest human being, capable of love and compassion, can remain perfectly dignified while choosing to whip a slave.
Although they appear reasonable, the editor’s conclusions about the use of violence against slaves remain vague, since knowing when brutality is too extreme is subjective, depending on the slave owner’s general tolerance of violence. The writer’s distinction between the private and public spheres is also arbitrary, as it suggests that a man should be judged morally only by his private actions (characterized by love), not by his public relationships with his slaves (marked by violence).
The next month, the editor discusses how much a seller should ask for a slave who is later discovered to be pregnant. He concludes that since it cannot be known whether the investment will be profitable—in this case, whether both mother and child will live—it would not be wise for the seller to increase the price. Rather, the slave owner should enquire whether he might receive a refund if mother and/or child die in childbirth.
The editor’s discussion of childbirth transfers the focus from the main protagonists—the mother and her child—to the slave owners. This perspective highlights the editor’s belief that slaves should not be seen as independent beings in control of their own lives. Rather, their very value is determined by external owners who see them as interchangeable assets.
In another editorial, the editor concludes that slaves can rightfully be separated from their family because Africans do not have the same capacity for love and affection as whites. Therefore, the family bonds that exist between them do not need to be respected, and each member of the family can be treated as a separate economic asset.
The editor believes that, on an emotional level, slaves should not be seen as fully human. The editor’s perspective on a crucial issue such as separating a family forever is particularly heartless, as it is concerned only with economic arguments, rather than any conception of the slaves’ well-being.
Discussing the punishment of runaway slaves, the editor considers two hundred lashes and restrictions on food to be fair, since this can also serve to dissuade potential runaways. He argues that, upon calculating the economic cost of a slave’s escape, it seems logical to punish the slave, even to the point of death, although excessive violence (such as the use of bloodhounds or showing the body as it rots) should be avoided. Punishment should provoke obedience and instruction, not anger and rebellion.
The editor’s conception of justice does not rely on fair and respectful treatment but, rather, on the effects of punishment. In this way, justice is divorced from morals and adopts a purely utilitarian definition: how well it will succeed in keeping slaves from running away. The editor’s seemingly humane view about excessive violence only masks his lack of moral discernment.
Concerning the use of old slaves who have worked all their lives but are too old to do so anymore, the editor argues against abandoning them off the plantation. He reasons that an old slave can instruct younger ones in obedience, even if he is no longer working. The example this slave sets is invaluable and should be considered an asset.
Once again, the editor’s seemingly moralistic attitude, which advocates respecting old slaves, is divorced from any understanding of slaves’ dignity or well-being. Instead, it focuses exclusively on the economic purpose that slaves play on the plantation.
Despite considering that young female slaves are “a temptation to us all,” the editor concludes that sexual relationships with slaves should be avoided at all costs. It might be right, he explains, to experience lust, but to act on that lust must be forbidden, as relationships between a master and a slave can threaten the relationship between a master and his wife, or encourage the slave to demand greater rights. Therefore, a master should make sure to marry female slaves and keep them occupied with raising their children. As an example of the dangers of relationships between masters and slaves, the editor recounts a story he recently heard of an overseer whipping a young slave to death, whom he later learned was none other than his half-brother.
Once again, the editor’s warning against sexual relationships with slaves cares little for the actual slaves’ perspective, but focuses only on the consequences of rape on life on the plantation and the master’s family. The editor does not see rape or the objectification of female slaves (in which they are described not as human beings but as “a temptation”) as problems, since he seems to assume that women slaves have no say in what happens in their sexual life. The example he mentions is the one involving Cook and Sanders Senior and, once again, he focuses only on the perspective of the plantation staff, not on the injustice done to slaves.
The editor discusses the compatibility of Christianity with slavery. He concludes that, while Christianity answers a spiritual need, slavery provides material well-being. Therefore, the two are perfectly compatible, as can be seen from the fact that over a century of slavery has not destroyed the Christian faith. He explains that the confusion between the two notions derives form the wrong view that slaves should take part in all aspects of the Christian faith. Instead, converting slaves to Christianity should always involve reminding them of the separation between masters and slaves, as well as their inherent inferiority due to their primitive, previous life in Africa.
The editor’s argument that Christianity would have disappeared if the faith were incompatible with slavery is deeply flawed. The writer seems incapable of conceiving that, in addition to a spiritual function, religion plays a social role in society and can therefore not be seen as a separate entity from the interests and power dynamics pervading society. His vision of the Christian faith is selective. Instead of focusing on religion’s precepts to love and respect all human beings, the writer’s opinion is primarily defined by his conviction that slaves are not full human beings deserving of equal treatment.
The editor discusses whether slave management should be firm or kind. He describes each perspective: the kind approach considers brutality inhumane and unproductive, breeding discontent among slaves, whereas the firm approach defends the use of punishment for misbehavior. The editor concludes that a balanced approach should be used, in which fairness is defined as the defense of the plantation’s interests. Because of this, slaves do not necessarily have to live miserably for the plantation to profit.
Once again, the editor defines justice and fairness not as moral codes of conduct, but as utilitarian notions serving the slave owner’s economic interests. His seemingly humane conclusion about not needing to treat slaves with extreme violence only suggests that some level of violence and oppression is always necessary and acceptable.
When asked whether slavery will end, the editor understands the two sides of the answer. On the one hand, he believes that slavery will always be needed because work in the fields will always be necessary for the economic system. On the other hand, technological advances might make slaves’ work obsolete, as cheaper modes of producing goods might make slavery too expensive. The editor concludes that this will not take place in the next couple of generations, but also worries about the increasing number of freed slaves in society.
The editor’s narrow focus on economic interests makes him blind to larger societal dynamics taking place at the time that he is writing, such as the birth of the abolitionist movement. He seems unable to realize that the central issues that characterize slavery are economic as well as social and political. In particular, the oppression and violence that slavery involves makes it unsustainable in a society where people begin to fight for equality.
When the editor receives a letter from a mysterious Miss L. (Lydia) who asks whether it might be more profitable to pay black people for their labor, he takes her question seriously, considering questions of supply and demand. However, he ultimately concludes that the profitability would depend on factors such as the number of slaves on the plantation, and that, since profitability might not be guaranteed in all cases, the idea of paying blacks should be rejected as too impractical.
Once again, the editor considers such a crucial existential question as slaves’ freedom from a purely economic perspective. Paradoxically, this makes him appear open to such a large social and economic change, as he is willing to consider it on a theoretical basis. His conclusion, though, reveals the deep opposition to slaves’ freedom that anyone who has an economic interest in slavery will demonstrate.
Miss L. (Lydia) replies to the previous editorial, arguing that slavery is full of fluctuations, and that she has recently noticed that an increase in costs at her father’s plantations has not been accompanied by increasing profits, which suggests that slavery might bring diminishing returns. The editor argues that the rising costs might be related to other factors than the inevitable decline of slavery, such as inefficiency on the plantation. In an authoritative voice, he admonishes her to avoid thinking that slavery should be considered an open market system or a system that is dying.
Miss L.—Lydia’s pseudonym to maintain anonymity and protect herself from social backlash—tries to argue with the editor in economic terms. However, the editor’s harsh response, which is still economically reasonable, also serves as a warning that predicting (let alone wishing for) the end of slavery is socially and politically dangerous and unacceptable, as it threatens the ideology of the entire American South.
The editor relates an extraordinary event: he has received an extremely articulate letter from a literate slave who argues that The Virginian should include stories written by slaves themselves. Despite being surprised at discovering that blacks also read this newspaper, which he did not think was possible, the editor is open to this idea and asks his readers to write to him with their opinion. He concludes that he is not opposed to slaves’ literacy as long as it does not hamper the economic development of the plantation.
Despite his surprise, the editor does not admit that this slave’s elaborate response—which likely comes from Chapel—should cause him to revisit his views on the intellectual and emotional inferiority of slaves, even though this letter serves as clear evidence that slaves are just as capable of brilliance as any free person. The editor’s perspective on slave literacy, though, is surprisingly open for the time.
After the previous editorial, the editor receives an overwhelming “no” from his readers. He notes that he received two divisive letters within the same family. The father argued slaves’ literacy would only increase their discontent and is therefore unethical, whereas the daughter argues that literacy makes slaves—and, in general, everyone—better people. Without necessarily agreeing with her, the editor lauds the young girl’s idealism, concluding that the young will be the ones to design the future.
Readers’ rejection of the idea of reading slaves’ accounts of life suggests that people know that this might be potentially dangerous—for example, showing how miserable slaves’ lives are and, therefore, how immoral slavery is. The danger of confronting this truth, which might uproot people’s trust in slavery, as well as the public’s utter disinterest for slaves’ feelings, prompts their rejection. The editor, though, seems to imply that progressive views about slave literacy might prevail in the future, if not in the present.
The editor receives a letter from the deputy of an overseer complaining about the conditions of poor whites, who are sometimes barely above the condition of slave and who feel that some free blacks enjoy a better life than some whites. He turns his sentiment of injustice into a direct (if imaginary) threat when he imagines that poor whites might kill all the blacks, as well as the rich whites who did nothing to secure their future.
While the deputy’s indignation at poverty might be justified, his conclusion that this is somehow blacks’ fault is absurd, given that black slaves have absolutely no control over their own lives—and much less over inequality in society as a whole. The deputy is also blind to the distinction between poverty (which whites and blacks might experience) and the extra burdens that affect blacks exclusively, regardless of their economic status: severe lack of freedom and racial discrimination.
In the next editorial, many readers share the angry white man’s sentiment, feeling that society has all but forgotten poor whites. While the editor does not believe in resolving this problem in a violent way and trusts that people’s “Christian restraint” will keep them from doing harm, he does agree that whites should be treated better than blacks because of their inherent superiority.
The editor’s belief in a vague notion of “Christian restraint” reveals his naïveté about the use of violence in society. The readers’ indignation at the life of poor whites only highlights their incapacity to feel empathy for the oppressed life of blacks, even though slaves suffer infinitely more from violence, discrimination, and lack of freedom.
The editor writes a vehement article criticizing interracial relationships, which he considers shocking and inacceptable. This leads him to worry about the future. He wonders what the product of such relationships will be, wondering if biracial children will claim equality with whites and what their place in the country might be. He compares this situation to relationships between masters and slaves, although he does note that there is a difference between free blacks and slaves.
Even though the editor’s views about interracial relationships are explicitly racist and, unfounded, his fear of the future actually brings to light a much deeper problem. Beyond his narrow fear of racial equality, his interrogation about the integration into society of a population that has been systematically discriminated against will remain a matter of political debate for the following decades and centuries.
In the next editorial, the editor criticizes Miss L.’s (Lydia’s) response to his views about interracial relationships, as she accuses the editor’s views of being unconstitutional. The writer defends himself by arguing implicitly that free speech and the expression of his worries is not unconstitutional. He insults her intelligence and her excessive “love for blacks,” which he believes keeps her from thinking about these issues rationally. He imagines that she might find herself in an interracial relationship, which would be her own fault.
When the editor focuses exclusively on social issues that are not directly related to the economic system of slavery, his racism and intolerance—which might have been disguised under seemingly open-minded economic considerations—are brought to light. His bigotry keeps him from realizing that Miss L.’s lack of racism does not indicate lack of intelligence but, rather, the courage to challenge the dominant ideology.