Letters from 19th-century America reveal the anxiety of slave owners

Correspondence between 80 members of a wealthy family shows that slave owners were often agitated and afraid, and suffered from insomnia.

Many academics and writers have examined the miserable fate of slaves in the history of the United States. The transportation of the workforce from one continent to another to work on cotton fields and as house slaves, and the way people were treated as property, is an integral element in the nation’s history. But what were the views of the masters and mistresses of the slaves?

Anna Koivusalo, a historian from the University of Helsinki, began to look for answers from the archives of the University of North Carolina. She hit a jackpot, uncovering an enormous collection of letters by the wealthy DeRosset family. The archive contains approximately 10,000 letters written in the 19th century by four generations of the family.

“The letters are like 19th-century WhatsApp threads; 80 people writing to each other about their activities and feelings on a particular day and week,” Koivusalo says.

Letters from boarding school and the front line

Koivusalo is particularly interested in Armand and Eliza Lord DeRosset and their 11 children, who wrote to each other several times a week from the 1840s to the 1860s. The children wrote the earlier letters from boarding schools. Later, they corresponded from other locations as the boys had relocated to work elsewhere, and the girls had married and moved away with their spouses. During the Civil War, the DeRossets wrote to relatives on the front, who, in turn, wrote back home.

Koivusalo’s project is still ongoing, but her findings are promising so far. The pile of letters is a treasure trove for a historian who specialises in emotions.

“The history of emotions is a discipline established in the 1980s. Among other things, it examines how people living in a certain time or community expressed and were allowed to express their emotions while remaining approved members of their communities.”

The right to ownership

Research on the history of emotions in the southern Confederate States is extremely scarce. This is particularly the case in terms of research on the emotional experiences of white Southerners, which is not surprising: slave owners do not elicit sympathy.

The DeRosset family that Koivusalo studied also had slaves. They believed that they had a full right to own other people.

“White Southerners simply did not question their right to own other human beings.”

The few who endorsed equality quickly clashed with their neighbours and relocated to the North.

“According to the view of the DeRossets, slaves existed to fulfil their needs. If the slaves behaved accordingly and respectfully, the owners treated them well – at least in their opinion,” Koivusalo explains.

Punishments were handed easily: they could be given if the slaves did not immediately obey their masters or did anything that could be construed as a protest. Even dawdling could have consequences.

The 'inferior race'

In their letters, the DeRosset family rarely expresses any other emotions in connection to their slaves than irritation. They cursed the expense of providing food and clothing for the slaves and the problems caused by their behaviour.

Another emotion that emerged from the correspondence was fear. The owners were on their guard: slaves revolted in the South every now and then.

“When slaves became free and autonomous citizens after the Civil War, the family was shocked to discover that the former slaves were not grateful for the care given to them and for having the opportunity to continue serving the family,” Koivusalo says.

Like most members of their social class, the DeRossets did not consider African Americans as human beings. The impacts of this historical bias have extended far.

The researcher’s reactions

Throughout her work, Koivusalo has had to process her own emotions and outlooks. Historians must be aware of how their moral principles influence the way they perceive their material. It affects how scholars describe the issues that emerge from their sources.

“Being aware of your values is especially important when the people associated with your research topics spark moral resentment.”

At times, Koivusalo was physically repulsed by the DeRossets. Their way of thinking about enslaved people made her shudder.

“In my view, topics that have such an intense impact on the researcher must be particularly worthy of exploration and discussion,” Koivusalo says.

Hide your joy

If the letters occasionally made Koivusalo uncomfortable, the DeRosset family was also tormented by a physical emotional experience: anxiety. They did not use the word anxiety, but Koivusalo finds it an appropriate umbrella term for the concerns of the family.

“The DeRossets write about unease, agitation, and agony.”

They describe how their ‘chest is constrained and their head aches’. They were unable to sleep because of the physical symptoms of their anxiety.

The DeRosset family was very religious. Their faith gave them comfort but also contributed to their anxiety. The norms of the time were strict. Particularly older generations exerted considerable control over how joy and sadness could be expressed among family members. People were not allowed to express their love for their spouses or children too passionately or noticeably, as they were expected to devote themselves to God.

“Some of the women in the family who enjoyed the physical pleasures of marriage, or who felt a strong emotional connection to their spouse, considered themselves sinners. This caused anxiety.”

The death of a child

For Koivusalo, the most harrowing experience was reading the letters that conveyed insensitivity towards fathers and mothers who grieved for their child's death. In the 19th century, infectious diseases killed many children, and prosperity did not protect a family from painful losses.

“You had to mourn and express your grief, but the phase was not supposed to last for longer than two or three months. Parents who did not recover by that time began to be rejected by other members of the community – people began to speculate whether they questioned the will of God. You were supposed to be glad for your child, as they were now in a better place.”

Therapy was yet to be invented, and there were no treatments for anxiety. The people in the 19th century evaded their feelings through methods that are common also today: many retreated to excessive work or drowned their sorrows in stimulants. Some people shopped frantically, ordering expensive hats and fabrics from New York.

Do not laugh on Sundays

The letters show that Kate DeRosset, one of the children of Armand and Eliza, suffered from postpartum depression after each of her six pregnancies. Three of her children passed away at a young age. One of them succumbed to whooping cough, one to diphtheria, and one drowned during a fishing trip with friends.

“And yet, Kate felt that her children died because of her own sinfulness.”

Soon after the death of the third child, she lost her husband in the Civil War.

“The cycle of loss and depression severely traumatised Kate, who did not receive any treatment for her condition,” Koivusalo says.

When her three boys who had avoided disease and accident left for boarding school, Kate began maniacally writing letters to them. She was constantly worried about them doing something that might in any way be considered a sin.

“Never laugh on Sundays,” Kate wrote to ensure that at least the remaining boys would not be wrested away from their mother on account of sin.

Mourning rituals

Norms and the demands of custom can be observed clearly in Koivusalo’s data. When a close relative or friend passed away, the gravestone, the flowers, and the funeral ceremony had to fit a specific standard, and loved ones had to visit the grave regularly and publicly for mourning for an appropriate time.

“All human communities have their emotional codes of conduct and notions of how emotions should be expressed,” Koivusalo says.

“To receive approval, we have to express certain emotions in certain situations.”

Dressing appropriately when in mourning was important in the 19th-century South. Some people would even wear ornaments made of the hair of the deceased. Family members and friends were expected to write letters of condolence in a specific style.

According to Koivusalo, routines usually alleviate anxiety. At the same time, strict norms caused suffering to those who were unable or unwilling to follow them for some reason.

“One of the subjects of my study was overcome with grief when he could not afford the kind of tombstone for his wife that he thought was appropriate.”

Emotional norms and the ways they are controlled play a key role in communities. However, the margin for being human may be ruthlessly narrow.

The article has been published in Finnish in the 7/2021 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.

Research with a monthly salary

In her doctoral thesis, Anna Koivusalo discussed the Southern concept of honour and studied James Chesnut, a politician from South Carolina who gave the orders that led to the first shots of the Civil War. The thesis, completed in 2017, received praise, but also a significant acknowledgment.

By the decision of Hanna Snellman, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the time, a small number of junior researchers whose doctoral theses were particularly remarkable were hired through a recruitment procedure for a three-year term to initiate their next research projects. Koivusalo was one of the recruits.

“During my employment, I had the chance to consider and develop my topic and look for suitable material without urgency. This is incredibly valuable and rare for researchers,” Koivusalo says.