“…then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery”

This is a portion of a letter dated January 2, 1845, from Herbert O’Sullivan, the younger brother of John L. O’Sullivan, to his friend Jane Minot Sedgwick II, whose life I researched for my dissertation. Herbert was in New York, and was writing to Jane while she was teaching at Harriet Randolph Hackley’s school for girls in Norfolk, Virginia.  It is one of the best things I found during my dissertation research and I’ve taught with it many times. It’s certainly good evidence of white women’s engagement in politics and the mansplaining they received in response,  but more importantly, it’s one man’s rationale for the continuation of chattel slavery expressed in clear, brutal terms.

So you are not gratified at the election of Polk, because you suppose it will have a bad effect on slavery.  By the by, don’t express any abolitionist sentiments in Norfolk.  I should become very much affected if I were to read in the newspaper of your having been tarred and feathered; or rather, as men only would probably be [illeg.] with that suit, of you being incarcerated from the charge of you exciting sedition, and aiding and abetting the escape of slaves, like our New England heroine at Louisville, of whom I suppose you have heard.  I suppose you don’t see much at Norfolk to shock your delicate feelings; though from feeding upon the pure mountain air of Berkshire they are perhaps somewhat fastidious.

Slavery as it appears in the towns at any rate is, I think, by no means the awful bugbear that it is made to work upon the sympathies of northern abolition audiences.  The slaves in Norfolk, for instance, are well clothed and fed, very kindly treated, and quite intelligent.  In fact it seems to me that if the present state of society is to continue, and some of us are to live in luxury, while others are to work hard in laborious and menial offices, that it is much better for the happiness of all that there be a class to take the latter place who shall be brought up from infancy to habits of submission and respect, and be prevented from learning anything that may make them discontented.  Our country is now thinly populated, and not for many years can we expect to have at the north any very frightful amounts of pauperism, but if the rules that govern society are such that, when every acre here teems as every acre in England does, we are to have an immense throng of hungry proletarians crying aloud not for bread only, but frankly totally unable to purchase for themselves anything besides the hardest  necessities, and often starving to death, then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery.  Perhaps my hypothesis is wrong, and we are never to be reduced to that extremity.

This letter can be found in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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