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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER VI. PROTECTIVE ACTS WITH REGARD TO FOOD AND RAIMENT, LABOR, ETC.
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CHAPTER VI. PROTECTIVE ACTS WITH REGARD TO FOOD AND RAIMENT, LABOR, ETC.
Illustrative Drama of Tom v. Legree, under the Law of South Carolina.—Separation of Parent and Child.
Wheeler, p. 220. State v. Sue, Cameron & Norwood’s C. Rep. 54.

Having finished the consideration of the laws which protect the life and limb of the slave, the reader may feel a curiosity to know something of the provisions by which he is protected in regard to food and clothing, and from the exactions of excessive labor. It is true, there are multitudes of men in the Northern States who would say, at once, that such enactments, on the very face of them, must be superfluous and absurd. “What!” they say, “are not the slaves property? and is it likely that any man will impair the market value of his own property by not giving them sufficient food or clothing, or by over-working them?” This process of reasoning appears to have been less convincing to the legislators of Southern States than to gentlemen generally at the North; since, as Judge Taylor says, “the act of 1786 (Iredell’s Revisal, p. 588) does, in the preamble, recognize the fact, that many persons, by cruel treatment of their slaves, cause them to commit crimes for which they are executed;” and the judge further explains this language, by saying, “The cruel treatment here alluded to must consist in withholding from them the necessaries of life; and the crimes thus resulting are such as are necessary to furnish them with food and raiment.”

The State of South Carolina, in the act of 1740 (see Stroud’s Sketch, p. 28), had a section with the following language in its preamble:
Stroud, p. 29.

Whereas many owners of slaves, and others who have the care, management, and overseeing of slaves, do confine them so closely to hard labor that they have not sufficient time for natural rest;—

And the law goes on to enact that the slave shall not work more than fifteen hours a day in summer, and fourteen in winter. Judge Stroud makes it appear that in three of the slave states the time allotted for work to convicts in prison, whose punishment is to consist in hard labor, cannot exceed ten hours, even in the summer months.

This was the protective act of South Carolina, designed to reform the abusive practices of masters who confined their slaves so closely that they had not time for 91natural rest! What sort of habits of thought do these humane provisions show, in the makers of them? In order to protect the slave from what they consider undue exaction, they humanely provide that he shall be obliged to work only four or five hours longer than the convicts in the prison of the neighboring state! In the Island of Jamaica, besides many holidays which were accorded by law to the slave, ten hours a day was the extent to which he was compelled by law ordinarily to work.—See Stroud, p. 29.

With regard to protective acts concerning food and clothing, Judge Stroud gives the following example from the legislation of South Carolina. The author gives it as quoted by Stroud, p. 32.

In case any person, &c., who shall be the owner, or who shall have the care, government or charge, of any slave or slaves, shall deny, neglect or refuse to allow, such slave or slaves, &c., sufficient clothing, covering or food, it shall and may be lawful for any person or persons, on behalf of such slave or slaves, to make complaint to the next neighboring justice in the parish where such slave or slaves live, or are usually employed, * * * and the said justice shall summons the party against whom such complaint shall be made, and shall inquire of, hear and determine, the same; and, if the said justice shall find the said complaint to be true, or that such person will not exculpate or clear himself from the charge, by his or her own oath, which such person shall be at liberty to do in all cases where positive proof is not given of the offence, such justice shall and may make such orders upon the same, for the relief of such slave or slaves, as he in his discretion shall think fit; and shall and may set and impose a fine or penalty on any person who shall offend in the premises, in any sum not exceeding twenty pounds current money, for each offence.—2 Brevard’s, Dig. 241. Also Cobb’s Dig. 827.

A similar law obtains in Louisiana.—Rev. Stat. 1852, p. 557, § 166.

Now, would not anybody think, from the virtuous solemnity and gravity of this act, that it was intended in some way to amount to something? Let us give a little sketch, to show how much it does amount to. Angelina Grimké Weld, sister to Sarah Grimké, before quoted, gives the following account of the situation of slaves on plantations:[12]

And here let me say, that the treatment of plantation slaves cannot be fully known, except by the poor sufferers themselves, and their drivers and overseers. In a multitude of instances, even the master can know very little of the actual condition of his own field-slaves, and his wife and daughters far less. A few facts concerning my own family will show this. Our permanent residence was in Charleston; our country-seat (Bellemont) was two hundred miles distant, in the north western part of the state, where, for some years, our family spent a few months annually. Our plantation was three miles from this family mansion. There all the field-slaves lived and worked. Occasionally,—once a month, perhaps,—some of the family would ride over to the plantation; but I never visited the fields where the slaves were at work, and knew almost nothing of their condition; but this I do know, that the overseers who had charge of them were generally unprincipled and intemperate men. But I rejoice to know that the general treatment of slaves in that region of country was far milder than on the plantations in the lower country.

Throughout all the eastern and middle portions of the state, the planters very rarely reside permanently on their plantations. They have almost invariably two residences, and spend less than half the year on their estates. Even while spending a few months on them, politics, field-sports, races, speculations, journeys, visits, company, literary pursuits, &c., absorb so much of their time, that they must, to a considerable extent, take the condition of their slaves on trust, from the reports of their overseers. I make this statement, because these slaveholders (the wealthier class) are, I believe, almost the only ones who visit the North with their families; and Northern opinions of slavery are based chiefly on their testimony.

With regard to overseers, Miss Grimké’s testimony is further borne out by the universal acknowledgment of Southern owners. A description of this class of beings is furnished by Mr. Wirt, in his Life of Patrick Henry, page 34. “Last and lowest,” he says, [of different classes in society] “a feculum of beings called overseers,—a most abject, degraded, unprincipled race.” Now, suppose, while the master is in Charleston, enjoying literary leisure, the slaves on some Bellemont or other plantation, getting tired of being hungry and cold, form themselves into a committee of the whole, to see what is to be done. A broad-shouldered, courageous fellow, whom we will call Tom, declares it is too bad, and he won’t stand it any longer; and, having by some means become acquainted with this benevolent protective act, resolves to make an appeal to the horns of this legislative altar. Tom talks stoutly, having just been bought on to the place, and been used to ............
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