Deliver Us from Evil

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In the massive and detailed study Deliver Us from Evil, Lacy K. Ford draws upon a wide array of primary sources, including newspapers, sermons, speeches, pamphlets, government documents, and legislative records, to recapture the contradictory and shifting ideas and attitudes on slavery in the South in the early years of the Republic. Ford explores conflicting perspectives in the political, intellectual, religious, economic, and social thought that reverberated throughout the Old South, revealing that attitudes toward slavery were hardly monolithic. Instead, these attitudes adapted to growing opposition from slaves, abolitionists, and free blacks.

Ford sets out to examine “how masters struggled with the contradictions of maintaining a brutal and oppressive system of human bondage in a republic founded on the principles of freedom and equality and how the enslaved used those contradictions to resist the slaveholders’ domination and control.” To frame the examination of the slavery question in the Old South, Ford divides the region into the upper South (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and North Carolina) and the lower South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana). By 1830, slaves accounted for more than 40 percent of the population of the lower South, while in the upper South slaves were less than one-third of the total population.

The upper South strained to make slavery compatible with the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of political egalitarianism contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Condemning slavery, Patrick Henry asked why “at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, In a country, above all others, fond of liberty,” citizens would adopt “a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the bible, and destructive to liberty.”

Encapsulating this section of his study, Ford writes that in the founding era, republican ideals, Christian morality, fear of slave unrest, and troubling questions about the long-term economic viability of the area’s slave economy all pushed upper South whites to question a perpetual commitment to slavery as a labor system.

Ford reminds his readers, however, just how deeply entrenched the right to own slaves had become in the minds of slave owners. John Breckinridge of Kentucky opposed calls in 1799 to alter the state constitution regarding slavery, asking indignantly what was “the difference whether I am robbed of my horse by a highwayman or of my slave by a set of people called Convention.” Almost forty years later, the governor of South Carolina would declare that “slavery is the corner-stone of our republican edifice.”

In the summer of 1800, the first of several armed insurrections terrorized southern whites. Gabriel, a skilled slave blacksmith, organized a rebellion near Richmond, Virginia, but was betrayed by fellow-slave informants. At first, Gabriel evaded capture, but thirty alleged conspirators were arrested and given what Ford labels “so-called trials.” Twenty were promptly executed. A month later, Gabriel suffered the same fate.

The reaction among most southerners was to defend slavery even more tenaciously. A writer in the Virginia Herald paradoxically reasoned that, since slavery was “a monsterthe most horrible of monsters,” it required tight control. One slaveowner insisted that the “right of property in a slave was the same as that in a home, or other personal thing.”

The second major slave uprising, the German Coast slave revolt, erupted in Louisiana in 1811. Two hundred slaves burned three plantations and killed and wounded several whites. Troops moved in, and at least 115 slaves were killed or executed in the suppression and punishment of the rebellion. A hastily organized “court” sentenced guilty slaves to be shot and have their heads placed on stakes “as a terrible example to all who would disturb public tranquility in the future.”

The reaction in the upper South was to expand what Ford calls the “whiteness” of society by practicing paternalism in the short run and gradual manumission, colonization, and diffusion in the long run. Under paternalism, the master was...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Library Journal 134, no. 14 (September 1, 2009): 124-125.

The New York Times Book Review, September 20, 2009, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 25 (June 22, 2009): 38-39.