On injured characters and hearts

by look i have opinions

An essay in The Millions persuaded me to read Domestic Manners of the Americans (on Gutenberg.org), an 1832 travel memoir by an Englishwoman, mainly for this riveting passage:

“In all ranks, […] it appeared to me that the greatest and best feelings of the human heart were paralyzed by the relative positions of slave and owner. The characters, the hearts of children, are irretrievably injured by it. In Virginia we boarded for some time in a family consisting of a widow and her four daughters, and I there witnessed a scene strongly indicative of the effect I have mentioned. A young female slave, about eight years of age, had found on the shelf of a cupboard a biscuit, temptingly buttered, of which she had eaten a considerable portion before she was observed. The butter had been copiously sprinkled with arsenic for the destruction of rats, and had been thus most incautiously placed by one of the young ladies of the family. […]

“The little slave was laid on a bed, and I returned to my own apartments; some time afterwards I sent to enquire for her, and learnt that she was in great pain. I immediately went myself to enquire farther, when another young lady of the family, the one by whose imprudence the accident had occurred, met my anxious enquiries with ill-suppressed mirth—told me they had sent for the doctor—and then burst into uncontrollable laughter. The idea of really sympathising in the sufferings of a slave appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered by the butcher.”

I find this fascinating and strangely hopeful. To a great extent, compassion is a product of environment. If a slave-owning society can destroy one person’s compassion for another so easily and so completely, imagine what a better society could do.

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