Discuss this topic in the Politics & Society conference in Post & Riposte.
Previously in Politics & Prose:
Christopher Caldwell, the author of last June's "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," on why Newt Gingrich couldn't save his party from its paralysis. Plus, Jack Beatty offers "A Modest Proposal" to Republicans in search of a unifying issue.
The murder in Wyoming and the search for the roots of anti-gay violence.
The real political scandal these days is the abandonment of those without health insurance.
A review of Gain, the new novel by Richard Powers in which the corporation is the shaping force of American history.
Thinking globally -- and acting ethically -- in the new world economic order.
More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
Most of us know that transgressions like Thomas Jefferson's were common. But few are aware that the topic of sex and slavery was treated openly and unflinchingly in the nineteenth century by an Englishwoman named Harriet Martineau
by Jack Beatty
December 3, 1998
The Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship was by no means unusual in southern society during the years of slavery. My authority for that judgment is Harriet Martineau's 1837 book Society in America. If you haven't heard of it, I'm not surprised. While Martineau was traveling in America in 1834-36, Alexis de Tocqueville, who had made his own survey in 1831-32, published Democracy in America, the most farsighted book ever written about this country. Though long eclipsed by Tocqueville's book, Society in America is itself a classic work of the sociological imagination. Harriet Martineau was a passionate early feminist and socialist from England who bared the secret lascivious heart of the plantation South with a remarkably modern sort of candor.
Martineau's intellectual itinerary extends to politics, government, the economy, and agriculture. But her book returns again and again to slavery -- the stain of it touched everything in Jacksonian America. Her most concentrated discussion of slavery occurred in a section titled "Morals of Economy." The subject was sex.
"Little can be said of the purity of manners of the whites of the south," she wrote. "Some few examples of domestic fidelity may be found: few enough, by the confession of residents on the spot." Only the purest slaveholder could resist "the contagion of vice." About this she was blunt. "Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain, to tempt him to the common practice." A footnote clarifies the damnable nature of this "gain": "The law declares that the children of slaves are to follow the fortunes of the mother. Hence the practice of planters selling ... their own children." Martineau called this mercenary debauchery "boundless licentiousness." Martineau reported that James Madison, who succeeded Jefferson as President, told her that "the licentiousness of Virginian plantations stopped just short of destruction; and that it was understood that the female slaves were to become mothers at fifteen." This leads us to wonder whether Jefferson, on his Virginia plantation, bred and then sold his own children -- a conjecture that expunges all trace of romance from his sexual relations with Sally Hemings.
Martineau was unsparing in her analysis of the "degradation of women ... so obvious a consequence of the evils disclosed above." White women married young into a kind of lie. "Where the generality of men carry secrets which their wives must be the last to know ... there is an end to all wholesome confidence and sympathy, and woman sinks to be the ornament of her husband's house." Martineau noted "the kind politeness, the gallantry, so insufficient to the loving heart" with which southern husbands treated their wives. She remarked on the shift in tone in the conversation men had with women -- "different in its topics and its style from that which any man would dream of offering to any other man." Kept pure before marriage by "an unfortunate servile class of their own sex [who served] the purposes of licentiousness," the wives of planters were kept in intellectual virginity by patronizing talk.
Slavery corrupted marriage: it robbed white women of their sexuality, and it made white men serpents of deceit. The one virtue Martineau could find in the South was mercy -- some slave owners and their wives showed a merciful face to their slaves, and spoke of them with paternalistic affection. She was clear, however, about the controlling reality. "I knew of the death of four men by summary burning alive," she wrote, "within thirteen months of my residence in the United States." Just as Martineau was ahead of her time in documenting the sexual mores of the South, she also noted that the whole system of slavery rested on barbarous violence -- and in passing she described a fresh form of atrocity recently introduced in Mississippi by a slave owner named Lynch.
Discuss this topic in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.