A Slaveholder’s Diary

Nov. 12, 1860

On Friday morning, Nov. 9, 1860, Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, a 57-year-old widowed plantation mistress, who lived some 10 miles east of Columbia, SC, wrote in her diary, “Oh My God!!! This morning heard that Lincoln was elected.” In the breathless entry that followed, she recorded her thoughts and fears:

I had prayed that God would thwart his election in some way & I prayed for my Country — Lord we know not what is to be the result of this — but I do pray if there is to be a crisis — that we all lay down our lives sooner than free our slaves in our midst — no soul on this earth is more willing for justice than I am, but the idea of being mixed up with free blacks is horrid!! I must trust in God that he will not forget us an unworthy as we are — Lord save us — I would give my life to save my country. I have never been opposed to giveing up slavery if we could send them out of our country — I have often wished I had been born in just such a country — with all our religious previleges & liberties with none of them in our midst — if the North had let us alone — the Master & the servant were happy with out advantages — but we had had vile wretches ever making the restless worse than they would have been & from my experience my own negroes are as happy as I am: — happier — I never am cross to my servants without cause & they give me impudence if I find the least fault, this is of the women, the men are not half as impudent as the women are. I have left a serious & what has been an all absorbing theme to a common one but the die is cast — “Caesar has past the Rubicon.” We now have to act. God be with us is my prayer & let us all be willing to die rather than free our slaves in their present uncivilized state.

There is much to unpack here. Southerners viewed the Republicans as an abolitionist party and, coming just a year after John Brown’s raid, they considered Lincoln’s election intolerable. Lincoln won by carrying every Northern state except New Jersey, which he split with Stephen Douglas; he was on the ballot in only five slave states.

Clearly, Brevard was deeply religious. Like many Americans, she would come to understand the war as God’s direct judgment on the nation. She sought in her life, she writes elsewhere in the diary, to “practice truth & love to God.” She often addressed God directly and hoped that by striving against sin and serving faithfully “thou wilt save us.”

On this date, her country was still the United States, but she knew what Lincoln’s election portended. The next day, the South Carolina legislature called for a convention to consider secession, and on Dec. 20 the state seceded. “I wish Lincoln & Hamlin could have died before this & saved our country disolution,” Brevard confessed. She would support secession in order to defend her way of life.

Brevard owned more than 200 slaves, and her entry illuminates the tensions in proslavery ideology. She was terrified of liberating her slaves because she believed they were uncivilized and could not possibly live side-by-side with whites in freedom. She says she would give up slavery, as long as blacks could be removed from the country — and, indeed, various schemes of colonization had been promulgated for decades; until 1863, Lincoln avidly supported colonizing blacks and even requested funds from Congress to do so.

Brevard believed that under the firm but benevolent tutelage of the master (or mistress), slavery transformed uncivilized blacks into contented servants. It was outsiders — Northern abolitionists — who made the slaves “restless.” She begins in her entry to distinguish between male and female slaves, and finds female slaves more “impudent,” by which she means not only saucy but sexually promiscuous (at another point she refers to females “meddling with the husbands of others”) — but then she drops the subject. It is taboo to speak of such things. She concludes again with her fear of the slaves being emancipated.

But at other places in her diary, she recognized that the slaves are not childlike, and that they are not happy in slavery. She erupted in anger “when I find out their feelings to me — with all I have done for them . . . I am every now & then awakened by the fact that they hate me.” She at times wished she could “cast them off without scruples of conscience,” but she believed she cannot do so “without a rebuke from my Heavenly father.” And yet she knew that all her slaves, if given a chance, “would aim at freedom — ‘tis natural they should & they will try for it.”

Brevard concluded “my Southern Sisters and brothers who think their slaves would be on our side in a civil war, will, I fear, find they have been artfully taken in.” The slaves feigned contentment to endure enslavement, but they dreamed of freedom. Many slaveholders also feigned contentment with the institution, but knew not what to do and so carried on.

Over the next four years, not only slaveholders but also non-slaveholders, in the North as well as South, would be challenged to reconsider their assumptions about the institution. Brevard expresses the feelings of one individual, a member of the planter elite. In 1860, one quarter of Southern families owned slaves, and more than half of those who did possessed fewer than five. Less than 1 percent of the slaveholders owned as many slaves as Brevard, though these slaveholders owned approximately one-fourth of all the slaves and held political power.

It is difficult to say how typical her experiences were — there probably were not many widowed plantation mistresses responsible for 200 slaves spread over several properties on the eve of the Civil War. There were even fewer who wrote with such candor and verve. But it is safe to say that many slaveholders, male as well as female, shared Brevard’s political and religious beliefs, and, over the course of the war, would also express growing ambivalence, and even bewilderment, about slaves and slavery.

Later in the day on Nov. 9, a cloudy, damp, drizzly afternoon, Brevard returned to her diary and concluded: “Nature seems to be weeping o’er our cause.”

The diary is published in John Hammond Moore, editor, “A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War: The Diary of Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, 1860-1861″ (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).

Louis P. Masur chairs the American Studies Program at Trinity College (CT) and is author of “The Civil War: A Concise History” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/a-slaveholders-diary/