3. A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology

3. A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology


Professor David Blight:
In a speech before the Virginia Secession Convention,
in 1861, in late April, in the wake of the firing on
Fort Sumter, the newly elected–sort of
appointed–Vice-President of the Confederacy,
Alexander H. Stephens, gave a speech that
became quickly known to history as his “Cornerstone Speech.”
This is Spring, 1861. Alexander H.
Stephens, a Georgian, a slaveholder,
an old friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln’s,
ironically, said the cornerstone of the Confederacy,
the cornerstone of their political movement,
was what he called “American Negro slavery.”
It was the cornerstone on which they had founded their
revolution. The quote goes on:
“As a race, the African is inferior to the white man.
Subordination to the white man is his normal condition.
He is not his equal by nature and cannot be made so by human
laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore,
so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great
immutable law of nature.” You always have to get worried
in history when people start talking about how human beings
or human behavior is rooted in nature.
But how do we get to 1861 and that secession crisis with
Alexander H. Stephens delivering this
Cornerstone Speech, declaring that,
“Hey folks, it’s all about slavery and its preservation?”
How did we get there? Today I want to talk about,
we’re going to dwell on, ultimately, the Southern
defense of slavery–the arguments over time that they
developed, layer upon layer,
drawing upon earlier arguments and building them into new
ones–sometimes quite original–toward ultimately a
virtually utopian defense of slavery as a perfecting,
perfectible, if not perfected system.
Now, I want to say one other quick thing before we get to the
substance. A thousand times in a thousand
ways anybody who studies the American Civil War period is
inevitably asked, “so what caused this war?”
It’s, of course, the question of the first third
of this course. So what caused it?
Yesterday, on M.L. King Day, I had the privilege
of being on at least four radio programs about this new book I
have out called A Slave No More,
some of them quite terrific. Minnesota Public Radio does a
fabulous hour-long program. But one of them was on a
Nashville, Tennessee radio station, on a program at 5:30
p.m. called “Drive Time.”
And the host was Harry or Pete or whoever he was–I’ve been on
too many of these. The first question was,
“So Professor, what was the Civil War about?”
Now do that in a sound byte on a national radio station when
you got two minutes to answer. “Well Pete, you see,
there was this free labor system and this slave labor
system,” blah-blah blah-blah. I tried to sound byte this and
I ended up saying something silly like, “You know Pete,
I’m teaching a whole course on this.” And I finally just ended that
particular little exchange before he went on to rant at me
about all that’s wrong with American education by saying,
“Pete, it was slavery.” [laughs]
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s great Democracy in
America, which he published in 1831,
or published in 1837, after his famous nine-month
tour of the United States–the most famous book,
travel book, ever written about America,
by a foreigner. In Democracy in America
there’s that famous passage, or passages,
when Tocqueville crosses the Ohio River,
from Ohio into Kentucky, from free soil into slave soil,
free state into a slave state. Tocqueville,
you may know, didn’t spend a great deal of
time in the South though he traveled all across the South.
He spent at least two-thirds of his–more than,
about three-quarters of his time–in the northern states.
But when he crossed into Kentucky, he wrote this letter
to his father. “For the first time”–this was,
of course, the French aristocrat de Tocqueville–“For
the first time we have had the chance to examine the effect
that slavery produces on a society.
On the right bank of the Ohio everything is activity,
industry, labor is honored, there are no slaves.
Pass to the left bank and the scene changes so suddenly that
you think yourself on the other side of the world.
The enterprising spirit seems gone.
There work is not only painful, it’s shameful,
and you degrade yourself in submitting yourself to it.
To ride, to hunt, to smoke like a Turk in the
sunshine, there’s the destiny of the white man.
To do any other kind of manual labor is to act like a slave.”
Now, Tocqueville was of course responding from his own kind of
French aristocratic heart, to some extent.
He was drawn in a bit to certain kinds of Southern charm.
“The whites,” he said, “of the South,
form a veritable aristocracy which combines many prejudices
with high sentiments and instincts.”
He probably over-judged the scale of that aristocracy. “They say, and I am much
inclined to believe,” said Tocqueville, “that in the matter
of honor these men practice delicacies and refinements
unknown in the North. They are frank,
hospitable and put many things before money.”
Well, they’d have loved that. When we start hearing from our
pro-slavery advocates and writers–they would’ve loved
that. Because one of the critiques
that slavery allowed pro-slavery writers, ultimately,
to make, was a critique of a certain kind of capitalism,
the greedy, grinding, aggressive, malicious kind of
capitalism they believed the North embodied.
But charm alone didn’t seem to make a great society,
according to Tocqueville. “You see few churches and no
schools here in the south,” he observed.
“Society, like the individual, seems to provide nothing.”
The South would end, he said, by being dominated by
the North. “Every day the latter grows
more wealthy and densely populated while the South is
stationary and growing poor.” Not entirely accurate about
that either, from what we now know about the profitability of
slavery and the profitability of the cotton crop.
But he ends that famous section with this passage.
It is kind of haunting when you think it’s only 1831 when he
writes this, and that Civil War is still 30 years away:
“Slavery brutalizes the black population and debilitates the
white. Man is not made for servitude.” Now, in the South what
developed–and let’s define it at least quickly–what developed
was one of the world’s handful of true slave societies.
What is a slave society? What do we mean when we use
that phrase ‘slave society’? Essentially,
it means any society where slave labor–where the
definition of labor, where the definition of the
relationship between ownership and labor–is defined by
slavery. By a cradle to grave–and some
would’ve even said a cradle to grave and beyond–human bondage.
Where slavery affected everything about society.
Where whites and blacks, in this case–in America in a
racialized slavery system–grew up,
were socialized by, married, reared children,
worked, invested in, and conceived of the idea of
property, and honed their most basic
habits and values under the influence of a system that said
it was just to own people as property.
The other slave societies in human history–and you can get
up a real debate over this, especially among Africanists,
Brazilianists, Asianists and others,
and it’s why slavery is such a hot field in international
history–but the other great slave societies in history where
the whole social structure of those societies was rooted in
slavery, were Ancient Greece and Rome;
certainly Brazil by the eighteenth and nineteenth
century; the whole of Caribbean–the
Great West Indies sugar-producing empires of the
French, the British,
the Dutch, the Spanish, and a few others–and the
American South. Now, there were other localized
slave societies, surely;
certainly within Africa, to a certain degree even before
Europeans arrived and certainly after Europeans arrived,
particularly after the regularization of the Atlantic
slave trade. There were certain localized
slave societies in East Africa, out of Zanzibar by the
eighteenth and nineteenth century.
There were certain localized slave societies in the vast Arab
world, in the Muslim world, well before there was even an
Atlantic slave trade to the Americas.
But the five great slave societies were those five.
All were highly profitable in their primes.
All tended to hinder technological innovation in
those societies. All tended to have a high
slave-to-free ratio of population.
All of those slave societies had a population of slaves that
was from one-quarter to one-half, and sometimes more,
of the total population. In those slave societies,
slaves–as an interest, as an interest–were both a
political and a great economic institution that defined ways of
life. Now, when exactly did the
American South become a slave society?
Is it 1820–the Missouri Crisis–in that settlement,
and at least the beginnings now of a clarity of its expansion?
Or was it more the 1830s when you’ve got this booming cotton
production happening finally in Alabama and Mississippi and
Louisiana? Or was it 1840?
Or was it really in the wake of the Mexican War when you get
this massive expansion into the great southwest and the Mexican
Session–which we’ll take up actually next week?
That’s always open to debate, exactly when the South became a
slave society. But I think it became,
in most ways and in most definitions, a slave society
surely by the 1820s or the 1830s.
Now, one aspect of that slave society then–and I’ll focus on
it just at least briefly–is that as Americans ended the
foreign slave trade–and we did in 1808–this is,
this month is the bi-centennial of the legal end of
America’s–the United State’–participation in the
foreign slave trade. Now it didn’t entirely end,
and there were some South Carolinians and Georgians who
wanted to re-open it, and a few folks out in
Louisiana, who wanted to re-open it at numerous times in the
antebellum period, especially in the late 1850s.
They were the same people who were always trying to annex
Cuba; about four times over they
tried to annex Cuba, and it’s still a bit of mystery
how it never happened. But as the foreign slave trade
was closed off, for a whole variety of reasons,
only one of which was that there was this passage,
sort of a vow, in the original Constitution
that the question would be re-visited in 20 years,
and 1808 was 20 years. But as the foreign slave trade
was cut off the domestic American slave trade absolutely
boomed. And one of the reasons that the
American South could become such a profitable slave society,
one of the reasons that the cotton boom could be the cotton
boom is because one of the unique features of North
American slavery, U.S.
slavery, is or was, that it was the only slave
population in the entire New World–Brazil managed it now and
then but not in the long run–it’s the only slave society
in the New World where the slaves naturally reproduced
themselves. And it has to do with climate,
it has to do with sex ratio–male to female–it has to
do with diet, and it has to do with movement. If Frederick Jackson Turner had
anything right in “The Frontier Thesis,” although he didn’t pay
hardly any attention to the South,
this idea of a safety valve of a West to move to was surely
there for slavery. Between 1810 and 1820
alone–this is the decade of the War of 1812, which caused all
kinds of chaos on the Western frontier–137,000 American
slaves were forced to move from North Carolina or the Chesapeake
states to Alabama, Mississippi,
and other western regions. That’s in the one decade of the
teens. Then from 1820 to 1860,
the forty years before the war, an estimated roughly two
million American slaves were sold to satisfy the need of
slave labor in the great cotton kingdom of the growing
Southwest. Now, about roughly two-thirds
of those two million slaves moved from the Eastern seaboard
or the Upper South to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi,
Texas, Arkansas, et cetera.
About two-thirds of those went by outright sale,
by financial speculation, in now a growing huge American
business of the domestic slave trade.
By the 1830s, 1840s, there were over 100 men
in Charleston, South Carolina alone,
making their livings full-time as slave traders.
Their ads were in the newspapers every day.
Many of them owned their own shops and their own–in
effect–jails where they housed people.
Other cities became major ports or places of deportation,
for the domestic slave trade. Richmond, Virginia,
for example, became a huge slave-trading
center by the 1840s and 1850s. It had two–depending on when
you look–to three dozen major full-time slave traders.
One of the richest was a man named Hector Davis.
Hector Davis owned a two-story slave auction house and jail on
14^(th) and Franklin Streets, just two blocks down the hill
from Thomas Jefferson’s glorious capitol building of the State of
Virginia. Just two blocks down the hill
from that great equestrian statue of George Washington,
the Founder, you could find a huge slave
jail owned by Hector Davis. Hector Davis kept tremendous
records, he kept account books, huge account books.
And one of those account books ended up in the Chicago
Historical Society after the Civil War because it was
confiscated by an Illinois regiment that took it home.
And I worked with that account book, because one of the two
slaves I write about in this new book called A Slave No
More–I publish their two narratives–was indeed a young
14-year-old teenager, sold out of North
Carolina–from Snow Hill, North Carolina,
he was sold in 1860 to Hector Davis in Richmond.
Hector Davis purchased him for $900.00.
For about six months Wallace Turnage worked in Hector Davis’s
slave auction house helping organize the auctions every day.
And one day, Wallace was told,
“Today, boy, you’re in the auction.”
And he was sold for $1000.00 to an Alabama cotton planter who
came up to Richmond twice a year to buy slaves.
And 72 hours by train he found himself on a huge cotton
plantation, near Pickensville, Alabama, on the–in west
central Alabama, on the Mississippi border,
at 14-years-old. More on Wallace Turnage later
in the course. He’ll be sold again,
by the way, a third time, for $2000.00,
in Mobile, Alabama, at the Mobile Slave Jail.
I calculated in Hector Davis’s account book that the biggest
week he had–and he had some big weeks–but he had a week in 1859
where he made a cool, approximately,
$120,000.00 in profit, just from selling slaves.
I mean, the equivalent of a healthy teenage male slave,
if you could sell him for $1000.00 in 1860–it’s about the
same price of a good Toyota Camry today. And when I go to the A-1 Toyota
for my service or to buy my new Camry, which I’ve done every
four years for the last two decades,
I don’t always think of a slave market but it does occur to me
that–. [laughter]
They just sell those Toyotas, they tell you,
“Here’s the price, we don’t bargain.” The South was part of the
westward movement. For slave children–one other
little point about this, so we can get a sense of this
system that is now about to be justified and defended–for
slave children, between 1820 and 1860,
living in the Upper South or the Eastern Seaboard,
they had approximately a thirty percent chance of being sold
outright away from their parents before they were ten. Now, just to give you a sense
of how cold and calculated this business was,
and how in many ways the first defense or justification of
slavery in America is of course–it certainly is by the
late Antebellum Period–it is an unabashed economic defense,
as we’ll see. Ads in newspapers,
like this one in Charleston, would read, “Negroes wanted.
I am paying the highest cash prices for young and likely
Negroes, those having good front teeth and being otherwise
sound.” It’s all about market forces
and the health and the condition of your product.
Probably the best book written on this, particularly on the
language of the domestic slave trade,
is Walter Johnson’s book called Soul by Soul,
a book–I highly recommend you read it sometime in your reading
lives. But it’s amazing to read the
letters and the language of slave traders when they write to
each other, the complacency,
the mixture of just pure racism on the one hand and just
business language on the other. “I refused a girl 20-years-old
at $700.00 yesterday,” one trader wrote to another in 1853.
“If you think best to take her at 700, I can still get her.
She is very badly whipped but has good teeth.” “Bought a cook yesterday,”
wrote another trader, “Bought a cook yesterday that
was to go out of the state. She just made the people mad,
that was all.” “I have bought a boy named
Isaac,” wrote another trader, “for $1100.00.”
He writes this in 1854 to his partner.
“Bought a boy named Isaac. I think him very prime.
He is a house-servant, first-rate cook,
and splendid carriage driver. He is also a fine painter and
varnisher, and says he can make a fine panel door.
Also, he performs well on the violin.
He is a genius. And strange to say,
I think he’s smarter than I am.” Truth always creeps through all
of our language–it doesn’t always but sometimes–creeps
through our language, doesn’t it?
Now, how is slavery defended? In many ways, to say the least.
But I want to give you at least some sense of the development of
the pro-slavery argument, the kinds of arguments that
were used, how they changed over time, who made the arguments. Now, the best way to begin to
understand pro-slavery ideology, whether we’re in the early
period of its defense in the 1820s–actually,
a quite virulent defense of slavery begins early,
it isn’t something that just sprung from Southern pens in the
1850s during all this expansion, it comes very early.
But a framework in which to understand it is that
pro-slavery ideology was, at its heart,
a kind of deeply conservative, organic worldview.
And by that I mean a Burkean conservatism,
a set of beliefs that says the world is ordered as it is,
for reasons, and that human beings ought not
tinker with that order, very much.
It was a set of beliefs in the sustenance of a social order as
it is. It was a belief in a
hierarchical conception of not only society,
but of people. That people were conceived,
whether by nature or by God or even by evolution,
with a certain order to them; some born to do this and some
born to do that and some born to do that.
It’s an organic conception of the world.
It just is the way it is. It’s natural.
Remember back to Alexander H. Steven’s cornerstone quote —
he uses the word “natural” twice in that passage.
This worldview had, of course, an obsession with
stability. It’s one of the reasons white
Southerners didn’t like reformers.
It’s one of the reasons Abolitionists are dangerous.
What are Abolitionists calling for?
Upsetting the social order. They’re offering a critique of
the social order, and they even have the audacity
to talk about good and evil. It’s a worldview often
obsessed, as we said last time, with notions of honor and duty.
And it’s a worldview deeply rooted in the idea or respect
for tradition; tradition and social control.
In this worldview, institutions–human
institutions–evolve only slowly over time and cannot be altered
by abrupt human interventions. It’s dangerous to abruptly
intervene in the evolution of human institutions.
Now, think what’s at stake here in this worldview,
especially as we transition next Thursday to a
developing–though by no means unanimous or
homogenous–northern worldview in which reform impulses get
embedded. White Southern defenders of
slavery were–to some extent–like other
Americans–products of the Enlightenment.
Some of them come to really believe in intellect.
They really do come to believe in the power of reason,
of human beings to figure out the universe.
But to figure it out in different ways.
You can be a product of the Enlightenment and still be
deeply conservative. You can be a product of the
Enlightenment, with a faith in reason,
and not become a Romantic who begins to believe in the
possibilities of man, or even the perfectibility of
man. Conservativism–deep organic
forms of Conservativism–is not antithetical to the
Enlightenment, at least not entirely.
Although pro-slavery writers will become deeply contemptuous
of Natural Law–of Natural Law doctrine as it can be applied to
the possibilities of man. Many of them will argue,
therefore, that ideas like freedom–and that idea of
liberty, so much at stake in the age of
the American Revolution and falling off everybody’s tongue,
and eventually falling off their tongues and off their pens
as well, what they’re fighting for by 1861 were their
liberties, they said, over and over and
over and over again. But in their worldview,
the pro-slavery worldview, ideas like freedom and liberty
were simply never absolutes, and many of them will directly
reverse Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and
simply say, “Nobody is born equal.” They will argue over and over
and over again–some of them almost in a feudalistic
way–that freedom must always be balanced with order,
and that order is rooted in certain kinds of prescribed
stations in life, for the various statuses of
humans. Or freedom, they will argue,
must be balanced with tradition.
The possibilities of freedom must always, in their view,
be balanced with the world as it as–not as it ought to be.
They are, therefore, going to have an extremely
different point of view–from at least Abolitionists in the
North–on this concept of equality.
Although a lot of Abolitionists had their struggles with this
one too. Southern pro-slavery defenders
are much more likely to stress a human’s duty,
than they’re ever to stress a human’s rights. They believed the world was
made up of a struggle between human autonomy,
on the one hand, and human dependency on the
other, and you should never give up on that dependency. As early as 1826 an important
pro-slavery writer named Edward Brown argued that “Slavery,”
he said, quote: “had ever been the stepping
ladder by which nations have passed from barbarism to
civilization.” There you have the roots and
the kernel of the so-called “positive good thesis” about
slavery. That slavery was a way in which
you sustained a social order, a way in which you built an
economy, a way in which you maximized
the possibilities of those who deserved it, by using those who
did not deserve the same fruits. Pro-slavery writers,
you have to understand, had also a really often a
fundamentally different conception of history itself,
or of how history happens, than will many eventually
northern anti-slavery writers–even,
eventually, the political anti-slavery folks like an
Abraham Lincoln, who was never a real
abolitionist but did at least grow up with anti-slavery in his
heart. Thomas R.
Dew, a very important pro-slavery writer,
who wrote a whole book in the wake of the state of Virginia’s
debates in 1831 and ’32 over whether to re-write its
Constitution. And they squarely faced the
question of a gradual abolition plan for the state of Virginia
in 1831 and ’32. They had been planning to
rewrite their Constitution–an extraordinary turning point in
Southern history. The problem was,
of course, Nat Turner’s Insurrection;
it had just occurred in October of 1831 and they held these
debates in the wake of it. And Dew wrote a forceful
defense of slavery in the wake of this, which became kind of a
seminal text for all future pro-slavery writers.
Among the many things he said, and that was the simple sense
of how history happens. “There is a time for all
things,” wrote Dew, “and nothing in this world
should be done before its time.” Now, what would you do if your
parents told you that? They probably have.
What would you do if your professors told you that all the
time? “Stop trying to change things.
Nothing will change before its time.” You’d probably get bored,
or angry. Or who knows?
Maybe you would just agree. I don’t know.
Youth are supposed to be impatient. Now, there are many ways to
look at pro-slavery. Deep, deep in the pro-slavery
argument–I’m going to give you categories here to hang your
hats on–deep in the pro-slavery argument is a biblical argument.
Almost all pro-slavery writers at one point or another will dip
into the Old Testament, or dip into the New
Testament–they especially would dip to the Old–to show how
slavery is an ancient and venerable institution.
Its venerability was its own argument, some said.
It’s always been around. Every civilization has had it.
All those biblical societies had it.
You can read Jeremiah and Isaiah and some of the great Old
Testament prophets in some ways as defenders of slavery.
You can therefore assume it was divinely sanctioned.
You can also look in the New Testament for examples of it,
justifications of it. “Slaves, be honorable,
be dutiful”–be obedient is usually the word in the King
James–“Slaves, be obedient to your masters.”
Slavery is all over the Bible, in one way or another.
The Bible, of course, can breathe anti-slavery into a
situation and it can breathe pro-slavery into a situation.
A second kind of set of arguments, I’ve already referred
to, are the historical ones. Here it is not just the
venerability of slavery, how old it is,
but it’s the idea that it has been crucial to the development
of all great civilizations. That slavery may have its bad
aspects but it has been the engine of good,
it has been the engine of empires,
the engine of wealth, the engine of greatness.
How would you have had Cicero? How would you have had the
great Roman philosophers and thinkers?
How would you have had the great Greek playwrights,
they would argue, without the system,
the world the Greeks were able to create with the Helots?
That at the base of all societies there has to be a
labor system that will support the possibility of Plato. Pro-slavery ideology is also
part of–at the same time it’s resistant to–the greatest
product arguably of the Enlightenment,
and that is the idea of natural rights;
natural law, natural rights,
rights by birth, rights from God,
being born with certain capacities.
Now pro-slavery writers were inspired by this to some extent,
but many of them will simply convert it.
They will convert it–they’ll take portions of John Locke that
they like, and not the others–and they’ll say the real
rule of the world is not natural equality,
but it is natural inequality. Humans are not all born the
same, with the same capacities, abilities. Now, then there’s a whole array
of economic arguments, and the cynic,
the economic determinist, simply goes to the economic
conclusions of pro-slavery and nowhere else. One of the greatest of these
writers was James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who
had plenty of mixed-race children.
He was in some ways the epitome of the kind of cynical
pro-slavery. In the end of the day,
he wasn’t bothered by morality. His argument for slavery was
that ultimately it was amoral. But at the end of the day,
he also essentially made a property argument or a property
defense of slavery. He wrote, among other things,
“The means therefore, whatever they may have been,
by which the African race, now in this county,
have been reduced to slavery, cannot affect us since they are
our property, as your land is your property,
by inheritance or purchase and prescriptive right.
You will say that man cannot hold property in man.
The answer is that he can, and actually does,
hold property in his fellow, all over the world,
in a variety of forms, and has always done so.”
Thank you very much, said Henry Hammond,
don’t talk to me about property in man. Oh, some would get guilty.
Indeed they did. Some would get worried and they
would discuss slavery as a necessary evil–this system
entailed upon them. God, they wished they were
without it. And some of them,
frankly folks, were deeply sincere in that.
One of the most famous and one of the most prolific was a man
named Charles Colcott Jones who owned a huge rice and partly
cotton plantation system in low-country Georgia,
just south of Savannah. He and his family wrote
literally thousands upon thousands of letters.
those family letters have been published in a book called
The Children of Pride, and a brilliant book has been
written about Colcott Jones and his extended family by Erskine
Clarke called Dwelling Place.
But one of the fascinating things about Charles Colcott
Jones–born in the late eighteenth century,
rises to adulthood by the teens, 1820s–is he’s a classic
example of a highly educated Southern planter.
He came North. He was educated in Theology at
Yale for awhile. He was really affected by it.
And then he went up to Andover Theological Academy and he
taught there and he was affected even more, by New England
theologians. And he began to write back,
first to his fiancée who quickly became his wife,
Mary, and he was really worried about all the slaves he owned.
And he writes, for example,
to Mary: “I am moreover undecided whether I ought to
continue to hold slaves.” He underlines hold slaves.
“As to the principle of slavery it is wrong.
It is unjust, contrary to nature and
religion, to hold men enslaved. But the question is,
in my present circumstances, with evil on my hands,
entailed from my father, would the general interest of
the slaves and community at large, with reference to the
slaves, be promoted best by
emancipation? Could I do more for the
ultimate good of the slave population by holding or
emancipating what I own? I know not very particularly
how you feel on this point.” And there are many letters like
that. He and his wife Mary write back
and forth about how evil slavery is.
But in the end Colcott Jones becomes a classic example of the
guilty pro-slavery slaveholder. He doesn’t know how to free
them. He doesn’t know how to go to
emancipation. Instead he develops a highly
intricate theory of how he’s going to use slavery to save
black people. He’s going to ameliorate their
conditions, he’s going to make their slavery on his plantations
so effective, so good, such a even joyous
form of labor, that he will be doing God’s
work by improving slavery. It’s a genuinely tragic sort of
story in his case. There are plenty of pro-slavery
writers who also, to some extent,
whether out of guilt or out of awareness,
saw slavery as wrong, but they saw it as a problem
more for white people than for black people.
Their concern was not the conditions of blacks but what
slavery did to whites; and usually they ended up in
the same situation as Colcott Jones.
There are many pro-slavery writers who developed,
like James Henry Hammond, what I would call the cynical
or amoral form of pro-slavery argument;
and this is a potent form of argument when you think about
it. One of them was a writer named
William Harper who wrote a book called Memoir Slavery in
1837 or ’38. It’s an oft quoted work of
pro-slavery writing. This is just one little passage.
This is this kind of cynical, if you want,
defense of slavery. It is what it is, deal with it.
He wrote, “Man is born to subjection.
The condition of our whole existence is but to struggle
with evil, to compare them, to choose between them,
evils that is, and so far as we can to
mitigate them. To say that there is evil in
any institution is only to say that it is a human institution.”
And Harper’s writing in the thir–James Henry Hammond starts
writing in the forties and into the fifties and he takes it much
further, and he writes over and over and
over again that, “The only problem with slavery
in America,” said James Henry Hammond,
is that too damn many northerners didn’t understand it
is the way of the world as it is,
and they ought to stop talking about the world as it ought to
be. And Hammond even aggressively,
directly, took on Thomas Jefferson.
I’m sorry, Harper did, even before him.
Here’s Harper on Jefferson: “It is not the first time that
I have had occasion to observe that men may repeat with the
utmost confidence some maxim or sentimental phrase as
‘self-evident’ or ‘admitted truth’,
which is either palpably false or to which upon examination it
will be found that they attach no definite idea.
Notwithstanding our respect for the important document which
declared our independence, yet if anything be found in it,
and especially in what may be regarded rather as its ornament
than its substance, false, sophistical and
unmeaning, that respect should not screen it from the freest
examination. All men are born free and
equal?”–he says with a question mark.
“Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was
ever born free and that no two men were ever born equal?
Man is born in a state of the most helpless dependence on
other people.” And then there’s the whole vast
category of racial defense and justification of slavery.
At the end of the day that’s where Alexander H.
Stephens went, with his Cornerstone Speech in
1861. That’s where all of them went
at one point or another, some less than others.
Probably the most prominent pro-slavery writer to make the
racial case–and they all did–but probably the most
prominent was George Fitzhugh. In a book called Sociology
of the South–he’s also the same George Fitzhugh who wrote a
book called Cannibals All–but in Sociology of
the South, his famous pro-slavery tract in
1854, he wrote this: “The Negro,” he said,
“is but a grownup child and must be governed as a child.
The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian.
Like a wild horse he must be caught, tamed and domesticated.
We find slavery repeatedly instituted by God or by men
acting under his immediate care and direction,
as in the instance of Moses and Joshua.
Nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we find the
institution condemned, but frequently recognized and
enforced.” And probably his most famous
line, “Men are not born entitled to equal rights.
It would be far nearer the truth to say that some are born
with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to
ride them.” And lastly, there was a kind of
utopian pro-slavery. It was best exemplified by a
writer in Mississippi named Henry Hughes.
Henry Hughes was one strange duck.
He lived in New Orleans, he was eccentric as hell.
He wrote an amazing diary. He was a loner.
He urged revival of the slave-trade in the late 1850s,
and he developed a theory of what he called warranteeism–w-
a-r-r-a-n-t-e-e-i-s-m. He said slaves were not slaves
they were warranties. What he meant was they were the
charges put in the world for slaveholders to care for,
and if possible, even to protect and perfect.
He believed in a strong central state, which was a real
departure for him from the rest of the pro-slavery writers.
He wanted a strong central government to regulate
everything. He wanted huge taxation.
He wanted to build institutions that would be used for the sole
purpose of perfecting the slave into the perfect worker.
He was a bit of a mad scientist. And he was especially obsessed
with racial purity. His writings are just replete
with his fears about hygiene, that if white and black people
touched or if they came together the whites would be soiled, and that any kind of
intermixing of the races was to destroy ultimately the
intellect, the ability,
the capacity of a master race. He wasn’t that widely read,
I must admit, but it shows us how far
pro-slavery could ultimately go. In Hughes’s vision and Hughes’s
worldview slavery was not only a positive good–it was the
possibility of man finding a perfected society,
with the perfect landowners fulfilling their obligations,
supported by a government that taxed the hell out of them to do
it, and perfect workers,
would make the South into the agricultural utopian
civilization of history. Now, the clock says I’ve run
out of time. Let me just leave you with this.
All of that is a way of simply saying it was a deep and abiding
and well-rehearsed–indeed thousands of pages were written
in defense of slavery. It wasn’t just a profitable
financial institution. And if you want to understand
why so many white Southerners, especially in the Deep South,
went to such great extents to save their slave society,
remember the kinds of arguments and language used by its
defenders. Thursday we’ll take up the
North and the critique of this ideology.

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