George Featherstonhaugh

George Featherstonhaugh is a racist, no doubt. In his book, he warbles at length about the calm and placid nature of untroubled Negroes, who only revert to savagery when provoked. But it’s because he’s so biased and so biased in a way that should be sympathetic to the likes of Isaac Franklin, that his revulsion at the slave coffles stands out. How gross does it have to be if someone like Featherstonhaugh is “What the fuck is this motherfucking bullshit evil?”

Anyway, I had been struggling to figure out how to write about Isaac Franklin, but I decided to just go with him being a villain and the white people of Nashville as willing to overlook his villainy I cannot tell you how much I want there to be the word “villainry” which would have a slightly different meaning than villainy. Villainy, in my perfect world would be the actions taken by a villain–plunder, rape, burning down houses, befriending cats, etc. “Villainry” would be the act of being or becoming a villain, adopting the persona of a villain. A peerson’s first act of villainry would, therefore, be to go out and do acts of villainy. Because what bothers me is not so much Nashville missing out on Franklin’s acts of villainy. I mean, yes, he kept sex slaves at Fairview and yes, his neighbors knew, and yes, it did not go unnoticed that he shipped one of his sex slaves and her child off from Fairview right before he married Adelicia. But the raping and the leaving dead bodies in the swamp, he mostly did on the road or down in Natchez.

What bothers me is that white Nashville completely missed his villainry–his transformation into a villain. Because his victims were slaves, white Nashville could not see Franklin’s villainy for what it was and thus missed that he was, in fact, becoming a villain.

But think about it this way. Isaac Franklin loved to rape women. We know this from his letters in which he discussed it. We know that he especially loved to rape enslaved women who, by his measure, looked “white.”

No matter how racist you are, no matter how sure you are that people of African descent don’t deserve better than the depravities the white South unleashed on them, when you hear that a white man has such unabashed enthusiasm for raping “white” women, would you marry your white daughter to him?

Oliver Hayes did. He put his daughter in bed with this monster.

7 thoughts on “George Featherstonhaugh

  1. That’s a good word. From my perspective the entire TV series House MD was about the development of villainry in the main character.

  2. Perhaps I’m just too old and cynical, but are you sure white Nashville missed anything? What frightens me is the level of disinterest in other peoples suffering, perhaps especially groups we view as other, that human beings can evince.

  3. Justin, that’s the part that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I think it’s incredibly clear that white Nashville saw the suffering of slaves and were not interested in it. And though I think that’s wrong and unfortunate, I get it. But it seems very obvious to me that a danger with treating people in Group X one way is that you might then become tempted to treat people in Group Y that way, even if Group X is “bad” and Group Y is “good.”

    So, it seems to me that the way to preserve the specialness of Group Y and this the good treatment Group Y receives is to heavily police who is in Group Y and to heavily punish any mistreatment of Group Y.

    Now, of course, naturally, this is going to lead to the heavy fetishization not only of Group Y, but also of the people in Group X who come the closest to resembling people from Group Y. In other words, people begin to treat the borderline Group X people like they wish they could treat Group Y.

    In this instance, it seems obvious to me that Franklin raped enslaved women he called white (and let’s be clear, who may have, indeed, to our eye looked white) because he wanted to rape white women.

    I get why white Nashville didn’t come to the defense of his enslaved victims, because of racism. But I am baffled as to why, knowing he raped enslaved “white” women, any man who loved his daughter–as all evidence we have of Oliver Hayes suggests–and who had half a brain in his head–Oliver was a minister and a lawyer–would put her in that rapist’s bed.

    What it suggests about the kinds of lives “good” men expected for their daughters is frightening.

  4. It’s called history. (Ba dum tisch.) But seriously, there’s great anxiety on the part of 19th century southern elites that the sexual predation and presumption of access that went with owning enslaved women (who were, conceptually, part of the Abrahamic patriarchal household and were one’s “people”) was also going to lead to men who would not restrain themselves from having sex with their daughters. Both Peter Bardaglio and Brian Connolly (new excellent book) suggest that there was a lot of energy invested in brightening that line so that some monstrous behavior would remain permissible while others could be clearly legally punished and which would make one a bad patriarch. Other men outside one’s family had final say on which side of the line (fuckable or unfuckable) the woman fell, which was one of the few legal breaches of the absolute expectation of bodily control over one’s family (black and white) with which elite white men had to contend.

  5. And Featherstonhaugh is right in line with most commentators. The “evil” figures were the people who moved slaves from one place to another, who dared to expose the crassly commercial nature of the business. Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul suggests that it was a way for enslavers to retain their own moonlight and magnolias bullshit “my family black and white” narrative by demonizing these “outsiders” who help make the system profitable and expose every bit of the brutal economic rationality of the buying and selling of commodified human labor.

    By the way, Feathersonhaugh used to live in my neighborhood. The railroad terminus on the railroad he constructed (in 1831..first one in US) is about two blocks from my house. He was a legendary bastard…Thomas Cole (who was, ok, kind of whiny) said he was the worst person he ever worked for.

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