Slave Runs Away from Harsh Master
In November 1851, a 36-year-old slave by the name of Charles was reported missing. Charles' abrupt disappearance enraged his master, John C. Kerric. On November 22, 1851, Kerric wrote an impassioned letter to his friend, Robert T. Hubard, describing his unfortunate situation. Kerric explained that Charles ran away and was purchased by a plantation owner on the "other side of the mountain." He questioned the legality of this man's purchase and asked Hubard to seek legal advice on the situation from a presumed lawyer and friend, Benjamin Graham. Also, Kerric sought to defend his social standing as a good master, proclaiming that he had established a decent house for his slaves and could not understand why Charles ran away.
After receiving Kerric's letter, Robert Hubard immediately initiated correspondence with lawyer Benjamin Graham. In his reply, Graham spoke first of the legal ramifications associated with the purchase of a runaway slave. Graham declared that a man's slave is his property for life, so Kerric still legally owned Charles. Graham also argued, however, that he understood why Charles had run away, explaining that Kerric was a "cruel and harsh" master. Even more, Graham defended the plantation owner who purchased Charles, complimenting his "good plantation and content workers." Hubard relayed the lawyer's message to Kerric, and Kerric decided it would be best to sell Charles and end his trouble.
During the years preceding emancipation, planter society highly valued the ideal of paternalism. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, "paternalism is the belief in a sense of stewardship, where some men are divinely appointed to be the guardians of others, justifying slavery as a positive good." The ideals of paternalism instructed masters to treat their slaves as a father would treat his child. Paternalism instigated a system of mutual obligation between slave and master; where slaves who were treated well were expected to act obediently. Most southern planters reasoned that in caring for slaves, in leading them out of barbarism, they were fulfilling God's will.
The correspondence between John Kerric, Robert Hubard, and lawyer Benjamin Graham illuminates many of the fundamental principles of paternalism. Drew Faust explains that paternalism was a social response to the South's obsessive fear of slave insurgency, seeking to control blacks as individuals and a race. The fear of slave insurgency, as in Kerric's situation, motivated many planters to take an interest in their slaves' well being. In the eyes of Kerric's community, his misfortune was warranted because he treated his slave harshly. The letters also illustrate that men who exercised paternalism were granted a certain level of respect. In his letter to Hubard, Kerric expressed deep fear that neighboring planters would cruelly criticize and judge him because of his slave's disappearance. Graham heightened this point by complimenting Charles' new master for his "good plantation and content workers;" insinuating that he might have been a better fit master than Kerric. Overall, paternalism provided an ideological and emotional context in terms of which individuals approached slavery and within which they legitimated their consequent social actions.