“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.


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3 responses to ““Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

  1. Well said. I’m using a college text for AP US History and we’re currently discussing the era of slavery. The textbook says slaves were rarely beaten or whipped because it diminished their value. That seems like a very inaccurate view of the situation, so I will pass along this blog for my student’s to balance out that claim. Much obliged.

  2. I like what the article is addressing, the need to discuss the darker sides of the era in order to present a more balanced picture. I think it’s worth noting that when people ask questions, like if a slave holder was bi-polar, it’s because they are using their modern way of understanding the world to make a judgement, opinion or question. I am a docent in an Antebellum house museum and even though I’m not in character the people of the 21st century use the 21st century as a comparison and lexicon for tying to understand why people didn’t have closets or that the carriage house is where the slaves lived, for example.

    On my tours, I have to remind people that they are walking into a house that was built in a time before electricity, trains, and the discovery of the germ. I often find that I have the chance to remind my guests of what people of a different time had/not have and know/didn’t know about. When you consider that, your way of looking at the world is drastically altered.

    • Thanks for the comment. I believe that you are right that people try to adjust modern concepts and language for historical events. Sometimes it is useful and at other times there is an inability to understand the historical past with modern thinking. Mental health is one of those areas. It’s certainly worth an educated (not estimated) guess when enough detailed descriptions survive of a person.

      Yet, I continue to find that sites need to have more open discussions of the dark elements of the historical antebellum, Civil War, through the 1960s in America. In the specific case of the plantations, they were not simply places of grandeur and hospitality and there are still too many sites giving tours that consist of “This chair was made in Philadelphia in 1820” and not “The owner of this place was only able to buy these furnishings because he owned XX number of people who were forced to grow rice/sugar/tobacco/corn/wheat. While the furnishings are definitely attractive and pleasing, even nearly two centuries later; the chairs provided no comfort to those whose forced labor was used to acquire them.” I love hisorical architecture and historic material culture as much as the next person; but, these sorts of tours blur the conception of these places from multiple perspectives: past and present.

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