27f. The Southern Argument for Slavery
Southern slaveholders often used biblical passages to justify slavery.
Those who defended slavery rose to the challenge set forth by the Abolitionists. The defenders of slavery included economics, history, religion, legality, social good, and even humanitarianism, to further their arguments.
Defenders of slavery argued that the sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.
Defenders of slavery argued that if all the slaves were freed, there would be widespread unemployment and chaos. This would lead to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. They pointed to the mob's "rule of terror" during the French Revolution and argued for the continuation of the status quo, which was providing for affluence and stability for the slaveholding class and for all free people who enjoyed the bounty of the slave society.
Some slaveholders believed that African Americans were biologically inferior to their masters. During the 1800s, this arguement was taken quite seriously, even in scientific circles.
Defenders of slavery argued that slavery had existed throughout history and was the natural state of mankind. The Greeks had slaves, the Romans had slaves, and the English had slavery until very recently.
Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, ... nor his manservant, nor his maidservant." In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.
Defenders of slavery turned to the courts, who had ruled, with the Dred Scott Decision, that all blacks — not just slaves — had no legal standing as persons in our courts — they were property, and the Constitution protected slave-holders' rights to their property.
Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, "Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."
Defenders of slavery argued that by comparison with the poor of Europe and the workers in the Northern states, that slaves were better cared for. They said that their owners would protect and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves.
James Thornwell, a minister, wrote in 1860, "The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other."
When a society forms around any institution, as the South did around slavery, it will formulate a set of arguments to support it. The Southerners held ever firmer to their arguments as the political tensions in the country drew us ever closer to the Civil War.
The Peculiar Institution Quiz
A book review of Larry Tise's Proslavery: A History of The Defense of Slavery In America. Though this review is rather short, it does present some of the startling reasoning used to justify slavery, including the perceived approbation of slavery found in the Bible.
Report broken link
George Fitzhugh's two books advocating slavery helped polarize Northerners and Southerners on the issue of slavery. Fitzhugh maintained that all labor is essentially slavery and that the "slavery" of free workers is more cruel than the complete slavery of blacks. There are links to electronic versions of his books.
Report broken link
The American Memory program at the Library of Congress ensures that we don't forget our nations past — the good and the bad. This list of linked articles, pamphlets, and books leads to an extensive variety of justifications for slavery. Read the words of contemporary Southern slaveholders to see why they thought slavery was right.
Report broken link
How did a Southerner feel about daily life with slaves? How did would one feel about a violent revolt? You can find out in their own words. South Carolina's Information Highway has provided a list of links from folks down in Dixie before the Civil War. Find out first-hand what they thought of slavery here.
Report broken link
Report broken link
If you like our content, please share it on social media!
In the mid- 1800’s, pro-slavery ideology was a strong current of thought in the United States. In retrospect, supporting slavery is a terrible idea—but it was a popular and widespread belief at the time. Pro-slavery beliefs were justified in several ways. The first was Christianity; defenders of slavery used religion to condone it. Secondly, slavery was not viewed as a cruel, brutal, unfair system (which it was) with poor moral standards, but rather a pillar of American society—that blacks were simply inferior to whites and slavery was a societal norm. Lastly, supporters of slavery used the successes of the American economy to justify slavery. Pro-slavery ideologists used religion, societal views, and the successful American economy to justify slavery.
Pro-slavery ideologies were largely influenced and justified by religion—Christianity in particular, as slaveholders and slavery supporters would quote scripture from the Bible that reinforced the idea of slavery. Additionally, they argued that slavery was the preference of God, as seen in Josiah Priest’s 1852 essay: “We believe that the institution of slavery received the sanction of the Almighty” (Priest, VI).
An argument supporting slavery citing scripture as evidence.
White people who were slave supporters in mid 1800’s America believed that God meant for blacks to live in servitude to whites. This point of belief is also noted by Priest: “God formed and adapted every creature to the country…the negro was created as he is, and has not been produced and modeled by circumstances and accidents” (Priest, 98)
Pro-slavery essay that cites the Bible as justification.
This passage, in particular, highlights the belief adopted by many that black slaves were meant to serve whites—slave supporters believed that God created black people with slavery as their purpose as a race. Largely, slave supporters tried to use Christianity to refute to position that slavery was a horrible, cruel, and unjust system. Now, we know that it was all of those things, but in the 1800’s, that truth was not so clear: “Therefore we come to the conclusion, that it is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing that it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner” (Priest 102-103). However, as is commonly known, slavery was neither tenderly, fatherly, nor thoughtful. It was a cruel system, and those in support of slavery used the Bible to try and justify it.
Slavery: A Societal Norm
In addition to Biblical reinforcement for the support of slavery, supporters also claimed that slavery was a societal norm—and it didn’t need to change. Pro-slavery ideologists argued that slavery was so rooted in American history that it did not need to change. The system, was in fact, an old one; however, slavery was seen as normal just because it was a part of the way things were.
A proslavery flyer warning abolitionists against the fight against slavery.
That being said, it was seen as a white man’s natural right to own, control, and enslave black people (as seen in E.N. Elliott’s essay): “The Master, as head of the system, has a right to the obedience and labor of the slave” (Elliott, vii). In addition to this belief, supporters of slavery also claimed that slavery was not evil—rather, a morally right system that was part of society. This position often fused with Christianity: “It is objected to the defenders of American Slavery, that they have changed their ground, that from being apologists for it as an inevitable evil, they have become its defenders as a social and political good, morally right, and sanctioned by the Bible and God himself” (Elliott, VIII). This quote reinforces the idea that pro slavery believers thought slavery was just in the way of things, and not a cruel and unfair system.
Propaganda promoting slavery as an integral part of American culture.
Additionally, slavery was thought to be so old, so ingrained in American history, and such a part of American culture that it was deeply intertwined with society: “Our fathers left it to us as a legacy, we have grown up with it; it has grown with our growth, and strengthened with our strength, until it is now incorporated with every fibre of our social and political existence” (Elliott, IX).
Slavery’s Economic Impact
Perhaps the largest argument slavery supporters used was the impact slaves had on the American economy. This came with good reason; slaves did not have to be paid, and had no control over their work hours or jobs. This, in turn, proved to have a positive impact on the American economy in the 1800’s–obviously, it was much cheaper and easier to own slaves than to pay wage workers.
The cotton gin, a tool used to cultivate cotton, was key in the importance of free labor to the American economy.
The free labor of slaves was not only a crucial asset for the American economy, but also a prominent aspect of world trade, as Elliott notes when speaking of the assets the colonies provided to England at the time: “Of the commodities which she imported from them—tobacco, rice, sugar, rum—ten millions of dollars worth, annually, were re-exported to her other dependencies, and five millions to other countries—thus making her indebted to these colonies, directly and indirectly, for more than one half of all her commerce” (Elliott, 45).
Internally, the free labor of slaves was essential in stabilizing the financial state of America at the time, as noted in William Harper’s 1852 essay on the subject: “Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no tastes for comfort of elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization” (Harper, 4). This is why supporters of slavery argued that it was a key component of the American economy.
Pro-slavery ideologists used several methods to justify the practice of slavery in the American Colonies in the 1800’s. They cited religion, slavery’s position in society, and the American economy to condone slavery. Supporters of slavery would claim that it was God’s wish for black people to be enslaved; additionally, they deduced that slavery was such a normal pillar of American society that it did not need to change. Lastly, they used the surprising success of the American economy (and pointed slavery’s crucial role in that) to justify human enslavement.
Elliott, E.N. Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments: Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on This Important Subject. Atlanta: Pritchard, Abbott, and Loomis, 1860. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/003488537
Harper, William. Harper on Slavery. Charleston, 1852. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009588810
Priest, Josiah. Bible Defence of Slavery. Glasgow, Ky: W.S. Brown, 1852.http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=miun.aev3898.0001.001;view=1up;seq=7
Railton, Stephen. Pro Slavery Riot Flyer. Digital image. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/abolitn/images/mobhpb.jpg
Williams, R.G. How Slavery Honor’s Our Country’s Flag. Digital image. Alderman Library, University of Virginia, n.d. Web. http://pursuitoffreedom.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/044_full.jpg
Bible Defense of Slavery. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/ODY4WDEyMDA=/$T2eC16NHJGwE9n)ySfi-BP-jrZtQs!~~60_35.JPG
Nellie Norton: Or, Southern Slavery and the Bible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments upon Which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments. Digital image. Documenting the American South. The Southern Homefront, 2004. Web. http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/warren/nortontp.jpg
Woods, Robert O. How the Cotton Gin Started the Civil War. Digital image. Asme. N.p., Mar. 2011. Web. https://www.asme.org/getmedia/00597f07-c2a2-4eb5-bd74-f8c3da8bd908/CottonGin.jpg.aspx