The Peculiar Institution

The Duke de la Rochefoucauld, an exile from revolutionary France who seemed to have a genuine appreciation for the post-revolutionary United States, was, as a foreign visitor, sometimes blunt in his assessments of what was going on. He found the inhabitants of Albany “extremely dull and melancholy,” and despite praising the hospitality of his host John Schuyler in Schuylerville, he called the son of the General indolent for his choice to sell hay rather than using it for cattle. But because of his status as an outsider, he gives us one of the few contemporary views, albeit a brief one, of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, which was more prevalent than we like to remember in the Capital District and was certainly a fixture in the lives of all the leading families. This is what little he had to say on that:

Labourers may be procured here in great abundance; their wages are three shillings a day, if they be wanted; but the usual daily labour is performed by negroes, who are very numerous, so that there is scarcely a house without one or two of them; John Schuyler keeps seven. The negroes, it is generally asserted, enjoy more happiness, as slaves, than if they were free. This might be the case, if liberty were bestowed on them, without their knowing what to do with it. But upon the whole, such maxims of morality fall with an ill-grace from the lips of a free people. The negroes, it is true, are kindly used in the state of New York; but it is also true, that, the convenience of having them constantly at hand for any work set apart, the labour of white people is less expensive, than that of negroes. To keep slaves is, therefore, a bad system, even in this point of view.

He spoke much more of slavery in his travels, though not of that in the Albany area. When he was writing, it was possible but by no means certain that the slave trade would end in 1808, the earliest date allowed by the Constitution. The Slave Trade Act of 1794 took the first step toward getting the United States out of slavery, and Rochefoucauld wrote at a time when there was still resistance.

There are some ships from Providence engaged in the accursed traffic of negroes, in contempt of the orders of Congress, by which it has been forbidden. The merchants concerned in this trade persuade themselves, that Congress cannot alter the constitution; and therefore think, that in spite of whatever Congress shall order, they may continue the slave-trade till 1808, the year fixed in the Constitution for its final cessation. They allege farther, that every state possesses a right to decide for itself in regard to this traffic; and that the state of Rhode-Island has not, as yet, made any enactment against it. They therefore purchase negroes, and carry them to sale in Georgia, where there is no prohibition of any sort against the trade. Nearly twenty ships from the harbours of the United States are employed in the importation of negroes to Georgia, and to the West-India isles.

I am surprised, that, while there is so strong and general a disapprobation of this whole trade, and while it is in such direct contradiction to the spirit of freedom, and to the predominant sentiments throughout America, Congress should neglect to interpose, and entirely suppress it here. I was informed, that this is about to happen ….

In Rhode Island, Rochefoucauld noted that “negroes are almost the only servants to be seen.” In Connecticut, servitude had not been abolished, as it had been in Massachusetts; “It is here ordained by law, that every negro born in the state since the year 1784, shall, at the age of twenty-one years, be declared free.” He spoke of this transition to freedom, which was considered as respect for property, to be “flagrant injustice … The case of Massachusetts, which in respect to slavery, stood in the same situation with Connecticut, and in which there were, at the time of the general emancipation, a greater number of negroes in servitude, sufficiently evinces the futility of this pretence.”

The community have there experienced no unfortunate consequences from the emancipation of the negroes. Few of these have made any criminal abuse of their liberty. Neither robbery nor murder is more frequent than before. Almost all the emancipated negroes remain in the condition of servants; as they cannot enjoy ther freedom, without earning means for their subsistence. Some of them have settled, in a small way, as artisans or husbandmen. Their number is, on the whole, greatly diminished. And on this account, the advocates for slavery maintain, that the negroes of Massachusetts have not been made, in any degree, happier by their general emancipation. None of them has, however, returned into servitude in those states in which slavery is still suffered by the laws. None has died of want. Massachusetts has delivered itself from the dishonor of the most odious of all violations of the natural liberty and the inextinguishable rights of the human species.

Want to read the rest of Rochefoucauld’s travels? There’s a Google for that. This all came from Volume II. There are others.

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