Bertram Korn on the Jewish Slave Trade

All quotes are from Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South by rabbi Bertram Korn published by the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in 1961.

Very few Jews spoke out against slavery

Jews participated in every aspect and process of the exploitation of the defenseless blacks. (p34)

Slave-dealing obviously did not disqualify Jews from receiving the friendship and esteem of their co-religionists any more than it disqualified Christians; engaging in business transactions in Negro flesh was not regarded as incompatible with being a good Jew. (43)

The largest Jewish slave-trading firm in the South seems to have been the Davis family of Petersburg and Richmond, including Ansley, Benjamin, George, and Solomon.” They were the only Jews mentioned by Harriett Beecher Stowe in her little-known commentary, “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Mrs. Stowe quotes a letter by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, referring to them:

“The Davises, in Petersburg, are the great slave-traders. They are Jews, came to that place many years ago as poor peddlers . . . These men are always in the market, giving the highest price for slaves. During the summer and fall they buy them up at low prices, trim, shave, wash them, fatten them so that they may look sleek, and sell them to great profit.” (47)

Chapter 8, Opinions of Jews About Slavery

Page 57:

This study has thus far traced a pattern of almost complete conformity to the slave society of the Old South on the part of its Jewish citizens. They participated in the buying, owning, and selling of slaves, and the exploitation of their labor, along with their neighbors. The behavior of Jews towards slaves seems to have been indistinguishable from that of their non-Jewish friends.

No Jewish political figure of the Old South ever expressed any reservations about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the Southern position. Men like David Levy Yulee of Florida and David S. Kaufman of Texas were typical exponents of Southern views on states’ rights and the spread of slavery.

Pages 59-63:

Nor was there anyone among the many Jewish journalists, writers, and publicists of the Old South who questioned the moral, political, or economic justice of slavery. Jacob De Cordova, the Texas real-estate promoter, newspaper editor and geographer, emphatically denied charges that he had given voice to “free-soil doctrines” during his 1858 lecture tour in the North, and “wish[ed] it distinctly understood that our feelings and education have always been pro-slavery.” Isaac Harby, the Charleston dramatist and political essayist, was writing in Charleston in opposition to “the abolitionist society and its secret branches,” as early as 1824. Jacob N. Cardozo, the editor and political economist, asserted that slavery was defensible both economically and morally. In the former respect, he maintained that

“Slavery brought not only great wealth to the South, but to the slaves a greater share of its enjoyment that in many regions where the relation between employer and employee was based on wages.”

In regard to the ethical question, he placed the responsibility squarely on the Deity: “The reason the Almighty made the colored black is to prove their inferiority.” After the Civil War, in his well- known Reminiscences of Charleston, Cardozo expressed his sympathy with the planters who were now suffering great privation:

“The owner of two hundred to five hundred slaves, with a princely income, has not only to submit to the most degraded employments, but he frequently cannot obtain them. In some instances, he has to drive a cart, or attend a retail grocery, while he may have to obey the orders of an ignorant and course menial. There is something unnatural in this reverse of position — something revolting to my sense of propriety in this social degradation.”‘

Edwin De Odeon, the journalist and Confederate diplomat, devoted many pages of his reminiscences to an extended apologia for slavery. His brother, Thomas Cooper De Leon, one of the most prolific Southern litterateurs of the second half of the nineteenth century, wrote many novels and other works in the Southern romantic style of which he was a major practitioner. In one of his most famous works, Belles, Peaux and Brains of the Confederacy, De Leon described all talk of cruelty in the slave system as propaganda and mythology; he underlined the fact that Harriett Beecher Stowe was compelled to ascribe a Yankee origin to her famous character, Simon Legree. Samuel Mordecai, the bachelor journalist of Richmond, derived part of his income from his articles in Edmund Ruffin’s The Farmer’s Register, a journal devoted primarily to the interests of Southern employers of slave labor forces. Mordecai loved everything about old Virginia, and wrote tenderly of the old colored aristocracy, in his Richmond in By-Gone-Days. He too regarded slavery as a natural and desirable condition of society.

Even in the days of the secession crisis, and the subsequent prolongated war and eventual defeat, many Southern Jews believed slavery to be indispensable to their happiness and security. George W. Mordecai, born a Jew but now an Episcopalian banker, railroad executive, and plantation owner in North Carolina, wrote to a Northern Republican in Dec 1860:

“I would much sooner trust myself alone on my plantation surrounded by my slaves, than in one of your large manufacturing towns when your laborers are discharged from employment and crying aloud for bread for themselves and their little ones.”

In 1864, Private Eugene Henry Levy of the Confederate Army objected to the radical suggestion that Negroes be utilized in the war effort and be freed for this assistance. “The slaves,” he said, “are in their proper sphere as they are at present situated within the boundaries of the Confederacy.”

After the war was over, some Southern Jews still believed that slavery had been a necessary foundation of human society. Eleanor H. Cohen, the daughter of Dr. Philip Melvin Cohen of Charleston, said in the innocent selfishness of young maidenhood:

“I, who believe in the institution of slavery, regret deeply its being abolished. I am accustomed to have them wait on me, and I dislike white servants very much.”

Perhaps no more concise and self-deceptive rationalization of slavery was ever written than the observations which were recorded by Solomon Cohen, the distinguished civic leader and merchant of Savannah, who had lost a son in the war, in a letter which he wrote to his sister-in-law, Emma Mordecai, shortly after the end of the war:

“I believe that the institution of slavery was refining and civilizing to the whites — giving them an elevation of sentiment and ease and dignity of manners only attainable in societies under the restraining influence of a privileged class — and at the same time the only human institution that could elevate the Negro from barbarism and develop the small amount of intellect with which he is endowed.”

Such sentiments might well be expected of members of families long resident in the South and thoroughly acclimated to its habits and assumptions. The De Leon’s, Mordecai’s, and Cardozo’s had lived with their neighbors long enough to share their ideas and attitudes. But what of the newly immigrant German Jews who came to the South in increasing numbers beginning in the 1840’s? There is no evidence that they found it very difficult to adjust to the slave society of which they became a part. Julius Weis, of New Orleans, who came to the United States in 1845, recorded his shock at his first sight of a Negro

“being whipped upon his bare back by an overseer. The right of a human being punished in this manner was very repugnant to me, though living in the midst of a country where slavery existed. I afterwards got somewhat accustomed to it, but I always felt a pity for the poor slaves.”

But Weis’ compassion seemed to be limited to this matter of punishment, for he owned several slaves during the period from 1853 to 1857, and bought a Negro barber in 1862. He notes that “I never found it necessary to punish them in such a manner,” but his feeling of pity never led him to adopt a critical attitude toward the entire system of slavery.

Louis Stix of Cincinnati wrote of a German Jewish immigrant to the South who became violent in his pro-slavery opinions. They met at a Jewish boarding-house in New York City; at dinner one night this unidentified Southern Jew said that “Southerners could not live without slavery.” “I replied to this,” wrote Stix, “by a very uncalled-for remark not at all flattering to our race who were living in the South . . . The Southerner . . . drew his pistol to compel me to take back my words . . . I hope [he] has since learned to do without slaves, or has returned to the place from which he came, where he was almost a slave himself.””‘ But such a direct application of logic from Jewish experience in Europe to the situation of the Negroes in the South could only stem from the mind of a Northern Jew; it was never, to my knowledge, expressed in such blunt terms by a Southern Jew. To the contrary, the average Southern Jew would probably have agreed with Aaron Hirsch, who came to the United States in 1847 and worked through Mississippi and Arkansas, and who said that

“the institution of Slavery as it existed in the South was not so great a wrong as people believe. The Negroes were brought here in a savage state; they captured and ate each other in their African home. Here they were instructed to work, were civilized and got religion, and were perfectly happy.”

Some Southern Jews, however, did not deceive themselves into thinking that the Negro slaves were “perfectly happy.” These sensitive spirits were appalled at human exploitation of the life and labor of other human beings. Most of them reacted in a purely personal way, by avoiding the owning of slaves or by helping slaves. Major Alfred Mordecai of the United States Army, reared in the South and brother to planters and defenders of slavery, purchased only one slave in his life, simply to emancipate her. He believed that slavery was “the greatest misfortune and curse that could have befallen us.” Yet he would do nothing to oppose slavery, and when the lines were drawn, he resigned his commission rather than fight for the North, without being willing to take up arms for the South.

In Betram Korn’s other book, The Jews of the Confederacy, Betram quotes Alfred Mordecai, a Jewish army general:

[I have] a sort of repugnance to the Negroes which has increased upon me as I have been less and less associated with them. Therefore, I have never wished to make a home among them. This feeling is, naturally enough, much stronger on the part of my family; we have seldom spoken of it, but I am sure that it would be utterly repugnant to the feelings of my wife and daughters to live among slaves, and if it can be avoided, I should be extremely loathe to oblige them, by residence and habit, to overcome this repugnance, even supposing it possible… I have no doubt that the race is in a better condition here than they are as savages in Africa, or than they would be as free men, from all the experience we have seen. But I never wished to be one of the agents in thus bettering their condition… and I am utterly averse to any participation in the schemes for destroying or weakening the hold of the masters on their slaves, unless they themselves are willing to abandon it. (Korn, The Jews of the Confederacy)

In his letter of March 17, 1861 to brother Samuel, Alfred Mordecai defended slavery as a constitutional right:

it appears to be sufficient to know that at the formation of our government slavery existed all over the land and was expressly protected by the Constitution from being interfered with by any authority but the states themselves; that therefore the people who have retained it are entitled to the enforcement of their constitutional rights with regard to it both in the letter and the spirit. (Korn, The Jews of the Confederacy)

Despite Rabbi Korn’s extensive documentation on the Jewish participation in black slavery in America, Korn appears to be apologetic. He believes that Jews were no different than their white-Gentile counterparts in the way they bought and sold and treated black slaves. Korn believed that because Jews were a small minority of the early American population they were heavily influenced by the customs and behaviors of the host population and they simply engaged in a practice that was widely accepted at the time. Korn like many Jews are self-deceptive. The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews extensively documents, with mainly Jewish sources, that Jews had been involved in all aspects of the Trans-american slave trade and that if it wasn’t for them, the trade slave would like have never happened. Kudos for Korn exposing the Jews in the slave trade, something few other Jews would do. But he needs to go further and not be afraid to uncover who the ringleaders were behind the whole thing.

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