Sunday, April 15, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 15: why the slaveowner had to "disbelieve the world out there"

The second volume of William Freehling's The Road to Disunion was published this year, this one called Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. As in the first volume, Freehling focuses heavily on the social and political dynamics in the South. And there are several things he does well.

I particularly like the ways he shows in concrete examples how the contradiction between the dictatorial rule of the slaveowners over their slaves and the democratic ideals and practice of American democracy. The theoretical contradiction was obvious from the start. And if it weren't, British polemicists in particular were eager to call it to the Americans' attention.

One of the things he discusses at length in the first volume is the way in which the daily dynamics of plantantion life affected the general consciousness of the slaveowners in a way to make them suspicious and distrustful of white political opponents. In the second volume, he recaps some of that discussion.

He places this in the context of the concept of "Cuffee". In the followeing quotation, he summarizes that notion and how it affected slaveowners' consciousness. It strikes me that a reader not familiar with Freehling's work might be jolted a bit by the language, so let me emphasize that Freehling is in no way writing any kind of proslavery or pro-Confederate pitches. In this section, he's describing the way masters saw the world and how it led them to what in the 1960s might have been called a "false consciousness", a useful (though easily abused) concept:

The ideal master's most revealing word for the ideal servile was not "boy," not even "Sambo," but "Cuffee." Just cuff a childish black, declared the condescending word, and he will become that alleged impossibility, the consenting slave.

But most often, Cuffee's and Massa's role slipped, belied by duplicity on both sides of the color line. Dubious paternalists regularly faced exasperating slaves' lies, misunderstood orders, slovenly work, and dark glances. Occasionally pretenses altogether disappeared. In the nineteenth century, massive slave revolts almost never ripped apart the Massa-Cuffee charade. The last slave revolt, Nat Turner's in 1831, came to seem ages ago. But individual slaves who ambushed masters were not as rare. Individual slave runaways were not rare at all, especially in the South closest to the North.

Thus Massa faced the impossible, indispensable task of discovering whether Cuffee's act of consent was true blue. The underling here taught the superior that life was a charade, that professions of loyalty must be scrutinized, and that affectations of friendship must be doubted. Cuffee's lessons bore painfully on loyalty politics among whites. Southern politicians' extravagant professions of love for slavery might be a charade. As for northern declarations of true-blue friendship, who could trust a Yankee con man after experiencing Cuffee, the ultimate pretender? To live with Cuffee was to disbelieve the world out there. Thus did the master form the slave and the slave form the master, and the two together generate a hothouse culture, too dictatorial to be comfortably democratic. (my emphasis)

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