restricted access Agricultural Science, Sentiment, and the Domesticated Slave
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Agricultural Science, Sentiment, and the Domesticated Slave

Another death to-day. . . . A child near 3 years old. . . . It is the 9th this year exclusive of stillbirths which have been 3 in all. It is . . . the 78th death among my negroes in a little less than ten years . . . One would think from this statement that I was a monster of inhumanity. Yet this one subject has caused me more anxiety and suffering than any other of my life. I have adopted every possible measure to promote health and save life, but all in vain it seems. . . . Whether it is a judgment on me or on the place I know not. . . . Sometimes I think it marks the deliberate design of heaven to prevent me from accumulating wealth and to keep down that pride which might in such an event fill my heart.

—James Henry Hammond, South Carolina slave owner1

. . . my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul.

—Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl2

In antebellum America, slavery brought whites and blacks together, often in intimate contact, blurring the lines of social segregation that in theory kept the races apart. And according to the worldview of Southern slaveholders, which drew upon [End Page 375] the moral power of American domesticity to legitimize their “peculiar institution,” this intimacy was a family affair.3 The domestication of slavery combines the concept of “home culture” with a programmatic approach to selecting, breeding, and taming an unpaid labor force, and this slave husbandry was essential to a nation that after 1807 relied exclusively on an internally traded population of owned bodies. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondswoman’s Narrative respond directly to such articulations of paternal mastery; these texts evidence Jacobs’s and Crafts’s understanding of (and refusal to submit to) the power white men could wield as the purveyors of specialized, scientific knowledge—a form of knowledge that, though presented as a humanizing force, robbed black subjects, both enslaved and free, of the privileges of humanity. I examine these written protests by Jacobs and Crafts in the context of typical examples of the agricultural literature of the South—publications that disseminated the specialized, scientific knowledge of a slave culture. When read together, these texts by individuals from very different positions in the interracial slave “family” help us to better comprehend not just Southern paternalism and slave resistance, but also domesticity’s place in the national project of racial violence and social control. These diverse writings give us insight into the complex ways in which antebellum America’s notion of home and its attendant associations collaborated with scientific cultivation in the worldview of both slavers and slaves.

As this essay’s opening epigraphs demonstrate, and as one would expect, slaves and slaveholders experienced the physical and emotional pain of slavery, and the paternalistic conceptions of slave care, quite differently. While Harriet Jacobs wrote of the crippling results of her literalized confinement in slavery, plantation owners like James Henry Hammond indulged in the sentimental transports characteristic of Southern paternalism. Hammond’s exhaustive and organized record-keeping in his personal journal evidences the scientific approach to the maintenance of slaves that Southerners increasingly adopted in the early nineteenth century as agricultural journals and pamphlets argued that the work of the master must be regulated by professional knowledge. For the slaver who embraced [End Page 376] the ideology of paternalism—and its conception of the slave quarters and their inhabitants as an integral part of his own, well-tended home and family—the illness, pain, and deaths of his slaves registered as personal pain. Hammond’s account of his own “suffering” as the agent who labors to “promote health and save life” without reward, and his conclusion that the stillbirths and broken bodies of his bondsmen are not about the pain of the enslaved subject, but about their concerned master’s relationship with heaven and his protection from the pride that accompanies material gain, reveal the intricate system that connected the science of slave breeding and keeping with the ideological...