If slavery was a contentious issue in the United States during the years leading up to the Civil War, it was also big business. According to the 1860 United States Census, there were nearly four million slaves across the entire country and the growing Abolitionist pressure made slaveowners increasingly paranoid. Despite landmark Supreme Court cases such as the Dred Scott decision, the Underground Railroad provided a means for escaping slaves to flee to Canada where slavery had been abolished. Since slaves often resented the harsh and inhumane treatment they received, rebellions and disobedience were common problems for slaveowners. Also, as slaves were considered valuable property, punishments that led to slaves being left unable to work were avoided where possible.
Public whippings were a common sight and many misbehaving field slaves were required to wear metal collars (often with spikes). Laws protecting slaves were weak at best and only sporadically enforced. It was typically left up to each slaveowner to set whatever punishments they deemed suitable. This often meant that considerable latitude was allowed and slaves often died from the harsh treatment they received (usually in front of other slaves to "set an example"). It hardly seems surprising that the stereotype of the vicious Southern slaveowner only helped support the Abolitionist movement. The character of Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, came to be seen as representing Southerners as a whole (despite Legree being a displaced Northerner in the book). As the Southern states became increasingly isolated, the problem of dealing with disobedient and escaping slaves took some surprising directions.
As a prominent medical doctor who studied under Benjamin Rush, Samuel A. Cartwright was certainly considered a credible authority on the subject of disease. Practicing across many of the southern states, he finally settled in New Orleans in 1858. After examining numerous cases of runaway slaves, Dr. Cartwright concluded that the cause of this "rascality" in slaves was biological in nature. In describing what he felt to be a disease affecting slaves of African descent ("the Negro race"), Cartwright coined the term "drapetomania" which he took from the Greek word "drapetes" (a runaway slave). When he first presented this proposed medical condition in a paper delivered to the Medical Association of Louisiana in 1851, Cartwright characterized it as being caused by masters who "made themselves too familiar with slaves, treating them as equals".
Since the Bible called on slaves to be submissive to their masters, Cartwright viewed obedience as being the natural state for slaves. He stressed that "If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away." For extreme cases, he advocated the surgical amputation of some, or all, of the escaped slave's toes to prevent further escape attempts.
Drapetomania was presented as a form of "mental alienation" that put it on par with other recognized mental disorders of the time - although the treatment was very different. Cartwright advocated the use of "whipping the devil out of them" as a "preventive measure" for slaves who were seen as being a high risk for escaping. For other health problems affecting slaves, including pneumonia, Cartwright insisted that they only affected "bad, vicious, ungovernable negroes" who, presumably, brought their poor health on themselves by failing to abide by their master's orders. He was also a firm believer in the superiority of the slave system to all other economic systems based on heavy labour. In visiting Europe in 1832, Cartwright commented that European peasants were far less efficient and "slowly motioned" than the slaves back home. He also condemned the peasants for their laziness stating that "the only active persons I have seen are the waiters and servants about hotels" (you have to hope that he tipped them properly at least).
While he viewed slaves as being necessary, Samuel Cartwright had little regard for their natural intelligence. In discussing the mental and physical sluggishness of slaves, Cartwright dismissed concerns about poor diet. Instead, he attributed it to insufficient air to the brain which resulted in a "hebetude (blunting) of mind and body". His term for this was Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, a condition which he felt was unique to "the Negro race". Along with mental stunting, the condition could be identified by "lesions of the body discoverable by the medical observer which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms". Treatment for this disease included having the patient "well washed with warm water and soap; then to anoint it all over with oil, and to slap the oil with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work". After receiving the proper treatment, the slave would "look grateful and thankful to the white man whose compulsory power ... has restored his sensation and dispelled the mist that clouded his intellect."
Samuel Cartwright was also lyrical about the other perceived shortcomings of African slaves. He dismissed the music that slaves enjoyed stating that "there is nothing in the slave's music addressing the understanding; it has melody but no harmony; his songs are mere sounds without sense or meaning". It was Cartwright's belief that all children were white at birth and that racial differences only became apparent in later infancy.
There seems little indication that Cartwright's views were taken seriously by physicians outside the Southern states and he came under considerable criticism by his medical colleagues. Wihin months of his 1851 article on drapetomania in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, a spirited rebuttal was published in that same journal. The author of the rebuttal, Dr. James Smith, argued against Cartwright's use of a fancy-sounding disease label to pathologise unwanted behaviours (in this case, escaping slaves). Cartwright's supporters defended his views by citing research taken from the 1840 census which suggested that mental impairment and insanity were also common among Negroes in Northern states as well. While skeptics were quick to point out that the available data was decidedly biased, Cartwright's racist theories served their purpose and received strong support from his fellow slaveowners.
While Samuel Cartwright never lived to see slavery abolished (he died in 1862), his racist views continued to influence political and social attitudes long after his death. Pseudoscientific evidence was frequently used to justify the passage of "Jim Crow" laws supporting racial segregation well into the 20th century. The growth of the eugenics movement, spurred on by erroneous beliefs about genetics, craniometry, and, eventually, intelligence testing added to the furor surrounding racial superiority as well.
Samuel A. Cartwright was only the beginning...