Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
The following interview transcript, dated around 1860, was recently recovered from the attic of a South Carolina home. The interview subject is Beauregard T. Brownmiller, who served as the last president of the Slavery Rights Coalition. Brownmiller also wrote two best-selling books: The Southern Mystique and Our Property, Our Selves.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
My first encounter with slavery took place when I was working at a plantation near Charleston. Later on my family moved to Illinois, where I saw many horrible instances of farmers who were unable to obtain slaves legally. It was this experience that led to my becoming one of the founding members of the National Association for the Repeal of Slavery Laws which, after the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision affirming the constitutionality of slavery, became the National Slavery Rights Action League. After that I was appointed head of the Slavery Rights Coalition and became an associate member of a group that has numerous branches in the middle states, the Planned Sharecropping Association.
Do you have any qualms about being labeled "proslavery?"
I certainly do, sir! I’m not pro-slavery, I’m pro-choice. It so happens that I’m personally opposed to slavery – that is, I would never have one myself. But by the same token, I don’t believe in imposing my beliefs upon others. The distinction between being pro-slavery and pro-choice is one the anti-choice seem unable to make. I don’t advocate slavery; I advocate leaving the decision up to the slaveowner and the slaveowner alone. It’s his decision and no one else’s.
Wouldn’t the anti-slavers say that you’re forgetting the wishes of the slave?
When we consider plowing the field or riding into war, do we consider the feelings of the horse? Granted, humanity of the Negro is a tough issue and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. We know that in many ways Negroes are similar to whites, but in many ways are different. I believe that until such time, if ever, it is conclusively proven that Negroes are human, it should continue to be left up to the master. Moreover, the Supreme Court concluded in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the Negro is not a citizen under the Constitution. So for all purposes of rights and legalities the Negro is not yet human.
The president recently caused something of a furor when he spoke of the feelings of the slave. Are we impos ing the suffering of slavery upon beings that feel pain just as we do?
The president has made many irresponsible statements concerning slavery and this is one of them. There simply is no concrete evidence that the slave feels pain in the same sense that you or I do.
If your daughter came to you and told you she wanted a slave, what would you tell her?
Certainly that’s a position that no parent wishes to find himself or herself in. But if that did happen I would sit her down, explain the pros and cons of such an action, and then if she still thought she wanted a slave I’d give her the money for one.
You wrote one article wherein you stated that slavery is a theological issue and therefore one from which the government should steer clear. How so?
Church leaders have been in the forefront of the anti-slave movement, trying to force their particular beliefs upon others who don’t happen to share them. I think that to allow these ministers and religious zealots to force their convictions upon others violates the long-standing and hallowed tradition of separation of church and state.
What is your view of the recent anti-slavery exhibition in Illinois?
Outrageous. Look, the sick thing about these people, these so-called pro-lifers, is that they reduce the entire debate to an emotional level. That exhibition even had pictures of slaves working on plantations, of masters whipping slaves, of cruelty and captivity for the slaves. Our studies show that this is a substantial exaggeration of what actually goes on, and besides, can’t we conduct the argument on the level of reason instead of emotion triggered by theological extremism!
On what grounds do you rest your argument that Northerners have no business trying to impose their morality on the South?
I don’t feel that someone living in the North who can’t experience Southern life, has any right to dictate what we Southerners can do with our property. It’s easy for them to tell us – we second-class citizens – that slavery is evil. They don’t grow cotton or rice or sugar. They don’t have to endure such hot weather for nine months a year. They have no idea what it’s like to farm a plantation and they never will. But I’ll tell you this: If Northerners had plantations, slavery would be a sacrament.
What would be the effect of outlawing slavery?
If I may quote from a report submitted by a committee of the South Carolina General Assembly in 1857: "That slavery has always existed is recorded in the world’s history. That it always will exist, in some form, however modified by the several circumstances of race, climate, civilization, and tradition, may be inferred from evident necessity."
There is a truism of which the anti-slavers are evidently ignorant: that you cannot legislate morality. You can pass a law stating that slavery is wrong, but you can’t pass a law making those who practice it believe that it is wrong. A law against slavery will not eradicate it because it does not eradicate the need for it. Instead, it would merely drive the institution underground. The price of keeping slaves would rise so that only the rich could afford them. Instead of being able to buy slaves at a nice, clean market, purchasers would be forced to obtain them from unscrupulous dealers working out of back alleys.
There are no simple answers to complex questions. It remains that there is no moral consensus in our society; given its absence, our job is to try to find acceptable alternatives. Recent advances in technology could someday render the issue moot. But until then, no law should deign to interfere in that most personal of decisions: that of an owner to keep a slave.
Do you believe that slavery subsidies should be provided for the poor?
Absolutely. If slavery is a right, and the Supreme Court has said it is then that right is of little avail to poor persons unless the government steps in and provides them with the means to obtain those slaves. The terrible irony of denying slaves to the poor is that the rich are in a much better position to make do without them. I’d like to think that in the United States, one of the wealthiest nations on the face of the earth, we could spare enough money from our tariffs to provide our people – all our people – with safe, effective means of obtaining a slave.
Finally, do you think the anti-slavers have a moral position superior to yours ?
By no means! I seen nothing moral in the stripping away of others’ constitutional rights. I see nothing moral in forcing those in need of slaves to resort to back-alley dealers – in turning honest folk into criminals. And I see nothing moral in the attitudes the anti-slavers have towards the Negroes themselves. They talk endlessly of the sanctity of freedom, but what of the quality? The very people who harp so much on the need to free the slaves seem to be very short on ideas of what to do about them once they are free. What of the masses of unwanted former slaves that their legislation would create? What of the chaos that would be caused by suddenly forcing three-and-one-half-million uneducated slaves on a society ill-prepared to receive them? And what of their poor children?
To paraphrase Colonel Thurgood Marshall, Sr.: Many of them will attend second-rate segregated schools and most of them will be so impoverished that there will be little chance for the children to grow up in a decent environment. I am appalled at the ethical bankruptcy of those who preach a "right to freedom " that means, under present social policies a bare existence in utter misery for so many poor Negroes!
Are you convinced that your cause will prevail?
Absolutely! The time has passed when Yankee chauvinists could keep us Southerners "in our place." We’ve come a long way, baby. We’re liberated now – we can do with our property as we please. Liberty and human rights forever!