Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Many Thousands Gone – Berlin

In the book Many Thousands Gone, the author Ira Berlin provides a closer look into the emergence of different societies in the Americas and the effects on these societies with the introduction of slaves. Within his book, Berlin presents two different societies: “a slave society” and a “society with slaves” and proceeds to distinguish the two. In his thorough investigation on what the foundations of a slave society consisted of, the justifications behind slave treatment on behalf of planters was what caught my attention the most.

Berlin presents “fatherhood” as a means of justification that planters used when it came to the enslavement of Africans during 17th century slave societies. Planters proceeded to paint a prettier picture as paternal figures as opposed to ruthless economic exploiters who fed their societal ego off of the sweat, blood, and tears of their slaves (Berlin 98). The role of a parent is generally to guide their children and to ensure security by providing food, shelter and knowledge. The role of a child is then to trust their parental guidance and to obey their parents.  The catch with this relationship was that plantation owners “consigned slaves to a permanent childhood” (Berlin 99). In other words, slaves would never be able to “leave the nest” and would dedicate their entire life to laboring on a plantation. In addition, plantation owners fulfilled their “paternal role” but in the most minimalistic and brutal manner while slaves were expected to fulfill their role to their greatest ability.  For example, it is known that slaves were given limited portions of food on a weekly basis, had extremely poor living conditions, and the “education” they received was from the planters. On the other hand, for planters it wasn’t enough just to have a large estate, private clubs, or a carriage and required more to prove their power and status.

Berlin also explains how the “relationship” between the planter and the slave was maintained using the same “father/child” principle. The same way a child is easily bribed with candy or a toy is the same way planters kept manipulating their slaves. Planters promised their slaves better conditions and eventual freedom in order to keep them working. When this wasn’t enough, coercion was utilized to implement fear and to maintain order within plantation society (Berlin 98). I find the idea of planter paternalism to consist of hypocrisy considering a relationship between a supposed father and child is based on love and respect. However, it is evident that there is no actual care for the slave from the planter once violence is used and how brutally the slaves are exerted. Berlin also indicates how planters developed this ideologies and supported them on pre-existing laws, indicating the Bible and Christianity. It is interesting to see how planters were identifying themselves as Christians and comparing themselves as “saviors” and as “fathers” yet only to do the contrary of the basic Christian morals. In my opinion, it seemed like the planters needed more saving than what they claimed that African slaves needed.



One thought on “Many Thousands Gone – Berlin”

  1. Excellent post! Very well-written, and I especially like your ironic twist at the end. The relationship that Berlin identifies is known as “paternalism,” and has featured very prominently in the historiography (the history of the history of a given topic) and debates on slavery within the historical profession, as well as being a prominent feature of American slavery from the colonial period on.

    We will cover this topic in more detail in Week 6, but for now I would push you to consider a couple of questions and hypotheses. One, if southern slavery was indeed paternalistic, does that mean it was not capitalist, since under capitalist institutions workers aren’t usually treated as children or given food, housing, or Bible instruction? Two, how does the “chattel principle” cut against slaveholders’ arguments that their relationships with their slaves were based on family ties and mutual affection?

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