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Southern planter wants a damsel in distress

Friday, August 13, 2010

This is a first, and not in a good way. But I have certainly never seen an ad like this before.

A young gentleman, about 25 years of age, regarded good looking, of a liberal education, of moral habits, possessing a plantation and quite a number of negroes, sufficient to support a family in luxury, takes this occasion to publish his desires in a matrimonial line, and to acquaint some distressed damsel of his whereabouts, condition, and expectations.  He is fastidious in taste, neat in dress, of a social disposition, and feels deeply the necessity of wedding his fortune with some young lady, kind, modest, forgiving.  She must be between sixteen and twenty years of age, of medium size, well formed, of a kind heart, and "lively as a cricket."  Any young lady who meets this description, and is desirous of forming an alliance with a warm hearted Southerner, full of hope and promise, is requested to address box 61 Forsyth, Georgia, care of Julius Morgan.

Where to begin!  The issues that this raises are so many and varied that I can't decide which ones to address!

First, wtf is a Southern slaveowner doing advertising for a wife in a New York City paper only two years before the Civil War broke out?  Obviously he didn't know for sure that there was going to be a war (though a lot of people were anticipating one by this point), but most New Yorkers at this point were already pro-Union.  There was a lot of acrimony between the North and South, to put it mildly, and a lot (though certainly not all) of New Yorkers were abolitionists, or at the very least found slavery morally reprehensive.  So it just seems like this guy is barking up the wrong tree.

Second, ugh!  (Maybe that should have been first.)  Ugh!!  He possesses "a plantation and quite a number of negroes, sufficient to support a family in luxury"!  How revolting!  "Hey ladies, I have so many slaves working for me that you can live in idleness while they do all the work!  Let's get married!"  AND he says he's "of moral habits."  Julius, if that is your name, there is nothing more immoral than owning slaves.  It's amazing (and yet, I'll admit it, it's also fascinating) that anyone could call themselves moral and admit to owning "quite a number of negroes" in the same sentence.  It does go to show you what kind of a light Southerners saw themselves in: that (a) they were actually good people, and (b) they could say they owned a plantation and people in the same breath without being aware of how absurd and horrible that is.  You are not warm-hearted, Julius.  If you were, you wouldn't talk about how owning people makes it possible for you to provide a luxurious lifestyle.

Third, interesting that he says he wants to meet a "distressed damsel."  Says a lot about the Southern attitude about women at this time - which was that they were fragile, delicate creatures who needed protection from evil.  I think he meant this to be romantic - like, he's the white knight in shining armor come to rescue the princess - but I wonder how many Northern women took this literally.  You know all those "strangers in the city" in "reduced circumstances" who wanted to get married because they desperately needed someone to support them.  He may have gotten of letters from a lot of women who thought he really wanted to help, which I doubt was what he had in mind.

All I can add is this: any woman who married him only got to enjoy this life of luxury for a few years, because once the war broke out, conditions in the South went downhill pretty fast.  Within a few years of this ad, all Julius' slaves would be gone, and even if he was still alive himself, and actually still got to hold onto his land, it would be a long time before he was able to support a family in luxury again - if ever.  And to that I say: serves her right.  Anyone who was okay with marrying a slaveowner deserved whatever terrible fate she suffered.

©2010 Pam Epstein


lemniskate August 13, 2010 at 12:17 PM  

Your comments and the choice to speak directly to the man (who is, after all, long dead) who posted the ad are bizarrely personal and lacking in perspective. I'm not supporting slavery by any means but such blind self-righteous condemnation of a man (based on so little information about him) who was operating within the culture into which he was born and raised are unexpected after all the historical research that give these ads context.

Anonymous August 13, 2010 at 9:00 PM  

regardless of culture or time, this is consistent with men's expectations you can see modern day versions of this ad on dating sites. Interesting post.

Cari Hislop August 14, 2010 at 12:33 PM  

While reading the comments I ended up thinking something similar to Lemniskate.

It's human nature to judge the past by the present (or other cultures by our own) and most historians fall into the trap, but its worth resisting. Anyone can re-write history, but not many people can put aside their own perspective to discover new points of view which will enable them to clarify the past.

Pam August 14, 2010 at 6:06 PM  

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, you guys are takin this a lot more seriously than I do! Obviously if I had my historian hat on I'd be analyzing these ads with a lot more subtlety, but I started the blog in order to take that hat off and be able to react to the ads emotionally rather than critically. Taking into account that people are a product of their environment doesn't make me find him selling himself as a desirable match in part by saying he has plenty of slaves any less repugnant.

UrsulaV August 15, 2010 at 12:08 PM  

Honestly--and I could be quite insane--but when he said he wanted a distressed damsel, my first thought was that he wanted to meet a pregnant woman for some peculiar reason of his own. Mind you, I can't think that's likely--he's sterile and can't inherit the family estate without producing a known heir? Does that even happen anywhere outside of Regency novels?--but that's where my mind jumped.

Cari Hislop August 16, 2010 at 2:10 PM  

I suppose I am rather serious about history.

Selling yourself as a great Southern marital prospect by mentioning all your slaves is repugnant, but it's also pathetic and redundant. Why didn't he just say he owned a plantation in the South? Any dumb women inclined to respond would have assumed he had slaves. The more I think about it, I wonder if he's one of your charlatans. Perhaps he wanted a damsel in distress from far away New York because he wanted his prey to be too far from home to feel she could run back again!

Pam August 16, 2010 at 11:21 PM  

UrsulaV - I have a feeling that's not what he had in mind - though I had that thought for a second too. But in the South in particular, they were so, so conscious of bloodlines and heritage and breeding that I can't imagine some rich planter being willing to "sully" his line with an illegitimate child.

Cari - quite possibly! He certainly presents a "fairy tale" (at least as he sees it) scenario. It also is hard to believe someone in his position was completely incapable of meeting a woman. Either he was True Evil (beyond just general slaveholding evil) so awful that no Southern woman wanted to marry him, or he was a great big fraud. I'd buy that.

Anonymous August 20, 2010 at 7:00 PM  

@Carl - Most white southerners could not afford to own slaves; slaves were very expensive. Even relatively well off southerners could only afford one or two slaves. His mentioning the number of slaves is not redundant, but meant to illustrate that he is indeed really quite wealthy, not merely middle class. (Whether it was actually true, who knows...)

As for "repugnant" and "pathetic," you're projecting your own moral standards into a different era with vastly different moral mores, which is unsupportable in a logical sense. People viewing your moral standards 200 years from now will, no doubt, say the same of you.

@Pam - You're being grossly unfair to the guy who wrote the ad. Slavery was certainly not viewed as a moral problem by most white Southerners at the time (as you are well aware); are you seriously criticizing him for failing to have independently reanalyzed the entire cultural system he lived in from first principles, arrived at conclusions that you approve of, and then bucked the cultural mores of his environment and made himself into a social outcast to apply the same?

Moral standards are transitory. As a fellow historian, I'm rather shocked by your visceral reaction and your projection of your own moral standards to someone far removed in time and place, and your apparent utter disregard for the social context in which the ad was written, in favor of applying late 20th/early 21st century liberal moral standards.

You find slavery repugnant, and so do I personally; but slavery has been quite common throughout all epochs of history and all cultures until very, very recently (as you are no doubt well aware). Our moral repugnancy is a product of our own slave-free environment and the resultant social mores, no more "right" in an absolute sense than their approval of it. You're venturing into very treacherous ground when you start advocating for absolute and timeless moral standards (which happen to coincide with the ones you personally hold.)

asdg August 21, 2010 at 6:48 PM  

Not everyone is a moral relativist. Some things are actually, completely, objectively wrong, regardless of place or time. Really. Including you, anonymous.

Anonymous August 24, 2010 at 11:29 AM  

I was just enjoying reading these and I wasn't thinking about playing since everyone else was saying what I was thinking. However, the moral relativism comment changed my mind.

First, I grant that moral relativity is a very dangerous playground to operate in. I also grant it is an excuse we use all too casually today. We can't go around permiting everything because we don't want to impinge upon the otherness of those who do things we don't agree with. That is simply using a philosophical framework to promote moral apathy.

However to deny that our very moral framework is conditioned by the world we live in is fallacious too. While we try to touch objective truths with out moral statements we are still conditioned products of our subjective world. In other words, if objective truth exists--in morality or anything--we can only touch it subjectively.

The only avenues we have open to us to process information are our physical senses and psychological framework, both subjective venues. So to casually presume objectivity is problimatic from the go.

I guess my challenge to you would be if you're going to claim that, "Some things are actually, completely, objectively, wrong, regardless of place or time," then prove it. What would an example of a permanent moral truth be?

Pam August 24, 2010 at 12:02 PM  

I'm enjoying this debate although I'd like to stress again that I was in no way attempting to be - or interested in being - critical in the original post. That was my personal, gut reaction - as is often the case when I write these posts. I sometimes engage with the ads more seriously, but for the most part the idea behind the blog was to have fun and to be free NOT to think critically.

That being said, since the debate became serious I guess I'm obliged to contribute my $.02.

First, I would argue there are "permanent" moral truths and I would include, for example, murder, rape, and ownership of another human being. That is not to suggest I think all slaveowners should therefore have just known slavery was bad, but if we can't agree that there are certain things in this world that are bad, then we're in a moral free-for-all in which we can't forbid anything. Even if they are our own subjective moral truths, that doesn't make them any less valid. It is our responsibility as human beings to set boundaries.

Second, this particular situation. As I mentioned, this ad was written just before the Civil War, by which time there was no other country in the Western world in which slavery was legal. It wasn't even legal in half this country. Whether or not this particular advertiser should have been able to see beyond his circumstances is besides the point when we get into what is good or bad in that time. Most of the Western world thought it was bad. If good and evil are determined by the time in which this institution existed, then by the moral standards of the Western world, it was bad. I'm not projecting my modern-day judgment on slavery - I'm stating what was the majority opinion in the time in which this guy lived.

In fact, actual slaveowners - such as Thomas Jefferson - thought slavery was bad, which is why it was never codified in the Constitution. Jefferson couldn't see a solution, but there were many people in his generation who shared this ambivalence. There were also former slaveowners in this advertiser's time, like the Grimke sisters, who managed to see the evils of the institution.

Despite my (not serious or critical) comments in my blog, I don't actually see every slaveowner as purely evil. But it's impossible not to see the hypocrisy. Many male slaveowners routinely raped their female slaves because they felt they could, and because it was a free way of ensuring their slave population was sustained. Seeing someone be incapable of seeing the contradiction in claiming himself morally good while probably indulging in this rape is amazing to me - I understand how that was possible, but rape is something I will never, ever let pass based on historical context.

Finally, I believe that, although individual slaveowners themselves were not necessarily evil, by this time they knew in their heart of hearts that there was something wrong with the institution. By the 1840s, justifications for slavery became more and more hysterical, defensive, and absurd. There's an element of truth in "the lady doth protest too much."

Whew! I'm happy for people to continue this conversation, but I'd appreciate it if everyone would keep it civil. If it gets nasty here, I will disallow comments. And yes, I will determine for myself what I consider inappropriate.

Anonymous August 25, 2010 at 9:50 AM  

You raised some very interesting and intriguing points. I'd agree that we need to be comfortable in stating what is "right" and what is "wrong" and there are ways we can do that while still preventing ourselves from positing our moral values on the past anachronistically. However, I'd like to ask you a follow up question.

I'd say we'd all agree that rape or "ownership of another human being" is morally wrong. My question to you, as a historian, is where would you put something like the institution of marriage?

The idea of marriage being a mutual union between two consenting adults who have equal say in the matter is a very new trend historically speaking. And while I know that there were exceptions to the rule, the system worked in a way where the woman was her father's "property" until she was married and became her husband's. And, again, I grant this wasn't always the case but it was how the system was setup. We had bride prices and economic agreements and in most cases it was only the man who could file for divorce.

The woman also had little to no say in sexual relations either. And, obviously marital rape exists but would you say that marital rape was then the norm for all those ancient couples just because they lived in a society and culture that gave women little to no voice or rights?

So my questions, after a round about way of getting there, is: Was marriage and the sexual union between husband and wife a morally indefensible situation for the majority of human history?

Pam August 25, 2010 at 10:46 AM  

Interesting question. But I don't think it's quite analogous. Marriage, in and of itself, is a neutral institution. It's just a legal and/or religious/spiritual union between two people, ostensibly for love. That's all it is. What's immoral is what people have done with that institution - marital rape, arranged marriages, coverture, etc - are things that have happened to and in marriages, but don't define it. In other words, while marital rape may have been tolerated, marriage doesn't, and never did, have to include marital rape in order to BE marriage.

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