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A Plantation Mistress Decries a "Monstrous System"

Mary Boykin Chestnut was the wife of a wealthy South Carolina planter who kept a diary during the Civil War. Published long after the war, the diary included many insightful and pointed criticisms of slavery, such as this passage, in which she calls the institution "a monstrous system...a wrong and an inequity." Like Harriet Jacobs, Chestnut takes particular offense at the sexual dynamic produced by slavery, in which slave women must endure a system of forced prostitution, and the wives of slaveowners live in a state of denial about the patriarchy of the "mulatto children [who] ... she seems to think, drop from the clouds."

Under slavery, we live surrounded by prostitutes, yet an abandoned woman is sent out of any decent house. Who thinks any worse of a Negro or mulatto woman for being a thing we can’t name? God, forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an inequity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattos ones sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds. My disgust sometimes is boiling over. Thank God for my country women, but alas for the men! They are probably no worse than man everywhere, but the lower the mistresses, the more degraded they must be.

Source | Mary Boykin Chestnut, edited by C. Vann Woodward, Mary Chestnut's Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 29.
Creator | Mary Boykin Chestnut
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Mary Boykin Chestnut, “A Plantation Mistress Decries a "Monstrous System",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 30, 2023,

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