Saturday, December 7, 2013

Review on Richard Hildreth's 'The White Slave': Slavery in the U.S.

The 'White Slave' is not well known within the modern American main stream, and as far as I know is not circulated heavily within academic circles.  It is certainly a highly recommended read for those interested in American history and domestic American slavery.  The author, Richard Hildreth, was an American historian, white, most known in academic circles for his six volume 'History of the United States', which I am anxious to now engage.  The 'White Slave', originally written in 1834 and final edition released in 1852, engages the political, economic, social, and moral components within the wretched environment of slavery in the United States at a level that most abolitionist pieces from the 19th century fail to reach.  During the first portion of the reading, I expected the plot to mimic  Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', thus explaining the book's lack of circulation, but the storyline expands and stretches across geographic locations, historical events, economic and political arenas, and decades.  The story itself holds traces of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Nat Turner, Count of Monte Cristo, and Olaudah Equiano.  Some of the most interesting areas covered in the book are:
1.  The topic of amalgamation and the mixing of the races through slave master and slave relations. The main character is a result of this practice. The theme of the slave master making advancements, raping, or entering into sexual relations with his female slaves has been covered in multiple slave narratives, most notably the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, and historian accounts, and this is a reoccurring theme in this book.
2.  The depiction of overseers, especially their economic backgrounds and the fact that many immigrated from the North, and the ignorance and poverty levels of poor whites is noted.  The differences in owners, overseers, and plantation methods are worth note, and the rapid degeneration of soil, and at times failure of cash crops, due mainly to improper irrigation techniques aimed at maximized profiting is very importantly covered in connection to the consolidation of regional wealth and the dilapidation, abandonment, and rebuilding of certain plantations.
3.  The North-South trade, as it was called, in slaves, and especially how the Fugitive Slave Acts impacted the economics of that 'business' trade is covered.  The North-South trade, not only in human slaves, had heavy impacts on how Congressional voting went for national laws such as the Fugitive Slave Acts.  Capital will always influence legislation.
4.  The political connection between the North and South.  In order for a northern candidate to get southern backing (whether in contributions or votes), it was important for that candidate to appease the Southern capital interests, which rested on slavery.
5.  The topic of runaway slaves were covered more in-depth here than in most slave narratives.  The book indicates not only a trade network between slaves of various regional plantations, but indicates that there were bands of escaped slaves that seemed to subsist over long durations of time by engaging in trade and raids.  The topics of rewards for escaped slaves and large slave hunting parties, and the capture (or murder) of escaped slaves were also brought to the reader's attention.
6.  The frenzy caused by the emergence of abolitionists is a very interesting area because it was not simply contained to the slave states (probably due to economic and political links between the so-called Northern free states and the southern slave states).  The author does an interesting job of presenting images of book burnings (considered propaganda inciting slave rebellion) and vigilance committees that would make drunken mob arrests, inquisition trails, and hangings (of slaves and suspicious whites).  It appears that the white American public was very fearful of slave uprisings during the last decades of slavery, and more notably that these fears were encouraged by pro-slavery forces in order to abate the spreading of abolitionism.
7.  The author did a solid job of covering the laws pertaining to slavery, inheritance, and restrictions on emancipation of slaves in some states, especially in the last portion of the book.  What is even more important to note with these historical laws, especially those restricting manumission, is the category of children born of a free white man and a slave mother (again, a constant theme in the book).
8.  The slave auction, both pre-event and event, is depicted on a few occasions within this book.  It is disturbing to read the description of the speculators examining slaves, especially female slaves, and the beseeching fathers and mothers pleading for possible buyers to keep a family together.

Overall, this is a recommended read for the American historian.  The only issue I had with the overall storyline was that it was somewhat over-romanticized and the element of romance kept pure, which realistically I found rather impossible under the historical horrors of American society during the epoch of slavery.  I would have to assume that the author purposely orchestrated this romantic characteristic to his storyline in order to draw the unconscious reader to the harsh images of slavery and the arguments against that institution during a time when the abolitionist movement was moving toward its height. 

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