Prior to making a comparison between Mary Chesnut and Frederick Douglass, in order to present material which sheds light on the relationship between white southern women and slaves, it would seem appropriate to look closely at each of these two noteworthy characters from American history.
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut was born in 1823, into the aristocracy of South Carolina, had all the privileges of wealth and power - including the benefit of an education at an exclusive boarding school in Charleston - and married into another very prominent family in South Carolina. She lived on a plantation with numerous black slaves, which was fairly typical for wealthy people during that period. What was not typical of wealthy people during those times was the fact that her circle of friends was political and social heavyweights - after all, her husband was a U.S. Senator, and also an advisor to the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis.
That closeness to political power gave her insights and a perspective which beefed up the influence and authenticity of her books. Being driven from her homes in Columbia, and Camden, South Carolina - as Union soldiers closed in on the South - gave her an insider's perspective which also made her books more profoundly authentic. "One cannot help but be struck by the breadth of her knowledge or the extent of her interests" (DeCredico, p. xv). Author DeCredico compares Mary Chesnut's life and times to Scarlett O'Hara, Margaret Mitchell's legendary character from "Gone with the Wind" - as the two women, though one fictional and the other a real woman, followed strikingly similar paths.
According the book by C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, The Private Mary Chesnut, Mary Chesnut has "...long been acclaimed the most brilliant diarist of her period." The diaries contained in this publication were written by Chesnut while she was a "fugitive from military invaders"; she was living out of suitcases, often ill, taking opium, prescribed by doctors "for relief" (p. x). What she wrote after the war - Mary Chesnut's Civil War, which was written in the 1880s - was not at all similar what she wrote in these diaries during the war. Moreover, she was a "witty, intelligent woman, well placed to collect facts, news, and gossip" (Adams, 1985).
As a southern woman, she was devoted to the Confederate cause, albeit she had "an utter detestation of slavery" (Adams, 1985). Further, she had a terrible temper, and could unleash tongue-lashings that were legendary. She also let off steam in her diary "without embarrassment" (Adams, 1985); and some the steam she let off, like other women in the south, was pointed directly at the Southern institution of slavery. To wit, in her diary entry of March 18, 1861, she offered this condemnation of slavery: "I wonder if it is a sin to think slavery a curse to any land. Sumner said not one word of this hated institution which is not true." According to Woodward & Muhlenfeld (p. xv), the passage quoted above "may be the strongest indictment of slavery every written by a Southerner."
He was born Frederick Baily, a slave, in 1818 in Maryland. The man who owned the plantation on which his mother worked was among the wealthiest men in Maryland, and was rumored to have been Frederick's father (a point made by Frederick later in the paper). His mother, Harriet Baily, worked the cornfields; the slaves on the second plantation where Frederick was enslaved were fed cornmeal mush which was placed in a trough, and eaten with spoons made out of oyster shells - "like so many pigs" Frederick would later write (Douglas, 1845). The last time Douglass saw his mother, he was seven years old. Because he was a charming young man, he caught a break: he was chosen to be the companion of his master's youngest son, Daniel Lloyd. This break led Frederick to a series of opportunities from which he "escaped" the work of a field hand and moved to the city, where he, being bright, received a cursory education and learned to read and write.
Eventually, in 1938, he used his best creative skills and escaped slavery, winding up in New York. He became involved in the anti-slavery (abolitionist) movement, and in the process fine-tuned his considerable skills at oratory, and writing; he was a forceful abolitionist, an editor, and part of his push was a strong advocacy for women's rights. In May, 1845, Frederick's autobiographical slave story, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published, and became a best-seller. He traveled abroad, he and his wife Anna had 4 children, and ultimately, he became an internationally renowned lecturer, writer, publisher and influential human rights spokesperson. Just how influential was Douglass? He was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and also met later, and offered advice, to President Andrew Johnson.
Frederick Douglass' life spanned nearly eighty years, from the time that slavery was commonplace in America, particularly in the south, to the time it was a fading social evil. Douglass had freed himself from slavery, and through decades of tireless efforts he helped to free millions of others (in particular, through the "Underground Railway"). His life was a testament to courage and persistence, a testament that continues to serve as an inspiration today to those who believe that justice and freedom are worth fighting for.
Women in the South - their relationships with slaves
Planter" women, a culture into which Mary Chesnut was born, initially viewed slaves "as chattel and commonly associated blacks with their dollar value" (Clinton, 185). "Planter women might receive slaves as gifts," Clinton wrote. But over time attitudes began to shift. Many slaves learned that they could receive kinder treatment from the southern woman. In fact, wives and daughters "would often plead with planters for the humane treatment of slaves," Clinton writes, and "slaves clearly understood this role of white women on the plantation, and often a slave would appeal directly to the mistress to intercede with the master..."
In her study of the role plantation mistresses played in the lives of slaves, Elizabeth Craven surveyed 19th Century slave narratives and 20th Century ex-slaves (Clinton, 187). She found that 75% of slaves in the 19th Century who wrote narratives mentioned and discussed the mistress. However, just 40% of slaves in 20th Century interviews mentioned plantation mistresses. And as to the tone of the slave narratives, over 55% of the allusions to mistresses were positive, 35% were not favorable, and 10% were mixed. When slaves got sick, it was the mistress of the plantation who cared for them. "The slave generally saw the mistress of the plantation as a positive influence in the slave system," Craven is quoted as saying in Clinton's book. "Those who were most likely to remember well of her were the house servants, the male slaves, and those who lived on a large plantation."
And so it's clear that while slavery was a thriving "business" in the south, there was a growing feeling - not yet a movement, per se - among southern women that slavery was truly an evil system which would one day be illegal. And southern women arrived at that conclusion well before most men, according to the literature. The southern woman's conviction that slavery must and would be wiped out, too, was the position of course of abolitionists, such as Frederick, hence, a relationship of shared values.
Meantime, Maria Bryan, a plantation mistress, is quoted in Clinton's book as writing to her sister: "Today Jenny came in crying very much, her face bloody and swelled...the overseer had beat her with his fist, because she had not spun a sufficient quantity...OH! how great an evil is slavery" (190). Frederick Douglass witnessed many a beating and whipping; he described how "he had felt the head of a young girl and found it 'nearly covered with festering sores'" (Thomas, 2002). "One night Frederick was awakened by a woman's screams," Thomas writes, in a biography published on the University of Rochester History Department Web site. "He peered through a crack in the wall of the kitchen only to see Aaron Anthony lashing the bare back of a woman, who was his aunt, Hester Baily. Frederick was terrified, but forced himself to watch the entire ordeal." So we have another connection between the perspective of white southern women and of Frederick Douglass - witnesses to the carnage and wickedness of slavery.
As to Mary Chesnut's relationship to the violence surrounding slavery, Clinton uses a quote from Chesnut, when Chesnut learned of an insurrection by slaves: "Hitherto, I have never thought of being afraid of negroes. I had never injured any of them; why should they want to hurt me? Two-thirds of my religion consists of trying to be good to Negroes." Meantime, after a cousin of Chesnut's was strangled by a slave, Chesnut uttered this: "These…