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Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses
Digital History ID 279

Author:   Theodore Dwight Weld


One third of the South's population labored as slaves. Apologists for slavery asserted the slaves were rarely whipped, that marriages were seldom broken by sale, that public opinion protected slaves from cruelty, and that slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living, a better diet, superior housing, and greater life expectancy than many free workers in the North and Europe.

Historians and economists still disagree sharply over the condition of slaves in the American South. There can be no doubt that slave living conditions were often appalling. In strictly material terms, however, many Southern slaves may have probably better off than slaves in the West Indies and Brazil and most miners and factory workers in the early industrial economies. Nevertheless, even if most Southern slaves enjoyed a better diet and material stand of life than most industrial workers in England, Europe, and even parts of the North, slavery remained a morally intolerable evil no matter how "well treated" slaves might be.

The complexities and uncertainties of the debate over slaves' living standards are underscored by the contradictory evidence about diet and nutrition. On the one hand, it seems clear that slaves in the United States and even the Caribbean were substantially taller and probably healthier than West African kin. On the other hand, we also know that slave infants and children suffered extremely high death rates. Half of all slave infants died during the first year of life, twice the rate of white babies. And while death rates fell for those who survived their first year, it remained about twice the white rate. As a result of high infant and child mortality, the average life expectancy of a slave at birth was just 21 or 22 years, compared to 40 to 43 years for whites.

It appears that the high infant and child death rate was at least partly a result of a diet lacking sufficient protein, thiamine, niacin, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. As a result, slave children often suffered from night blindness, abdominal swellings, swollen muscles, bowed legs, skin lesions, and convulsions.

Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1892), a leading abolitionist, published American Slavery As It Is to document abuses under slavery.


Reader, you are empaneled as a juror to try a plain case and bring in an honest verdict. The question at issue is not one of law, but of fact--"What is the actual condition of the slaves in the United States?" A plainer case never went to a jury. Look at it. Twenty seven hundred thousand persons in this country, men, women, and children, are in slavery. Is slavery, as a condition for human beings, good, bad, or indifferent?...

Two millions seven hundred thousand persons in these States are in this condition. They are made slaves and are held such by force, and by being put in fear, and this for no crime!...

As slaveholders and their apologists are...flooding the world with testimony that their slaves are kindly treated; that they are well fed, well clothed, well housed, well lodged, moderately worked, and bountifully provided with all things needful for their comfort, we propose--first, to disprove their assertions by the testimony of a multitude of impartial witnesses, and then to put slaveholders themselves through a course of cross-questioning which shall draw their condemnation out of their own mouths. We will prove that the slaves in the United States are treated with barbarous inhumanity; that they are overworked, underfed, wretchedly clad and lodged, and have insufficient sleep; that they are often made to wear round their necks iron collars armed with prongs, to drag heavy chains and weights at their feet while working in the field, and to wear yokes, and bells, and iron horns; that they are often kept confined in the stocks day and night for weeks together, made to wear gags in their mouths for hours or days, have some of their front teeth torn out or broken off, that they may be easily detected when they run away; that they are frequently flogged with terrible severity, have red pepper rubbed into their lacerated flesh, and hot brine, spirits of turpentine, &c., poured over the gashes to increase the torture; that they are often stripped naked, their backs and limbs cut with knives, bruised and mangled by scores and hundreds of blows with the paddle, and terribly torn by the claws of cats, drawn over them by their tormenters; that they are often hunted with blood hounds and shot down like beasts, or torn in pieces by dogs; that they are often suspended by the arms and whipped and beaten till they faint, and when revived by restoratives, beaten again till they faint, and sometimes till they die; that their ears are often cut off, their eyes knocked out, their bones broken, their flesh branded with red hot irons; that they are maimed, mutilated, and burned to death over slow fires.... We will establish all these facts by the testimony of scores and hundreds of eye witnesses, by the testimony of slaveholders in all parts of the slave states, by slaveholding members of Congress and of state legislatures, by ambassadors to foreign courts, by judges, by doctors of divinity, and clergy men of all denominations, by merchants, mechanics, lawyers and physicians, by presidents and professors in colleges and professional seminaries, by planters, overseers and drivers.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses

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