Southern Slavery: Two Systems of Management
I was hoping that 12 Years a Slave would win the Academy award as the best movie. It did.
I am teaching a course for the Ron Paul Curriculum for first-year high school students. It is a detailed examination of classic autobiographies. Before I had seen the movie, I had selected Twelve Years a Slave as one of them. Now that the movie has won the Academy Award, my students will pay much closer attention to the book.
It is a very good movie. In relation to the amount of money spent to make it, it is the best recent Hollywood movie I've seen. They spent about $20 million on this movie, not counting marketing. This is incredibly low. Yet the production quality is excellent. The photography is excellent. Everything about it is excellent. It shows that you can produce a really good movie cheap, as long as you can get cooperation from the actors: pay percentages, not salaries. There were only two big-money actors in it, Brad Pitt, who was a co-producer, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a hot property these days. Also in the cast were Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard, but neither is a headliner.
Unlike most Hollywood historical movies, this one was faithful to the original book. When it says that it is based on a true story, it is being accurate. There are a few discrepancies, but with only two exceptions, they are minor. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, where Brad Pitt's character argues against a slave owner with respect to the ethics of slavery, the dialogue is taken right out of the autobiography. Other sections of the movie are also taken directly from the autobiography.
This is one of the greatest autobiographies I've ever read. It is amazingly eloquent. It is a page-turner. Even without the movie, I think students probably would have been interested in it. Now, because of the movie, I don't think there's any question about this.
I went back again this week to see it a second time, because I had to produce a lecture on the accuracy of the movie in relationship to the book. I wanted to make certain that I have the facts correct. I was once again struck by this fact. The most evil man in the movie, who was the owner of the author for a decade, was portrayed by a very skilled actor, Michael Fassbender. He gained a nomination for best supporting actor.
The character he plays was a monster. But he made a mistake, a mistake that is now legendary. He did not know that one of his slaves was not only literate, he was one of the great prose writers of 19th-century America: Solomon Northup. He also had something like a photographic memory. Even more damaging, he remembered the highlights with great precision, and he was able to put them in prose that was spellbinding. His literary skills were aimed at his owner, and when you are done reading about the owner, you realize that the actor, if anything, underplayed the extent to which the man was a monster.
One hundred and sixty miles down the Red River lived the richest slave owner in Louisiana. He was the most beloved slave owner in America -- beloved by his slaves, not his peers. His name was John McDonogh.
THE FORGOTTEN MAN
He alone among all the slave owners in the South for over 200 years devised a system that made his slaves incomparably efficient. They were so efficient that he ceased to have any responsibility for managing his plantation, including all of the rental properties that he owned. The slaves did everything. They worked like maniacs. They literally ran from job to job. Another slave owner wanted to buy one of them. He was willing to pay $5,000 -- in the range of $100,000 in today's money. McDonogh refused to sell. He had a secret. This is from McDonogh's biography, published 36 years after his death.
Mr. Ed. E. Parker, a prominent and wealthy citizen of New Orleans, noticing the extraordinary industry of some of Mr. McDonogh's people engaged on some buildings near his residence, repeatedly offered to buy their foreman, Jim, from his master, offering finally $5000. Finding the slave could not be bought, he thus described their manner of work to Mr. McDonogh, who was never with them: "Why, sir, I am an early riser, getting up before day ;--I am awakened every morning of my life by the noise of their trowels at work and their singing and noise before day ; and they work as long as they can see to lay brick, and then carry up brick and mortar for an hour or two afterwards, to be ahead at their work the next morning. And again, sir, do you think they walk at their work? No, sir, they run all day. I never saw such people as those, sir; I do not know what to make of them. Was there a white man over them with whip in hand all day, why then I could understand the cause of their incessant labor; but I cannot comprehend it, sir. Great man, sir, that Jim--great man, sir. I should like to own him." After laughing heartily at Mr. Parker's description, which was true. Mr. McDonogh informed him that there was a secret 'about it which would some day be disclosed.'
McDonogh went public with his system in 1842. He published an account of how he did it in a local New Orleans newspaper. After two decades of secrecy, he decided he might as well share the secret. The secret was simple: he offered his slaves a way to buy their freedom. It took about 14 years. They had to work hard. They had to be reliable. He discovered that they became so efficient that, at the time that he released one of them, he could afford to buy two more from the added income he gained.
He owned more land than anybody in the state of Louisiana, and he may have owned more land than anybody in the United States at the time of his death in 1850. He owned literally every piece of land surrounding the city of New Orleans. He had done this without debt. It was an incredible story.
No one in New Orleans imitated him. No one in the state imitated him. Nobody outside of Louisiana imitated him. He became the one man in the history of the South who figured out how to make the slave system work without active management by the owner, and he also figured out how to get the slaves out of bondage. It is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the South, and it is virtually unknown.
He did not sell that slave for $5,000, because the slave was not his to sell. There was a lien on the slave. That lien was held by the slave.
McDonogh found a way to free his slaves, and get phenomenally rich by doing it. He did this at the same time that the author of Twelve Years a Slave was living up the Red River.
McDonogh once wrote that a man's slaves know him better than anybody else does. A man's slaves understand his moral weaknesses. He cannot expect to deceive them. If they do not trust him, he said, his system would not work. So, he taught them to read. He taught them basic accounting. Then he showed them, one by one, how their capital was building. They could see how much longer they would be slaves. They could see deliverance in the numbers.
In 1857, the state of Louisiana made this illegal. It passed a short law.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Rspresentatives [sic] of the State of Louisiana in General Assembly Convened, That from and after the passage of this act no slave shall be emancipated in this state.
So, we have two stories. One is the story of a monster named Edwin Epps. The other is the story of a man who treated his slaves well, and gave them an opportunity to buy their way out of bondage. When I first read about the second story in 1974, it was virtually unknown. It remains unknown.
After a century of being out of print, somebody brought Twelve Years a Slave to a professor at Louisiana State University. The book had been in that person's family since it was published in 1853. It had been completely forgotten. The professor created an academic version of it, and republished it in 1968. It then took 45 years for the book to be made into a movie.
People don't want to be known as monsters -- not even the monsters. They want to have good reputations. Edwin Epps was fully understood by his slaves. But one of them was able to get out from under his control. That former slave had an extraordinary ability to write. He published his autobiography one year after Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, appeared in print. His autobiography sold 30,000 copies. Then, after 1865, it was forgotten. But 160 years later, it was turned into a highly profitable movie, and then it won the Academy Award. The movie is now a classic. It will be available to the public on a permanent basis. Edwin Epps got the recognition he so richly deserved.
One of these two men wanted publicity after he had figured out that his manumission system really worked. Nobody paid any attention to him. The other man wanted no publicity, and he will now be remembered as one of the great villains in American history. He thought he could get away with it, because nobody would know what he did. But one man knew, and that was all it took. Of all the old South's slave owners, Edwin Epps will be long be known as the worst monster of them all.
No one will make a Hollywood movie about John McDonogh.
I would like John McDonogh's story to be better known. I make available the relevant sections of his 1886 biography here.