Proslavery Writing

views updated


In the antebellum period the American South produced a wave of literature defending slavery in the region. Virtually all fiction and nonfiction published in the South, from poetry and novels to political science texts and sociological treatises, took up proslavery as a central theme. Proslavery also appeared prominently in works focused on seemingly unrelated topics such as biological science, biblical history, and travel. Northern writers also produced important proslavery writing, but proslavery absorbed the antebellum South's intellectual energies, dividing the nation's culture with immediate, violent, and enduring consequences. In 1831, with a simultaneity not noted at the time, the coincident inception of William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) Liberator, which initiated the abolitionist movement, and the insurrection of Nat Turner (1800–1831) ignited an ideological conflagration. After 1831 southern proslavery polemics glorified the region. Southern identity, southern unity, southern belligerence, the sectional crisis, secession, and Civil War followed, with proslavery authors of every genre cheering each step.

The year 1831 marked not only a sea change in the volume and influence of proslavery writing but also the coalescence of a new proslavery ideology. History textbooks often argue that the South defended slavery as a "necessary evil" before 1831 and then began to defend it as a "positive good" in response to abolitionist assaults. Historians no longer accept this simple formula. Southerners typically defended slavery only as it was practiced in the southern states, not arguing that slavery would last forever or that slavery was a feature of an ideal society. Yet historians do agree that the arguments the South produced after 1831 differed significantly from those of the revolutionary and early national periods. New writers with new social and moral outlooks defended the morality of slavery in ever-greater numbers. Proslavery ideology became more self-conscious, thoroughly articulated, and central to white southerners' identity. The rapid growth and territorial spread of both the slave/cotton economy and southern religious revivalism between 1787 and 1831 had changed the region's culture. Antebellum proslavery had little defensiveness and was characterized by moral and intellectual certitude.

Southern writers led the antebellum shift toward an uncompromising defense of slaveholding. After 1831 southerners drove dissenters on the issue of the morality of slaveholding out of the region. Southerners might continue to disagree among themselves about the exact future of slavery, the region's politics, and the characteristics that made the South distinctively wonderful, but public dissent on the superiority of the South was rare and violently punished.


Religious publications sold more copies than any other form of proslavery writing. The three major protestant evangelical denominations—Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—accounted for more than 90 percent of southern churchgoers. Their ministers ran southern educational institutions, included a higher percentage of slaveholders than any other profession, and controlled an impressive religious press. The Methodist Christian Advocate had the highest circulation of any newspaper in the world in 1830.

Ministers, including the Baptist Richard Furman (1755–1825), who was instrumental in founding George Washington, Furman, and Mercer Universities, led the first wave of antebellum proslavery writing in the wake of the Denmark Vesey slave-revolt conspiracy in Charleston in 1822. Furman's "Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States" (1823) trumpeted the numerous scriptural passages taken to favor slaveholders that would be repeated ad nauseam after 1831. The abolitionist movement launched that year sprang from radical northern churches. Southern ministers thus felt well positioned to answer the abolitionists' religiously based charges that slaveholding was a sin. Southern writers sought divine sanction for slaveholding by quoting select scriptural passages—a development that encouraged a culture of simple biblical literalism in the region. The refrain of the regional war of words had other dramatic and long-lasting historical effects. The Presbyterian (1837, 1857, 1861), Methodist (1844), and Baptist (1845) denominations split into northern and southern wings over the issue of southern demands that slaveholders receive moral vindication and that abolitionists be purged as biblical heretics and dangerous social subversives. Southern ministers then controlled new independent regional denominations, newspapers, and periodicals that they used to promote their proslavery biblical argument.

Of course, long-standing biblical arguments in defense of slavery were well known or available. Antebellum ministers North and South, like the earliest American proslavery publicists in the Puritan New England of the 1600s, were familiar with racist and biblical justifications for slaveholding common in Western culture. Racist religious ideologies based on scripture were used to justify enslavement of Africans before slavery was instituted in America. No society in history, however, produced nearly the volume of religious proslavery writings that the antebellum South did.

The Virginia Baptist minister Thornton String-fellow (1788–1869) wrote the best-selling proslavery tract of the era and was probably the most widely distributed antebellum southern writer of any kind. In his Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery (1841) Stringfellow gave the authoritative catalog of scriptural proslavery references that would be emphasized by antebellum southern evangelicals throughout the Civil War. Other proslavery ministers constantly pointed out that the God of the Old Testament had sanctioned slaveholding. After all, his prophets, patriarchs, and chosen people held slaves: God chose Abraham and blessed him while he held slaves, two of the Ten Commandments affirmed the master-slave relationship, and Leviticus 25 gave license to the holding of foreigners in perpetual bondage. Like all subsequent biblical proslavery writers, Stringfellow gave greatest emphasis to Paul's letters (the slaves for this reason labeled the period of their enslavement "Paul's Time"). Paul's letters acknowledged that slavery was consistent with Christianity (Ephesians 6), thus creating a New Testament link to the innumerable Old Testament passages. Proslavery ministers reasoned that although he preached in a slaveholding society, Jesus never condemned slavery. In Luke 7, after curing the Centurion's servant, Jesus commended the Centurion, who, southern ministers pointed out, was a slave-holder. In the economic boom and spread of evangelical profession in the antebellum South, ministers thought they again saw the Savior commending and blessing righteous men who held slaves.

The South saw massive territorial and economic growth starting with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793; similarly, the relatively unchurched South witnessed a wave of conversions, starting with the Great Revival of 1801, which turned the region into the Bible belt. Southerners believed the tremendous economic boom and the spread of evangelical profession in the region were linked. In line with the Protestant work ethic, God had rewarded his righteous followers. When Paul spoke of "believing masters" in Timothy 4, Bible belt masters saw a reflection of themselves in scripture. The most popular biblical passage among antebellum southerners was also from Paul's Letters. In his letter to Philemon, Paul sent a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master. Southern proslavery ministers saw biblical justification not only for the morality of slavery but also for the southern position on the Fugitive Slave Law and the Constitution in this endlessly cited passage.

Like political lessons found in the Bible, biblical myths not in the literal word of scripture also played an important role in southern views of race and territorial expansion. The most infamous of such myths were those surrounding Genesis 9, in which Noah curses his son Ham for mocking Noah's drunkenness. The curse falls on Ham's son Canaan, who will be the "lowest of slaves" to Ham's brothers, Shem and Japheth. Noah prophesies that Japheth will prosper, and white southerners, indeed all antebellum white Americans, especially appropriated Noah's prophecy that God would "make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." Southerners (and northerners) saw Genesis 9 as foreshadowing a sacred history of the United States: antebellum white Americans (Japheth) had enslaved Africans (Ham) and made space for themselves by occupying the tents of Native Americans (Shem). Southern novelists like William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870) employed this racist myth and routinely referred to blacks as "Children of Ham," as did northern authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896).


Although religious morality dominated proslavery writing the topic flourished in an eclectic range and fusion of literary genres and ideological strategies. The market for proslavery argumentation provided the impetus for expansion of regional publications and emergence of new cultural forms, such as the plantation novel. Diverse journals, including the Southern Presbyterian Review (1847–1885), Southern Literary Messenger (1834–1864), and the commercial forum "DeBow's Review" (1846–1869), published leading religious proslavery authors alongside literary, political, and academic polemics. The Methodist minister Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870) embodied the wide range of regional writing involving proslavery. He wrote important biblical proslavery books and articles, edited the newspaper The State Rights Sentinel, was president of Emory College, and authored the famous sketch Georgia Scenes (1835) that marked the advent of the Southwest Humor liter-ary genre. Like Joseph Glover Baldwin's The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), which expanded southwest humor, and John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), which established the plantation novel, Longstreet's informal sketches of southern life shared the purpose of religious proslavery. They celebrated the South's distinct and superior culture and assumed that a society built on slavery and white supremacy was desirable. Southern travel writing, such as William Alexander Caruthers's The Kentuckian in New York (1834), and genteel novels of manners, such as E. D. E. N. Southworth's Shannondale (1851), made the superiority of southern life and the alien and degenerate nature of the North more explicit. Caruthers also participated with important proslavery authors, such as Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, in developing the same themes in southern historical romances, derivative of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. The South's most prolific author, William Gilmore Simms, produced nearly every variety of fiction and nonfiction that celebrated the southern way of life. Simms contributed polemics to intellectual and political defenses of slavery such as James Henry Hammond's influential compilation The Pro-Slavery Argument (1852).


Hammond, who was governor of and senator from South Carolina as well as a journalist, and Simms were among the elite intellectuals who produced academic defenses of slavery and often collaborated with each other. Academic writers, like ministers, argued that the South had superior social organization and unity compared to the North, which southern writers associated with dangerous social experimentation. Proslavery academic writers of all genres labeled the North as a land of "isms and schisms." Abolitionism joined Mormonism, Catholicism, vegetarianism, socialism, women's rights, and transcendentalism on the southern list of radical ideologies that flourished only in the North. Prominent among the influential academic defenders of slavery was the economist Thomas R. Dew (1802–1846), who pioneered the academic defense of slavery in his 1832 Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature, 1831–1832. The legislature had debated ending slavery after the Nat Turner revolt and rejected the idea. Dew used emerging laissez-faire economic doctrine from England to argue that slavery was a natural product of market forces and could not, and should not, be regulated or abolished by government policy. Dew influenced most subsequent proslavery writers, especially ministers, and melded Christianity and capitalism in his ideology.

In contrast to Dew's conflation of slavery and capitalism, the innovative sociologists Henry Hughes and George Fitzhugh argued in the 1850s for the superiority of a slave society to a capitalist one. Authors of proslavery novels and poems in the 1850s also employed the sociological critique of free labor in the North and England. Other academic fields produced influential proslavery writing that developed distinct variations on the argument that the South had the only proper social organization. The agriculturist Edmund Ruffin (1794–1865), the philosopher Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809–1877), and the biologist Josiah Nott (1804–1873) championed the South in their respective fields. Nott's biological theories created controversy in southern letters because he rejected biblical accounts of human origins and argued that blacks were a separate and inferior creation. His rejection of the Bible, rather than his white supremacy, troubled fellow proslavery writers. Many of these same intellectuals' works, in addition to those of religious proslavery authors like Stringfellow, were reprinted at the end of the 1850s in the massive and famous compilation E. N. Elliott's Cotton Is King (1860).

During the 1850s less academic but equally didactic defenses of slavery sprang from southern reactions to Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Numerous hackneyed proslavery novels attempted to counter Uncle Tom. E. W. Warren's Nellie Norton (1864) focused on the biblical and moral defense of slavery, and Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1852) adopted a southern version of Stowe's romanticism that followed the "plantation myth" of happy slaves protected by patriarchal masters living by a superior, bygone rural ethic. While these southern novels of the 1850s met little literary or popular success, poetry, like that of Congressman William J. Grayson (1788–1863) of South Carolina, achieved more acclaim inside the South. Grayson's "The Hireling and the Slave" (1854) defended slavery and answered Stowe in the style of Alexander Pope.

Mary H. Eastman was not the only southern woman to take up pen to answer Stowe and defend slavery. Louisa S. McCord, in an impressive body of polemical academic articles, answered Stowe by defending slavery as an expression of free-market economics, drawing heavily on Thomas Dew, and by dismissing women's rights. She was one of the only antebellum women to write extensively about political economy.


Given the range of proslavery publications, historians disagree sharply on the intellectual underpinnings of proslavery writings and on the nature of southern society revealed in them. Analysis of the southern political economy is at the root of long-standing historiographical debates. It also divides many proslavery writings. Most southern ministers and political economists, especially those in commercial centers, defended slavery as a progressive expression of free-market forces, property rights, liberal individualism, and the Protestant work ethic. This camp made fewer distinctions between the North and South, factory and plantation, the modern and the traditional. They were very willing to admit that slavery would and even should pass away in the future. However, a smaller but influential group of intellectuals, politicians, scientists—especially biologists, ethnologists, and sociologists—and conservative ministers, especially Old School Presbyterians like the South's leading theologian, James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862), defended slavery as an older, superior, and permanent patriarchal relationship serving as a bulwark against the evils of the emerging market system. Historians choose to emphasize either the "free-market" or "patriarchal" (often "paternalist") proslavery writings in order to support their divergent analyses of the Old South.

Historians agree that racist assumptions were at the heart of every form of proslavery writing. The progressive "free-market" proslavery apologists argued that blacks were morally unfit for freedom and that they had failed (or would fail) in the competitive atmosphere of the American work ethic. Slavery, supposedly, constituted a "Christian School" that was uplifting blacks via the moral lessons of hard work. The conservative, "paternalist" brand of proslavery assumed that blacks—via biology, culture, or divine ordinance—were a permanent class of inferiors unfit for independence. Historians also agree that proslavery ideology set the stage for secession and sustained the Confederate war effort. The boom in proslavery literature, by definition, did not survive the Civil War, but the arguments and themes developed in it had transformed the South and reappeared in pro-segregation writing and the literature of the Lost Cause, which celebrated the righteousness of the Confederate cause for decades after the Civil War in publications nearly as various and voluminous as the proslavery genre. The proslavery themes of racial subjugation and of moral and cultural superiority of the Bible belt survived in a world without slavery and forged a legacy that southern authors wrestled with in the twentieth century.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; The Confessions of Nat Turner;Ethnology; Female Authorship; Humor; Religion; The Romance; Slave Rebellions; Sociology for the South;Swallow Barn


Primary Works

Barnes, Albert. An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. 1846. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Blanchard, Jonathan, and N. L. Rice. A Debate on Slavery. Cincinnati, Ohio: W. H. Moore & Co., 1846.

Bledsoe, Albert T. Essay on Liberty and Slavery. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1856.

Brownlow, Taylor G., and A. Pryne. Ought AmericanSlavery To Be Perpetuated? A Debate. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1858.

Dew, Thomas Roderick. Review of the Debate in the VirginiaLegislature of 1831 and 1832. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Elliott, E. N., ed. Cotton Is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments:Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this Important Subject. Augusta, Ga.: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860.

Fuller, Richard, and Francis Wayland. Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution. New York: L. Colby, 1845.

Ker, Leander. Slavery Consistent with Christianity. Baltimore: Sherwood & Co., 1840.

McCaine, Alexander. Slavery Defended from Scripture. Baltimore: Wm. Woody, 1842.

McTyrie, H. N., C. F. Sturgis, and A. T. Holmes. Duties toServants: Three Premium Essays. Charleston, S.C.: Southern Baptist Convention, 1851.

Priest, Josiah. Bible Defence of Slavery. Glasgow Ky.: Walker and Richard, 1852.

Pro-Slavery Argument: As Maintained by the MostDistinguished Writers of the Southern States, Containing the Several Essays, on the Subject, of Chancellor Harper, Governor Hammond, Dr. Simms, and Professor Dew. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Richards & Co., 1852.

Ross, Frederick. Slavery Ordained of God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857.

Smith, William A. Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery. Nashville, Tenn.: Stevenson and Evans, 1856.

Smyth, Thomas. The Unity of the Human Races Proved to be the Doctrine of Scripture, Reason, and Science. New York: G. P. Putman, 1850.

Stearns, Edward J. Notes on "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Being aLogical Answer to Its Allegations and Inferences against Slavery as an Institution. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853.

Thornwell, James Henley. Rights and Duties of Masters. Charleston, S.C.: Press of Walker and James, 1850.

Warren, E. W. Nellie Norton; or, Southern Slavery and theBible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments upon which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments. Macon, Ga.: Burke, Boykin, & Company, 1864.

Wilson, Joseph. The Mutual Relations of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible. Augusta, Ga.: Steam Press of the Chronicle and Sentinel, 1861.

Secondary Works

Ambrose, Douglas. Henry Hughes and Proslavery Thought in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Bailey, David T. Shadow on the Church: SouthwesternEvangelical Religion and the Issue of Slavery, 1783–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Daly, John Patrick. When Slavery Was Called Freedom:Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Farmer, James Oscar. The Metaphysical Confederacy: JamesHenley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of theIntellectual in the Old South, 1840–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Faust, Drew Gilpin, ed. The Ideology of Slavery: ProslaveryThought in the Antebellum South, 1830–1860. Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Proslavery Thought, Ideology, and Politics. New York: Garland, 1989.

Fought, Leigh. Southern Womanhood and Slavery: ABiography of Louisa S. McCord, 1810–1879. Columbia: University Press of Missouri, 2003.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind:The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy & Society of the Slave South. New York: Pantheon, 1965.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Slaveholders' Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820–1860. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Goen, C. C. Broken Churches, Broken Nation: DenominationalSchisms and the Coming of the American Civil War. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press: 1985.

Haynes, Stephen R. Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hill, Samuel. South and the North in American Religion. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Jenkins, William Sumner. Pro-Slavery Thought in the OldSouth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935.

O'Brien, Michael. Rethinking the South: Essays inIntellectual History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Paskoff, Paul, ed. The Cause of the South: Selections from"DeBow's Review," 1846–1867. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. The Edge of the Swamp: A Study in theLiterature and Society of the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Smith, H. Shelton. In His Image But . . . : Racism inSouthern Religion, 1780–1910. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972.

Snay, Mitchell. Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

John Patrick Daly