Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were
sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of
P----, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen,
with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great
For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two _gentlemen_. One of the
parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to
come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse,
commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low
man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much
over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped
gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping
with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were
plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a
bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to
it,--which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and
jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy
defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with
various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our
account shall induce us to transcribe.
1 English Grammar (1795), by Lindley Murray (1745-1826), the most
authoritative American grammarian of his day.
His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the
arrrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated
easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in
the midst of an earnest conversation.
"That is the way I should arrange
the matter," said Mr. Shelby.
"I can't make trade that way--I
positively can't, Mr. Shelby," said the other, holding up a glass of wine
between his eye and the light.
"Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an
uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere,--steady, honest,
capable, manages my whole farm like a clock."
"You mean honest, as niggers
go," said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.
"No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow.
He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really _did_
get it. I've trusted him, since then, with everything I have,--money,
house, horses,--and let him come and go round the country; and I always found
him true and square in everything."
"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby," said
Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but _I do_. I had a
fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans--'t was as good as a meetin,
now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like.
He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged
to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a
valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no
"Well, Tom's got the real article, if ever a fellow had," rejoined
the other. "Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do
business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars. `Tom,' says I to
him, `I trust you, because I think you're a Christian--I know you wouldn't
cheat.' Tom comes back, sure enough; I knew he would. Some low
fellows, they say, said to him--Tom, why don't you make tracks for Canada?'
`Ah, master trusted me, and I couldn't,'--they told me about it. I am
sorry to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole
balance of the debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience."
"Well, I've got just as much conscience as any man in business can
afford to keep,--just a little, you know, to swear by, as 't were," said
the trader, jocularly; "and, then, I'm ready to do anything in reason to
'blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a leetle too hard on a fellow--a
leetle too hard." The trader sighed contemplatively, and poured out
some more brandy.
"Well, then, Haley, how will you
trade?" said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of silence.
"Well, haven't you a boy or gal
that you could throw in with Tom?"
"Hum!--none that I could well spare; to tell the truth, it's only hard
necessity makes me willing to sell at all. I don't like parting with any
of my hands, that's a fact."
Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four and five years
of age, entered the room. There was something in his appearance remarkably
beautiful and engaging. His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy
curls about his round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of
fire and softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered
curiously into the apartment. A gay robe of scarlet and yellow plaid,
carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to advantage the dark and rich style
of his beauty; and a certain comic air of assurance, blended with bashfulness,
showed that he had been not unused to being petted and noticed by his master.
"Hulloa, Jim Crow!" said Mr.
Shelby, whistling, and snapping a bunch of raisins towards him, "pick that
The child scampered, with all his little
strength, after the prize, while his master laughed.
"Come here, Jim Crow," said he. The child came up, and the
master patted the curly head, and chucked him under the chin.
"Now, Jim, show this gentleman how
you can dance and sing." The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque
songs common among the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing
with many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in perfect
time to the music.
"Bravo!" said Haley, throwing
him a quarter of an orange.
"Now, Jim, walk like old Uncle
Cudjoe, when he has the rheumatism," said his master.
Instantly the flexible limbs of the
child assumed the appearance of deformity and distortion, as, with his back
humped up, and his master's stick in his hand, he hobbled about the room, his
childish face drawn into a doleful pucker, and spitting from right to left, in
imitation of an old man.
Both gentlemen laughed uproariously.
"Now, Jim," said his master, "show us how old Elder Robbins
leads the psalm." The boy drew his chubby face down to a formidable
length, and commenced toning a psalm tune through his nose, with imperturbable
"Hurrah! bravo! what a young 'un!" said Haley; "that chap's a
case, I'll promise. Tell you what," said he, suddenly clapping his
hand on Mr. Shelby's shoulder, "fling in that chap, and I'll settle the
business--I will. Come, now, if that ain't doing the thing up about the
At this moment, the door was pushed
gently open, and a young quadroon woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered
There needed only a glance from the child to her, to identify her as its
mother. There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes; the
same ripples of silky black hair. The brown of her complexion gave way on
the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the
strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration. Her dress
was of the neatest possible fit, and set off to advantage her finely moulded
shape;--a delicately formed hand and a trim foot and ankle were items of
appearance that did not escape the quick eye of the trader, well used to run up
at a glance the points of a fine female article.
"Well, Eliza?" said her
master, as she stopped and looked hesitatingly at him.
"I was looking for Harry, please,
sir;" and the boy bounded toward her, showing his spoils, which he had
gathered in the skirt of his robe.
"Well, take him away then,"
said Mr. Shelby; and hastily she withdrew, carrying the child on her arm.
"By Jupiter," said the trader, turning to him in admiration,
"there's an article, now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal
in Orleans, any day. I've seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for
gals not a bit handsomer."
"I don't want to make my fortune on
her," said Mr. Shelby, dryly; and, seeking to turn the conversation, he
uncorked a bottle of fresh wine, and asked his companion's opinion of it.
"Capital, sir,--first chop!"
said the trader; then turning, and slapping his hand familiarly on Shelby's
shoulder, he added--
"Come, how will you trade about the
gal?--what shall I say for her--what'll you take?"
"Mr. Haley, she is not to be sold," said Shelby. "My
wife would not part with her for her weight in gold."
"Ay, ay! women always say such things, cause they ha'nt no sort of
calculation. Just show 'em how many watches, feathers, and trinkets, one's
weight in gold would buy, and that alters the case, _I_ reckon."
"I tell you, Haley, this must not
be spoken of; I say no, and I mean no," said Shelby, decidedly.
"Well, you'll let me have the boy,
though," said the trader; "you must own I've come down pretty
handsomely for him."
"What on earth can you want with
the child?" said Shelby.
"Why, I've got a friend that's going into this yer branch of the
business--wants to buy up handsome boys to raise for the market. Fancy
articles entirely--sell for waiters, and so on, to rich 'uns, that can pay for
handsome 'uns. It sets off one of yer great places--a real handsome boy to
open door, wait, and tend. They fetch a good sum; and this little devil is
such a comical, musical concern, he's just the article!'
"I would rather not sell him,"
said Mr. Shelby, thoughtfully; "the fact is, sir, I'm a humane man, and I
hate to take the boy from his mother, sir."
"O, you do?--La! yes--something of that ar natur. I understand,
perfectly. It is mighty onpleasant getting on with women, sometimes, I
al'ays hates these yer screechin,' screamin' times. They are _mighty_
onpleasant; but, as I manages business, I generally avoids 'em, sir. Now,
what if you get the girl off for a day, or a week, or so; then the thing's done
quietly,--all over before she comes home. Your wife might get her some
ear-rings, or a new gown, or some such truck, to make up with her."
"I'm afraid not."
"Lor bless ye, yes! These critters ain't like white folks, you
know; they gets over things, only manage right. Now, they say," said
Haley, assuming a candid and confidential air, "that this kind o' trade is
hardening to the feelings; but I never found it so. Fact is, I never could
do things up the way some fellers manage the business. I've seen 'em as
would pull a woman's child out of her arms, and set him up to sell, and she
screechin' like mad all the time;--very bad policy--damages the article--makes
'em quite unfit for service sometimes. I knew a real handsome gal once, in
Orleans, as was entirely ruined by this sort o' handling. The fellow that
was trading for her didn't want her baby; and she was one of your real high
sort, when her blood was up. I tell you, she squeezed up her child in her
arms, and talked, and went on real awful. It kinder makes my blood run
cold to think of 't; and when they carried off the child, and locked her up, she
jest went ravin' mad, and died in a week. Clear waste, sir, of a thousand
dollars, just for want of management,--there's where 't is. It's always
best to do the humane thing, sir; that's been _my_ experience." And the
trader leaned back in his chair, and folded his arm, with an air of virtuous
decision, apparently considering himself a second Wilberforce.
The subject appeared to interest the
gentleman deeply; for while Mr. Shelby was thoughtfully peeling an orange, Haley
broke out afresh, with becoming diffidence, but as if actually driven by the
force of truth to say a few words more.
"It don't look well, now, for a feller to be praisin' himself; but I say
it jest because it's the truth. I believe I'm reckoned to bring in about
the finest droves of niggers that is brought in,--at least, I've been told so;
if I have once, I reckon I have a hundred times,--all in good case,--fat and
likely, and I lose as few as any man in the business. And I lays it all to
my management, sir; and humanity, sir, I may say, is the great pillar of _my_
Mr. Shelby did not know what to say, and
so he said, "Indeed!"
"Now, I've been laughed at for my notions, sir, and I've been talked to.
They an't pop'lar, and they an't common; but I stuck to 'em, sir; I've stuck to
'em, and realized well on 'em; yes, sir, they have paid their passage, I may
say," and the trader laughed at his joke.
There was something so piquant and original in these elucidations of
humanity, that Mr. Shelby could not help laughing in company. Perhaps you
laugh too, dear reader; but you know humanity comes out in a variety of strange
forms now-a-days, and there is no end to the odd things that humane people will
say and do.
Mr. Shelby's laugh encouraged the trader
"It's strange, now, but I never could beat this into people's heads.
Now, there was Tom Loker, my old partner, down in Natchez; he was a clever
fellow, Tom was, only the very devil with niggers,--on principle 't was, you
see, for a better hearted feller never broke bread; 't was his _system_, sir.
I used to talk to Tom. `Why, Tom,' I used to say, `when your gals takes on
and cry, what's the use o' crackin on' em over the head, and knockin' on 'em
round? It's ridiculous,' says I, `and don't do no sort o' good. Why,
I don't see no harm in their cryin',' says I; `it's natur,' says I, `and if
natur can't blow off one way, it will another. Besides, Tom,' says I, `it
jest spiles your gals; they get sickly, and down in the mouth; and sometimes
they gets ugly,--particular yallow gals do,--and it's the devil and all gettin'
on 'em broke in. Now,' says I, `why can't you kinder coax 'em up, and
speak 'em fair? Depend on it, Tom, a little humanity, thrown in along,
goes a heap further than all your jawin' and crackin'; and it pays better,' says
I, `depend on 't.' But Tom couldn't get the hang on 't; and he spiled so
many for me, that I had to break off with him, though he was a good-hearted
fellow, and as fair a business hand as is goin'"
"And do you find your ways of
managing do the business better than Tom's?" said Mr. Shelby.
"Why, yes, sir, I may say so. You see, when I any ways can, I
takes a leetle care about the onpleasant parts, like selling young uns and
that,--get the gals out of the way--out of sight, out of mind, you know,--and
when it's clean done, and can't be helped, they naturally gets used to it.
'Tan't, you know, as if it was white folks, that's brought,up in the way of
'spectin' to keep their children and wives, and all that. Niggers, you
know, that's fetched up properly, ha'n't no kind of 'spectations of no kind; so
all these things comes easier."
"I'm afraid mine are not properly
brought up, then," said Mr. Shelby.
"S'pose not; you Kentucky folks spile your niggers. You mean well
by 'em, but 'tan't no real kindness, arter all. Now, a nigger, you see,
what's got to be hacked and tumbled round the world, and sold to Tom, and Dick,
and the Lord knows who, 'tan't no kindness to be givin' on him notions and
expectations, and bringin' on him up too well, for the rough and tumble comes
all the harder on him arter. Now, I venture to say, your niggers would be
quite chop-fallen in a place where some of your plantation niggers would be
singing and whooping like all possessed. Every man, you know, Mr. Shelby,
naturally thinks well of his own ways; and I think I treat niggers just about as
well as it's ever worth while to treat 'em."
"It's a happy thing to be
satisfied," said Mr. Shelby, with a slight shrug, and some perceptible
feelings of a disagreeable nature.
"Well," said Haley, after they
had both silently picked their nuts for a season, "what do you say?"
"I'll think the matter over, and talk with my wife," said Mr.
Shelby. "Meantime, Haley, if you want the matter carried on in the
quiet way you speak of, you'd best not let your business in this neighborhood be
known. It will get out among my boys, and it will not be a particularly
quiet business getting away any of my fellows, if they know it, I'll promise
"O! certainly, by all means, mum! of course. But I'll tell you.
I'm in a devil of a hurry, and shall want to know, as soon as possible, what I
may depend on," said he, rising and putting on his overcoat.
"Well, call up this evening,
between six and seven, and you shall have my answer," said Mr. Shelby, and
the trader bowed himself out of the apartment.
"I'd like to have been able to kick the fellow down the steps,"
said he to himself, as he saw the door fairly closed, "with his impudent
assurance; but he knows how much he has me at advantage. If anybody had
ever said to me that I should sell Tom down south to one of those rascally
traders, I should have said, `Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this
thing?' And now it must come, for aught I see. And Eliza's child,
too! I know that I shall have some fuss with wife about that; and, for
that matter, about Tom, too. So much for being in debt,--heigho! The
fellow sees his advantage, and means to push it."
Perhaps the mildest form of the system of slavery is to be seen in the State
of Kentucky. The general prevalence of agricultural pursuits of a quiet
and gradual nature, not requiring those periodic seasons of hurry and pressure
that are called for in the business of more southern districts, makes the task
of the negro a more healthful and reasonable one; while the master, content with
a more gradual style of acquisition, has not those temptations to
hardheartedness which always overcome frail human nature when the prospect of
sudden and rapid gain is weighed in the balance, with no heavier counterpoise
than the interests of the helpless and unprotected.
Whoever visits some estates there, and witnesses the good-humored indulgence
of some masters and mistresses, and the affectionate loyalty of some slaves,
might be tempted to dream the oft-fabled poetic legend of a patriarchal
institution, and all that; but over and above the scene there broods a
portentous shadow--the shadow of _law_. So long as the law considers all
these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many
_things_ belonging to a master,--so long as the failure, or misfortune, or
imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a
life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,--so
long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best
regulated administration of slavery.
Mr. Shelby was a fair average kind of man, good-natured and kindly, and
disposed to easy indulgence of those around him, and there had never been a lack
of anything which might contribute to the physical comfort of the negroes on his
estate. He had, however, speculated largely and quite loosely; had
involved himself deeply, and his notes to a large amount had come into the hands
of Haley; and this small piece of information is the key to the preceding
Now, it had so happened that, in
approaching the door, Eliza had caught enough of the conversation to know that a
trader was making offers to her master for somebody.
She would gladly have stopped at the
door to listen, as she came out; but her mistress just then calling, she was
obliged to hasten away.
Still she thought she heard the trader make an offer for her boy;--could she
be mistaken? Her heart swelled and throbbed, and she involuntarily
strained him so tight that the little fellow looked up into her face in
"Eliza, girl, what ails you
today?" said her mistress, when Eliza had upset the wash-pitcher, knocked
down the workstand, and finally was abstractedly offering her mistress a long
nightgown in place of the silk dress she had ordered her to bring from the
Eliza started. "O, missis!" she said, raising her eyes; then,
bursting into tears, she sat down in a chair, and began sobbing.
"Why, Eliza child, what ails
you?" said her mistress.
"O! missis, missis," said Eliza, "there's been a trader
talking with master in the parlor! I heard him."
"Well, silly child, suppose there
"O, missis, _do_ you suppose mas'r
would sell my Harry?" And the poor creature threw herself into a chair, and
"Sell him! No, you foolish girl! You know your master never deals
with those southern traders, and never means to sell any of his servants, as
long as they behave well. Why, you silly child, who do you think would
want to buy your Harry? Do you think all the world are set on him as you
are, you goosie? Come, cheer up, and hook my dress. There now, put
my back hair up in that pretty braid you learnt the other day, and don't go
listening at doors any more."
"Well, but, missis, _you_ never
would give your consent--to--to--"
"Nonsense, child! to be sure, I shouldn't. What do you talk so
for? I would as soon have one of my own children sold. But really,
Eliza, you are getting altogether too proud of that little fellow. A man
can't put his nose into the door, but you think he must be coming to buy
Reassured by her mistress' confident
tone, Eliza proceeded nimbly and adroitly with her toilet, laughing at her own
fears, as she proceeded.
Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally.
To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as
characteristic of the women of Kentucky, she added high moral and religious
sensibility and principle, carried out with great energy and ability into
practical results. Her husband, who made no professions to any particular
religious character, nevertheless reverenced and respected the consistency of
hers, and stood, perhaps, a little in awe of her opinion. Certain it was
that he gave her unlimited scope in all her benevolent efforts for the comfort,
instruction, and improvement of her servants, though he never took any decided
part in them himself. In fact, if not exactly a believer in the doctrine
of the efficiency of the extra good works of saints, he really seemed somehow or
other to fancy that his wife had piety and benevolence enough for two--to
indulge a shadowy expectation of getting into heaven through her superabundance
of qualities to which he made no particular pretension.
The heaviest load on his mind, after his
conversation with the trader, lay in the foreseen necessity of breaking to his
wife the arrangement contemplated,--meeting the importunities and opposition
which he knew he should have reason to encounter.
Mrs. Shelby, being entirely ignorant of her husband's embarrassments, and
knowing only the general kindliness of his temper, had been quite sincere in the
entire incredulity with which she had met Eliza's suspicions. In fact, she
dismissed the matter from her mind, without a second thought; and being occupied
in preparations for an evening visit, it passed out of her thoughts entirely.