A. J. Pickett may have been an author and historian with a house in Montgomery, Alabama but he was equally a slaveholder with two plantations under his control. The institution of slavery was essential to his life and to his work. By the time he was 30, my great great grandfather enslaved more than 80 men, women and children. Some of this wealth came from marrying Sarah Smith Harris, who inherited a plantation of her own. Pickett appreciated her as his junior partner in slave management, as is clear from letters the couple exchanged while A.J. was away. Sarah described how she had taken action because the slaves did not have adequate meat. He replied that he was “glad you sent the bacon to the negroes for if I had been at home I would have done exactly as you did.”
My great great grandfather believed that slavery, as practiced in the American South, was a benign and necessary institution, and he reviled those who would undo it. He sounded this note again and again in his writing career, as I discovered from searching out his earliest publications in pamphlets and newspaper opinion pieces. Although his History is mainly concerned with the early settlement of the region and the conquest of indigenous Indian tribes, Pickett takes time out to excoriate the French and the English for their hypocrisy in denouncing Southern slavery.
Their own ancestors, he argued, had been guilty of much worse. He went on to say that not only was slavery in the South benign, it was also essential. The steamy climate was “so destructive to the constitutions of the whites” that the land “could never have been successfully brought into cultivation without African labor.”
Abolitionists were the enemy: “criminals and offenders against the peace and dignity of the South,” he called them in an early essay. He feared the spread of inflammatory ideas meant to incite slaves to revolt.
In one pamphlet he criticized slave traders from the North whose slaves, he claimed, were glutting the market. He preferred home-grown slaves, who were “more obedient and had more pride of character than those who were the subjects of barter and had changed masters three or four times.” With the domestic variety he favored, “there grew between master and slave an affectionate attachment promoted by long years of acquaintance from childhood to old age.”
He had still more to say about slavery in Eight Days in New Orleans, his impressions from a brief trip to the Crescent City in February 1847. Amid his astonishments at the way Catholicism was practiced and his aggrieved description of a rained-out Mardi Gras parade, he takes aim at a favorite target in a bitter diatribe against English abolitionists.
The English had introduced yellow fever to Louisiana in a cargo of slaves, Pickett contends. “And now,” he adds, “these philanthropists would be willing to see our nation exterminated, and our throats cut, because we are pursuing a system of mild domestic slavery, when they imposed it upon us in the most heartless and aggravated form, by kidnapping and robbery!!!” (exclamation points his.)
Mild domestic slavery! That cruel oxymoron gave me a glimpse into the workings of my ancestor’s mind – how he justified owning human beings.