Daniel W. Stowell, ed. Balancing Evils Judiciously: The Proslavery Writings of Zephaniah Kingsley. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. xviii + 127 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1733-4.
Reviewed by James B. Jones (Department of History, University of South Carolina Aiken)
Published on H-South (August, 2000)
On the Borders of Antebellum Southern Life and Thought
It was once a given among scholars of the Old South that the antebellum mind was closed, especially on the subject of slavery. The force of orthodoxy, it was argued, drove heterodox views out of the region, or underground. Carl N. Degler pointed to "The Other South," populated by "free lances" who managed to defy the regional orthodoxy. But these, it was argued, were only shining exceptions that proved the rule. Then Michael O'Brien suggested that, within limits, there was variety even among the southern mainstream on several subjects, including slavery. One aspect of that argument is Eugene D. Genovese's illumination of the "slavery in the abstract" school, which justified the institution on grounds other than race. Appropriately, Genovese has written the foreword for this collection of writings by Florida planter Zephaniah Kingsley. For in Kingsley we find a southern defender of slavery who insisted that race was neither an adequate, nor a necessary, basis for countering the abolitionists, and who urged his white neighbors to embrace the layered racial model of the Caribbean.
Although acknowledging that religion had little to do with Kingsley's view of slavery, Genovese places him in the vanguard of a reform movement that would soon be taken up by leading clergymen and would reach its climax during the Confederacy. Whether or not Kingsley was read by those better known writers, he deserves prominent status among the participants in the slavery debate. Thus scholars are indebted to Daniel Stowell's excellent edition of all of Kingsley's known writings on slavery, which adds a fascinating voice to the slavery debate among southerners as well as between southerners and northerners.
Kingsley was surely "one of nineteenth-century Florida's most unusual citizens" (p. ix). Born in England in 1765, he came to Charleston with his family in 1770, his father becoming a successful merchant there. He was educated in London. His parents were Loyalists, but he demonstrated an adaptability in national identity which foreshadowed his later pragmatism in other areas. He announced his allegiance to the United States, but after spending part of the 1790s in Haiti as a coffee buyer, he became a Danish citizen in 1798. Engaging in the slave trade in the Caribbean, he again changed his status in 1803, placing himself under the Spanish crown, and becoming a citizen of Spanish East Florida. He bought four contiguous plantations near present day Jacksonville, and by 1811 he owned some 100 slaves and 700 orange trees, and grew cotton on 200 acres. By 1830 he had over 200 slaves on several plantations.
In 1806 Kingsley purchased several Africans in Havana, among them a teenaged girl whom he dubbed Anna, and took for his wife. Although never married in the eyes of church or state, the couple lived openly together and had four children. Kingsley manumitted Anna and their three children in 1811, (the manumission document is the first in the book) and the fourth was born free in 1824. Furthermore, he acknowledged paternity of five children by two other slaves or former slaves, all of whom he manumitted, or were born free. The exact nature of these relationships is, of course, open to speculation. Daniel L. Schafer, author of a forthcoming biography of Kingsley, sees Anna as the first wife and the others as co-wives in a polygamous pattern common in Africa. Kingsley used the designation "wife" only for Anna, but did refer to the two other women as Flora Kingsley and Sarah Kingsley. Daniel Stowell prefers the term concubine for these two. In any case, a man who established such connections was not likely to be a conventional thinker on the subject of slavery, nor one to be limited by racial ideology in his view of society.
Florida itself likely played a role in his ruminations and practices regarding the peculiar institution, for to Kingsley its location on the rim of the Caribbean must have given it a natural affinity for the layered racial culture he had observed and appropriated in the West Indies. Living on the edge of the American South, he could more easily think, and operate, on the edge of its mores. Perhaps this perspective was shared by his neighbors, for if his conduct shocked some, it did not prevent his appointment to the East Florida territorial Legislative Council in 1823, two years after Spain sold the Floridas to the United States. Yet the brevity of his tenure may suggest that his views had rankled some. In 1826, as the Council acted "to Prevent the Future Migration of Free Negroes or Mulattoes to this Territory," Kingsley, no longer a member, published an Address to the Legislative Council of Florida on that subject (the second document). The address advanced three main points: the necessity of black labor in the semi-tropical southern coastal region, the logic of a three-layered society with free blacks occupying a middle ground between whites and slaves, and the greater security of slave property where free blacks were invited to identify their interests with whites rather than with slaves. Such views, as Stowell shows, were common in the Caribbean and Louisiana, but Kingsley would find an increasingly hostile audience for them in Florida.
During the late 1820s and early 1830s, the years when David Walker and Nat Turner were inspiring a general hardening of racial lines and strengthening of slave codes in the South, Florida's Legislative Council took steps to restrict the freedom and influence of the territory's free black population. Most disturbing to Kingsley was the 1832 act outlawing marriage between whites and persons with any degree of African ancestry. While his prestige gave Kingsley de facto exemption from this act, he was alarmed enough to urge his heirs to emigrate "to some land of liberty and equal rights, where the conditions of society are governed by some law less absurd than that of color" (p. 11).
Kingsley's growing concerns prompted the writing and subsequent revisions of his Treatise on the Patriarchal, or Co-operative System of Society. (That is, slavery). First published in 1826, it was refined in three more editions over the next six years, in an effort, as Stowell notes, to make the arguments more palatable and persuasive. The Treatise is the centerpiece of the book. Disavowing "all other motives than that of increasing the value of his property" (Kingsley's words, p. 62), he announced his intention to show that when it is "associated with justice and benevolence, slavery . . . easily amalgamates with the ordinary conditions of life" (p.40). He reiterated the three points in his Address to the Legislative Council, and supported them with descriptions of slavery in Brazil, where "(t)he door of liberty is open to every slave who can find the means of purchasing himself, . . . the free people of color" are "protected by law" and allowed "to hold property in their own name," and "the free children of quadroons by a white man [are] white by law" (p.44). "By this link, they become identified with the whites on one side, and with the slaves by descent on the other; a connexion which perfectly cements the three castes of which the whole nation is composed . . . ." (p.45). "The Spanish, French, and Dutch Colonies," he added, "have all adopted the same policy" (p. 46). (Stowell provides extensive and helpful annotation here).
While he acknowledged the Haitian slave revolt, he put an optimistic spin on it, noting that "in many of the quarters the slaves still continued to work, even without white overseers. . . ." (p.48). Turning to his state and its northerly neighbors, he urged that the Caribbean example be followed, adding that it "will require a considerable sacrifice of local prejudice to the shrine of self interest" (p.53). Amelioration of slaves' condition and removal of barriers to manumission offered the best hope, in his view, for the well being of all involved in slavery, and hence for the perpetuation of this necessary arrangement. He considered his own plantations models in this regard, and he described in some detail his methods and what he considered to be the happy results.
The 1829 edition added a discussion of "Gullah Jack" Pritchard's role in the abortive Denmark Vesey slave plot of 1822. Kingsley had bought Pritchard in Africa, called him a "priest" (changed to "conjurer" in the two later editions) and added that when he was purchased "he had his conjuring implements with him in a bag which he brought onboard the ship and always retained with him." For Kingsley, Gullah Jack typified the role of "influential" (later versions have "fanatical") preachers in slave revolts. He added that Vesey himself "was an exhorting brother" (pp. 67-68). In the 1833 edition he discussed reaction to the Nat Turner rebellion, and assured readers that a loyal class of free blacks was the best insurance against the fears it had aroused. But he deleted earlier references to the improved "shape, strength, and beauty" of the "intermediate grades of color." The 1834 edition, the last, was essentially unchanged except that while Kingsley had identified himself as the author of the others, he signed this one "A Slave Holder." Stowell does not speculate on the reason for either of these changes, but one might assume that the growing race consciousness and antipathy for his views and living arrangement led Kingsley to choose prudence over candor (p. 40) Stowell does note that by the early 1840s Kingsley's neighbors, misreading his opposition to Florida's slave code and his mixed-race family, were calling him an abolitionist.
By that time he had already concluded that emigration to Haiti offered the best alternative for his family and free blacks generally. In 1835 he carried out a colonization plan for his family, sending a son and other freed blacks to start a settlement in Haiti. He joined them, bringing Anna and other dependents, a year later. Eventually at least fifty three of his former slaves followed. A nine year period of indentured servitude ended in freedom for these people, but other Kingley slaves remained on his Florida plantations, working to finance the experiment. Extant records apparently do not permit Stowell to draw conclusions on the success of this experiment.
In the other documents Kingsley elaborated on the "absurdity" of prejudice against color and hence against free people of color in Florida and the United States, and proposed first Mexico, then Haiti, as a refuge for its victims (p.77). He described Haiti in language reminiscent of the fantastic accounts of early explorers of the New World, and gave a glowing account of his colonization experiment there, including fifteen feet high cotton plants with "upwards of five hundred boles on each stalk" (pp. 104-5).
If the reader of these views wonders how they were received by abolitionists, an answer is suggested in the form of a Letter From New York, written in 1842 by Lydia Maria Child. In it the abolitionist recounts her reading of Kingsley's Treatise and a fascinating conversation with its author. It is here that Kingsley, when asked why he did not take all of his slaves to Haiti, used the concept that serves as the book's title. "The best we can do in this world," he told her, "is to balance evils judiciously" (p.111). He had to have money to conduct his scheme, and hence had to hold some of his slaves to pave the way to freedom for others. Though bewildered by Kingsley's ideas and appalled by his ethics, Child was as intrigued as readers of this volume are likely to be.
Daniel W. Stowell's introduction places Kingsley's views in the context of southern thought, and establishes him as a clear individual voice. His editorial apparatus includes ample explanatory footnotes (cudos to the University Press of Florida!) identifying all persons and events mentioned in the Kingsley writings, and pointing out places where Kingsley's arguments take liberties with the facts. The book includes illustrations and maps. The four editions of Kingsley's most important work, A Treatise on the Patriarchal, or Co-operative System of Society . . ._ are wisely combined into one document, using superscript dates to identify portions found in each of the editions, thus allowing the reader to trace the evolution of the work.
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James B. Jones. Review of Stowell, Daniel W., ed., Balancing Evils Judiciously: The Proslavery Writings of Zephaniah Kingsley.
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