Back to top

The Hireling and the Slave


An epic proslavery poem published in 1856 by William Grayson (Charleston, SC: McCarter & Co.). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



‘The Hireling and the Slave’ and ‘Chicora,’ both included in this volume by William Grayson (1788-1863), are examples of civilizational poems that tell the story of the rise and progress, or the decline and collapse of societies. This type of poem has a lengthy history in European epic literature and Grayson’s poetry participates in this tradition. Often, as in Grayson, this poetry is a vehicle for social critique.   
Grayson was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, of a family that settled there in early colonial history. He attended South Carolina College, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1813, and later joined the bar. Grayson was elected to the state Senate in 1831 and then to the US House of Representatives in 1834, where he served two terms; he became collector of the port of Charleston in 1841. After beginning life in modest circumstances, Grayson accumulated significant wealth as a slave-owning plantation owner and later railroad director.  He occasionally contributed to the Southern Review and was well-known as a man-of-letters (E.A. and D.L. Duyckinck, Cyclopedia of American Literature, New York, Charles Scribner, 1866, 103).  Although a defender of slavery, Grayson believed in political accommodation with the North and opposed secession. 
‘The Hireling and the Slave’ was Grayson's only poem to receive significant public notice.  The poem presents an epic white supremacist vision of race slavery as a necessary institution to support civilized society in the American South. It employs romantic tones to praise an Athens-like society and condemns abolitionist efforts to end slavery. Like Lucien Chase’s 1854 novel English Serfdom and American Slavery and much other proslavery literature of the era, the poem criticizes industrialism’s treatment of labor in order to justify by comparison race slavery as a benevolent social institution. Grayson argues that slavery establishes “more permanent and, therefore, kinder relations between capital and labor” (vii) and is more appropriate for the protection of blacks. Moreover, he asserts, a divine plan has shaped the appearance of Africans on the North American continent as an agricultural labor force. (xi) 
Just over 1500 lines total and heavily influenced by the author’s admiration for eighteenth-century English neoclassical style, the poem is constituted of two argumentative movements. The first section treats labor as the basis of civilization and addresses the onerous conditions of wage labor as a violation of social promises of freedom – “Free but in name — the slaves of endless toil.” [line 25] It condemns the “philanthropic eye” [88] that sees human poverty, degradation and military violence, but prefers to concern itself with “the distant black.” [168]
Grayson portrays the American landscape as welcoming of all newcomers to its lushness, the African arrivals being brought by a combination of fraternal perfidy and British avarice. [278ff.] The experience of enslavement, according to Grayson, raises the level of civilization of Africans and contributes to realizing the potential fertility of American lands. Through training and productive enslavement, Grayson writes, African slaves generate newness in the world: “New life he gives to Europe’s busy marts / To all the world new comforts and new arts.” [366-367] As Africans learn “civilizing art” [377], he contends, they gain refinement and the potential of producing a “black Prometheus.” [400] Antislavery politics act only to delay God’s will, for which Grayson cites biblical antecedents. He displays great animosity towards individually-named abolitionists who would disturb this divinely-ordained civilizing scheme [488-664], especially condemning Harriet Beecher Stowe and her “prostituted pen.” [581] Grayson defends the disciplinary regime for black slaves as no worse than that faced by whites. [704ff.] Slavery, he concludes, is a means by which blacks escape “the perils of the poor.” [739]

The second part of the poem continues this political defense of slavery. Much of it reprises the themes developed in the first section concerning comparison of the white “starving pauper” [29] and the “happier slave.” [30] Grayson describes cheerful Christmas holidays, Sunday religious gatherings in nature, and autumn hunting after an “easy harvest” [194] is done. In this description, free to hunt and fish, slaves only are barely removed from nature, and slaves and masters join in happy fishing contests. [343ff.] Many romantic landscape descriptions emphasize the near-paradisiacal quality of Grayson’s idealized slave society: slavery is naturalized. He contrasts such scenes and their natural order to unruly democracy and “the noisy hall, the coarse debate, / The curse of patronage and frauds of state.” [514-515] Rather than participate in such scenes, Grayson advocates for a retreat to private pursuits. He cautions that if democracy brings an end to slavery, blacks might anticipate the dispossessed fate of Indians. [614ff.] “Unguided by Caucasian skill,” [656] he asserts, civilizations – whether Native American or on the liberated island of Haiti – fall. According to this racial pyramid concept of civilization, in the competition between European whites and less capable colored peoples, blacks will suffer. In the racial geography that Grayson envisions, blacks will migrate to tropical zones in order to survive. [722ff.]  At the conclusion of the poem, the author reveals himself as a colonizationist by urging the return of slaves to Africa, where having received tutelage from the “master-race” [793], they can now create –


“…a new Augustan reign,
To tropic suns her fruits and flowers unfold,
And Libya hails, at last, her age of gold.” [785-787]
Well-known after its 1855 publication, ‘The Hireling and the Slave’ quickly declined into obscurity after the Civil War. Deemed by one modern critic “interminably dull,” it remains probably the longest and most substantial poetic apology for slavery in American proslavery literature. In Main Currents in American Thought (vol. 1, book 2, chap. 4), Vernon Parrington discusses the poem as an exemplar of proslavery apologetic literature and its ability to be realistic about northern society while remaining romantic about the South.  Edmund Wilson analyzes this poem at some length in Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York, Oxford University Press, 336ff.), describing it as an "elegant work" that elaborates a fantasy based on social blindness. (340-41)  However, in general, critical literature on the poem is slim. See Nathalie Hind, “The Hireling and the Slave: La Littérature au service de l’ideologie,” Caliban 26 (1989) 21-29; Thomas D. Jarettt, “The Literary Significance of William John Grayson’s The Hireling and the Slave,” Georgia Review 5 (1951) 487-494; and Jarrett, “Ideas in William J. Grayson’s ‘The Hireling and the Slave’ and the Southern Literary Movement in Defense of Slavery,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 1947).  For Grayson's life, see Richard J. Calhoun [ed.], Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Calhoun (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).    
The first edition of The Hireling and the Slave was published in Charleston, VA in 1855 by J. Russell; the second edition appeared in Charleston, SC in 1856 from McCarter & Co.  Grayson’s other published works include The Country (Charleston, SC: Russell and Jones, 1858) and James Louis Petigru. A Biographical Sketch (New York: Harper & Bros., 1866). 
  - Joe Lockard