I wonder where this phrase started. I’ve tried googling it with some help from flteach members but I still have a lot of work to do. Funny, though, the first site I selected to look at out of all the obviously inappropriate sites turned out to be just the sort of thing I wanted – slavery.
My contention is that the fear and insecurity of slave-holders permeated the major property owners not only of the Old South but of most of the nation – slavery was still common in the North as late as the 1830s. Slave rebellions, despite their rarity, were a constant theme of Southern life. In the face of the great passive resistance of the slaves, Southern law makers continually passed draconian laws meant to keep a restless chattel in line. In fact, in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese remarks that there was not a single incident of slave revenge at emancipation. In further fact, many slaves returned to their distraught and distressed former “owners” who were distraught at the unimagined event of slaves leaving their happy home on the plantation, to help the former slave holders with food and a bit of property management. The slaves managed to put together huge networks of horticultural markets that threatened non-slave producers and made entire regions dependent on them for food.
So many features that separate our culture from European culture, like the violence, can be traced back, I believe, to slavery and its exigencies. “They’ll murder us in our beds” may have originated in England, perhaps with Shakespeare, but I’d like to know; I’d like to know if it originated with a fearful and guilt-stricken slave holder. How else explain how our grandfathers and great-grandfathers happily posed with the remains of a lynched Negro?