Peculiar Institution

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The " Peculiar Institution', : Slaves Tell Their Own Story

ii THE PROBLEM
With the establishment of its nelw government in 1789, ihe United States became a r.irtual rnagaet for foieign traveiers, perhaps never more so than during the three Cecades immediately preceding our Civil lVar. N{iddle to up_ per class, interesied in everything from politics to prison reform to botanical specimens to the position of women in American society, these cu_ rious travelers fanrred out across the United States, and almost all wrote about their observ-ations in ieLters, pamphlets, anci books widej-v read orr both sides of rhe ocean. Regardlcss of their special interests, ho*.ever, ferv travelers f.itled to notice-an.d comment on-the "peciiliar instrtution', of' -\frican Anre, rican slal,e,-v. As rl'ere narl-v nineteenth-cenlurr. \\'onterr writers, English author Har_

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tc exploit female siaves sexually, a practice that often produced mulatto children born into slavery. The young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to study the Ameri_ can penitentiary system and stayed to investigate politics and society. In his book Democracy in America (1g42), Tocqueville expressed his belief that American slaves had completelr. lost their .drican cuiture-their custorns. lariguages, religions, ancl even ihe memories of their countries. An Eng_ ]ish novelist rvho \4/as enor.moLr_.lv poprrlar in the !p;1"6 Srrtr.-.. : t-,.

ested in those aspects of American so_ ciety that affected women and chil_ dren. She was appalled by the slave system, believing ii deg::adcd mar_ riage by aliowing southern white rnen

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crusty Charles Dickens, also visited in 1842. He spent very little time in the South but collected (and published) advertisemenis lor runaway slaves that contained gruesome descriptions of their burns, brandings, scars, and iron culfs and collars. As Dickens departed for a steamboat trip to bhe West. he wrote that he left "with a glateful heart that I was not doomed to live where slavery was, and had never had my s 'nses blunted to its wrongs and horrors in a slave-rocked cradle. " I

mer wrote to her sister that "they are ugly, but appear for the most part cheerful and well-fed."2 Her subsequent trips to the plar.lations of the

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backcountry, however, increased her sympalhy for slaves and her distrust of white southerners' assertions that "slaves are the happiest people in the world."l In fact, by the end o. her stay, Bremer was praising ihe slaves' morality, patience, la,cnts, and religior,s practices.

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1850s, Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish novelist, traveled throughoul the United States for two vears and spent considerable time in Soulh Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. After her first encounters with African Americans in Charieston, Bre-

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These traveiers-and many moreadded their opinions to the growing litei"ature about the nature of American slavery and its effects. But the over-

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whelming majority of this literature was written by white people. What did the slaves themselves think? How did they express their feelings about the peculiar institulion of slavery?

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BACKGROUND

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By the time of the American Revolution, rvhat haci begrrn in 1619 as a trick-le of Africans intended to supplement the farm labor of inderrtured servants from Engiano had sweiled to a slave population of approrimateiy 500,000 people, the majority concentrated on tobacco, rice. and cotton piantations in the South. Moreover, as the African American population greu', rvhat apparen'uly had been a fairly- ioose and unregimented labor s-r.stem gradually evoived into an increasingly' harsh, rigrd. and complete Charies Dickens....
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