Antebellum Rights for Blacks

An examination of three documents from the Antebellum era (1820 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1865), which present the social, as well as legal, perspective that slavery was beneficial.

This paper summarizes three documents, which explain the social and political feelings of this era. It shows that the first is an article by a prominent doctor, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, entitled, “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. It was his purpose to validate the ownership of slaves as a means of providing shelter and industry to a race handicapped to such a degree that it could not prosper on its own. It then explains that the second document is the opinion of Justice Taney in the “Dred Scott v. Sanford” case of 1857. Here, it is legally determined that blacks of the pre-Civil War era do not have the rights of an American citizen. Finally, it discusses the third document, which is a speech presented to the United States Senate on March 4, 1858, by James Henry Hammond, wherein he argues that the black race is a slave race through natural law. All of these documents were written in the belief that slavery was a legitimate social institution based on the inferiority of the black race.
“The Southern plantation system was socially and economically dependent on slave labor to continue. The chattel slave was owned and had absolutely no rights, including the right to life, that was not controlled by the owner. The plantation owners did not consider slave labor to be ‘free’ inasmuch as the care and upkeep of the slaves was their responsibility.

In the 1840’s a physician, Samuel Cartwright, created a psychiatric diagnosis called drapetomania? that was specific to slaves – most notably found among freed slaves. The disorder was characterized by a partial insensibility of the skin, and so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake. It differs from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms (Internet source). The diagnosis is, of course, specific to the times. It was a way that the institute of slavery could be rationalized – by ‘blaming the victim’ – for the natural reactions to an unnatural situation.