Over the nearly two and a half centuries that human chattel slavery existed in North America, its primary victims were the African slaves whose lives were shackled and destroyed. Transported to the New World in chains, held in bondage for generations - there can be no question that their sufferings were incalculably immense. Nor is it untrue that white slaveholders profited greatly from their labors and thus materially benefited from the slave system.
At the same time, however, in seeking to catalog the full range of sociological effects that slavery's existence spawned, we must not forget that the South's "peculiar institution" also poisoned the lives of its supposed masters. The culture of almost unspeakable brutality that slavery created trapped slaveholders and their families in webs of barbarism, indecency, and ignorance, just as surely as it trapped slaves in lifetimes of misery and hardship. Anyone who wants to understand the complex history of relations between black and white Southerners has to go back to the conditions of slavery, and see how both races were scarred by its oppression.
Harriet Ann Jacobs' autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was first published in 1861. She wrote it under the pen name Linda Brent. At that time, Jacobs was forty-three years old. She escaped from slavery at the age of twenty-seven, after spending nearly seven of those years hiding in a small garret above a shed in the South Carolina community where she was born (p 151), almost within sight of her master's home. This narrative conveys a wealth of information about the oppressive conditions endured by Jacobs, her family, and other slaves she knew. It also sheds fairly detailed light on how the mechanisms of slavery functioned to perpetuate its hegemonic reign by exploiting class and gender fault lines among whites who were themselves harmed by the existence of slavery.
Slavery could not have preservered for so long without the support of the mass of white southerners, i.e., those whites who were not part of the planter elites. Most poor whites in the South did not own slaves, and thus did not benefit in direct, material ways from the existence of slavery. If anything, the danger was that elements of the "low whites" would begin to recognize how slavery was contributing to their own economic domination. "The power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves (poor whites) in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation" (p 65).
Planters who owned slaves were able to amass enormous amounts of wealth, accumulated capital that was then put into service vis-a-vis land speculation, and control of banks, retail and manufacturing concerns. These were all advantages that poor whites lacked, could not help but resent, and which together formed a framework of economic oppression that directly harmed them. Something had to be done to prevent poor whites from looking too closely at the roots of their own lowly economic status and finding common cause with the enslaved blacks.
The ideological trappings of white supremacy served to keep these whites in line. Slavery's hegemony was propped up by the construction of an elaborate, racially ordered social system. Its message to poor whites was that no matter what their status was in relation to rich planters, they were still superior to the wretched mass of black slaves and always would be.
On occasions when the slave system felt threatened, such as during the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion, in late August, 1831, poor whites would be given opportunity to directly exercise this right of racial superiority. Poor whites were organized into companies and patrols (under the command of rich planters, naturally), and given license to freely plunder the homes and quarters of all colored people in the area, slave and free alike.
"It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders" (p 65).
How the poor whites responded to their own impoverishment was revealed by their reactions to the bedding and table cloths, silver spoons, and preserves discovered when Jacobs' grandmother's house was searched for arms and other evidence of insurrection.
"'Look here, mammy,' said a grim looking fellow without any coat, 'you seem to feel mighty gran' 'cause you got all them 'ere fixens. White folks oughter have 'em all." (p 66).
Their poverty bred resentment, which was channeled into jealousy of and hatred for the slaves and freedmen who lived in anything but utter squalor. Thus, the slave system's hegemonic rule was skillfully maintained through hidden ideological control. Racism and the doctrine of white supremacy were used as clubs to blind poor whites from seeing their own economic interests.
Elite white women in the South also suffered (in a qualified and very particular sense) from the perpetuation of injustice and exploitation that slavery engendered. The wives, sisters, and daughters of slaveholders were forced to exist in a society where the sexual exploitation of slaves made a mockery of marital vows. Pain and disharmony were sown among the families of "privileged" white Southerners whose lives were supposedly being enriched by slavery.
"The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealously and hatred enter the household, and it is ravaged of its loveliness." (p 35).
Most slaveowners' wives probably responded as Mrs. Flint did when she learned of Dr. Flint's plan to have Linda (Harriet Jacobs) sleep in his room, ostensibly to keep watch over his youngest daughter (p 31-32). Being confronted by the realization that their husbands were having sexual relations with slave women in most cases did not translate into a lessening of support for slavery as an institution among slaveowners' wives. Here, the hegemonic system of white supremacy intertwined with the framework of patriarchal domination that ordered American society. Rage that might have been directed at the institution of slavery was thwarted, run through an ideological wringer of notions about romance and rivalry, and instead transformed into feelings of simple jealousy and hatred, directed against the slave women who had been raped by their husbands.
"She (Mrs. Flint) pitied herself as a martyr, but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed" (p 32). Their cruelties towards these women, who they saw only as "rivals," undoubtedly increased, and the slave system was strengthened, not weakened.
If the poor whites and elite white Southern women whose interests were not served by the slave system had ever revolted, the foundations of slavery might have collapsed long before the Civil War. It was thus essential that coherent ideological constructs be present to gloss over inconsistencies between slavery's professed benefits to all Southern whites and the day-to-day realities of its sexual and economic exploitation.
Paradoxically, the only elements of the slave system that could have turned wives against their slaveowning husbands and poor whites against their rich planter "masters" instead served to harden the hearts of Southern elite white women and poor men even further against their human sisters and brothers in bondage.
Source: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Ann Jacobs