IntroductionIt may be that no way of living known to humanity is more horrific than slavery. The institution existed in many nations over centuries, yet it is most famously associated with the earlier years of the United States, and how the issue itself brought the nation to Civil War. What demands attention, however, is the reality of it, and because this was the lifelong reality for hundreds of thousands of African Americans and their children. To be owned as property by another would suggest that resistance of any kind is irrelevant or pointless; cruelty or decency are completely decided by the owner and resistance then seems meaningless. At the same time, it is human nature to resist the horrible, so the question arises of what resistance would best serve the slave’s interests. The following explores this, as well as what resistance would be most damaging or least helpful to the slave. Ultimately, it is seen that a careful behavior based on value to the owner and outright servility would be the most effective types of resistance, and attempts to escape the most dangerous and least effective.
To begin with, and as noted, the treatment of the slave relied on the individual owner, so no universal form of resistance may have applied. However, it is known that most slaves endured great abuse and cruelty. Based on this, then, it is possible that specific types of resistance, largely based on degree and slave behavior, would have been helpful. In my own thinking, the resistance based on the slave’s knowledge of the owner and their own value to that owner would be the most effective. More exactly, if the slave was in fact valuable “property” and the owner relied upon him and her in certain ways, resistance could have taken the form of not performing their duties as expected after being abused. In plain terms, most owners would have the mentality that the slave is an investment; he or she was purchased to perform tasks and benefit the owner in the long run. When, then, the slave was valued for superior performance, the owner probably relied on this more, and the slave’s unwillingness to perform as expected after being abused might have led the owner to reconsider using cruelty. It is likely that most owners viewed slaves as less than human. Nonetheless, their biggest concern was gaining value. If humane feeling would not prevent the owner from abusing the slave, the loss of service would have more directly reflected the main concern. In this type of resistance, which may be called passive, there would have been risk. An owner, for example, might have been so angered that rage would overpower the sense of investment and need for performance. Such risk, however, would have existed in literally any form of slave resistance, and this type most goes to reason as guiding the wealthy owner’s response to the slave’s unwillingness to work after being beaten or worse.
Another potentially helpful form of slave resistance may have been what seems to contradict resistance itself: complete servility. It is likely that many American slaves made this choice, and because a pretense of absolute devotion to the “master” probably spared them from extremes of abuse. On one level, of course, this is not resistance at all. It is behavior promoting everything that slavery represents, including the understood and natural inferiority of the slave as an African American. On another level, however, resistance is still in place here because the behavior of servility is a choice made by the slave, and one made to ease impossible burdens and avoid the cruelty so often exercised on others. It is easy, in fact, for modern society to judge this as violating the rightness of resistance. In reality, however, only those trapped within a horrible existence are entitled to judge what may best be done, and the slave who chose to resist oppression through an increased bowing down to it cannot be blamed. It also seems that this behavior would have carried with it the least risk of harmful repercussions.
Regarding the slave resistance that would have been most dangerous and least effective, there is the form of escape. This has a dual nature, however. Carried out well and successfully, it was the best chance for real freedom a slave could have, and then may be seen as the best possible means to resist. At the same time, however, such complete escapes were not common and, in many cases, slaves were recaptured and severely punished for the attempts. Frederick Douglass’s account of his own escape more than supports the enormous dangers of this course, just as the laws of the Northern states permitting slave owners to hunt down their “property” within those states eliminated any real sense of freedom. Even the successfully escaped slave could not live in peace in the North, as owner were famous for their determination to hunt down what belonged to them. That captured runaways were subject to extreme cruelty, again, must have been the common case, so this ultimate resistance was also marked by the ultimate risk. That so many slaves tried to escape certainly indicates how desperate the life was, but this is removed from actual effectiveness. Consequently, all that may be said for escape as poentially effective is that it would have to have been engineered as perfectly as possible, and risk still strongly was in place no matter the planning.
Fighting the unendurable is a part of the human condition, and this all slaves must have felt in Early America. Resistance, however, must have been extremely dangerous in any form, if only because the law gave the slave owner absolute power over their property. This having been the case, effectiveness is the great criterion. This in place, it seems that a careful behavior on the slave’s part, based on their value to the owner, and blatant servility of behavior to the owner, would be the most effective forms of resistance, and attempts to escape the most dangerous and least effective.