“No Man Can Be Prevented from Visiting His Wife”
Manly Autonomy and Intimacy
He looks at me steady for a minute and you’s could tell he thinkin’ hard. Den he go and set on de bench and say, “Jus wait. You thinks it am smart, but you’s am foolish in de head. Dey’s gwine larn you somethin’.”
Rose Williams and Rufus ended up in a physical altercation because their master saw fit to put them together for his own financial gain. From Rose’s account, it does not appear that he consulted Rufus, nor did he approve of a choice that Rufus made. From Rose’s telling of how they came together, the master told Rose to go set up a household with Rufus. Rufus apparently was told by the master to go live in the cabin with Rose. He followed those orders and found himself in conflict with Rose, who did not like him and did not wish to be married to him. When Rose resisted, Rufus did not refer to his own authority over her as head of household or husband. Indeed, according to Rose, he referred only to their master’s power and authority, having placed them together. Even in Rose’s telling, in which she calls Rufus a “bully” and offers him no sympathy, she never implies that Rufus had any power in that situation.
For enslaved men such as Rufus, the command to set up a household probably was complicated. Although it enabled him to begin assuming the role of head of household, the meaning would have had strong resonance beyond the veneer of traditional patriarchy, given that it was largely a fiction for enslaved men. This chapter uses a range of sources to examine enslaved black men’s ideas about manhood that emphasized the importance of autonomy in affairs of love and family and the role of protector and guardian of family dependents. In the words of John Lewis: “Slavery deprives him of the enjoyment of wife, children, parents, brothers, sisters, the social enjoyments of life. Despotism aims a well directed, legalized blow on his manhood.”1 Enslaved men developed their own models of masculinity in the area of intimate relationships, highlighting the importance of personal intention and desires, strength and endurance in the face of penalties, and resistance against obstacles to realizing those relationships.2 By the nineteenth century, for enslaved men, notions of inherited traditions of West African manhood that emphasized roles of father, husband, and warrior were at direct odds with the conditions of enslavement.3 Tera Hunter offers an important reminder as we discuss patriarchal ideals and the importance of family for enslaved men: “Slave families were much more complex in structure than the normative patriarchal, nuclear family ideal can capture.”4 For all men, the ability to develop family relations and to persist in maintaining marriage and family, in all their forms and despite physical and psychological barriers erected by enslavement, was a key component of manliness.5
Given that there are no reflections from Rufus, this chapter contextualizes Rose’s description of his experiences by listening to the voices of other enslaved men as they shared their thoughts and feelings about intimate relationships and trying to protect chosen spouses. These aspects of manhood were widely shared in white nineteenth-century culture as well, but for enslaved men they took on special meaning, given that masters so regularly denied enslaved men autonomy in these decisions, and, as has been well documented, enslaved men were unable to protect loved ones from the conditions of enslavement.
The master’s decision to pair up Rufus and Rose could have held particular resonance for Rufus because of norms of manliness that emphasized family and patriarchy and because enslaved men often experienced interference in their interpersonal relationships. Masters denied them privacy and full autonomy by monitoring their intimate relations with women, from courtship through marriage.6 Some masters took full control over these aspects of an enslaved man’s life. Others simply controlled or manipulated enslaved men at key moments. For all enslaved men, masters had the power and authority to intervene regardless of whether they did so or not. Enslaved men expressed their own thoughts and feelings regarding the importance of being able to choose romantic partners, marry and establish a family with whom they wanted, and structure their sexual and romantic lives in their own manner. When these desires were in direct conflict with a master’s intentions, enslaved men paid a price.7
Enslaved men had long espoused the importance of choosing their own romantic partners, even in the face of harsh restrictions on their autonomy. In Virginia in 1681 one Mary Williamson was fined for fornication with an enslaved man named William. In sentencing William to be whipped thirty lashes on his “bare back,” the court took into consideration what it referred to as his having “very arrogantly behaved himself in Linhaven Church in the face of the Congregation.” He had rejected the congregation’s interference with his relationship, the meddling from the minister, who then brought the case to the court.8 Similarly, in Massachusetts in 1705 one Cesar, who was enslaved in Boston, was convicted of having a child with Mary Goslin, a white woman. Cesar was sentenced to be whipped, but he protested loudly and “behaved himself impudently” toward the court. He defiantly and publicly “swore that he would be again guilty of the same crime.” Cesar specified in his declaration that this was not simply about his general right to be intimate with whomever he chose but about his claimed right to be intimate with his choice of romantic partner, Mary Goslin. He told the court that he would commit this “same crime” again “with the sd Goslin.” His defiance resulted in a harsher punishment, and he was publicly whipped for it.9
Providing for one’s family was an important aspect of early modern manliness, broadly shared among cultures in Europe, the Americas, and West Africa. In the example above, Cesar had also taken steps to ensure the maintenance of his family, steps that brought him into conflict with the legal system in Boston. Cesar provided what he could to one Abigail Trott for allowing his child to be born at her house and for taking care of it. Limited in what he could earn, he made use of the colonial barter economy, providing Trott with “other things” as well as money. Support for his family would also lead him to steal and then attempt to sell items to raise money for his family. One woman, a widow, was hauled into court for purchasing cheese from Cesar that she admitted she knew was stolen.10
Courtship among enslaved people was one important means of resisting the dehumanization of slavery. Autonomy in matters of courtship and intimacy was of great importance to many enslaved men. The ideal also permeated the culture. As Rebecca Griffin has argued, in folklore the “male character occupied the active, assertive role” in “courtship contests.” Reflecting dominant ideals among enslaved communities, in such vernacular stories, “male characters were generally cast as the active participants.”11 Stephanie Camp examines sources to understand the importance of examining moments of “pleasure” and autonomy in the sexual and social interactions of men and women. Camp reminds us that “brutality did not constitute the whole of black bodily experience.” She importantly positions these actions as resistance in the face of a system that coerced black bodies and minds in an endless variety of ways. “Despite planters’ tremendous effort to prevent” socializing that could not be overseen or regulated, “enslaved women and men sporadically ‘slip[ped] ’way’ to take pleasure in their own bodies.”12
Men remarked on the importance of courtship at social gatherings and highlighted the risks that they took to participate in them. Hugh Berry described it in the following way: “I’m goin’ back over there to see that girl. And then they said and you gonna go too, said they goin’ over there to see the girls and the first thing they know say, here come the patterollers!”13 Such gatherings were important sites for courtship. Historian Rebecca Griffin found that in North Carolina work gatherings and Christmas gatherings were two of the most important sites of social gathering for courtship. Thus, not only nighttime gatherings but also “corn shuckings” and “candy pullings” served to bring together enslaved men and women and give them opportunities to pursue interpersonal romantic relationships.14
Enslaved men valued their role as protector of wives, children, and kin even as slavery violated their ability to protect and provide for family dependents. Although this was clearly articulated in abolitionist literature in a manner that appealed to antebellum white middle-class audiences, for generations many enslaved men had embraced this ideal. As early as the seventeenth century, enslaved men spoke of it. In the 1640s, for example, several enslaved men successfully petitioned the New Netherlands Company, apparently requesting their freedom in part on the basis that they could not support their families “as they be accustomed to do, if they continue in the Company’s service.”15 Similarly, in 1774 slaves in Massachusetts petitioned for their freedom based on the state’s new constitution, and they also argued for their familial independence. They asked: “How can a slave perform the duties of a husband to a wife?”16
The violation of fatherhood, with its emphasis on protecting dependent loved ones, became a theme in abolitionist literature written and published by free blacks and formerly enslaved men who had escaped their captivity. In 1827 Free-dom’s Journal, a New York City weekly that was published by free blacks, decried physical punishment but emphasized that it was but one component of the brutality of slavery: “He sees the mother of his children stripped naked before the gang of male negroes, and flogged unmercifully; he sees his children sent to the market to be sold at the best price they will fetch; he sees in himself, not a man, but a thing.”17 The inability to prevent such abuses, for some men, could be bound up with a traditional patriarchal ownership of a wife’s sexuality. All enslaved marriages “had to endure the third flesh of the master,” as Tera Hunter describes the powerlessness to keep loved ones safe under slavery.18 “Abroad” (off the plantation) marriages may have spared men the emasculating pain of witnessing the abuse of spouse and children on a daily basis even though they also brought stresses and challenges that resulted from being kept apart. Abroad marriages could have served enslaved men’s sense of manhood by providing that protection.19
In his 1849 account, Henry Bibb, born enslaved in Kentucky in 1815, shared his deep feelings toward his wife and how slavery obstructed and frustrated men in their marriages: “We kept up a regular correspondence during the time, and in June, 1848, we had the happiness to be joined in holy wedlock. Not in slave-holding style, which is a mere farce, without the sanction of law or gospel; but in accordance with the laws of God and our country. My beloved wife is a bosom friend, a help-meet, a loving companion in all the social, moral, and religious relations of life.” For Bibb, being unable to protect his wife was one of the ways that enslavement denied both him and his wife their freedom: “She is to me what a poor slave’s wife can never be to her husband while in the condition of a slave; for she can not be true to her husband contrary to the will of her master. She can neither be pure nor virtuous, contrary to the will of her master. She dare not refuse to be reduced to a state of adultery at the will of her master; from the fact that the slaveholding law, customs and teachings are all against the poor slaves.”20 Bibb escaped slavery twice. Having made it successfully to freedom in Ohio, he risked capture by returning to rescue his wife. His attempt failed, however, and he was taken to New Orleans, where he was eventually able to free himself again. His account contains a vivid description of him physically defending his wife and child from a pack of wolves while in the woods. His description and the accompanying image (fig. 5) bear a striking resemblance to Richard Ansdell’s later painting, The Hunted Slaves (fig. 1), a painting that some speculate was inspired by the description of a runaway found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.21 Both images capture the compelling power and commitment of men who protected their dependents and thereby secured their dignity in the face of a system of enslavement that rendered that role untenable.
Henry Brown, born enslaved in Virginia in 1816, also echoed these views and explained how enslavement made marriage an impossibility. “Talk of marriage under such a system,” Brown exclaimed. “Why, the owner of a Turkish harem, or the keeper of a house of ill-fame, might as well allow the inmates of their establishments to marry as for a Southern slaveholder to do the same. Marriage, as is well known, is the voluntary and perfect union of one man with one woman, without depending upon the will of a third party. This never can take place under slavery, for the moment a slave is allowed to form such a connection as he chooses, the spell of slavery is dissolved.” For Brown, not being able to protect his wife was paramount. “The slave’s wife is his, only at the will of her master, who may violate her chastity with impunity: It is my candid opinion that one of the strongest motives which operate upon the slaveholders, and induce them to retain their iron grasp upon the unfortunate slave, is because it gives them such unlimited control in this respect over the female slaves.” Brown’s account noted that this inability to govern one’s marriage came with emotional costs: “Suffice it to say, that no slave has the least certainty of being able to retain his wife or her husband a single hour; so that the slave is placed under strong inducements not to form a union of love, for he knows not how soon the chords wound around his heart would be snapped asunder, by the hand of the brutal slave-dealer.”22
Family connections sustained many enslaved men, even though those connections also put men in the vulnerable position of suffering loss, something that so frequently occurred. One enslaved man, according to his mistress, “died for want of proper attention” after his wife and children were sold away from him.23 Berry notes the pain that this could cause, pointing to another example: Stephen Jordan, enslaved in Louisiana, explained how he was forced to leave his wife and children and then was put with another woman, herself forced to leave her husband. The woman had no children, and presumably the pairing was because the husband was deemed to be the problem. For Jordan and the woman, it was painful. “We were put in the same cabin, both of us cried, me for my old wife and she for her old husband.”24 In another example, Josie Jordan recalled tenderness between her parents when her mother grieved for her children who had been sold away: “Pappy tried to ease her mind but she jest kept a’crying for her babies.”25 Masters denied men the ability to provide necessities, taking the role of supplying food and shelter, but enslaved men were able to provide emotional comfort to wives and children.
Formerly enslaved men recalled the family disruptions and lack of autonomy when speaking about their family histories. Masters closely watched the interpersonal relationships of enslaved people and interrupted, controlled, and inserted themselves whenever they desired to do so. Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood monitored the relationships of men and women whom he enslaved: “Jimmy wants to throw away Abba, he having long kept Phoebe slyly; Phoebe has also thrown away Neptune (or wants much to do it) upon Jimmy’s account. A hopeful chap!” In another diary entry he recorded twice the intimate interests and pursuits of one of his enslaved men named Cudjoe: “Cudjoe has made it up with an old woman named Chloe, belonging to Mr Beckford.” A couple of months later, after purchasing “Mary” from the Lucea jail, he had a special collar with “two prongs” attached to her neck, “marked her on each cheek,” and “sent her into the field to work.” Cudjoe, he noted, “took her for his wife.”26 Rosa Starke explained how masters and mistresses would determine pairings regardless of individual feelings, “’specially de young misses, who liked de business of match makin’ and matin’ of de young slaves.”27 An 1859 account by a man enslaved for fifty years before his escape shared the thoughts he had after being sold or kidnapped and his new master grabbed him and told him that he would be going away with him:
At the sound of these words, the thoughts of my wife and children rushed across my mind, and my heart beat away within me. I saw and knew that my case was hopeless, and that resistance was vain, as there were near twenty persons present, all of whom were ready to assist the man by whom I was kidnapped. I felt incapable of weeping or speaking, and in my despair I laughed loudly. My purchaser ordered me to cross my hands behind, which were quickly bound with a strong cord; and he then told me that we must set out that very day for the South. I asked if I could not be allowed to go to see my wife and children, or if this could not be permitted, if they might not have leave to come to see me; but was told that I would be able to get another wife in Georgia.28
Unable to even say parting words to his wife and children, Charles Ball—the man here who recalled so bitterly this painful and callous separation from his family—years later would share this pain with the world in a published account of his life.
Enslavers did more than just study the various relationships that formed on their plantations. They also whipped and punished men and women for behaviors they wanted to discourage. Thistlewood wrote about whipping a couple for being intimate: “Flogged Jimmy and Phoebe for Crim[inal] Con[gress] &c.” Thistlewood also wrote about punishments that resulted from quarrels among slaves: “Flogged Franke & Strap for disturbing me last night between 10 and 11 o’clock quarrelling about Caesar being catched by Strap in her room. They made a terrible uproar.”29 John Brown, enslaved in Georgia, wrote about a fellow slave, Jack, who suffered brutal punishments in defiance of his owner’s intention. Jack had been sold to Brown’s plantation from one nearby and was forced to leave his wife behind. Although he was forbidden from visiting her, “Jack used to manage to creep out of a night and visit her, always taking care to be back betimes.” But he was eventually caught by his new master and punished. As Brown explained, the punishment was so severe that “he was afterwards compelled to take a young woman named Hannah, as a wife, and to abandon his former one.” For Jack, this would not be the end. His master would again control his relationships, as “after he had been with her about eight years, he was sold away from her and their children, to one Robert Ware, of De Cator Town, in De Calb County, Georgia, about ten miles from Stevens’ place.”30
As has already been shown, through incentives, punishments, and sales, masters interfered in the internal dynamics of partnered slave couples. The relationships were never fully private, and many masters punished what they saw as inappropriate behaviors in an effort to control and determine the stability of the unions. Eighteenth-century Virginia planter William Byrd recorded in his diary a quarrel with his wife over their conflicting interference in a slave couple’s intimacy.31 Thistlewood wrote about interfering in the relationships of enslaved people: “Sancho found Morris sleeping with Quasheba his wife; complain to me; I advise them to part, which they accordingly did.”32 James Henry Hammond, like most masters, interfered in the marital relations of enslaved men and women. This ranged from encouragement and support for those who selected each other to punishments for adultery and preventing certain relationships at all. Hammond recorded in his diary in 1840 that he had beaten one man and “ordered him to go back to his wife,” as he had with another couple. A third couple he separated, and he personally flogged one man for having a relationship with another’s wife.33
Some men who escaped slavery described a sense of liberty that encompassed individual choice and freedom in marriage and love. Henry Bibb, born enslaved in Kentucky in 1815, espoused that his own autonomy was central to his understanding of marriage and manhood. He wrote: “Agreement on those two cardinal questions I made my test for marriage. I said, ‘I never will give my heart nor hand to any girl in marriage, until I first know her sentiments upon all important subjects of Religion and Liberty. No matter how well I might love her, nor how great the sacrifice in carrying out these God-given principles. And I here pledge myself, from this course never to be shaken while a single pulsation of my heart shall continue to throb for Liberty.’”34 Enslaved men such as Bibb partly formed their sense of masculine self in relation to their independence in marriage. Many, like Bibb, resented the control that masters had over this aspect of their lives. Historian Heather Andrea Williams argues that “it must have humiliated some enslaved men and women to request permission to marry.”35 James Green, enslaved in Virginia and Texas, recalled that his master “chooses de wife for every man on de place. No one had no say as to who he was golin’ to get for a wife. All de weddin’ ceremony we had was with Moster’s finger pointin’ out who was whose wife.”36 Focusing on the master’s “finger” captures the humiliating power imbalance that was inherent in enslavement.
Once relationships were established, if they took place across plantations, visitations and time together would require approval from both sets of owners, and some men suffered punishments for visiting their loved ones without permission. Ambrose Douglass, born free in Detroit in 1845, was kidnapped and enslaved in North Carolina with his parents when they went to visit enslaved relatives. He recalled that at the age of sixteen he “was given a sound beating by his North Carolina master because he attempted to refuse the mate that had been given to him.”37 John Andrew Jackson, enslaved in South Carolina, wrote about his experiences after falling in love and marrying a woman who was enslaved at a nearby plantation: “About this time, I fell in love with a slave girl named Louisa, who belonged to a Mrs. Wells, whose plantation was about a mile off. Mrs. Wells was a comparatively kind mistress. Shortly after, I married Louisa.” Jackson’s master, however, did not agree with the arrangement and doled out savage punishments whenever Jackson went to visit his wife: “My master was exceedingly angry when he heard of my marriage, because my children would not belong to him, and whenever he discovered that I had visited my wife’s plantation during the night, I was tied up and received fifty lashes.” Jackson defiantly received those punishments, declaring that they were tied to his sense of manhood. “But no man can be prevented from visiting his wife,” he declared, “and the consequence was, that I was beaten on the average, at least every week for that offence.” But even the ability to endure beatings could not ensure his manly prerogative of staying married to the woman he loved: “My wife had two children, one of whom died. But we were soon separated, as her owner removed to Georgia, and we were parted for ever.”38
Jackson’s narrative spoke not only of his own experiences but of what he witnessed as other men endured punishments and other abuses from masters who sought to control their intimate lives. For some, the threat of punishment was enough to cause action. Jackson’s own brother was “compelled to leave his wife and marry the house girl.”39 Jackson explained that for others, physical abuses occurred: “There was on one plantation, a slave about thirty years of age and six feet high, named Adam. He had a wife on a neighbouring plantation belonging to Mr. Hancock. My master bought a young slave girl about fourteen years old, named Jenny Wilson, and he then ordered Adam to leave his present wife and take Jenny.” Adam and Jenny resisted this forced arrangement, however, but as with Jackson’s own experience, it resulted in physical punishment: “Adam, after having some hundreds of lashes for obstinately persisting in loving his wife, at last consented, but not so Jenny, who was in love with me and I with her. But she was at last compelled to obey her master by the bloody cowhide. My master served nearly all his male slaves in the similar manner.”40
The narrative of John Brown, enslaved in Georgia, includes his reflections on the experience of a free man named John Glasgow who had been illegally enslaved and who was tortured for pursuing a relationship against his master’s intentions. While enslaved, Glasgow met and fell in love with a young woman named Nancy after seeing her frequently while running errands. They established their own marriage, which enraged his master because, as Brown explained, “Nancy being Ward’s property, her children would be Ward’s also: so John was flogged for marrying Nancy” instead of someone selected for him on his own plantation. He was also “forbidden to visit her.”41
Glasgow continued to visit his wife and for some time succeeded before being punished again: “Still he contrived to do so without his master’s discovering it.” The account continued: “One Christmas-day—a holiday for all—he thought he would slip away from the other slaves who were having a feast before Stevens’ house, and go see Nancy. Accordingly, watching his opportunity, he soon succeeded in getting away, unobserved as he fancied.” But his master saw him leaving, and he was captured and brought back to quarters, “and the other slaves were called together to witness the infliction upon him of a punishment called bucking.”42 For his infraction, he was brutally and savagely beaten and tortured:
The poor fellow having been stripped stark naked, his hands were fast tied and brought down over his knees, he being compelled, for this purpose, to assume a sitting posture, with his knees doubled up under his chin. A stout stake was then thrust under his hams, so that he was rendered completely powerless. In this position he was turned first on one side then on the other, and flogged with willow switches and the cowhide, until the blood ran down in streams and settled under him in puddles. For three mortal hours he endured this in-human punishment, groaning piteously all the time, whilst his master looked on and chuckled. At last he was taken out of the buck, and his lacerated body washed down with salt, red pepper, and water. It was two weeks before he went to work again.43
Brown poignantly underscored that this beating did not break Glasgow. As the account explained, “It did not smother John Glasgow’s affection for the poor mulatto girl who shared his sorrows, and who was, perhaps, the only human being to whom he durst unburden his whole soul.” It continued: “As soon as he felt able to go so far, that is, in about three months, he made another attempt to see her, was missed, pursued and caught. Then Thomas Stevens swore a fearful oath that he would cure him of ‘wife-hunting. If he must have a wife, there was a plenty of likely yallow gals on the plantation for such as he to choose from. He might have the pick of ’em. But he (Stevens) wasn’t going to let his niggers breed for another man’s benefit, not he: so if John couldn’t get a wife off the plantation he shouldn’t have one at all. But he’d cure him of Nancy any how.’”44 The punishment was again brutal:
The unfortunate fellow was taken to the whipping-post, which on Stevens’ estate consisted of two solid uprights, some ten feet high, with a cross-beam at the top, forming a kind of gallows. Along the cross-beam were three or four massive iron cleets, to which pulleys were fixed, having a fine but closely-twisted cord passing over them. John Glasgow having been stripped, as on the previous occasion, the end of one of these cords was tightly fastened round his wrists. His left foot was then drawn up and tied, toes downwards, to his right knee, so that his left knee formed an angle by means of which, when swung up, his body could conveniently be turned. An oaken stake, about two feet long, was now driven into the ground beneath the cross-beam of the whipping-post, and made sharp at the top with a draw-knife. He was then hoisted up by his hands, by means of the pulley and rope, in such wise that his body swung by its own weight, his hands being high over his head and his right foot level with the pointed end of the oaken “stob” or stake.45
By the end of the beating “he could not stand, much less walk, so they carried him to his quarters, where the usual application of salt and water, and red pepper, was made to his wounds, and he was left to die or to recover, as might be.” His recovery took over a month and was incomplete. Unable to walk for another five months, he eventually suffered from a limp for the rest of his life.46
Some resented the control over their personal lives so strongly or so feared for their lives that they ran away. In 1783, for example, an enslaved Massachusetts man named Luke ran away after being denied permission to marry by his master, William Taylor. Taylor recorded the details and explanation in a letter to his son in which he wrote that Luke had requested his “consent” to marry a woman he loved, but Taylor denied it because he believed there would be too many costs involved, as she had children.47 Abolitionist accounts and narratives from enslaved men who escaped to freedom offer numerous examples of men espousing similar resistance to this violation: “The man to whom I belonged was opposed, because he feared my taking off from his farm some of the fruits of my own labor for Malinda to eat, in the shape of pigs, chickens, or turkeys, and would count it not robbery. So we formed a resolution, that if we were prevented from joining in wedlock, that we would run away, and strike for Canada, let the consequences be what they might.”48 Thistlewood recorded in his diary the unsuccessful attempt at running away made by an enslaved man named Lincoln: “Lincoln went out yesterday, and did not come till today noon, and then brought a note from Mr Hughes begging I would forgive him, he having been at the Prospect Estate to see his wife, and overslept himself.” He was punished with extra work, but when he did not perform that work, his coat was taken from him and sold “before his face” to another slave “for 2 bitts, to mortify him.” He promptly ran away, was caught, and was whipped.49 Henry “Box” Brown, who famously escaped by successfully mailing himself in 1849 from Richmond to Philadelphia, did so, as Tera Hunter reminds us, because he was “motivated by the disruption of marital bonds and family life suffered by so many slaves in antebellum America.”50
As Daniel P. Black has argued, for enslaved men by the nineteenth century, the “concept of manhood became inextricably bound to the ability to secure freedom via escape.”51 Although more men than women ran away, as Stephanie Camp reminds us, “enslaved fathers were important to their families, as their families were to them.” Some men would not run away because of ties to their families, but some men ran away to be with family and loved ones. During the Civil War, some enslaved men who had escaped to federal camps would risk capture to gather their families and loved ones and bring them together out of slavery. These men would learn routes, testing the way to freedom before then returning and risking everything to bring out their wives, children, and kin.52 Men who escaped slavery sometimes shared their experiences in publications, providing for us some of their views of courtship, marriage, manhood, and slavery.
Physical beatings and being sold away were not the only tactics in a master’s arsenal of intimate coercion. As all enslaved men knew, life and limb were risked when countering a master’s will, and in some cases enslaved men paid with their lives. Jackson explained that in one particular case an enslaved man was beaten to death for refusing to stop seeing his wife. The murdered man, Abraham, was described as “unusually obstinate, and would not give up his wife.” Jackson’s master, unable to break him and “in despair, sent him to his son-in-law’s plantation, Gamble M’Farden, who was an inveterate drunkard, and who murdered my sister Bella, as related elsewhere.” Abraham’s new master commanded that he was “not to go up to see his wife any more; but Abraham loved his wife too much to be parted from her in that manner, so he went fifteen long miles once every fortnight, on the Saturday night, for the pleasure of seeing his wife for a short time. He was found out, and whipped to death by that drunkard Mr. M’Farden.”53
Some men may have taken their own lives as a result of the conditions of enslavement, which denied them their freedom to form relationships of their own choosing. The Dying Negro, which was reprinted in eighteenth-century American newspapers, told the story of an enslaved man who killed himself when he was unable to secure his freedom and find a wife.54 The published version included this synopsis for readers:
THE following POEM was occasioned by a fact which had recently happened at the time of its first publication in 1773. A Negro, belonging to the Captain of a West-Indiaman, having agreed to marry a white woman, his fellow-servant, in order to effect his purpose, had left his master’s house, and procured himself to be baptized; but being detected and taken, he was sent on board the Captain’s vessel then lying in the River; where, finding no chance of escaping, and preferring death to another voyage to America, he took an opportunity of shooting himself. As soon as his determination is fixed, he is supposed to write this Epistle to his intended Wife.55
Some commented at the time that men, more often than women, took their own lives when faced with enslavement. In one case in 1712 an overseer recorded that an enslaved man named Roger had killed himself, hanging himself in the tobacco barn, because he had been “hind[e]red from keeping other negroe men’s wifes.”56
Given the direct conflict between masculine ideals of autonomy and the financial incentives that masters had for interfering in relationships, enslaved men had to carefully negotiate the will of masters and mistresses in the area of intimacy. Much is therefore hidden in the simple statement provided by Rose Williams that her master told her to go set up a household for Rufus. Rufus would have likely had to fear resisting his master’s decision regardless of his own feelings for Rose. Consider the account of William Wells Brown, born in Kentucky, who wrote at length about the situation he found himself in, his mistress’s interference in his personal and romantic affairs, and how he managed to survive the dangerous situation that interference presented for him:
One of the female servants was a girl some eighteen or twenty years of age, named Maria. Mrs. Price was very soon determined to have us united, if she could so arrange matters. She would often urge upon me the necessity of having a wife, saying that it would be so pleasant for me to take one in the same family! But getting married, while in slavery, was the last of my thoughts; and had I been ever so inclined, I should not have married Maria, as my love had already gone in another quarter. Mrs. Price soon found out that her efforts at this match-making between Maria and myself would not prove successful. She also discovered (or thought she had) that I was rather partial to a girl named Eliza, who was owned by Dr. Mills. This induced her at once to endeavor the purchase of Eliza, so great was her desire to get me a wife!57
Brown found himself in a difficult and dangerous conversation with his mistress. “Before making the attempt, however, she deemed it best to talk to me a little upon the subject of love, courtship, and marriage. Accordingly one afternoon she called me into her room—telling me to take a chair and sit down. I did so, thinking it rather strange, for servants are not very often asked thus to sit down in the same room with the master or mistress.” During the conversation, his mistress proceeded to interfere with him and question him: “She said that she had found out that I did not care enough about Maria to marry her. I told her that was true. She then asked me if there was not a girl in the city that I loved.” For Brown, this was too personal. “Well, now,” he wrote, “this was coming into too close quarters with me!” “People, generally, don’t like to tell their love stories to everybody that may think fit to ask about them, and it was so with me,” he explained. “But, after blushing awhile and recovering myself, I told her that I did not want a wife. She then asked me, if I did not think something of Eliza. I told her that I did. She then said that if I wished to marry Eliza, she would purchase her if she could.”58
Brown indicated that he did not wish this for reasons that he could not share with his mistress and that certainly had nothing to do with personal privacy. He intended to run away and explained that “I knew that if I should have a wife, I should not be willing to leave her behind; and if I should attempt to bring her with me, the chances would be difficult for success.” Regardless of his lukewarm reaction, “Eliza was purchased, and brought into the family.”59
Brown was well aware that this was not simply indulging his desires as his mistress presented it, and indeed referred to it as a threatening situation and a “trap.” He wrote, “BUT the more I thought of the trap laid by Mrs. Price to make me satisfied with my new home, by getting me a wife, the more I determined never to marry any woman on earth until I should get my liberty.” For Brown, his autonomy as a man was key to having a real and successful marriage. His response was to maintain an outward appearance of compliance to ensure his safety and possible plan for freedom. He referred to his feelings as his own, a “secret” to be kept. “But this secret I was compelled to keep to myself, which placed me in a very critical position. I must keep upon good terms with Mrs. Price and Eliza. I therefore promised Mrs. Price that I would marry Eliza; but said that I was not then ready. And I had to keep upon good terms with Eliza, for fear that Mrs. Price would find out that I did not intend to get married.”60
In Brown’s account he was careful to explain that his views of marriage and of manhood were at direct odds with what enslavement allowed: “I have here spoken of marriage, and it is very common among slaves themselves to talk of it. And it is common for slaves to be married; or at least have the marriage ceremony performed. But there is no such thing as slaves being lawfully married.”61 For Brown, his freedom and security rested upon his ability to appease his mistress in her interference with his interpersonal relations. Eventually, he was able to escape to freedom and become an abolitionist and writer.
Men expressed resentment of and resistance to the confinement placed upon their abilities to choose loved ones and form families they could protect. Did Rufus chafe at the thought of being told to live with Rose? Masculine norms emphasized independence even in the face of enslavement, and while some masters allowed men to select their own partners, all involved knew that those relationships had no legal standing: they were formed only with permission, either explicit or tacit. Also known was that the relationships could be, and often were, ended without ceremony, without regard for bonds of tenderness or support, which also served to erode the ties that could give men and women strength. The norms and ideals of enslaved manhood in the area of intimacy and romantic life were both challenged by enslavement and forged and reinforced within its confines. The tighter the binds of those restrictions, the more they ensured that independence, autonomy, and the ability to endure physical and emotional pain would remain masculine ideals in the realm of family and intimacy.