A decade before the Civil War, the leading Southern periodical De Bow’s Review published a series titled Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race—a much-needed study, the editors opined, given its “direct and practical bearing” upon 3 million people whose value as property totaled some $2 billion. The essays’ author, the distinguished New Orleans physician Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, described in precise anatomical terms the reasons for African Americans’ supposed laziness (“deficiency of red blood in the pulmonary and arterial systems”), love of dancing (“profuse distribution of nervous matter to the stomach, liver and genital organs”), and exceptional dislike of being whipped (“skin … as sensitive, when they are in perfect health, as that of children”).
But what drew readers’ particular attention was Cartwright’s discovery of a previously unknown medical condition that he called “Drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to run away.” (He derived the name from an ancient Greek term for a fugitive slave.) This affliction, he continued, had two effective cures: treating one’s slaves kindly but firmly, or, failing that, “whipping the devil out of them.”
Drapetomania seemed on the verge of becoming a fatal contagion in the summer of 1851, when Cartwright’s articles appeared. Although only a few thousand people, at most, escaped slavery each year—nearly all from states bordering the free North—their flight appeared to many Southern whites the harbinger of a larger catastrophe. The Mason-Dixon Line had become slavery’s fraying hem. How long before the entire fabric began to unravel?