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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER X. LEGREE.
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As St. Clare and the Shelbys are the representatives of one class of masters, so Legree is the representative of another; and, as all good masters are not as enlightened, as generous, and as considerate, as St. Clare and Mr. Shelby, or as careful and successful in religious training as Mrs. Shelby, so all bad masters do not unite the personal ugliness, the coarseness and profaneness, of Legree.

Legree is introduced not for the sake of vilifying masters as a class, but for the sake of bringing to the minds of honorable Southern men, who are masters, a very important feature in the system of slavery, upon which, perhaps, they have never reflected. It is this: that no Southern law requires any test of CHARACTER from the man to whom the absolute power of master is granted.

In the second part of this book it will be shown that the legal power of the master amounts to an absolute despotism over body and soul; and that there is no protection for the slave’s life or limb, his family relations, his conscience, nay, more, his eternal interests, but the CHARACTER of the master.

Rev. Charles C. Jones, of Georgia, in addressing masters, tells them that they have the power to open the kingdom of heaven or to shut it, to their slaves (Religious Instruction of the Negroes, p. 158), and a South Carolinian, in a recent article in Fraser’s Magazine, apparently in a very serious spirit, thus acknowledges the fact of this awful power: “Yes, we would have the whole South to feel that the soul of the slave is in some sense in the master’s keeping, and to be charged against him hereafter.”

Now, it is respectfully submitted to men of this high class, who are the law-makers, whether this awful power to bind and to loose, to open and to shut the kingdom of heaven, ought to be intrusted to every man in the community, without any other qualification than that of property to buy. Let this gentleman of South Carolina cast his eyes around the world. Let him travel for one week through any district of country either in the South or the North, and ask himself how many of the men whom he meets are fit to be trusted with this power,—how many are fit to be trusted with their own souls, much less with those of others?

Now, in all the theory of government as it is managed in our country, just in proportion to the extent of power is the strictness with which qualification for the proper exercise of it is demanded. The physician may not meddle with the body, to prescribe for its ailments, without a certificate that he is properly qualified. The judge may not decide on the laws which relate to property, without a long course of training, and most abundant preparation. It is only this office of MASTER, which contains the power to bind and to loose, and to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, and involves responsibility for the soul as well as the body, that is thrown out to every hand, and committed without inquiry to any man of any character. A man may have made all his property by piracy upon the high seas, as we have represented in the case of Legree, and there is no law whatever to prevent his investing that property in acquiring this absolute control over the souls and bodies of his fellow-beings. To the half-maniac drunkard, to the man notorious for hardness and cruelty, to the man sunk entirely below public opinion, to the bitter infidel and blasphemer, the law confides this power, just as freely as to the most honorable and religious man on earth. And yet, men who make and uphold these laws think they are guiltless before God, because individually they do not perpetrate the wrongs which they allow others to perpetrate!

To the pirate Legree the law gives a power which no man of woman born, save One, ever was good enough to exercise.

Are there such men as Legree? Let any one go into the low districts and dens of New York, let them go into some of the 40lanes and alleys of London, and will they not there see many Legrees? Nay, take the purest district of New England, and let people cast about in their memory and see if there have not been men there, hard, coarse, unfeeling, brutal, who, if they had possessed the absolute power of Legree, would have used it in the same way; and that there should be Legrees in the Southern States, is only saying that human nature is the same there that it is everywhere. The only difference is this,—that in free states Legree is chained and restrained by law; in the slave states, the law makes him an absolute, irresponsible despot.

It is a shocking task to confirm by fact this part of the writer’s story. One may well approach it in fear and trembling. It is so mournful to think that man, made in the image of God, and by his human birth a brother of Jesus Christ, can sink so low, can do such things as the very soul shudders to contemplate,—and to think that the very man who thus sinks is our brother,—is capable, like us, of the renewal by the Spirit of grace, by which he might be created in the image of Christ and be made equal unto the angels. They who uphold the laws which grant this awful power have another heavy responsibility, of which they little dream. How many souls of masters have been ruined through it! How has this absolute authority provoked and developed wickedness which otherwise might have been suppressed! How many have stumbled into everlasting perdition over this stumbling-stone of IRRESPONSIBLE POWER!

What facts do the judicial trials of slaveholding states occasionally develop! What horrible records defile the pages of the law-book, describing unheard-of scenes of torture and agony, perpetrated in this nineteenth century of the Christian era, by the irresponsible despot who owns the body and soul! Let any one read, if they can, the ninety-third page of Weld’s Slavery as It Is, where the Rev. Mr. Dickey gives an account of a trial in Kentucky for a deed of butchery and blood too repulsive to humanity to be here described. The culprit was convicted, and sentenced to death. Mr. Dickey’s account of the finale is thus:

The Court sat—Isham was judged to be guilty of a capital crime in the affair of George. He was to be hanged at Salem. The day was set. My good old father visited him in the prison—two or three times talked and prayed with him; I visited him once myself. We fondly hoped that he was a sincere penitent. Before the day of execution same, by some means, I never knew what, Isham was missing. About two years after, we learned that he had gone down to Natchez, and had married a lady of some refinement and piety. I saw her letters to his sisters, who were worthy members of the church of which I was pastor. The last letter told of his death. He was in Jackson’s army, and fell in the famous battle of New Orleans.
I am, sir, your friend,
Wm. Dickey.

But the reader will have too much reason to know of the possibility of the existence of such men as Legree, when he comes to read the records of the trials and judicial decisions in Part II.

Let not the Southern country be taunted as the only country in the world which produces such men;—let us in sorrow and in humility concede that such men are found everywhere; but let not the Southern country deny the awful charge that she invests such men with absolute, irresponsible power over both the body and the soul.

With regard to that atrocious system of working up the human being in a given time, on which Legree is represented as conducting his plantation, there is unfortunately too much reason to know that it has been practised and is still practised.

In Mr. Weld’s book, “Slavery as It Is,” under the head of Labor, p. 39, are given several extracts from various documents, to show that this system has been pursued on some plantations to such an extent as to shorten life, and to prevent the increase of the slave population, so that, unless annually renewed, it would of itself die out. Of these documents we quote the following:

The Agricultural Society of Baton Rouge, La., in its report, published in 1829, furnishes a labored estimate of the amount of expenditure necessarily incurred in conducting “a well-regulated sugar estate.” In this estimate, the annual net loss of slaves, over and above the supply by propagation, is set down at TWO AND A HALF PER CENT.! The late Hon. Josiah S. Johnson, a member of Congress from Louisiana, addressed a letter to the Secretary of the United States’ Treasury, in 1830, containing a similar estimate, apparently made with great care, and going into minute details. Many items in this estimate differ from the preceding; but the estimate of the annual decrease of the slaves on a plantation was the same,—TWO AND A HALF PER CENT.!

In September, 1834, the writer of this had an interview with James G. Birney, Esq., who then resided in Kentucky, having removed, with his family, from Alabama, the year before. A few hours before that interview, and on the morning of the same day, Mr. B. had spent a couple of hours with Hon. Henry Clay, at his residence, near Lexington. Mr. Birney remarked that Mr. Clay had just told him he had lately been led to mistrust certain estimates as to the increase of the slave population in the far South-west,—estimates which he had presented, I think, in a 41speech before the Colonization Society. He now believed that the births among the slaves in that quarter were not equal to the deaths; and that, of course, the slave population, independent of immigration from the slave-selling states, was not sustaining itself.

Among other facts stated by Mr. Clay was the following, which we copy verbatim from the original memorandum made at the time by Mr. Birney, with which he has kindly furnished us.

“Sept. 16, 1834.—Hon. H. Clay, in a conversation at his own house on the subject of slavery, informed me that Hon. Outerbridge Horsey—formerly a senator in Congress from the State of Delaware, and the owner of a sugar plantation in Louisiana—declared to him that his overseer worked his hands so closely that one of the women brought forth a child whilst engaged in the labors of the field.

“Also that, a few years since, he was at a brick-yard in the environs of New Orleans, in which one hundred hands were employed; among them were from twenty to thirty young women, in the prime of life. He was told by the proprietor that there had not been a child born among them for the last two or three years, although they all had husbands.”

The late Mr. Samuel Blackwell, a highly-respected citizen of Jersey City, opposite the city of New York, and a member of the Presbyterian church, visited many of the sugar plantations in Louisiana a few years since; and having, for many years, been the owner of an extensive sugar refinery in England, and subsequently in this country, he had not only every facility afforded him by the planters for personal inspection of all parts of the process of sugar-making, but received from them the most unreserved communications as to their management of their slaves. Mr. B., after his return, frequently made the following statement to gentlemen of his acquaintance:—“That the planters generally declared to him that they were obliged so to over-work their slaves, during the sugar-making season (from eight to ten weeks), as to use them up in seven or eight years. For, said they, after the process is commenced, it must be pushed, without cessation, night and day; and we cannot afford to keep a sufficient number of slaves to do the extra work at the time of sugar-making, as we could not profitably employ them the rest of the year.”

Dr. Demming, a gentleman of high respectability, residing in Ashland, Richland County, Ohio, stated to Professor Wright, of New York city,

“That, during a recent tour at the South, while ascending the Ohio river, on the steamboat Fame, he had an opportunity of conversing with a Mr. Dickinson, a resident of Pittsburg, in company with a number of cotton-planters and slave-dealers from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Mr. Dickinson stated as a fact, that the sugar-planters upon the sugar-coast in Louisiana had ascertained that, as it was usually necessary to employ about twice the amount of labor during the boiling season that was required during the season of raising, they could, by excessive driving, day and night, during the boiling season, accomplish the whole labor with one set of hands. By pursuing this plan, they could afford to sacrifice a set of hands once in seven years! He further stated that this horrible system was now practised to a considerable extent! The correctness of this statement was substantially admitted by the slave-holders then on board.”

The following testimony of Rev. Dr. Channing, of Boston, who resided some time in Virginia, shows that the over-working of slaves, to such an extent as to abridge life, and cause a decrease of population, is not confined to the far South and South-west.

“I heard of an estate managed by an individual who was considered as singularly successful, and who was able to govern the slaves without the use of the whip. I was anxious to see him; and trusted that some discovery had been made favorable to humanity. I asked him how he was able to dispense with corporal punishment. He replied to me, with a very determined look, ‘The slaves know that the work must be done, and that it is better to do it without punishment than with it.’ In other words, the certainty and dread of chastisement were so impressed on them that they never incurred it.

“I then found that the slaves on this well-managed estate decreased in number. I asked the cause. He replied, with perfect frankness and ease, ‘The gang is not large enough for the estate.’ In other words, they were not equal to the work of the plantation, and yet were made to do it, though with the certainty of abridging life.

“On this plantation the huts were uncommonly convenient. There was an unusual air of neatness. A superficial observer would have called the slaves happy. Yet they were living under a severe, subduing discipline, and were over-worked to a degree that shortened life.”—Channing on Slavery, page 162, first edition.

A friend of the writer—the Rev. Mr. Barrows, now officiating as teacher of Hebrew in Andover Theological Seminary—stated the following, in conversation with her:—That, while at New Orleans, some time since, he was invited by a planter to visit his estate, as he considered it to be a model one. He found good dwellings for the slaves, abundant provision distributed to them, all cruel punishments superseded by rational and reasonable ones, and half a day every week allowed to the negroes to cultivate their own grounds. Provision was also made for their moral and religious instruction. Mr. Barrows then asked the planter,

“Do you consider your estate a fair specimen?” The gentleman replied, “There are two systems pursued among us. One is, to make all we can out of a negro in a few years, and then supply his place with another; and the other is, to treat him as I do. My neighbor on the next plantation pursues the opposite system. His boys are hard worked and scantily fed; and I have had them come to me, and get down on their knees to beg me to buy them.”

Mr. Barrows says he subsequently passed by this plantation, and that the woe-struck, dejected aspect of its laborers fully confirmed 42the account. He also says that the gentleman who managed so benevolently told him, “I do not make much money out of my slaves.”

It will be easy to show that such is the nature of slavery, and the temptations of masters, that such well-regulated plantations are and must be infinitely in the minority, and exceptional cases.

The Rev. Charles C. Jones, a man of the finest feelings of humanity, and for many years an assiduous laborer for the benefit of the slave, himself the owner of a plantation, and qualified, therefore, to judge, both by experience and observation, says, after speaking of the great improvidence of the negroes, engendered by slavery:

And, indeed, once for all, I will here say that the wastes of the system are so great, as well as the fluctuation in prices of the staple articles for market, that it is difficult, nay, impossible, to indulge in large expenditures on plantations, and make them savingly profitable.—Religious Instruction, p. 116.

If even the religious and benevolent master feels the difficulty of uniting any great consideration for the comfort of the slave with prudence and economy, how readily must the moral question be solved by minds of the coarse style of thought which we have supposed in Legree!

“I used to, when I first begun, have considerable trouble fussin’ with ‘em, and trying to make ‘em hold out,—doctorin’ on ‘em up when they’s sick, and givin’ on ‘em clothes, and blankets, and what not, trying to keep ‘em all sort o’ decent and comfortable. Law, ‘twant no sort o’ use; I lost money on ‘em, and ‘twas heaps o’ trouble. Now, you see, I just put ‘em straight through, sick or well. When one nigger’s dead, I buy another; and I find it comes cheaper and easier every way.”

Added to this, the peculiar mode of labor on the sugar plantation is such that the master, at a certain season of the year, must over-work his slaves, unless he is willing to incur great pecuniary loss. In that very gracefully written apology for slavery, Professor Ingraham’s “Travels in the South-west,” the following description of sugar-making is given. We quote from him in preference to any one else, because he speaks as an apologist, and describes the thing with the grace of a Mr. Skimpole.

When the grinding has once commenced, there is no cessation of labor till it is completed. From beginning to end a busy and cheerful scene continues. The negroes,
“—— Whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week,”

work from eighteen to twenty hours,
“And make the night joint laborer with the day;”

though, to lighten the burden as much as possible, the gang is divided into two watches, one taking the first and the other the last part of the night; and, notwithstanding this continued labor, the negroes improve in appearance, and appear fat and flourishing. They drink freely of cane-juice, and the sickly among them revive, and become robust and healthy.

After the grinding is finished, the negroes have several holidays, when they are quite at liberty to dance and frolic as much as they please; and the cane-song—which is improvised by one of the gang, the rest all joining in a prolonged and unintelligible chorus—now breaks, night and day, upon the ear, in notes “most musical, most melancholy.”

The above is inserted as a specimen of the facility with which the most horrible facts may be told in the genteelest phrase. In a work entitled “Travels in Louisiana in 1802” is the following extract (see Weld’s “Slavery as It Is,” p. 134), from which it appears that this cheerful process of laboring night and day lasts three months!

“At the rolling of sugars, an interval of from two to three months, they (the slaves in Louisiana) work both night and day. Abridged of their sleep, they scarcely retire to rest during the whole period.”

Now, let any one learn the private history of seven hundred blacks,—men and women,—compelled to work day and night, under the lash of a driver, for a period of three months.

Possibly, if the gentleman who wrote this account were employed, with his wife and family, in this “cheerful scene” of labor,—if he saw the woman that he loved, the daughter who was dear to him as his own soul, forced on in the general gang, in this toil which
“Does not divide the Sabbath from the week,
And makes the night joint laborer with the day,”

—possibly, if he saw all this, he might have another opinion of its cheerfulness; and it might be an eminently salutary thing if every apologist for slavery were to enjoy some such privilege for a season, particularly as Mr. Ingraham is careful to tell us that its effect upon the general health is so excellent that the negroes improve in appearance, and appear fat and flourishing, and that the sickly among them revive, and become robust and healthy. One would think it a surprising fact, if working slaves night and day, and giving them cane-juice to drink, really produces such salutary results, that the practice should not be continued the whole year round; though, perhaps, in this case, the negroes would become so fat as to be unable to labor. Possibly, it is because this healthful process is not longer continued that the agricultural societies of Louisiana are obliged to set down an annual loss of slaves on sugar plantations to the amount 43of two and a half per cent. This ought to be looked into by philanthropists. Perhaps working them all night for six months, instead of three, might remedy the evil.

But this periodical pressure is not confined to the making of sugar. There is also a press in the cotton season, as any one can observe by reading the Southern newspapers. At a certain season of the year, the whole interest of the community is engaged in gathering in the cotton crop. Concerning this Mr. Weld says (“Slavery as It Is,” page 34):

In the cotton and sugar region there is a fearful amount of desperate gambling, in which, though money is the ostensible stake and forfeit, human life is the real one. The length to which this rivalry is carried at the South and South-west, the multitude of planters who engage in it, and the recklessness of human life exhibited in driving the murderous game to its issue, cannot well be imagined by one who has not lived in the midst of it. Desire of gain is only one of the motives that stimulates ............
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