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"The Negro and the Criminal Law"; chapter 6 of The Plantation Negro as Freeman by Philip Alexander Bruce (1889)

In "The Negro and the Criminal Law," chapter 6 of The Plantation Negro as Freeman: Observations on His Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia, published in 1889, the historian Philip Alexander Bruce defends lynching argues that African Americans are inherently prone to criminality.

Transcription from Original



When we observe the negroes as a mass, we find that they violate the principal clauses of the Criminal Code less often than we would be led to expect at first; but it is not a ground of surprise when we have obtained an insight into the general character of the individuals of the race. It is true that they are very impulsive, this being perhaps the most prominent trait of their disposition; but they rarely become desperate and turbulent by the force of the most vehement passion, except when under the dominion of an ardent physical appetite. One of the most remarkable of their peculiarities is, that they have little capacity for receiving a profound impression, although the circumstances surrounding them may seem to be such as to create it inevitably. If such an impression is ever made, it is soon obliterated. Their ideas change as rapidly and unaccountably as their emotions. They do not continue long enough in one state of mind, however intense at the moment, for it to color their behavior for any length of time. Unless, therefore, they act at once when under the influence of the passing anger which sometimes sways them so violently when they happen to have cause for the warmest resentment, they are not apt to act at all, so quickly is their exasperation of feeling dissipated; but while it lasts, they do not shrink from perpetrating any crime, however heinous,

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or however easily detected. It is in this humor and under such pressure as this, that nearly all the gross violations of law that are brought home to them are committed. Their power of mental concentration is not sufficient to ensure the steadiness and constancy that are necessary to the success of a malicious purpose that has to be executed with deliberation; in other words, they lack the ability to carry out a criminal design with skill and foresight, simply because they are wanting in the qualities of subtlety, prudence and steadfastness. Oddly as it may sound, the absence of a resolute and scheming vindictiveness in the character of the negro is one of the most convincing indications of his moral feebleness, since that absence, in his instance, is not due to generosity and magnanimity, but to fickleness and instability. It should not be forgotten, too, that his usual temper is mild and easy, reflecting in its brightness and cheerfulness the sunny climate of his primitive continent. The courage of his race, if that race had been great, would have sunk into a sinister moodiness beneath the burden of sorrow and humiliation that weighed it down for centuries, without any prospect of relief. How swiftly under those cruel strokes of fortune a people less pliant or less servile would have disappeared from the family of mankind! There is no chapter in history more pathetic than that which records the rapid extinction of the West Indian aborigines under the harsh and exacting tyranny of their Spanish taskmasters. The negroes, on the contrary, emerged from the darkness of an institution that deprived them of the chief privileges of life, with the original sprightliness and joyousness of their nature undiminished. They are to-day in full possession of all those social qualities that

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distinguished their remote ancestors, and which have remained unmodified in the race at every subsequent period in spite of the vicissitudes through which it has passed. Among these qualities the most conspicuous still, is a careless and thoughtless good-humor, which, however, can harden into a barbarous cruelty occasionally.

There is another quality which is still more influential in preventing the negro from giving extreme expression to his malicious emotions, namely, his timidity; as a rule, he is destitute of that manly force of mind which would stimulate him to press forward in a hazardous enterprise without a confusing apprehension of contemporary peril, or that would cause him to meet the shock of that peril, when it comes, with rational firmness. As long as he knows that it is not an immediate accompaniment of an adventure, he is not reluctant to engage in it, for his understanding has little prospective scope. It is a present and not a future risk and jeopardy that he fears. His sensitiveness to danger in one form, as in the commission of a burglary, for example, must, however, be carefully discriminated from his indifference to it in another, as, for instance, in riding an unbroken colt; his nervous organization seems to be such that all of his sensations of physical pain are dull, and his imagination shows a corresponding heaviness and stolidity, when he is placed in ordinary situations that are likely to result in suffering to himself. It is not the probability of being maimed or killed that disheartens him so much even in a burglarious attempt; it is rather the uncertainty as to the exact character of the peril which he is confronting, and the moment it may work him harm. Here, too, he has human intelligence and not brute in-

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stinct to contend with; and the darkness surrounding him shakes his resolution by magnifying his terrors.

If the presumption of the negro, when he is disposed to be aggressive in his bearing, is met in a spirit that is prepared, on the instant, to retaliate, he shrinks back with the greatest anxiety for his own safety. And yet the same negro would not hesitate to mount an untamed horse that would dash him to the ground if it could weaken his seat on its back; and he displays like insensibility when he ascends the scaffold and beholds the awful instruments that are to consummate his impending doom. His eyes are as clear, his hands as steady, and his voice as free from tremor as if he belonged to the mass of disinterested spectators present, instead of being the central figure of the occasion, and, as such, standing upon the edge of the yawning abyss of eternity. There would be an element of sublimity in his patience and serenity here, if these did not have their origin in apathy. He discloses the same obtuseness everywhere else, unless the danger to which he is exposed proceeds directly from the inimical acts of persons. It is largely this fear of a personal conflict that restrains the plantation negro from perpetrating more atrocious crimes than he does, for, amiable as he is, there is a latent ferocity in his nature. That indifference to the suffering of others, which so often causes him, even when unprovoked, to lash his oxen without pity, to kick and maim his faithful dog, and to reprove or strike his children with improper roughness, would be shown still more plainly if he could act under all circumstances with the license of absolute despotism. As he has generally few scruples and little power of self-control, it would be difficult to predict what would be the limit of his excesses when his anger

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was thoroughly aroused. This is foreshadowed in the character of the requests which he makes of the trick doctors when he seeks the aid of the latter in carrying out his schemes of vengeance; death is one of the many forms of injury which he desires to inflict through the secret agency of the fatal charms and potions of these trusted and influential impostors.

Entering into a more particularized examination of the criminal record of the blacks, we find that the greater number of the brawls in which individuals of their race are involved among themselves have their incentive in the vehement passions aroused by heated disputes as to proprietorship in women. This is the point of contention which is most frequently raised, and at times it is only settled by a resort to violence as desperate as it is impetuous; in the struggle no quarter is expected or allowed, and it is only terminated by the hasty retirement or the complete disablement of one of the parties. The final scenes of drunken frolics, too, are often stained with blood, but excepting instances of this kind, in which the negroes are spurred on by their appetites, their quarrels are rarely sanguinary, however licentious the verbal expression given to them. The weapon employed in these frantic assaults is occasionally the razor,1 which they can wield with a skill and precision as fatal to its victim as it is appalling in the mere physical aspect of the slashing done. They sometimes carry this instrument about their persons unobserved, whipping it out on the most unexpected occasions; it being an admirable means of attack or defence, because it combines the

1 The razor is used as a weapon by the negroes far oftener in the towns and villages, or along lines of railway, than in the secluded rural districts.

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highest effectiveness with the greatest convenience, since it is readily hidden in a small space in the clothing. A sheath-knife is too large to conceal thus, and too awkward to stick in the belt; above all, its appearance is so dangerous that it throws its owner himself into a fright. The aspect of a pistol is still more formidable; it is prudently eschewed for that reason, and properly so, for the negroes, being thoughtless and heedless, are in far more danger of shooting themselves accidentally when they carry such firearms than of implanting a bullet in their adversary. The razor is terrible in execution, but, nevertheless, excites no instinctive apprehension for their lives in the persons handling it.

The negro is not disposed to have affrays with members of the other race, his natural peaceableness being increased in his association with white men by that restraining spirit of subserviency to them which still lingers in his heart. This is disclosed in the fact that it is very rare that he seeks to kill a white man by an open and direct assault. When such a man is murdered, it is, as a rule, the result of a sudden scheme on the part of two or three negroes for the purpose of securing money which they know to be secreted about his person, and the deed is always committed with a degree of atrocity that is unsurpassed in the criminal annals of any country. Even here the negligent character of the race is curiously apparent. The guilty companions do not attempt to remove the various traces of their crime; the act is committed with awkward but relentless coolness and ferocity, the booty is collected, and then the spot is deserted, being left with every evidence of the fatal struggle, including the corpse itself, to bear silent testimony to the awful details of the tragedy of which it has recently been the

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scene. They do not even endeavor to escape from the neighborhood afterwards, or to take any precaution that will avert suspicion from themselves as the perpetrators of the crime; on the contrary, they often boldly display articles which they acquired by it, which inevitably implicate them. The final detection of the parties to such crime is always assured, not only because there are so many clues that set the officers upon the proper track, but also because the parties generally confess, in their terror, the moment that they are accused. The total amount of money obtained by most of these murderers for pecuniary gain, is so small a sum that it is surprising that they should run even the risks of ordinary robbery to get possession of it.

Rape is the most frightful crime which the negroes commit against the white people, and their disposition to perpetrate it has increased in spite of the quick and summary punishment that always follows; and it will be seen that this disposition will grow in proportion as that vague respect which the blacks still entertain for a white skin declines. There is something strangely alluring and seductive to them in the appearance of a white woman; they are aroused and stimulated by its foreignness to their experience of sexual pleasures, and it moves them to gratify their lust at any cost and in spite of every obstacle. This proneness of the negro is so well understood that the white women of every class, from the highest to the lowest, are afraid to venture to any distance alone, or even to wander unprotected in the immediate vicinity of their homes; their appreciation of the danger being as keen, and their apprehension of corporal injury as vivid, as if the country were in arms. If it were not for this prudence and caution on their part, as well as the capital punishment that ensues so swiftly, this

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crime would be far more frequent than it is. It occurs often enough, however, to inflame the aversion of the white people to the race to a heat that leaves a permanent impression upon their general relations with its members; and not unnaturally, for rape, indescribably beastly and loathsome always, is marked, in the instance of its perpetration by a negro, by a diabolical persistence and a malignant atrocity of detail that have no reflection in the whole extent of the natural history of the most bestial and ferocious animals. He is not content merely with the consummation of his purpose, but takes that fiendish delight in the degradation of his victim which he always shows when he can reek his vengeance upon one whom he has hitherto been compelled to fear; and, here, the white woman in his power is, for the time being, the representative of that race which has always overawed him. That this feeling enters largely into the motive of this crime is proven by the fact that he is guilty of it as often against women who are very much advanced in years as against those who have not passed the period of their youth. His invariable impulse after the accomplishment of his purpose is to murder his victim, that being the only means suggested to his mind of escaping the consequence of the act, and this impulse is carried into effect with the utmost barbarity, unless he is accidently interrupted and frightened off.

The average plantation negro does not consider rape to be a very heinous crime. He is so accustomed to the wantonness of the women of his own race that it is not strange that his intellect, having no perception of personal dignity or the pangs of outraged feeling, should be unable to gauge the terrible character of this offense against the integrity of virtuous womanhood, even apart

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from the cruel wrong of associating it in such a way with manhood that is most vile, brutal, and depraved. The rape of a negress by a male of her own color is almost unheard of, a fact that is a strong proof of the sexual laxness of the plantation women as a class; for if they attached any importance to sexual purity, and strenuously resisted all improper encroachment upon it, the criminal records of the negro men would contain details of many such assaults. As it is, their careers are comparatively unblemished in this respect.

The poisoning of persons is not a common crime among the blacks, perhaps because it is difficult to obtain the proper substance, there being no noxious herbs in the local botany from which they can distil what they need, and at the country stores only the coarsest articles for the purpose can be purchased. In the instances of poisoning that occur a female domestic servant is often the principal party implicated, because she frequently has access to medicines that are deadly if administered in large quantities, however harmless when the doses are small, and she would not hesitate to use these against master or mistress, or their children, or against individuals of her own race, if she had a fierce impulse of revenge or resentment to gratify. The plantation laborers, on the other hand, generally make use of the torch if they wish to vent the force of their anger to the detriment of their employer for having offended them. It is rare that they go so far as to set fire to the dwelling in which he lives, but in the privacy of darkness the skulking incendiaries will enkindle a flame beneath his barns and cribs, in which the crops of a whole year may be stowed away, which soon reduces them and their valuable contents to ashes. So much fear has the planter of this

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outrage being committed, and so apprehensive is he of the resulting pecuniary loss, that he discharges his employés with reluctance, although his reasons for doing so may be imperative, and he seeks as far as he can to allay the exasperation which they may feel when dismissed. He is very much influenced, for the same reason, to avoid all vehement contention with them that would be likely to arouse permanent irritation.

It is remarkable how slow the negroes are to enter, with burglarious intent, the premises occupied by the planter and his family as a residence. They are governed here by various feelings. In the first place, they still have that traditional fear of a white man, to which allusion has already been made; in the second, they lack not only the fortitude, but also the ingenuity that is necessary to carry out a complicated and perilous enterprise. Even if they were to stiffen their courage to the point of making the venture, they could be easily frightened off. A small but loud barking dog would throw their best-laid plan into such confusion that they would probably find it impossible to rally to its accomplishment. The planter, therefore, is not inclined to anticipate that his laborers, or those of his neighbors, will break into his house at night, if he has taken the ordinary precautions against such an intrusion. It must not be forgotten that his own employés look upon the precincts of his dwelling as sacred; even if they entered it on a legitimate errand during the day, they would be very ill at ease there, and so whimsical is the temper of the race, that their courage would be dashed merely by the certainty of feeling equally as uncomfortable if they broke in for a criminal-purpose after darkness had fallen. They recognize, too, that it would be difficult for them to dispose of any valuable article found there, for to

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offer such an article for sale in the isolated country-sides would be to expose themselves to suspicion and, in the end, to detection. They have no confederates in town to whom they can forward their booty, and if they were bold enough to use or enjoy it in their daily life, the eye of their employer would discover at once their connection with the crime from which he had suffered,

The most confirmed criminal habit of the plantation negro is petit larceny; this infirmity is so common that there are comparatively few individuals of his race and condition who will not yield to the temptation to take what does not belong to them. An opportunity to filch is generally turned to profitable account, unless the risk of detection is imminent, and even then this risk is usually ignored if the object that excites the thievish itch is something that will satisfy a physical craving. This disposition to pilfer is confined, as a rule, to those articles that gratify the appetites, for the aesthetic sense of the negro is so rude that it does not occur to him to purloin property simply because it is beautiful. This is illustrated in the instance of the house servant: he can be trusted to go alone into those parts of the dwelling where the most expensive articles of adornment and ornamentation are preserved, but to admit him without supervision into the room where the groceries are stored, is to put him in a situation in which he can rarely resist abstracting as much as he can conceal about his person. Such costly articles as china or silver can be left to him with much more safety than the keys to the housekeeper's department.1 The same trait is detected in the

1 In the first place, because the abstraction of china and silver would be at once detected, and be more severely punished. In the second place, such valuable articles cannot be disposed of in the rural districts. Their beauty, however, constitutes no element of temptation.

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laborer: he is not inclined to break into the precincts of his employer's residence, or even into the various divisions of the plantation store, although it contains much that he desires to possess ; it is the watermelon patch, the kitchen-garden, the orchard, the corn pile, the meat house, that are in most danger of his obtrusive fingers. The prospect of these being rifled is constant enough to require a permanent guard for their protection.

So well is this propensity known, that the negroes are not permitted by the planter for whom they may be working to fatten more than two hogs apiece each season. Even two are allowed them with reluctance, because they are provoked to supply these animals with food from the fields of growing corn, the ears being pulled under the cover of darkness, and the deficiency being left to disclose itself in the late autumn when the grain is harvested. As it is, the laborers are tempted, at the proper season for penning pigs, to rob the range of shoats to avoid incurring the expense of purchasing them. When that season arrives, the number of pigs running at large is always very seriously diminished ; and in their capture the rogues must display considerable skill and ingenuity, for they are rarely discovered in the act.

The planters are very much opposed to the owners of the country stores receiving corn in liquidation of debts, as their laborers are stimulated to break into the cribs and barns in order to obtain the grain, with a view to turning it over to the storekeepers, and thus getting a new lease of credit for themselves; and so strong and emphatic is public sentiment in this respect, that the country merchant who would defy it, would be looked upon as a public enemy, and his custom would fall off in consequence.

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The improvidence, as well as the thievishness of the negro is shown in his disposition to steal the rails of the fences that are situated conveniently to his cabin, the seasoned wood, when ignited, affording him that warmth and brilliant light in which he likes to bask. He will not scruple to cut up the most valuable plank for this purpose, or even to tear the dry weather-boarding from his own dwelling, the mere waste which he thus creates being passed over without a thought.

A few of the planters, considering it impossible to restrain the thievishness of their laborers, seek to break its force by entering into a formal agreement with them, that all shall be responsible in pecuniary damages for whatever loss may result from the larcenies of any one; but the negroes naturally regard this as a harsh and exacting condition, as it involves the innocent with the guilty. Occasionally a planter is found who is stoical and philosophical enough to ignore the thievish acts of his employés, the pecuniary damage entailed being accepted by him as an inevitable part of his debit account, for which he makes the proper pecuniary allowance when he is reckoning his expenses, his irritation venting itself only in a shrug of the shoulder or a muttered imprecation. Many of these petty rogues when discovered slink off the plantation, not because their personal relations with their fellow-laborers become strained and uncomfortable in consequence of the exposure of their guilt, but because they are ashamed to confront their employer, a proof that they are conscious of the impropriety of their behavior. So well aware is that employer and his overseer of this, that they will sometimes pretend to be blind to a theft that is being perpetrated directly under their eyes, if the rogue is a

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vigorous and industrious hand. To accuse him on the spot is to frighten him into a hasty departure for unknown parts; to arrest him would occasion a degree of trouble and annoyance that would be out of proportion to the character of the offense; and to dismiss him would be to create the necessity of hiring another laborer, who would be as easily seduced when tempted to pilfer. Moreover, it would be to expose the inflammable property of the plantation to the torch of a revengeful incendiary.

The public sentiment prevailing among the blacks with respect to the criminal acts of a member of their own race is generally healthy, if the injury inflicted by him falls on one of themselves. Thus they are, as a rule, very much aroused if one negro is slain by another, under aggravated circumstances, and they condemn the murderer with as much severity as the white people ; but as they retain no mental impressions for any length of time, their anger and hostility soon subside into comparative obliviousness of the deed. This is also true of their feeling with respect to crimes that are much less heinous and atrocious. There is no public opinion among them, however, that uncompromisingly reprobates an individual of their own color who is guilty of a violation of the law, however gross, from which white people alone suffer. Even a capital offense like murder or rape, of which a white man or woman has been the victim, awakens no overwhelming horror in their breasts, by the mere force of a common humanity. The shock which information of such a crime produces is not one of spontaneous indignation; and if such a shock is experienced at all, it soon declines into a disinterested curiosity. So far from always wishing to assist

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in the arrest of any one of their fellows, who has made himself liable to punishment by an act of incendiarism or burglary, which has resulted in a very serious pecuniary damage to a white proprietor, they often seek by every secret means to aid him to escape. Instead of showing disapproval of his crime, by an attitude of eagerness to prevent him from getting away, they frequently become active accessories to it, after the fact, by their anxiety to forward his deliverance from danger. A curious freemasonry obtains among them, under these circumstances, which is voluntarily and passionately sustained by a whole community of plantation negroes, uniting them, old and young alike, in a conspiracy to protect the criminal, by throwing his pursuers off the scent. The great mass is never so plainly observed to be influenced by a common impulse as in such a juncture as this. No political felon in a conquered country, whose boldness has endeared him to the hearts of his people, but exposed him to imprisonment at the hands of the alien authorities, was ever silently and surreptitiously befriended with more ardor than such a burglar or incendiary thus out of the pale of the law, who throws himself upon the good offices of his race. In the instance of an offense like petit larceny, the negroes occasionally show openly the sympathy that they feel for any one of their companions whose guilty part in it has been proven. They certainly do not always avoid him as a man who has sunk to a low point of shame and degradation; on the contrary, they sometimes conduct themselves towards him as if they thought that he had been dealt with harshly, and was therefore entitled to their pity, his only fault, apparently, being that he was so unfortunate or so awkward as to be discovered. There can

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be no hope of any improvement in their public sentiment with respect to this, their most common violation of the law, until there has been an accumulation of property among them. As they acquire valuable articles of various kinds, they will be more solicitous that the rights of ownership shall be strictly respected, and such a wholesome opinion as this, brought into play among the members of the best class by the mere force of utility and selfishness, may permeate in time to those of the worst, and thus influence the general body to look upon larceny as inexcusable. As to the sentiment relative to such crimes as murder, rape, and arson, there can be no prospect of an advance until the moral tone of the whole race has been elevated, if time shall show that it is capable of being elevated.