Slavery Myths

by Laurence M. Vance

“No subject has been more generally misunderstood or more
persistently misrepresented.” ~ Jefferson Davis

Much of what we hear today about slavery from the Black community,
the news media, the pulpit, the high school classroom, and the
university lectern is a myth. This does not mean that slavery
was anything but a great evil. It just means many things commonly
accepted as slavery facts are actually slavery myths.

This is not an attempt at a scholarly discourse on slavery. It
is merely a presentation of some myth-refuting facts that I have
assembled from a few books in my own library.

Myth number one: Slavery was a distinctively Southern institution.
From Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity (Harvard University
Press, 2003), we read:

On the eve of American independence, nearly three-fourths of
Boston’s wealthiest quartile of property-holders held slaves.
A like proportion could be found in New York, Philadelphia, Providence,
and Newport. From a position at the top of colonial society, one
visitor noted that there was "not a house in Boston"
that "has not one or two" slaves – an observation
that might be applied to every northern city with but slight exaggeration.

The expansion of slavery followed a similar trajectory in the
countryside. Indeed, the rapid growth of rural slavery eclipsed
its development in the cities of the North. Throughout the grain-producing
areas of Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley,
and Long Island – the North’s bread basket –
bondage spread swiftly during the eighteenth century, as farmers
turned from white indentured servants to black slaves. By mid-century
slavery’s tentacles reached into parts of southern New England,
especially the area around Narragansett Bay, where large slaveholders
– many of whom had originated in Barbados – took on
the airs of a planter class. In these places, slaves constituted
as much as one-third of the labor force, and sometimes more than

In the northern colonies, Africans had difficulty finding mates,
establishing families, conceiving, and producing healthy infants.
The problem was not new. From the beginning of settlement, northern
slaveholders, unlike their counterparts farther south, showed
little interest in creating an indigenous slave population. From
their perspective, the discomfort and expense of sharing their
cramped quarters with slaves outweighed the profits offered by
a self-reproducing labor force. Northern slaveholders discouraged
their slaves from marrying and did not provide accommodations
for slave families to reside in the same abode. They routinely
separated husbands from wives and parents from children and only
reluctantly extended visitation rights. Seeing but small advantage
in the creation of an indigenous, self-reproducing slave population,
northern slaveholders sold slave women at the first sign of pregnancy.
Such practices constrained the development of residential family
units and diminished the chances that black men would assume the
roles of husbands and fathers and black women the roles of wives
and mothers. Grandparenthood became unknown to most northerners
of African descent.

In the middle years of the eighteenth century, northern lawmakers
– taking a page from southern statute books – updated,
refined, or consolidated the miscellaneous regulations that had
been enacted during the seventeenth century and issued more comprehensive
slave codes. In every case, legislators strengthened the hand
of the slaveowner at the expense of the slave and free black.

Black life in the North increasingly resembled that of the plantation

Thomas DiLorenzo has also recently pointed out that Ira Berlin
played a role in assembling an exhibit in October at the New York
Historical Society entitled "Slavery in New York." When
interviewed about the exhibit, Professor Berlin pointed out that
"New York City in the 17th and 18th centuries was the largest
slave-holding city on the North American continent. There were
more slaves in New York than in Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves
made up a quarter of New York’s population at various times.
. . . New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and
slave rebellions. . . . there were over 10,000 slaves in New York
in the third decade of the 19th century."

Myth number two: The White man captured slaves in the African
jungles. From Alan Taylor’s American Colonies (Viking, 2001),
we read:

Popular myth has it that the Europeans obtained their slaves
by attacking and seizing Africans. In fact, the shippers almost
always bought their slaves from African middlemen, generally the
leading merchants and chiefs of the coastal kingdoms. Determined
to profit from the trade, the African traders and chiefs did not
tolerate Europeans who foolishly bypassed them to seize slaves
on their own initiative. And during the eighteenth century the
Africans had the power to defeat Europeans who failed to cooperate.
Contrary to the stereotype of shrewd Europeans cheating weak and
gullible natives, the European traders had to pay premium, and
rising, prices to African chiefs and traders, who drove a hard

The Europeans exploited and expanded the slavery long practiced
by Africans. Some slaves were starving children sold by their
impoverished parents. Others were debtors or criminals sentenced
to slavery. But most were taken in wars between kingdoms or simply
kidnapped by armed gangs.

The African raiders marched their captives to the coast in long
lines know as coffles: dozens of people yoked together by the
neck with leather thongs to prevent escape. Some marches to the
coast exceeded five hundred miles and six months. About a quarter
of the captives died along the way from some combination of disease,
hunger, exhaustion, beatings, and suicide.

Upon reaching the coast, the captors herded their captives into
walled pens called barracoons. Stripped naked, the slaves were
closely examined by European traders, who wanted only reasonably
healthy and young people, preferably male.

Myth number three: Blacks never owned slaves. From Anne Sarah
Rubin’s A Shattered Nation: The Rise & Fall of the Confederacy
(The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), we read:

The free blacks who had prospered in the prewar South had done
so by seeking favor with local whites and assuring them of their
loyalty. Some of them had owned slaves themselves.

And again, from Berlin’s Generations of Captivity:

As societies engaged in the trade in slaves, the coastal enclaves
became societies with slaves. African slavery in its various forms
– from pawnage to chattel bondage – was practiced
in these towns. Both Europeans and Africans held slaves, imported
and exported them, hired them, used them as collateral, and traded
them. At Elmina, the Dutch West India Company owned some 300 slaves
in the late seventeenth century, and individual Europeans and
Africans held others.

Myth number four: Slave masters were brutal taskmasters. From
Berlin’s Generations of Captivity, we read:

Other aspects of the new work regimen operated to the slaves’
advantage. Slave lumbermen, many of them hired out for short periods
of time, carried axes and, like slave drovers and herdsmen, were
generally armed with knives and guns – necessities for men
who worked in the wild and hunted animals for food and furs. Woodsmen
had access to horses, as did slaves who tended cattle and swine.
Periodic demands that slaveowners disarm their slaves and restrict
their access to horses and mules confirmed that many believed
these to be dangerous practices, but they did nothing to halt
them. In short, slave lumbermen and drovers were not to be trifled
with. Their work allowed considerable mobility and latitude in
choosing their associates and bred a sense of independence, not
something planters wanted to encourage. Slaves found it a welcome
relief from the old plantation order.

As the slaveholders’ economy faded, the slaves’ economy
flourished. Black men and women became full participants in the
system of exchange that developed within the lower Mississippi
Valley, trading the produce of their gardens and provision grounds,
the fruits of their hunting and trapping expeditions, and a variety
of handicrafts with European settlers and Indian tribesmen. Many
hard-pressed planters turned to the production of foodstuffs for
internal consumption and sometimes for export to Saint Domingue
and Martinique. To cut costs, they encouraged and sometimes required
slaves to feed themselves and their families by gardening, hunting,
and trapping on their own time. Indeed, some slaveholders demanded
that their slaves not only feed themselves but also provide their
own clothes and purchase other necessities. Such requirements
forced slaveowners to cede their slaves a portion of their time
to work independently. "It is because the slaves are not
clothed that they are left free of all work on Sunday," argued
one advocate in an affirmation of the slaves’ right to maintain
gardens, market produce, and work independently on Sunday. "On
such days some of them go to the neighbors’ plantations
who hire them to cut moss and to gather provisions. This is done
with the tacit consent of their masters who do not know the where-abouts
of their slaves on the said day, nor do they question them, nor
do they worry themselves about them and are always satisfied that
the Negroes will appear again on the following Monday for work."

Myth number five: The Civil War was fought entirely over slavery.
From Mark Thornton and Robert Ekelund’s Tariffs, Blockades,
and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War (Scholarly Resources,
2004), we read:

Slavery and its opposition were interwoven into the economic,
political, social, and religious fabric of America. However, it
was not the only factor in the South’s decision to secede
and the North’s decision to take up arms to prevent secession.
Active abolitionists in the North and slaveholders in the South
were relatively small minorities of their populations. Therefore,
to get below the surface of these issues we focus on economic
interests in the various causes that have been attributed to the
Civil War. The evolving relations between the powers of the federal
government and the states were certainly an issue. In general,
the South’s well-known position was one of states’
rights, while the North increasingly preferred a stronger central
government. This question was the underpinning of another incendiary
matter – the issue of import duties. Both as a revenue device
for the federal government and as a means of industry protection,
the tariff was a flashpoint for particular interests, North and

We maintain that a multiplicity of issues brought about the conflict
and that those economic interests and the interest groups surrounding
them were the key factor in explaining these events. While we
acknowledge that other dimensions affected the coming of the war,
such as the moral and philosophical horrors of slavery, this chapter
argues that economic interests, many of them at least somewhat
related to slavery, were a major factor in the emergence of the
conflict. Political parties, moreover, evolved and coalesced around
this embroidery of interests. Many social and economic factors
are involved in this connection, including the statues of money
and banking in the North and South, canal and railway building,
and other public works.

Slaveholders can therefore be viewed as an economic interest
group that established secession and thus helped precipitate the
war. The very election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by them as
an economic loss to slaveholders and as an impetus for secession
and war. In other words, the containment policies of the Republican
Party were a long-run threat to the wealth of slaveholders, but
the party’s protectionist policies were an immediate threat
to the profitability of their plantations, having the same effect
as one-third of the slave population running away outside the

The twin issues of tariffs and slavery were thus at the fore
of aligning economic interest groups, North and South.

Myth number six: Slaves never defended the Confederacy. From
William W. Freehling’s The South vs. the South (Oxford University
Press, 2001), we read:

During the Civil War’s relatively quiet first year, slavery
tolerably passed its paternalistic test. Thousands of slaves labored
inside army camps and fortifications. More thousand manned new
munitions factories. Blacks comprised over half the toilers at
Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works and over three in four at
Selma, Alabama’s, naval ordnance plant. In the fields, slave
millions produced a record cotton crop, even with many masters
away. A few blacks donated cash to the Confederate cause. Two
Mobile slaves bought $400 in Confederate bonds. One New Orleans
slave subscribed for $200.

When mutilated masters returned from the bloodbath, some slaves
raged as well as wept. "Dey brung" Massa Billy home,
one South Carolina slave grieved to a contemporary, "with
he jaw split open . . . He teeth all shine through he cheek. .
. . I be happy iffen I could kill me jes’ one Yankee. I
hated dem ’cause dey hurt my white people."

And, from a review for the History Book Club by William C. Davis
of what promises to be an interesting work, Bruce Levine’s
Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves
during the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005), we read
that "there were clear signs that some of the slave population
saw themselves as Southerners first and blacks second, and expressed
a willingness to take the field."

Myth number seven: Abraham Lincoln was the Negroes friend. In
his debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor
of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality
of the white and black races – that I am not, nor ever have
been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying
them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and
I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference
between the white and black races which I believe will forever
forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political
equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain
together there must be the position of superior and inferior,
and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior
position assigned to the white race.

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln said:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern
States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their
property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered.
There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.
Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while
existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly
all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do
but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that –

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with
the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe
I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to
do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge
that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never
recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform
for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear
and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the
States, and especially the right of each State to order and control
its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively,
is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection
and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce
the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or
Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

In his letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune,
dated August 22, 1862, Lincoln said:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and
is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the
Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could
save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could
save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also
do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because
I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear
because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Just before Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, Congress proposed
an amendment to the Constitution that would have protected slavery:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize
or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within
any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that
of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state.

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln specifically mentioned
this amendment, and voiced no objection to it:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution –
which amendment, however, I have not seen – has passed Congress,
to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere
with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of
persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have
said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments
so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied
constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express
and irrevocable.

And who can forget that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
only freed those slaves that were under the control of the Confederate
government, which means that it basically freed no one. Lincoln
declared that only "persons held as slaves within said designated
States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free;
and that the Executive government of the United States, including
the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and
maintain the freedom of said persons." Here are the states
and parts of states that Lincoln listed:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard,
Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension,
Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans,
including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida,
Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except
the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also
the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City,
York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk
and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present,
left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, remarked
about the Emancipation Proclamation only applying to slaves in
areas that were in a state of rebellion against the United States:
"We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves
where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we
can set them free."

To keep this article at a reasonable length, there is one book
on slavery in my library that I have deliberately refrained from
referring to: Walter Kennedy, Myths of American Slavery (Pelican
Publishing Company, 2003). It is the antidote to every slavery
myth that has ever been perpetrated, and I highly recommend it:
For the antidote to the myths of Abraham Lincoln, there is Thomas
J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln (Three Rivers Press, 2003). And
for the antidote to the myths of American history in general,
I recommend Thomas Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American
History (Regnery Publishing, 2004).

Slavery myths – may they be forever banished to the dustbin
of history.