This was, for me, the most memorable passion from Solomon Northup’s biography, Twelve Years a Slave:
Our master’s name was William Ford. He resided then in the “Great Pine Woods,” in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.
This is, to say nothing stronger, a remarkably kind assessment of a man who was holding the author in a state of bondage. Neither was Northup’s assessment of Ford unique. Here is his description of a neighboring plantation owner giving a Christmas party for the slaves of the area:
In the evening the mistress returned, and stood in the door a long time, looking at us. She was magnificently arrayed. Her dark hair and eyes contrasted strongly with her clear and delicate complexion. Her form was slender but commanding, and her movement was a combination of unaffected dignity and grace. As she stood there, clad in her rich apparel, her face animated with pleasure, I thought I had never looked upon a human being half so beautiful. I dwell with delight upon the description of this fair and gentle lady, not only because she inspired me with emotions of gratitude and admiration, but because I would have the reader understand that all slave-owners on Bayou Boeuf are not like Epps, or Tibeats, or Jim Burns. Occasionally can be found, rarely it may be, indeed, a good man like William Ford, or an angel of kindness like young Mistress McCoy.
Are these honest appraisals? Part of me has to be suspicious that Northup is trying to make a moderate appeal to abolition, eschewing severe presentations of slaveholders in order to make his appeal more palatable to fence-sitters. I’m not at all uncertain, however, that this was much of an imperative at the time. Frederick Douglass, for instance, minces no words in criticizing Christianity that brooked slavery. (Northup wrote in 1853; Douglass wrote in 1845.)
I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”
I read Northup’s book shortly after reading histories of World War I and World War II. In both of those conflicts, one cannot help but be impressed by the way that huge populations chose to do horrendous things, in full faith and confidence that their actions were just. At some level: obviously. There are routine surveys that demonstrate the average American’s ignorance of even basic political facts. The democratic process is far more about tribalism and far less about ideas, than anyone would like to admit.
But does that extend to such weighty moral matters as slavery as well? Opposition to slavery in the United States must be quite close to 100% today; a hundred and fifty years ago, it was significantly lower. If William Ford had been both in this century instead of that one, he would likely not be the lone pro-slavery voice among evangelicals. The necessary conclusion is that a large fraction of people are not deliberating on moral issues at all, but are merely regurgitating what they hear. Again, at some level: obviously. There are two places one encounters those pleasing sigmoidal graphs: in social change, and in the stoichiometry chapter in chemistry.
If the average Joe’s moral convictions are merely some weighted average of those around him, then I suppose I can live with that. I cannot live with it in myself. Reading Northup’s book revived a somewhat morbid habit of reflecting on the time of slavery and wondering which side I would have been on. Since my views on social issues are considered conservative now, would I simply have been on the conservative (i.e., pro-slavery) side then? Or, since my views are also classically liberal, would I have applied them consistently then (as I perceive myself to be doing now)? Would I have been a John Brown, a William Lloyd Garrison, an Abraham Lincoln, or what surely must have been a substantial fraction, those who would say, “I would never own a slave, but as to whether it should be proscribed by law…”?
This reinforces my perception of my need to rebuild all of my social and moral arguments from the ground up. From the eternal perspective, I believe that the final judgment will be made with the moral clarity of Frederick Douglass, although the judgment (not the verdict) will be tempered by the charity that characterizes Solomon Northup.