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Southern Proslavery Rhetoric

By1860, the slave states had approximately four million slaves making up approximately one-third of the South’s population. However, opposition to slavery began as early as the 1700’s by religious leaders and philosophers in North America and Europe who condemned the practice, arguing that slavery was contrary to God’s teachings and violated basic human rights. During the Revolutionary War, many Americans came to feel that slavery in the United States was wrong because they believed that protection of human rights was one of the founding tenets of the United States, and slaves were not accorded rights.

Slavery was likely opposed more rapidly in the North in part because fewer people in the North owned slaves. Northern abolitionists began organized efforts to end the practice of slavery in the 1800’s. But much of the American South, believed that slavery was vital to the continuation of its livelihood and lifestyle and therefore defended the institution of slavery. As the abolition movement picked up, southerners became organized in their support of slavery in what became known as the proslavery movement.

Some southerners involved in the movement maintained the position that slavery was like “the law of nature” which allowed the strong to rule the weak. Thus is was appropriate for whites to own blacks as slaves because they believed whites were the dominant race. Some supporters of slavery believed that the Bible clearly condoned the practice of slavery. Still others argue that southern slaves were provided with lifelong homes and better living conditions than they would have experienced living in Africa.

By 1860, almost all southerners thought slavery should continue. The Southern philosophers were, in some measure, great theorists. Their ability to defend the institution of slavery as a good for society can be considered through three justifications: socio-political, economic/socio-economic, and religious. Of all the areas with which the southerners contended, the socio-political arena was probably their strongest. It is in this area that they had history and law to support their assertions.

With the recent exception of the British, the slave trade had been an integral part of the economies of many nations and the slaves were the labor by which many nations and empires attained greatness. Southerners envisioned an American empire and that required slave labor. In addition, the Enlightenment that had so revolutionized thought in Europe was strongly opposed in the American South. The American South, and, to a certain extent, even the North, rejected both the enthronement of reason over faith, and the rights of individual men over social responsibilities.

The political culture of the American South demanded strong authority and a social hierarchy. Most of the Governors of the American South were “new money” aristocrats who were landowners and slave owners and their wealth determined their political power. The importance of the social system governed their beliefs on the institution of slavery. For Southerners, slaves were an extension of the household. Thus, the move to abolish slavery represented, among other things a radical an attack on the traditional family. Much of the American North differed significantly from this view of social hierarchy.

The North, though holding to some of the principles espoused by the South, saw slavery as a direct contradiction of the Declaration of Independence. As such, the North wanted to avoid the obvious hypocrisy of upholding the Declaration while condoning slavery. The South, in its support of the institution of slavery chose to challenge the validity of the Declaration instead. The Southerners, did not limit their defense to philosophical arguments. They also pointed out that the laws of the United States protected the institution of slavery.

Article I, section 9, clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States affirmed the South’s right to allow “the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” at least, until 1808. The Constitution also implicitly supported the institution of slavery in article IV, section 2, clause 3, which stated: No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Similar state laws, as well as the introduction of other Federal laws and compromises, further supported these constitutional articles. The Missouri Compromise, the Gag Rule of 1836 (to 1843), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act all allowed, and in some cases affirmed, the South’s slaveholding system. Southerners also attacked Northerners on grounds of hypocrisy. Southerners argued that slavery or personal servitude guaranteed the very freedom and liberty that the North enjoyed. The South regarded the northern system of labor with contempt.

They believed that the industrial North exploited the worker and, furthermore, and perhaps the greater evil, neglected to ground the worker in a Christian society. Southerners began to articulate a fairly new idea; slavery was, in fact, not bad, but rather it was a positive good for all concerned because; it allowed American civilization to advance. The south’s arguments regarding the positive aspects of slavery shifted some of the burden of defense upon the North. The Industrial Revolution was ripe with stories of crimes and abuse against employed labor up north.

How then was the northern system any better? ” Southerners asked. Moreover, was not the Northern system less humane because it released employers from any obligations to employees beyond that of wages? The Southerners contended that because slaves were a part of the family slave owners provided not only for the economic needs but also the material and spiritual needs of their slaves. Thus, the southern system was significantly better than the Northern system for both slaves/workers and owners.

In addition to the socio-political justifications for slavery, many southerners argued that the economic stability of the nation was dependent upon slavery. Southerners presented the “it is too late to change now” theory. The belief of many Americans, Northerners and Southerners alike, was that the emancipation of slaves would catapult the United States headlong into economic distress. To further support their fears, slave owners pointed to the brutal violence of slave revolts, including Nat Turner’s revolt that resulted in the deaths of over 50 white Virginians.

Even Thomas Jefferson, the great Founding Father who penned the phrase “all men are created equal” in America’s Declaration of Independence, remarked, “Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort, the slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture. ” In other words, Jefferson believed that emancipation would only be possible if it were “conditional upon expatriation to Africa. ” This, of course, was a highly unlikely and, quite probably, an impossible alternative.

Therefore, the obvious Southern response was to fortify their position of the necessity of slavery. In this sense, slavery was a way for the minority white population to control the majority black population. The Southerners essentially feared the revenge of the Negro. Turning to the religious aspect, the Southerners often took support from the proslavery positions of the Presbyterian, the Baptist, the Methodist and the Unitarian clergies. The seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries featured many debates among church leaders on the question of slavery.

Congregations and governments called upon Church leaders in order to either promote or oppose slavery. Most Southern clergy called upon Abrahamic tradition to provide support for slavery. The Southerners held that the biblical texts admonishing slave owners and slaves on their responsibilities indicate acceptance of the institution of slavery. Southern clergy believed that slaveholding was never condemned in the Bible, that Jesus and his disciples never espoused abolition principles and, further, that the master-slave relationship was morally superior, and more Christian like, than the employer-employee relationship of the free labor system.

Furthermore, the Southern clergy argued that God never gave permission to sin and consequently God’s laws to Moses regarding the institution of slavery, if slavery was sinful, would constitute a major contradiction. Yet, despite the southern clergy’s seeming support of the institution of slavery, the majority did not support the perpetuation of slavery as practiced in the United States. In fact, many clergy called for the gradual emancipation of slaves in a manner that would prevent government from falling into the hands of blacks in those States where there was a black majority.

Most southern clergy held that while the institution of slavery itself was not evil, there were evils associated with the practice. As such, the clergy often fell into disfavor with the extremists of the proslavery movement. Many Southerners supported, in some measure, the position of the clergy to some extent. Yet, they did not wish to abandon their system suddenly and without an adequate replacement. They were also concerned that free labor promoted infidelity, secularism, liberal theology, perversities, egotism and personal license to the detriment of God-ordained authority and the Christian social order.

In studying the Southern defense of slavery, it appears that southerners were defending a way of life. Many believed that the institution of slavery was the lesser of two evils in terms of providing benefits for workers, others believed that it was at the very foundation of a free society to own slaves and still others saw it merely as an expedient means to an economic end. Although one may acknowledge that the South had understandable political, social and religious reasons for supporting the institution of slavery, the fundamental moral obligation to treat all humans as equals supercedes them all.

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