The Limits of Human Decency

The Plantation Dream

The Plantation Dream

We may never know how Thomas Stevenson Drew lost his fortune, after rising to the position of Governor of Arkansas, but the available sources seem to show that he was a genuinely decent man.  He spent his life in efforts at conciliation and compromise; there is no record of his being involved in any of Arkansas’ violent interpersonal conflicts; and his later reports, as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, show him as an unusually sympathetic advocate for the tribes for whose welfare he was responsible.  The scope of human decency, however, was always limited by the inexorable pressure of the slave system.

Having resigned from the governorship, deeply in debt, he was still the owner of 28 slaves. And with those slaves, he decided to recoup his wealth by establishing a cotton plantation in the rich Delta soil of Desha County.  The explosive cotton boom of the 1850s was just beginning, and planters with enough enslaved labor to fell the virgin forests and drain the trackless malarial swamps were looking ahead to fortunes.  It was brutal work.  In order to get the land cleared and the first crops planted, slaves were worked from dawn to dusk, with many dying from exhaustion or from the endemic diseases of the swamps. Their white owners sometimes worked along with them, but sometimes protected themselves and their families by staying on higher, healthier ground until the plantation was established.

Thomas attempted to claim his part in this boom, but it was too much for him.  About a year after his 28 slaves appeared in the Federal Slave Census for Desha County, he gave up, selling 13 of those slaves and all of his livestock and farming tools to his rich brother James, in return for $7,205 and James’ assumption of a $3,455 debt.

In comparing the census, which includes the gender and ages of the people listed, with the names and ages of the same people on the bill of sale, we can see what looks like an attempt to use the sale to keep families together.  The thirteen slaves sold to James include two adult couples, Fanny and her unnamed husband and Reuben and Elsy, six young children, and a young woman who may be Fanny’s daughter, whose infant twins are named Fanny and George.  But then we look at the people who do not appear on the deed: most of them young men and women in their late teens or early twenties, the prime ages for field hands.  Most likely, these young adults were family members of the ones that Thomas may have tried to protect by the sale to James.  Since Thomas was abandoning his attempt at a plantation, they must have been destined for sales to other, more determined planters, and the hellish work that would follow those sales.

The economics of slavery were too powerful for a debt-ridden slaveholder to resist.  No matter what his impulses to decency or kindness, the slaves were property and had to be used as such.  It must have taken a good deal of mental effort to ignore that contradiction.

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