Slaves Working in Cotton

The Myth of the Happy Slaves in The North Star

“I once passed a colored woman at work on a plantation, who was singing, apparently, with animation, and whose general manners would have led me to set her down as the happiest of the gang. I said to her, “Your work seems pleasant to you.’ She replied, ‘No, massa.’

Supposing she referred to something particularly disagreeable in her immediate occupation, I said to her, ‘Tell me then what part of your work is most pleasant.’

She answered with much emphasis, ‘No part pleasant. We forced to do it.'”

The celebrated Dr. Rush, of Philadelphia, in one of his published medical papers, entitled “An account of the diseases peculiar to the negroes in the West Indies, and which are produced by their slavery,” says:

“We are told by their masters that they are the happiest people in the world, because they are ‘merry.’ – Mirth and a heavy heart, I believe, often meet together, and hence the propriety of Solomon’s observation, ‘In the midst of laughter the heart is sad.’ Instead of considering the songs and dances as marks of their happiness, I have long considered them as physical symptoms of melancholy, and as certain proofs of their misery.”

– Am. Museum, vol. 4. p. 81.

Finally, if slaves were contented and happy, that fact alone should be the everlasting condemnation of slavery, and hunt the monster from human society with curses on its head. What! does it so paralyze the soul, subvert its instincts, blot out its reason, crush its upward tendings, and murder its higher nature, that a man can become “contented and happy,” though robbed of his body, mind, free choice, liberty, time, earnings, and all his rights, and while his life, limbs, health, conscience, food, raiment, sleep, wife and children, have no protection, but are subject every moment to the whims and passion-gusts of an owner, a manstealer?

Nobly was it said by Burke, in reply to a vaunting slaveholder, who boasted that his slaves were “contented and happy“: “If you have made a contented slave, you have made a DEGRADED MAN.’


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: The North Star
Date: April 28, 1848
Title: Happy Slaves
Location: Rochester, New York


In 1847, with Frederick Douglass and M.R. Delaney as editors, The North Star was established: “…It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression…

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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