Works of history reflect not only the times they purport to describe, but also the times in which they were written, and the nature of the people who write them. Seen in that light, the authors who wrote during the so-called “Dark Ages” were a great deal more interesting and entertaining than their counterparts today. You’ll have to look long and hard for a contemporary work that has anything to compare with Procopius‘ touching firsthand account of a boy abandoned by his mother in a country swarming with hostile invaders or his vignettes of the wild barbarians serving under his general Belisarius in the so-called “Roman” army, Bede’s wonderful story of Pope Gregory’s encounter with the Angle slave boys, or Gregory of Tours’ chatty, gossipy accounts of the doings of Queens Brunhilda and Fredegund in his “History of the Franks.” Pick up a typical history today and what you’ll find is a morality play written by some hidebound ideologue who has never heard of confirmation bias, and whose apparent reason for writing is to make sure you can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Journalists are the worst offenders. Their shallow bowdlerizations of the lives of the people they write about to make sure they fit neatly in the “saint” or “sinner” slots are painful to read.
College professors with their relentless political correctness come in a close second. Victor Davis Hanson just penned a vignette of the tribe that seems a tad overcritical, but probably gets their abject fear at being considered “illiberal” and politically heretical by their colleagues about right. However, unlike journalists, most of them have a deeper knowledge of the subjects they write about than one finds in a typical newspaper article. As a result, they can occasionally be very useful as “sources of the sources.” Take, for example, Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” In it one finds the usual heroes and villains, all chosen according to the most up-to-date political standards. However, Howe has a deep knowledge of the intellectual, literary and religious trends of the period he writes about, and mentions a great many of the people who played a significant role in shaping those trends at the time, but are mostly forgotten today. Since most of them wrote well before the 1922 copyright threshold, it’s not necessary to rely on Howe’s ideologically filtered picture to learn who they were and what made them tick. You can let them tell their own story, because much of what they wrote can be found among the invaluable collection at Google Books.
Consider, for example the issue of slavery. Opposition to the South’s “peculiar institution” was crystalizing during the period Howe describes, and he mentions a number of people, mostly forgotten today, who had witnessed the reality of slavery firsthand, and wrote about what they had seen. They included Fanny Kemble, a British actress who married a southern gentleman while visiting the United States. When he subsequently inherited a plantation in Georgia with many slaves, she insisted on accompanying him there, and wrote an account of her experiences. On one occasion she asked a young woman about her reasons for running away:
She told it very simply, and it was most pathetic. She had not finished her task one day, when she said she felt ill, and unable to do so, and had been severely flogged by Driver Bran, in whose ” gang” she then was. The next day, in spite of this encouragement to labor, she had again been unable to complete her appointed work; and Bran having told her that he’d tie her up and flog her if she did not get it done, she had left the field and run into the swamp. ” Tie you up, Louisa!” said I; ” what is that ?” She then described to me that they were fastened up by their wrists to a beam or a branch of a tree, their feet barely touching the ground, so as to allow them no purchase for resistance or evasion of the lash, their clothes turned over their heads, and their backs scored with a leather thong, either by the driver himself, or, if he pleases to inflict their punishment by deputy, any of the men he may choose to summon to the office; it might be father, brother, husband, or lover, if the overseer so ordered it.
Accounts of beatings like this, a daily occurrence on large plantations, are pervasive in the source material of the time, the descriptions have much in common, and it’s clear they weren’t all made up by abolitionist demagogues. It is unlikely the slaves could have been driven to work without them. Kemble’s book also has several interesting descriptions of the demoralizing effect that slavery had on the white population. For example:
On our drive we passed occasionally a tattered man or woman, whose yellow mud complexion, straight features, and singularly sinister countenance bespoke an entirely different race from the negro population in the midst of which they lived. These are the so-called pine-landers of Georgia, I suppose the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth—filthy, lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages, without one of the nobler attributes which have been found occasionally allied to the vices of savage nature. They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would reduce them to an equality with the abhorred negroes; they squat, and steal, and starve, on the outskirts of this lowest of all civilized societies, and their countenances bear witness to the squalor of their condition and the utter degradation of their natures. To the crime of slavery, though they have no profitable part or lot in itj they are fiercely accessory, because it is the barrier that divides the black and white races, at the foot of which they lie wallowing in unspeakable degradation, but immensely proud of the base freedom which still separates them from the lash-driven tillers of tho soil.
Kemble’s work was published in Great Britain in 1863, and did much to discourage British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. Theodore Weld was co-author of a compendium entitled, “American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It includes numerous similar eyewitness accounts. For example:
There was a slave on the plantation named Ben, a waiting man. I occupied a room in the same hut, and had frequent conversations with him. Ben was a kind-hearted man, and, I believe, a Christian ; he would always ask a blessing before he sat down to eat, and was in the constant practice of praying morning and night.— One day when I was at the hut, Ben was sent for to go to the house. Ben sighed deeply and went. He soon returned with a girl about seventeen years of age, whom one of Mr. Swan’s daughters had ordered him to flog. He brought her into the room where I was, and told her to stand there while he went into the next room : I heard him groan again as he went. While there I heard his voice, and he was engaged in prayer. After a few minutes he returned with a large cowhide, and stood before the girl, without saying a word. I concluded he wished me to leave the hut, which I did ; and immediately after I heard the girl scream. At every blow she would shriek, ” Do, Ben ! oh do, Ben!” This is a common expression of the slaves to the person whipping them : ” Do, Massa !” or, ” Do, Missus!”
After she had gone, I asked Ben what she was whipped for : he told me she had done something to displease her young missus ; and in boxing her ears, and otherwise beating her, she had scratched her finger by a pin in the girl’s dress, for which she sent her to be flogged. I asked him if he stripped her before flogging; he said, yes ; he did not like to do this, but was obliged to: he said he was once ordered to whip a woman, which he did without stripping her : on her return to the house, her mistress examined her back; and not seeing any marks, he was sent for, and asked why he had not whipped her : he replied that he had; she said she saw no marks, and asked him if he had made her pull her clothes off; he said, No. She then told him, that when he whipped any more of the women, he must make them strip off their clothes, as well as the men, and flog them on their bare backs, or he should be flogged himself.
Ben often appeared very gloomy and sad: I have frequently heard him, when in his room, mourning over his condition, and exclaim, ” Poor African slave ! Poor African slave!” Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, &c. &c.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.
The only clean, well organized and thoroughly administered institutions which I have seen in the South are the Slave Depositories, if I may so call them. That in Charleston is a large, airy building, with ample court-yard and well ventilated rooms. Every part is kept scrupulously clean; everything is well adapted to its purpose; every officer is active and energetic; its tread-mill and its whipping post are the ne plus ultra of their kind. Into this place are brought for safe keeping and for board the gangs of slaves which are to be sold in the market. To it also a master may send his slaves to be boarded merely, or to be conf1ned and whipped, or punished by solitary confinement. They pay 18 cents per day for board and the privilege of the tread-mill,and 25 cents extra for each whipping. The gangs for sale and the mere boarders are not punished however, nor even confined, except at night. On the contrary, they are incited to walk about in the courtyards ; they are well fed, they lodge in large, airy, clean rooms, and are daily promenaded in clean clothes to take the air, even out into the country. ” They are happy,” says the slave-holder, and he says but the truth; they are happier, urges he, than the free blacks of the North or than the negro in Africa — and it may be too true; but in this he speaks his own condemnation and shows the brutalizing effects of a system which can make a human being content in such utter degradation.
It seems to me that firsthand accounts like this are a great deal more effective in explaining what slavery was and why a great war was fought to end it than any book of history written a century and a half later could ever be. Of course, slavery and the fight against it wasn’t the only thing going on in the period Howe describes. Read his book, and you will turn up any number of thinkers who can tell you a great deal more about the times they lived in and the things that mattered to them then any modern history. Thanks to the Internet, you can find many of their works on line, and let them tell their own story.