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  • “Deaf & Dumb, Blind, Insane, or Idiotic”:The Census, Slaves, and Disability in the Late Antebellum South
  • Jeff Forret (bio)

In a diary she kept during a stay on her husband’s coastal Georgia slaveholdings in the winter of 1838–1839, British actress Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble famously expressed contempt for the institution of slavery. Her condemnation of slaves’ appalling living conditions and the treatment they endured are well known. But she also commented on several disabled slaves she encountered, including an enslaved “woman lying on the floor in a fit of epilepsy”; a second “poor half-witted creature, a female idiot”; and a third bondwoman, named Patty, young but “apparently too idiotic …to move,” whose tortured facial expressions elicited a combination of sympathy and revulsion. “[A] more hideous and loathsome object I never beheld,” Kemble remarked. These passages from Kemble’s diary afford glimpses of slaves in the Old South stricken by various physical or mental impairments.1

In contrast to Kemble’s antislavery proclivities, proslavery writers harnessed the emotive power of disabled bondpeople to much different ends in antebellum discourse. Before the Civil War, masters’ care of disabled slaves served as a strategic counterpoint to northerners’ claims of free labor’s superiority. “To protect the weak,” explained southern intellectual and Caroline County, Virginia, slaveholder George Fitzhugh, “we must first enslave them.” The irony Fitzhugh pinpointed was grounded in the moral and ethical differences he identified as [End Page 503] intrinsic to the economies of the North and the South. Whereas wage laborers in the North toiled under a ruthless economic system that callously discarded workers at the first sign of weakness, southern bondpeople benefited from a social safety net that emerged organically from the institution of slavery. To be sure, Fitzhugh conceded, masters “shall be entitled to [slaves’] labor,” but in exchange, owners were “bound to provide for them,” including the “idiots” and “lunatics” among them. More than any other scholar, Eugene D. Genovese popularized Fitzhugh’s description of a web of mutual responsibilities and reciprocal obligations between master and slave. But physical or mental disabilities rendered some bondpeople unable to fulfill their end of the paternalistic bargain. Those whose conditions substantially reduced their profitability to their owners subjected slaveholder paternalism to some of its greatest strains. Disabled slaves tested the strength of the “invisible chords of sympathy”—so lauded by Fitzhugh—that bound master and slave. Despite slaveholders’ self-congratulatory rhetoric about maintaining disabled slaves, market forces many times exposed the limits of masters’ benevolence.2

Remarkably little work has been done on bondpeople with disabilities. One reason is that disability studies is a relatively new, emerging field with ample opportunities for additional research. The existing scholarship rarely ventures further back in time than the twentieth century, and intersections between race and disability are only beginning to be explored.3 Second, slavery as an institution was predicated upon slaves’ “soundness.” Masters expected their chattel to be physically and mentally equipped to endure the rigors of plantation or other [End Page 504] labor. With the exception of a small number of cultural studies of the domestic slave trade, the enslaved body, and slave health, practically all the historical scholarship on slavery presumes that bondpeople were sound.4 Only two recent dissertations by Dea H. Boster and Jenifer L. Barclay, of which the former’s has been published, have been devoted exclusively to the study of slaves with disabilities. Using disability as a distinct category of analysis, these works have shed light on the lives of slaves with a range of physical and mental impairments and explored the ways that race and disability entered antebellum discourses of law, medicine, abolitionism, and proslavery thought.5

By the late 1830s, proslavery intellectuals had begun to embrace paternalism as an ideological antidote to radical abolitionists’ condemnations of slavery’s horrors. Paternalism claimed to “domesticate” slavery as an institution. In acknowledging slaves’ humanity, it placed the onus upon masters to treat their chattel fairly and firmly, as extensions of the family. Owners’ kind and generous conduct toward their bondpeople not only rationalized enslavement by demonstrating the institution’s humanity but also purportedly assured the smooth running of the system. As proslavery writers explained...