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Frontier Discourses: The Speech of Senator Hammond

The document, rather the speech was first delivered by Sir James Henry Hammond, who was the Senator or Governor of South Carolina, in the Senate of the United States of America.

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This speech is a primary source because this document on slavery was delivered and documented during a period when the slavery system was the order of the day in the United States of America.

The crux of the story around which the entire narrative, be it of this document or of any other belonging to this period, revolves is Cotton. Cotton was true, as Senator Henry James Hammond was to boast in later years, the king in the southern portions of the United States of America (pp.350). Cotton production amplified in the latter half of the eighteenth century owing to the invention of the cotton gin (video lesson 16). Demand for cotton in the textile industry increased the price of cotton leading to a scramble for land in the west to produce cotton and reap profit from it (Pp.349-350). With this increase in cotton production demand for slaves to work in the cotton field accelerated accordingly (video lesson 16). Economically, the use of slaves was a profitable proposition because “The average slaveowner spent perhaps $30 to $35 a year to support an adult slave. Allowing for the cost of land, equipment, and other expenses, a planter could expect one of his slaves to produce more than $78 worth of cotton—which meant that about 60 percent of the wealth produced by a slave’s labor was clear profit.” (pp. 353). Thus, the rising demand for cotton formed one of the prime economic forces, which encouraged sustenance of slavery.

Secondly, slavery was deemed of great aristocratic value in the south. Socially it acted as a mark of honor and status. In the southern society ownership of slaves was considered to be a prestigious and one owning slaves was considered to be an honorable person of the landed gentry, almost at par with the continental sense of aristocracy (pp. 353). Poor whites who owned no slaves in southern portion of America constituted almost 75% of the population and they dreamed of achieving the status and privileges their richer planter neighbors enjoyed. Thus, owning slaves became the benchmark of social status, owned by very few but desirable nonetheless for all white folks in the southern part of America (video lesson 16).

The social desirability of the slavery institution was utilized by the southern aristocrats, who eventually went into politics, as a weapon to augment their vote bank (video lesson 16). This helped them to make a common cause with that population of the southern land who were enfranchised, which excluded the blacks and the white women.

Culturally this ‘peculiar institution’ of the southern plantations was a way of life. It defined not just social boundaries but created and sustained cultural bindings amongst the slaves and their masters. The master played a paternalistic role; he reared them, took care of the slaves and at times if necessary reprimanded them (pp. 357). Their mistresses acted like a mother to the slaves, nursing them, clothing them and often injecting Christian values in them (pp. 358). Thus, slavery and plantation life went hand in hand in the south and represented culturally an entire civilization so well depicted in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

These various forces combined together to justify slavery, as did Senator Hammond in his speech, not as a necessary evil but as divine providence meant for the good of the slaves themselves. In light of these factors, the speech of Senator Hammond can be rightfully contextualized.

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The speech of Senator Hammond gives us a vivid picture of the institution of slavery as it existed and functioned in the southern United States before the American Civil War came about. The entire speech justifies the owning of slaves on human grounds transforming the entire act being humane hence rightful. The depiction of slaves as mudsill, necessary body for sustaining a building, in this case an institution that is plantation economy, is quite appalling. Justification of an exploitative body, where human labor is exploited without rightful compensation, as the Law of the Nature seems downright unjust.

On the other hand, the interesting aspect of this speech is the depiction of a different way of life, a different civilization. Though not being just this aspect of slavery was nonetheless interesting. The way the slaves were paternalistically treated, how the plantation mistress’ looked after them and accultured them (teaching them to live the Christian way of life) bears all the features of civilization, of a different way of life, which was spectacular and romantic. The American Civil War did away with slavery, no doubt, but along with it ended the last bastion of that Romantic way of life, which was ‘Gone with the Wind’.

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