The opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, says:
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
My genealogical research has shown that, through my father, half of my heritage is Southern, beginning in Virginia in the 1640s, then moving on to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and ending in Texas by the 1850s. Almost all of them owned slaves. Of my three ancestors who fought in the Civil War, two were Confederate soldiers.
The 1860 federal census record at the top of this post shows that my great great grandfather, Jesse T S Warren (he’s named on line 14 on the right hand side), owned 19 slaves–10 females, 9 males, all adults–housed in 5 slave cabins. (The Chappels, Heaths and Hardys on the same page are my relatives too.)
In the regular census, Jesse T S Warren is described as a 34 year old farmer, living with his wife and five children (including my great grandfather, James, who was six at the time). He owned $4,480 in real estate and $12,000 in personal property of which his slaves undoubtedly comprised the greatest part. He employed an overseer from Alabama who lived with them. (His nearest neighbor, Jno. E Jones, who owned sixteen slaves according to the above slave census, was a minister.)
These are people who were living the American Dream, 1860 Southern version. (Except the slaves, of course.) If they attended church on Sunday, they would have heard nothing that challenged their belief in the rightness of their system.
I was raised by foster parents and didn’t know anything about my ancestors until a dozen years ago. Almost everything I do know about them is through census and other public records. There’s no emotional attachment to these people and I have no reason to believe that they were either better or worse than their neighbors.
However distasteful slave holding is to me, what my Southern ancestors were doing until 1865 was completely legal and sanctioned by the Constitution. Slaves were enumerated in every census beginning with the first one in 1790 because of the rule in Section 2 of Article I whereby five non-free people counted as three free persons for purposes of allotting political representation which enabled the South to dominate the federal government until 1860 and protect its “peculiar institution” of slavery.
It took a bloody war, considered by some scholars as a second revolution, to make the first changes to the status of our enslaved people, and a long, long fight to get to where we are now. And it’s clear that we’re not done yet.
We hear a lot of talk about the Constitution and “American Values ” nowadays–as if things used to be better some time in the past, as if our United States has not always been a work in progress, always seeking “a more perfect Union”.
(When the members of the US Congress read the Constitution out loud on the second day of their 2011 session, they conveniently left out the parts of the original document that had been amended, including the 3/5 rule.)