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The Slave Pen

The more I immerse myself in slave literature, writings, and photographs, the more I believe that the United States prior to the Civil War was not a true democracy, or even a true representative republic, despite the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution telling citizens that it was. A country's political order is a democracy when there exists free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, the right to run for public office, freedom of expression, the right to alternative information and associational autonomy (the right to form interest groups). (Dahl 221-222) Likewise, a political order devoid of one or more of these facets is not a democracy. As most colored people and women of mid-19th century America rarely (if at all) enjoyed these privileges, the United States was not a democracy per se, but a democracy of the ruling class.

Photograph: "Soldier outside doors to slave pen, men visible behind bars."

The photograph shows small rowboats (in various stages of assembly) in the foreground and an armed prison guard and various holding cells in the background. Slaves are visible; they are anxiously gripping the cell bars. The caption reads "Slave Pen, Alexandria, Va." The first things that come to mind upon viewing The Slave Pen"Slave Pen" are livestock and convicted felons. As evidenced in Douglass's "Narrative", slaves were treated on par with animals — sometimes worse. When I think of a holding pen, I envision livestock, not men. Almost instinctively, I also think of felons. This was most likely a common rationale of slaveholders: if a slave were convicted of something — no matter how trivial or no matter how unfair the hearing was — this eased the consciences of many slaveholders who viewed a slave's shameful existence as punishment for his wrongs. Aside from the merciless whippings and beatings, this facet of slavery is what disturbs me most; that a slave could be so easily sentenced or lawfully killed based on totally false testimony.

Upon further examination of the photograph, I begin to see similarities with concentration camps. The individual holding cells look like ovens. The apparently smoke-stained brick wall in the background also adds to this illusion. In the past, I had envisioned slavery as an institution that existed only in the "deep south". After reading the Douglass book again last week, emphasis has been placed (in my own mind, at least) on the locality of these injustices. It happened all around us: up and down the Chesapeake Bay, in Talbot County, Fells Point, Baltimore and Alexandria. — scarcely a stone's throw from where I work and dine.

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Works Cited

Dahl, Robert A. Small ImageDemocracy and its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989.