A Changing View of Slavery
In the United States the seventeenth century society placed people into categories of the economic scale according to how much land one possessed. Slavery was clearly existent in every day life, however it was far less intense then slavery of the nineteenth-century. In Myne Owne Ground, the peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites is described in great detail. Slaves of the seventeenth-century were not treated half as harshly as those of the nineteenth-century. In fact, they were treated quite well and found freedom highly attainable. During this time period, slaves were allowed to purchase their way into a free life if they had the means to pay. Once they had bought themselves free lives, some became very successful landowners and were looked upon as respected members of society. An example of a slave success story would be that of Anthony Johnson of Northampton County. Johnson was a slave who purchased his freedom and built a great life for his family. “During the 1640's the Johnsons acquired a modest estate.” (Breen and Innes, 11). Opportunity was available to slaves of the seventeenth-century that those of the nineteenth-century could have only dreamed of. In Missouri, during the 1800's, the chance of escaping one’s enslaved life were slim to none. People had much different views on the issue then they had in the previous centuries. “Slavery was an institution fundamental to the existence of southern society, a permanent part of the southern way of life.” (McLaurin, 18). Slavery had most definitely emerged into a racist investiture in every way. Slavery was now about being inferior in every way due to the color of one’s skin. There were the few who were fighting to abolish slavery in the South, however Pro-Slavery ideologies consumed most of the southern population. Acts were passed to insure that slavery would not be eliminated and slaves continued to be discriminated against consistently.
“The resolutions declared slavery, in every aspect, a matter of state concern; pronounced efforts to stop admission of Kansas as a slave state hostile to the Constitution and the Compromise of 1850; approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act; and condemned abolitionists for recruiting and sending settlers to Kansas with the purpose of with the purpose of abolishing slavery in Missouri.” (McLaurin, 71).
“ ...‘Negro’ and so described during the proceedings seems to have played no discernible part in the deliberations of the local justices.” (Breen and Innes, 12). When Anthony Johnson went before the court, he was able to defend his case and was taken into fair consideration. He was able to have his family members exempted from taxes to help with the rebuilding of his estate. The fact that Johnson was a black man and ex-slave did not seem to matter to the judge or jury throughout his hearing. “During three decades before Bacon’s Rebellion, the Northampton justices showed no reluctance to accept the testimony of black planters in cases involving white plaintiffs and defendants.”(Breen and Innes, 93). During the seventeenth-century, slaves were able to testify in the court of law, whereas in the nineteenth-century this was forbidden. In Celia’s case, she had been raped and abused for years by her owner Robert Newsom. Once Celia could bear no more abuse and was torn at the idea of losing her lover, fellow slave George, she killed Newsom during the last time he would ever try to take advantage of her. This was clearly an act of self-defense, but the law of Missouri would not take that into consideration seeing as it was stated that slaves were not allowed to fight for their lives and there were no laws against raping slaves. Celia was at a disadvantage coming into her trial because she could not tell her horrible story first hand and she was also up against a jury of Newsom’s peers. An example of the bias throughout Celia’s case would be her inquest jury.
“Thus the six men who first heard evidence that Celia had killed Robert Newsom were, in
practically every respect, his peers. As residents of Fulton Township, it is likely that at least some of the six were also personally acquainted with Newsom and his family, knowing them as neighbors and community members.” (McLaurin, 49).
From the minute that Celia confessed, she was hindered due to the prejudice put before her. Her fate was set, there was nothing that the defense could do to save their client. Even the judge was inclined to give Celia a guilty verdict based on the circumstances going on in the state of Missouri. “Given the impact of the slavery issue upon Missouri’s politic’s at the time, he probably hoped for the trial to be conducted as expeditiously as possible, in a manner that ran the least risk of arousing the ire of either camp.” The judge knew that both abolitionists and pro-slavery activists were working hard for their cause’s, but he probably felt more threatened by the pro-slave members because of the stance of most citizens of the south.
Gender certainly played a key role in Celia’s story. In the nineteenth century, raping of female slaves was not against the law. There was little that one could do to stop this atrocity. Even if white females came across a woman slave being raped, nothing she said would really do any good. And if a male slave tried to step in and help one of the female victims, he would most likely be punished in some way. If these rapes occurred during the seventeenth-century as well, they were not as common or spoken about because one hears nothing of this sort when reading Myne Owne Ground.
In the years after Bacon’s Rebellion, slavery developed a new aura. It became increasingly harder for slaves to purchase their freedom and live peacefully amongst white citizens. Treatment of slaves turned harsh. Assaults were occurring and more slaves were being sentenced to death as our country moved into the nineteenth century. Slaves were over time disallowed certain rights in the court of law. Over the centuries, our country became increasingly more racist and less tolerant to the idea of ending slavery, especially in the south. Slavery should have never been acceptable, but it is easier to view through the seventeenth-century, than to hear of the horrible maltreatments of the nineteenth-century. Through examining these two novels, the changes and transitions in this institution are clearly laid out for the reader to evaluate. The differences between the two ages of slavery are blatant, one would come out of the readings undeniably believing the severity to be greater in the nineteenth-century than it ever was in the seventeenth.