Slavebreeding in the South’s “Peculiar Institution”


By Professor Milfred Fierce

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, nephew of Thomas Jefferson, speaking to the same Virginia legislature during the winter of 1831-1832, boldly asserted: “The exportation has averaged 8,500 for the last twenty years. It’s a practice, and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia to rear slaves for market. How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country bear to see this ancient dominion coverted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market like oxen for the shambles?”

Randolph is also credited with having shown that the Black population of eastern Virginia increased 186 percent from 1790 to 1830, while the white population in the same region increased only 51 percent. 3 In a speech on the same subject, to the same audience and delivered at the same time and place, Henry Berry of Jefferson County estimated that the annual exports would be not less than 10,000 – Bancroft says 9,500.32 Thomas Marshall of Fauquier, son of Chief Justice John Marshall, reportedly offered a still higher number. According to Jesse Burton Harrison, “Virginia has a greater number of slaves than any other state in the union – and more than Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee all put together; and more than four times as many as either of
them”. (34) In 1840, the Anti-Slavery Society estimated that there were 80,000 slaves exported annually from the more Northern states to the South.35 While no estimate is given for individual states, it is generally accepted that Virginia was the leading exporter, therefore, she must have had a sizeable portion of this estimated 80,000.36 I am not concerned here and now with whether the number of slaves marketed for profit was 6,000, 8,000, 10,000 or 20,000 annually. If the repeated citations of civic and political leaders, guardians of Southern civilization, can be accepted – it tends to adduce that shred of evidence that U.B. Philips and his colleagues indicated could not be found.

The attestations of two additional individuals might be helpful here. With a quotable invective regarding the evils of slavery in Virginia, the South and the possibility of its extension into the territories, Thaddeus Stevens discusses the glorious days of the republic led by Virginia and guided by such patriots as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Now Virginia is reduced to the humiliating business of breeding slaves.

“The learned and able gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Meade) in a pamphlet which he laid upon our table, takes the same view of it. He says: ‘Virginia has a slave population of nearly half a million, whose value is chiefly dependent on Southern demand.’ Let us pause for a minute over this humiliating confession. In plain English, what does it mean? That Virginia is now only fit to be the breeder, not the employer of slaves. That she is reduced to the condition that her proud chivalry is compelled to turn slave traders for a livelihood! Instead of attempting to renovate the soil, and by their own honest labor compelling the earth to yield her abundance – instead of seeking for the best breed of cattle and horses to feed on her hills and valleys and fertilize the land, the sons of this great state must devote their time to selecting and grooming the most lusty sires and the most fruitful wenches to supply the slave barracoons of the South! And the learned gentleman pathetically laments that the profits of this genteel traffic will be greatly lessened by the circumscription of slavery. Reacting to a revenue tariff passed in the mid – 1840’s and in an attack on Pennsylvania Democrats, Joshua Giddings states: “Are the liberty-loving Democrats of Pennsylvania ready to give up the tariff? To strike off all protection from the articles of iron and coal and other productions of that state in order to purchase a slave market for their neighbors who … breed men for market like oxen for the shambles.” (37) Anticipating the incredulity of some, even though the declarations of Olmsted, Dew, Thaddeus Stevens and others unquestionably affirm the omnipresence of commercial slavebreeding in the “Old Dominion”, there are a host of current scholars who also confirm the existence of systematic slavebreeding: Dr. John Hope Franklin, Chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago, a leading United States Historian and the Dean of Black Scholars, was a special consultant to a New York City Board of Education publication designed for teachers which states, “The systematic breeding of slaves appears to have been widely practiced and openly admitted by a number of prominent slaveholders. (emphasis mine) In The American Negro Reference Book, Dr. Franklin notes that because of the illicit foreign slave trade and slavebreeding, plus the normal excess of births over deaths, Black population in the United States increased steadily during the first half of the nineteenth century”. In 1790, there were 604,000 slaves. By 1808, there were about 1,000,000. In 1830, there were 2,156,900, and by 1860, the number had increased to 3,953,760. Virginia continued to lead with 549,000. (40) Professor Franklin continues in From Slavery to Freedom that Southerners feared that the supply of slaves would run out while there was still such great demand. He elaborates on the slaveholder’s solution: “The systematic breeding of slaves is one of the most fantastic manipulations of human development in the history of mankind. Despite the denials and apologies of many students of the history of American slavery, there seems to be no doubt that innumerable slaveholders deliberately undertook to increase the number of salable slaves by advantageously mating them and by encouraging prolificacy in every possible way experiments in slaverearing were carried on, albeit surreptitiously, in much the same way that efforts were made to discover new products that would grow on the exhausted oil.” (41) (emphasis mine)

Lerone Bennett, Jr. is no less consistent than John Hope Franklin remarking that “some masters sanctioned polygamy and polyandry”. Others kept “Stud Negroes” and bred slaves for the market. He follows with several pages of testimony to slavebreeding practices in the antebellum South. The late Dr. E. Franklin Frazier, eminent Black sociologist and Howard University Professor suggests that on most antebellum plantations mating varied from purely forced physical contacts to associations of genuine sentiment. Harold D. Woodman offers a new introduction to the 1969 revival of a work originally published in 1862, The Slave Power by John Elliot Cairnes. “The old states undertook the part of breeding and rearing slaves until they attained to physical vigor and of using up the development of their virgin resources the physical vigor which had been thus obtained.” Cairnes adds that “the whole business of raising slaves in the border states is carried on with reference to their price, and that the price of the slaves in the border states is determined by the demand for them in the Southern markets”. (44) Edward Byron Reuter commenting on the American race problem writes that slavebreeders had more aristocratic status than overseers or slavetraders even though their business was purportedly considered more ominous. As mentioned earlier, Reuter maintains that all slaveowners were slavebreeders and that commercial slavebreeding was an incidental by-product of the system.45 Charles Nichols, in his recent book entitled Many Thousand Gone, discusses the auction block and the kinds of questions planters and speculators would ask the slaves, notes that females were asked how many children they could turn out per year.46 Stanley Feldstein in Once a Slave talks about a slaveowner who kept fifty to sixty slaves for breeding alone. “No other slave was allowed near them, for they were reserved for the whites. From twenty to twenty-five children a year were bred on this plantation, and as soon as they were ready for market, they would be taken away and sold. (47) References such as these could go on ad infinitum. Moreover, the frequency with which politicians, planters, academicians and common folk referred to slavebreeders and slavebreeding states, convinces me, beyond a reasonable doubt, that commercial slavebreeding was a very popular business in the antebellum South. And Virginia, as Charles Henry Ambler’s vitriolic pen reveals, slavebreeding “enabled the inhabitants to keep the wolf from the door, and to maintain a semblance of their former hospitality”. Turning briefly to slave narratives, Mary Agnes Lewis illustrates the communication between a runaway slave and his former mistress. The mistress, Sarah Logue, asks J. W. Loguen to return home or send her $1,000 for her loss. She insisted that she raised the slave as she did her own children. However, the runaway asks, “Woman, did you raise your own children for the market”? (49) According to Paul Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, most famous of the runaway slaves speaking about his former master, reports: “In pursuit of this object {wealth}, pious as Mr. Covey was, he proved himself unscrupulous and baseless as the worst of his neighbors. In the beginning he was only able – as he said – ‘to buy one slave’, and scandalous and shocking as is the fact, he boasted that he bought her simply ‘as a breeder’. … No better illustration of the unchaste, demoralizing and debasing character of slavery can be found than is furnished in the fact that this professedly Christian slaveholder, amidst all his prayers and hymns, was shamelessly and boastfully encouraging and actually compelling in his own house, undisguised and unmitigated fornication as a means of increasing his stock. It is the system of slavery which made this allowable, and which condemned the slaveholder for buying a slave woman and devoting her to this life no more than for buying a cow and raising stock from her and the same rules were observed with a view to increasing the number and quality of the ‘one as the other’.” (50) American Slavery As It Is, the monumental collection by the West’s leading abolitionist, is virtually inundated with notations on slavebreeding and slavebreeders. One section in particular reviews the testimony to slavebreeding in Virginia and the denials are described as “ridiculous and contemptible”. (1) The question then, bears repeating. To what extent was the practice of slavebreeding the exception, and to what extent was it the rule? Or, exactly how widespread was slavebreeding in Virginia? Or, to posit the question by way of illustration, using Virginia as an example, what proportion of the slaveholders {with let us say, more than a dozen slaves} consistently bred them for market and resale to the lower South? Three-fourths, one-half, one-fifth, one-twentieth? To answer this elusive question in terms of proportions or percentages will require investigation and sophistication
which goes far beyond the natural limits of this brief conspectus. Moreover, the mission is exacerbated by the fact that research of this scope and depth has never been published.

Therefore, the scholar who is interested in resolving this issue must do all pioneer work, Frederick Bancroft notwithstanding. However, the “scientific search” can commence where discourse ends.

For my part, “scientific” population statistics; plantation, county or state if they can be found, which would supposedly demonstrate widespread slavebreeding, would only reconfirm that which has already been satisfactorily confirmed, albeit empirically. To be sure, the discussion which appears here, the dutiful testimony and repeated observations of leading spokesmen of the period, the remarks by current scholars, the presence of an overwhelming number of slaves in Virginia where commercial agriculture, to all intents and purposes, was bankrupt, and the reasonable explanation for the existence of the domestic slave trade–in the face of maximum efforts to leave no records – argues persuasively that widespread slavebreeding was a reality. Taken separately or in isolation, perhaps none of these factors is convincing evidence for the popularity of slavebreeding. However, when consolidated, they leave little room for disclaimers regarding a Southern predilection for wholesale exploitation of African man by European man (slavebreeding), “the hallmark of a capitalist society”. (2)

A note of advice for further investigation

After completing a thorough review of what literature there is, the investigator might compile a list of the leading planters and slaveowners in antebellum Virginia. Then proceed to make a county-by-county examination of the slave population statistics. From plantation to plantation, farm to farm and year to year from whatever records are available. Of course, if the statistics show an unusual increase {beyond what is considered the natural increase}, it will then be necessary to prove that this abnormal rise in slave population cannot be explained elsewhere; i.e., the “illicit slave trade”. Not satisfied here, the investigator can examine the state of Virginia population statistics from year to year for clues. Needless to say, the question of reliability as well as the validity of statistics must be dealt with by the student. The researcher can delve into materials on the domestic slave trade. An examination of the size and nature of slave sales – source destination, etc. – from the upper South to the lower South should reveal whether the traffic was heavy or light from Virginia. If the theory holds up that one major source of supply might have been a series of slavebreeding farms which contemporaries often made reference to.

For more help the scholar can conduct an intensive exploration of abolitionist literature. Although perhaps not as scientific as population or domestic slave trade statistics, the writings and speeches of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, the Grimke sisters, the Lovejoys, Charles Stuart, Garrison, Weld, Giddings, Adams and a host of others should turn up something. Abolitionist newspapers such as the Liberator, Emancipator or North Star cannot afford to be overlooked. Early periodicals owned and operated by free Blacks such as Freedom’s Journal, The National Watchman and Mirror of Liberty should be seen. Slave narratives can be a source for future consideration. If it is discovered that a substantial portion of the slaves who left narratives referred, repeatedly, to breeding practices they witnessed, it would be a valuable addition to the investigation.

As I see it, there can be no more reliable sources than the writings and speeches of contemporaries like Harriet Martineau, Olmsted, Henry Berry, Thomas J. Randolph, Thaddeus Stevens, plantation owners, overseers and “Southern gentlemen”. Everything they wrote and said must be gleaned for clues. I haven’t mentioned the larger newspapers and periodicals earlier because information gathered from the above sources are very likely to appear in the leading newspapers. However, some idea of the attitude of Southerners toward slavebreeding can be found in organs like the Richmond Enquirer, Richmond Whig or Charleston Mercury, plus many others.

Finally, I do not want to create the impression that one needs to be limited to these brief suggestions. On the contrary, they represent merely some place to begin and are more selective than exhaustive. Certainly, many more areas for perusal will reveal themselves once the task has begun.

It is most difficult to distinguish between what is considered the natural increase and what could be considered a forced increase. Assuming that promiscuity among Africans was a little different from that of Europeans, any disproportionate rise in the Black population during this period might be considered a coercive or forced increase. (2) Matthew Hammond, The Cotton Industry: An Essay in American Economic History (New York, 1897), McMillan Company 54, rpt. 1966 Johnson Reprint Corp.