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Chapter 13: The Old South


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Chapter 13: The Old South

The Break-Up of a Slave Family*

Frances A. Kemble was a famous English actress who, on one of her tours of the United States, met and married Pierce Butler, a rice and cotton planter and large slaveholder then living in Philadelphia. A strong opponent of slavery, she accompanied her husband in 1838 to Georgia, where they took up residence. She published an account of her experiences as a plantation mistress, from which this extract concerning her house servant Psyche and her family is taken.

Early the next morning...I was suddenly startled by hearing voices in loud tones in Mr. [Butler]’s dressing-room,...the noise increasing until there was an absolute cry of despair uttered by some man. I could restrain myself no longer, but opened the door...and saw Joe, the young man, poor Psyche’s husband, raving almost in a state of frenzy, and in a voice broken with sobs and almost inarticulate with passion, reiterating his determination never to leave this plantation, never to go to Alabama, never to leave his old father and mother, his poor wife and children, and dashing his hat, which he was wringing like a cloth in his hands, upon the ground, he declared he would kill himself if he was compelled to follow Mr. K[ing]. I glanced from the poor wretch to Mr. [Butler], who was standing, leaning against a table with his arms folded, occasionally uttering a few words of counsel to his slave to be quiet and not fret, and not make a fuss about what there was no help for. I retreated immediately from the horrid scene....As soon as I recovered myself I again sought Mr. O----, and inquired of him if he knew the cause of poor Joe’s distress. He then told me that Mr. [Butler], who is highly pleased with Mr. K[ing]’s past administration of his property [as overseer], wished, on his departure for his newly-acquired slave plantation, to give him some token of his satisfaction, and had made him a present of the man Joe, who had just received the intelligence that he was to go down to Alabama with his new owner the next day, leaving father, mother, wife, and children behind....

When I saw Mr. [Butler] after this most wretched story became known to me in all its details, I appealed to him, for his own soul’s sake, not to commit so great a cruelty. Poor Joe’s agony while remonstrating with his master was hardly greater than mine while arguing with him upon this bitter piece of inhumanity--how I cried, and how I adjured, and how all my sense of justice, and of mercy, and of pity for the poor wretch, and of wretchedness at finding myself implicated in such a state of things, broke in torrents of words from my lips and tears from my eyes!...He gave me no answer whatever, and I have since thought that the intemperate vehemence of my entreaties and expostulations perhaps deserved that he should leave me as he did without one single word of reply; and miserable enough I remained.

Toward evening, as I was sitting alone, my children having gone to bed, Mr. O----came into the room. I had but one subject in my mind; I had not been able to eat for it. I could hardly sit still for the nervous distress which every thought of these poor people filled me with....I said to him: "Have you seen Joe this afternoon, Mr. O----?"..."Yes, ma’am; he is a great deal happier than he was this morning." "Why, how is that?" asked I, eagerly. "Oh, he is not going to Alabama. Mr. K[ing] heard that he had kicked up a fuss about it" (being in despair at being torn from one’s wife and children is called kicking up a fuss; this is a sample of overseer appreciation of human feelings), "and said that if the fellow wasn’t willing to go with him, he did not wish to be bothered with any niggers down there who were to be troublesome, so he might stay behind."...

I drew a long breath....The man was for the present safe, and I remained silently pondering his deliverance and the whole proceeding,...and I think, for the first time, almost a sense of horrible personal responsibility and implication took hold of my mind, and I felt the weight of an unimagined guilt upon my conscience; and yet...when I married Mr. [Butler] I knew nothing of these dreadful possessions of his, and even if I had I should have been much puzzled to have formed any idea of the state of things in which I now find myself plunged, together with those whose well-doing is as vital to me almost as my own.

[Kemble subsequently learned that Butler had purchased Psyche and her children to prevent any separation of the family. She concluded her discussion with the following reflection:]

…though [Mr. Butler] had resented my unmeasured upbraidings,...they had not been without some good effect, and though he had, perhaps justly, punished my violent outbreak of indignation about the miserable scene I witnessed by not telling me of his humane purpose, he had bought these poor creatures, and so, I trust, secured them from any such misery in [the] future....Think...how it fares with slaves on plantations where there is no crazy Englishwoman to weep, and entreat, and implore, and upbraid for them, and no master willing to listen to such appeals.

Questions

1. How are Kemble’s antislavery sentiments revealed in her description? What view does her husband take of slavery? Does the reader get any sense of his feelings?

2. Should Kemble have felt any personal responsibility or guilt over the events she describes? Did she fulfill her responsibilities as a mistress in this situation? as a wife? as a woman?

3. What does this account indicate about the relationship between Butler and Kemble? Do you think this matter might have produced strains in their marriage?

4. The former slave Frederick Douglass spoke of "that painful uncertainty which in one form or another was ever obtruding itself in the pathway of the slave." What did he mean by that comment?

5. Were such occurrences typical in slavery? Is the question of the frequency of the break-up of slave families by sale an important consideration in evaluating slavery?

* From Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (1863).
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