We call them slaves…. But I will not characterize that class at the North with that term; but you have it. It is there, it is everywhere; it is eternal. Speech in the U. S. Senate, March, 1858… James Henry Hammond

The current serving governor of South Carolina is the 116th person to occupy that office. There have been more who held the Senate seat and more yet who have represented the state in the House of Representatives. The number of ante bellum plantation owners way well exceed the three named sets – then again a listing of the plantation owners in 1860 in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama published at the back of the New Orleans city directory probably equalled the total of the three sets so the number may not be quite a substantial as we would be led to believe.

Reading the life of James Henry Hammond presented here there is nothing to suggest that he was representative of any class other than the dregs that somehow gravitate to political office while covering careers as paedophiles and brutes. The sleight of hand that makes it acceptable to believe him as representative of any other class is a propagandists tool and not the historians craft.

In its time the plantation system worked so there had to be a large number of plantation owners who treated all who worked for them as laborers worthy of their hire. If not there would have been constant rebellions and so much civil discord that the system would have collapsed internally. The use of slave labor – and with it the institution of slavery – would have disappeared without the war of northern aggression thanks to the improvements of mechanized farming which would have been welcomed by the majority of plantation owners.

This book is interesting the same way a biography of Hitler is. Not because the subject represents anything other than the gross magnification of his own flaws but because like any large disaster they hold us spellbound in their infamy. It is an act of blasphemy to make evil attractive and even the sensationalizing of it skates out on very thin ice.

Secret and sacred : the diaries of James Henry Hammond, a southern slaveholder  edited by Carol Bleser Plantation life South Carolina History 19th century New York : Oxford University Press, 1988 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing.     xxix, 342 p., [4] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 24 cm. Bibliography: p. 328-330. Includes index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.   VG/VG  

Long encrusted in myth and legend, the planter aristocracy of the ante-bellum South has been depicted by a host of historians, economists, psychologists, novelists, dramatists, and moviemakers. Each has presented an interpretation of his or her own choosing. Now Carol Bleser brings us a remarkable set of diaries that allows one prominent planter and slaveholder to speak as himself and for himself. It affords a look at a vanished era unparalleled in its intimacy and candor.

James Henry Hammond, virtually a character out of a Faulkner novel, was a poor boy, who married into wealth and then fought and struggled to make his South Carolina plantations and slaveholdings among the largest of the South. An articulate intellectual active in politics as a Congressman, U.S. Senator, and South Carolina governor, he became a leading spokesman for the Cotton Kingdom in the last years before the Civil War. He dominated his family, sexually violated his young nieces (causing a scandal that nearly wrecked his career), and fathered children by his slaves. And all the while, he kept his “secret and sacred” diaries, almost all of which survived and have been sequestered in archives until now.

Spanning the critical years from 1841 to 1864, these diaries have been  edited by Bleser, who preserves their historical validity so that Hammond’s unvarnished voice speaks out clearly on everything from his personal travails to the turbulent politics and key personalities of his age. More importantly, she has gracefully explicated Hammond’s background and smoothed the way for the general reader so that the diaries read like a novel, sweeping through the drama and ultimate disaster of the Old South.

What emerges is a vivid portrait of a man whose wealth and intellect combined to make him an important Southern leader but whose deep character flaws kept him from the true greatness to which aspired. Anyone seeking to understand the crisis facing the Union, the nature of the Old South, the institution of slavery, and the aggrandisement of the planter class will have to read these diaries.


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