The Great Mistake

June 16, 1866


Dispatch editors claim the nation has made a mistake; since the war, the white Southerner has become enslaved while the black man liberated. The white Southerner is undeserving of this- they had the large responsibility of managing slaves and their farms, while their slaves had nothing to worry about. The nation should be sympathizing for the former slaveowner.


The world, which is by no means infallible either in whole or in part, has, in the present day, made one of the greatest mistakes it ever blundered into. This is the egregious error of supposing that the recent civil war in this country liberated the negro; whereas it really liberated the white man. Years ago John Randolph asserted that the masters were slaves to the negroes ; and this was the truth. To provide for the blacks; to take care of them; to repair the damages from their neglect; husband resources their improvidence and recklessness were ever impairing ; to bear up under the general tendency to waste, exhaustion, and decay from their heedlessness and forgetfulness, their indolence and slovenliness- imposed upon all masters cares and labors that made them really slaves to the negroes. Aware that the master had to support them, they felt no concern as to how they were to live. Knowing that they had no right of property in anything used to cultivate the place, and that if it were lost or destroyed they would not have to replace it, they bestowed no care upon it. The master had to care for all and provide for all. He had to look after the negroes, the horses, the cows, the sheep, the hogs, the wagons, the harness, the ploughs, the agricultural implements of all sorts, the stables, the barns, nay everything. Without the care and vigilance of the master and his white superintendent, there would have been little left after a few years. The very houses would have been burned down over their heads.Therefore the responsibility and care concerning these people, their coming and going, their working and support, were heavy and incessant. The master carried these cares with him to bed, he dreamed of them in his sleep, and the morning called him early to the renewal of the wearisome and and vexatious vigilance of his relation as master. He held an office of uncommon responsibility and one imposing the most arduous duties, with a compensation altogether inadequte to the duties and the responsibility it devolved upon him. The burthens thus borne by the master for the well-fed negro, who had no cares nor anxieties for the present or the future, were quite enough to show that this master was the slave, and not the negro who was called his property. But there is another phase of the relationship which adds strongly to this view of the subject. Slavery compelled the children of the planters and farmers to emigrate. The institution did not encourage commerce, nor trade, nor manufactures. There was little occupation outside of agriculture, and the negro was the laborer in that branch of industry; and, as it had been found impossible to work white and black together, the white man had to seek new fields afar off for employment and for success in life. The wealthy put their sons to the professions of law and physic, which were always overrun ; and which, while numbering in their ranks men who were ornaments of their country, contained others who were only fit for the lower order of occupations such as ditchers, cow drivers, farm hands, wagoners, &e.- in which they might have earned livelihoods and led exemplary lives. But being briefless and patientless, they fell into vices which are always convenient for the idle, and ended unprofitable lives by untimely deaths. Such fate, with its warning, seemed to be lost ; and the multitude journeying through life in this fashion was never diminished. This was the picture of too many who remained at home. And though it was a relief to turn from these to the cases of those good parents whose sons were driven by the institution to other States where they were successful, yet can we fail to sympathize with those dear old people who, in the evening of their days, were left alone in their charming old mansions, daily to pine over the absence of their children ? Every object in the house reminded them of those loved ones. The rooms they had occupied were tenantless and gloomy. Though not dead, they might never meet again ! Here was the master bereaved- bereaved for the negroes who dwelt on the same farm for generations, living socially and joyously in their quarters, which presented an appearance of contentment and ease running into frequent festivity, the like of which the world never saw, and will never see again ! Which was the slave- the white man or the black man ? We shall soon see.
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Brooke Beam




“The Great Mistake,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed May 28, 2023,