Slave Narratives And Moral Degradation Essay, Research Paper
Slavery and the Moral Depravation of a Nation
Slavery is a well-known disgrace of the past. It is important to realize that this is true, not only for the injustices done unto the slaves, but for the negative effects on the slaveholders. When basic rights of freedom are denied in a society, no ethical principles will be upheld. The fact that this sinful treatment of other human beings was permitted had a morally crippling effect on the entire country. The power that slavery put in the hands of whites made them exploiting and cruel. Slavery corrupts the morals of everyone within its reach.
President Thomas Jefferson was noting just this, when he commented, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the members of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us” (Jefferson). He pointed out that children of slavemasters grow up witnessing the abuse and cruelty that goes on, and incorporate it into their own personalities as adults. In this way, slavery is so dangerous. Younger generations, when forming their senses of right and wrong, are presented with examples of brutality that are widely deemed acceptable. And, once daily trained in this tyrannical manner, they become “stamped with odious peculiarities” (Jefferson). Often times slave children and the master’s children will play together as equals. But at one point, they have to face the unjust reality that it can’t continue (Jacobs 211). Even if they both look as white as the master, the slave will have his path of pain and suffering chosen for him. How can we support an institution that contributes to the slow degradation of the nation’s merit? Furthermore, Jefferson questions, “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” No one will be able to live with the confidence of assured liberties if only some of us are blessed with them. Freedom and the pursuit of happiness are not rights that are inherent when half of the country suffers without them. And if God did not create all humans equal, who is to decide the stratification system? For peace and prosperity to reign, we need the comfort of our self worth, enforced by a belief in the most basic equality.
Such basic equality was certainly not experienced by William Wells Brown as a slave in the mid-19th century. After being sent to receive a beating by order of his master, Brown is able to trick another man into receiving it for him. Upon reflection of his malicious act, Brown states, “slavery makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it afterwards reproaches them, and uses them as arguments to prove that they deserve no better fate” (Brown 255). The actions of the master not only influence his children’s behavior, but that of his slaves. If a slave is never treated as anything more than an animal, why should he at all believe that more is expected of him and his behavior? It can be seen that without a moral code, all of society becomes offensive and bitter. Furthermore, it is a vicious cycle for the slaves. They act on the attitudes they have witnessed all around them, are reprimanded as lowly barbarians, and further seal their fate as second class citizens. This is due to the fact that slaves were acknowledged as men as far as the laws of the time. Many crimes, if committed by a black man, were punishable by death. This is an acknowledgement that black men have to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. However, although punished like men, they are still not treated like men. A double standard clearly exists here.
Harriet Jacobs, like Brown, asks her readers to reflect on the existence of this double standard in considering her actions under slavery. After admitting to having sacrificed her purity in the name of revenge, she asks for understanding: “the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and in fact renders the practice of them impossible” (Jacobs 220). Jacobs lives in a society that refuses to protect her with laws or customs, and she should therefore be judged with different precepts in mind. If one cannot legally own their body, how can they be responsible for its actions? Jacobs tells of the sexual violations her master routinely practiced on her. Apparently, slavery not only confuses the morality of the slaves, but also those of the master who holds no respect for a woman’s privacy. Just think, here in this one house, there is a mature, adult male harassing a young woman he considers property and privilege. Then, a mistress filled with jealousy and rage and acting on these emotions. And finally a young slave burdened by race and gender, anxious to throw away her virginity for the sake or not having it stolen. All of the above conditions could arise together only under the institution of slavery. As Jacobs writes, “the degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe” (Jacobs 216).
One of the greater “wrongs” of slavery is that it makes the Unites States of America and all its rulers completely deceptive and insincere in their beliefs. Frederick Douglass, in his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech shames those in favor of slavery by naming it a disgrace to their country. “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home”(Douglass 389). The hypocritical nature of slavery becomes obvious. As an institution, it destroys a nation’s credibility and honor. Such insults would not be taken lightly by Douglass’s listeners. The fact that the date is July 4th only adds power to his preaching. A crowd assembles to celebrate Independence Day; the day they won their freedom from oppression and what are they forced to notice? That half of their country never bathed in the prizes of this glory but continues in servitude with muffled discontent. Douglass further attacks their patriotism by pointing out that, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him” (Douglass 387). Douglass is calling on every man’s conscience to realize the truth about slavery. It is a practice based on corrupt and selfish values, from which no good comes. It is irrational and unjust.
An important aspect of this injustice lies in its hypocrisy. Douglass argues that slavery is not only hypocritical in the political sense of national ideals, but as far as religion is concerned as well. It was a well-known fact that white masters of the south used to sanctify their horrid treatment of slaves with the Bible. Douglass writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of the Scripture-’He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’”(Douglass 335). This passage is extremely important in that it demonstrates the fact that slaveholders misconstrued the meaning of “master”. The slavemaster here arrogantly thinks he is God, the real master. Douglass continually mentions the fact that the worst slaveholders around are the religious ones. To be a pious man was often to be a “nigger-breaker”. This is because, “the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, -a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, -a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, -and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection”(Douglass 346). Obviously slavery has negative effects on the slaves, but also very much so on the owners. Here, they are adapting religion to their selfish causes. They use it as a shield, protecting them from the normal, moral standards of society. Slavery fosters this kind of sacrilegious environment where truths are stretched in the name of avarice.
Founded in avarice and carried out in cruelty, the institution of slavery was the downfall of society. Writers such as William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass attempt to bring awareness to the country. For, once this type of exploitation is condoned with its lies and misconceptions, no morality exists. It corrupts our children who learn from our example. It corrupts the slaves who, in this situation, are left with no choice but to act as they are treated. It corrupts white owners who come to believe that rights are not God-given equally, but are distributed irregularly. For when it is believed that we are not all inherently equal, a selfish race to attain higher social standing ensues. It is felt that self-worth must be proven if is not given and sordid motives prevail. And most importantly, slavery discredits our nation on all accounts of our political and religious faiths. The existence of slavery could not have continued forever. Frederick Douglass was right to call it a “horrible reptile coiled up in your nation’s bosom”(Douglass 389). This reptile was certainly poisoning America slowly. The power of the institution is underestimated. Social establishments imbed themselves in our private spheres. We become what we uphold. The forced servitude of blacks was a mistake that brought us all down, and thankfully, literary talent has helped us to both become aware of, and understand, just this.