“Switching” and Slavery-A Tragic Connection

Switches, Whips and Chains-The tool sof American Slavery (Image Courtesy of Smithsonina Museum of AMerican History)

Switches, Whips and Chains-The handtools of American Slavery (Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Museum of American History)

IN the tidal wave of commentary washing over the country since Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson was indicted after reportedly using a switch on his four-year old son, a number of commentators have commiserated, revealing similar treatment in their own childhoods. A few athletes, such as NBA star Charles Barkley, have asserted that what Peterson had done was a familiar part of their cultural upbringing.

“Whipping. We do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances,” Barkley told interviewer Jim Rome on CBS’ “NFL Today” on Sunday, September 14.

But where did generations of African-Americans, especially in the South, learn to use a switch?  Anyone familiar with the literature of slavery in the United States will be familiar with switching. Fredrick Douglass, for instance, vividly described the method when, as a teenager in 1833, he was the property of a Mr. Covey:

“He then went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes…Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after…. During the first six months of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.”[1] 

Of course, Frederick Douglass’s treatment at the hands of Covey was far from unique. Witness this young runaway’s recollection of life as an enslaved child.

"A white woman whipping a slave girl." (Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

“A white woman whipping a slave girl.” (Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

“Mistress was very strict, and if we did not do every thing exactly to please her we were sure to get a whipping. An old man whipped us on our bare flesh with hickory switches. A school-master named Cleeton, boarded with her, and used to bring home a great many of them and put them in the chimney to dry. He called them ‘nice switches to whip the little niggers with.’ A good many of us were entirely naked and the rest had nothing on but shirts. I never wore any clothes till I was big enough to plough. When they whipped us they often cut through our skin. They did not call it skin, but ‘hide.’ They say ‘a nigger hasn’t got any skin.’ “[2]

In the full spectrum of cruel punishments and discipline meted out to enslaved people, of course, switching would rank towards the less fatal end of the scale –one reason it was used frequently on children, no doubt. To teach them a good lesson.  And the degrees of severity of punishment and discipline went up with the severity of the offense. Severed toes and ears for repeat runaways. Branding and scarring. Execution and heads-on-pikes for insurrection. And, of course, the ever-present lash, as anyone who seen 12 Years a Slave must know. 

While touring through the South in 1854, famed architect and social critic Frederick Law Olmsted witnessed the severe whipping of a young enslaved woman at the hands of an overseer.  

“The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road, coming diagonally up the ravine, ran out upon the cotton-field. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said: ‘She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work, and she has done it, too.’ “ [3] 

The point is that the tradition of “switching” –American Heritage defines it as “Chiefly U.S. Southern” –is a vestige of American antebellum slavery, a brutal form of power and punishment exerted by the strong over the weak, the powerful over the powerless. For centuries, the enslaved people of this country knew the switch, the lash, the cat-o-nine tails and worse. That was what made a “good” slave. That was how a human being was broken.

It is surprising that in nearly all of the recent discussion of “switching,” this “parenting technique” has not been recognized for what it is — a sad, ugly remnant of the violent maelstrom that was American slavery.  This brutality against the powerless is not some biblical rod applied to keep children from being “spoiled.”  It is the cruel aftermath of a system of inhuman treatment that flowed down through generations. 

“We have descriptions,” wrote David Brion Davis in a history of New World slavery,  “of slave children pretending to be drivers or overseers, whipping one another.” [4] (Emphasis added)

Switching is by no means peculiar to African-Americans. Whipping and beating children knows no bounds of color or creed. But carry that idea down over centuries. Children pretending to whip one another. Fathers switching sons. Grandmothers switching their charges –just as they and generations before them had been switched to teach them a lesson. The violence of slavery moving to the post-Civil War era and the Klan’s murderous beatings and burnings. Generations learning that violence was the means of exerting power.

Perhaps if more people, especially those in the African–American community, understood that “switching” is merely a short step in history from the bondsman’s lash or lynching, we might view this form of punishment for what it is.



[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 47.
[2]  Recollections of Slavery by a Runaway Slave (journal title) The Emancipator A Runaway Slave 5 p. August 23, September 13, September 20, October 11, and October 18, 1838 Call number Microforms Serial 1-1308 (Davis Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
[3] Olmsted, Frederick, Law, (Arthur M. Schlesinger ed.), The Cotton Kingdom (1953); Nevins, Allan, Ordeal of the Union (1947); 
Life on a Southern Plantation, 1854″, EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/> <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com> <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/>  (2005)
[4] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage. New York: Oxford, 2006, p. 199.


Pop Quiz: How many times did Nixon and JFK debate in 1960?



Answer: Four, although the first was the most watched and the most memorable. The first debate was held on September 26, 1960.

Read more about presidential debates in the Smithsonian article: Eight Lessons for Presidential Debates (October 2, 2012) and in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents.

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Who Said It? (9/22/2014)

Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.

President Eisenhower (Courtesy: Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum)

President Eisenhower (Courtesy: Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Situation in Little Rock,” (September 24, 1957)

For a few minutes this evening I want to speak to you about the serious situation that has arisen in Little Rock. To make this talk I have come to the President’s office in the White House. I could have spoken from Rhode Island, where I have been staying recently, but I felt that, in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled today to take and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course until the orders of the Federal Court at Little Rock can be executed without unlawful interference.

In that city, under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a Federal Court. Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition and, under the law, I yesterday issued a Proclamation calling upon the mob to disperse.

This morning the mob again gathered in front of the Central High School of Little Rock, obviously for the purpose of again. preventing the carrying out of the Court’s order relating to the admission of Negro children to that school.

Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task and it becomes necessary for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to use its powers and authority to uphold Federal Courts, the President’s responsibility is inescapable.

In accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an Executive Order directing the use of troops under Federal authority to aid in the execution of Federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. This became necessary when my Proclamation of yesterday was not observed, and the obstruction of justice still continues.

Complete text and Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Situation in Little Rock.,” September 24, 1957. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

A video version of the address can be found on C-Span

Pop Quiz: Which book led to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act?

Answer: Upton Sinclair’s February 1906 novel The Jungle, an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry. 

Upton Sinclair, one of the most prominent writers later derided as “muckrakers” by Theodore Roosevelt,  was born on September 20, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read a brief biography from C-Span’s “American Writers” series.

(A poster of the 1913 movie adaptation of Sinclair's novel is pictured at right, courtesy of the Sinclair Archives, Lilly Library, Indiana University, through James Harvey Young's Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906.)

A poster of the 1913 movie adaptation of Sinclair’s novel is pictured at right, courtesy of the Sinclair Archives, Lilly Library, Indiana University, through James Harvey Young’s Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906.

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s official website:

In fact, the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law.

The law was passed in June 1906 and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)

Read more about the “muckrakers” in the Progressive Era in Don’t Know Much About® History.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Constitution Day

On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia, voted to adopt the United States Constitution.

United States Constitution (Image Courtesy of the National Archives)

United States Constitution (Image Courtesy of the National Archives)

To recap these events:

Working from May 25, when a quorum was established, until September 17, 1787, when the convention voted to endorse the final form of the Constitution, the delegates gathered in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania State House were actually obligated only to revise or amend the Articles of Confederation. Under those Articles, however, the government was plagued by weaknesses, such as its inability to raise revenues to pay its foreign debts or maintain an army. From the outset, most the convention’s organizers, James Madison chief among them, knew that splints and bandages wouldn’t do the trick for the broken Articles.

The government was broke –literally and figuratively– and they were going to fix it by inventing an entirely new one. James Madison had been studying more than 200 books on constitutions and republican history sent to him by Thomas Jefferson in preparation for the convention. The moving force behind the convention, Madison came prepared with the outline of a new Constitution.

A reluctant George Washington, whose name was placed at the head of list of Virginia’s delegates without his knowledge, was unquestionably spurred by recent events in Massachusetts (Shay’s Rebellion, a violent protest by Massachusetts farmers). Elected president of the convention, he wrote from Philadelphia in June to his close wartime confidant and ally, the Marquis de Lafayette:

I could not resist the call to a convention of the States which is to determine whether we are to have a government of respectability under which life, liberty, and property will be secured to us, or are to submit to one which may be the result of chance or the moment, springing perhaps from anarchy and Confusion, and dictated perhaps by some aspiring demagogue.

On September 17, Washington signed the parchment copy first, as President of the convention. He was followed by the remaining delegates from the twelve states that sent delegates in geographical order, from north to south, beginning with New Hampshire. (Rhode Island was the only state that did not send a delegation.) When the last of the signatures was added –that of Abraham Baldwin of Georgia– Benjamin Franklin gazed at Washington’s chair, on which was painted a bright yellow sun. He then spoke, as James Madison recorded it:

I have, said he, often in the course of a session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell if it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.

In another perhaps more apocryphal tale, Franklin left the building and was confronted by a lady who asked, “Well Doctor, do we have a monarchy or a republic?” The witty sage of Philadelphia replied,

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

This post is excerpted from America’s Hidden History, which offers fuller account of the Convention and the events that led to it.  You can also read more about the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.

For more about the Constitution, visit these sites:
The National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia:

James Madison’s Montpelier:

Charters of Freedom at the National Archives

New York Times Bestseller America's Hidden History

New York Times Bestseller
America’s Hidden History

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents-now available in hardcover and eBook and audiobook

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents-now available in hardcover and eBook and audiobook

Who Said It (9/15/2014)

President George Washington: “Farewell Address” (September 19, 1796)Washington__

“Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”

Addressed “To the PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES,” Washington’s Farewell was published as a letter in David Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, a Philadelphia newspaper. First drafted during Washington’s first term  by James Madison, the text was sent to Alexander Hamilton with Washington’s notes added as his second term came to an end and the election of 1796 approached. The  final version was written by Hamilton.

Washington and Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow wrote:

“It was not in Hamilton’s headstrong nature to bow to another scribe, and while he would offer Washington a revised version of Madison’s 1792 address, he also forged a magisterial new version of his own.”

Washington: A Life (page 753)

And it is considered, according to the Library of Congress, “one of the most important documents in American history.”

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to snake the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying. afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Toward the preservation of your Government and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect in the forms of the Constitution alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what can not be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember especially that for the efficient management of your common interests in a country so extensive as ours a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.


Source and Complete Text: George Washington: “Farewell Address,” September 19, 1796. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hachette Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® Field Trip: the National Anthem


(Video shot, edited and produced by Colin Davis)

Two hundred years ago, Francis Scott Key penned the words that later became the national anthem. This video is from my 2009 field trip to Fort McHenry.

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

It was September 13, 1814. America was at war with England for the second time since 1776. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well some of you know some of them.

But here’s what they didn’t tell you:

•Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned in 1814, including the President’s Home which would later get a fresh coat of paint and be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.

•Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.Here’s a link to the original lyrics of that drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven via Poem of the Week.

•The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. Finally, in 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, on March 3.

Now, here are a couple of footnotes to the Francis Scott Key story—his son, Philip Barton Key, was a District Attorney in Washington. DC. He was shot and killed by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles was acquitted with the first use of the defense of temporary insanity in 1859. And went on to serve as a Civil War general –and not a very good one.

And speaking of the Civil War, Key’s grandson was later imprisoned in Fort McHenry along with Baltimore’s Mayor and other pro-Confederate sympathizers.

Here are some places to learn more about Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History

This version of the anthem in the video is performed on 19th century instruments also courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Friday Pop Quiz: What was Francis Scott Key’s profession?

Answer:  Attorney

On September 13, 1814, Key was on a British ship as Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, was bombarded by the attacking British. Key was negotiating a prisoner exchange with the British forces.  When the day dawned, he saw the flag flying above the fort and was inspired to write the lines that later became the National Anthem. You can get the complete story in this video blog a Don’t Know Much About® Field Trip.




Francis Scott Key (Image Source: National Park Service)

Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779, in western Maryland. His family was very wealthy and owned an estate called “Terra Rubra.” When Francis was 10 years old, his parents sent him to grammar school in Annapolis. After graduating at the age of 17, he began to study law in Annapolis while working with his uncle’s law firm. By 1805, he had a well-established law practice of his own in Georgetown, a surburb of Washington, D.C. By 1814, he had appeared many times before the Supreme Court, and had been appointed the United States District Attorney.

Source: National Park Service/Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

Who Said It? (9/8/2014)


General Jackson Slaying the  Many Headed Monster (Source: Library of Congress; HapWeek.com)

General Jackson Slaying the Many Headed Monster (Source: Library of Congress; HarpWeek.com)


Answer:  Andrew Jackson, “Veto Message Regarding the Bank of the United States” (July 10, 1832)

Andrew Jackson (1825) by Thomas Sully (Source: US Senate)

Andrew Jackson (1825) by Thomas Sully (Source: US Senate)

On September 10, 1833, Jackson announced that the federal government would no longer use the Second Bank  of the United States and then used his executive power to remove all federal funds from the bank, depositing them instead in state banks –known as “pet banks.”   

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics, and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.

Source: Avalon Project-Yale Law School Complete Text of President Jackson’s Veto Message (July 10, 1832)

Read “King Andrew and the Bank” by Daniel Feller in Humanities magazine (January-February 2008)

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hachette paperback)

Friday Pop Quiz: Who was the first U.S. President to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Answer: Theodore Roosevelt


Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo Source: NobelPrize.org)


In 1905, President Roosevelt invited envoys of Russia and Japan to Portsmouth New Hampshire to negotiate an end to the war between the two countries. The treaty was signed on September 5, 1905 and Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

Read Roosevelt’s Nobel Prize biography and Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)