The new American nation began with an assertion that "all men are created equal" and that they were all entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These philosophical underpinnings of the nation challenged the legitimacy of slavery. As threatening as the philosophical challenge was the practical challenge. Slavery existed in all of the thirteen new states, but it was clearly weaker in some than in others. Many northerners found slavery immoral and in conflict with the ideology of the Revolution. The Revolution threatened slavery in other practical ways. The Continental Congress expected the states to contribute soldiers and money to the cause and wanted to assess each state's contribution according to its population. The critical question, for southerners, was whether that population would include slaves or just free people. This issue reemerged at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By the end of the early national period, southerners would have begun to develop a clear defense of slavery.
the revolutionary period
In 1775 the Continental Congress began to discuss how to pay for the ongoing Revolution. John Dickinson, a Delaware Quaker, offered a draft proposal to assess a tax on each state according to its population. Southerners objected, asserting that the population count should not include slaves. Samuel Chase of Maryland, for example, argued that slaves should not be taxed any more than should the cattle of New England. John Adams answered that laborers, free or slave, all produced wealth for the state. When southerners objected, saying that slaves were not as productive as free people, James Wilson of Pennsylvania suggested, perhaps sarcastically, that perhaps, then, the slaves should all be emancipated. This led Thomas Lynch of South Carolina to assert that if the delegates were to question whether slaves were property, the entire idea of a national government would be ended.
This debate illustrated one aspect of early proslavery thought: that slaves were property and could only be considered as property, and that if anyone suggested otherwise, southerners would walk out of the nation and form their own country. Rather than defend their right to own slaves, Lynch, Chase, and other slaveholding southerners simply took the issue off the table. No one had the right, they asserted, to even question the legitimacy of slavery.
the constitutional convention
Such tactics may have worked in the rough-and-tumble of the Continental Congress, but at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, more articulate arguments had to be made. Behind the closed doors of the Philadelphia Convention, where posturing was pointless, southern delegates demanded protection for their slave property and indicated they would not support a new government without specific constitutional provisions supporting slavery. They also offered two new defenses of their institution. The first was economic. South Carolinians asserted that they could not survive without their slaves, that slavery was essential to their economy. In a debate over the African slave trade, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina asserted that a prohibition of the trade would force South Carolina and Georgia "to confederate" on "unequal terms" and would in effect be "an exclusion of S. Carola [sic] from the Union." He declared "S. Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves." Edward Rutledge and Pierce Butler, also of South Carolina, as well as Abraham Baldwin of Georgia and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, made similar arguments. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who would serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after the Constitution was ratified, accepted this economic argument, refusing to debate the "morality or wisdom of slavery" and simply asserting that "what enriches a part enriches the whole." The second argument was historical. Charles Pinckney, a cousin of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, explained to the convention that the great civilizations of the ancient world, Rome and Greece, had been slave societies and that slavery was "justified by the example of all the world."
a three-pronged defense
The new nation thus began with a three-pronged defense of slavery that would serve southerners for more than six decades. First was a political defense of the institution, which began with an implicit bargain at the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution in the end did protect slavery in many ways. The three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the protection of the African slave trade for at least twenty years all strengthened slavery. Southerners could legitimately claim that they supported the Constitution because it acknowledged the importance of slavery. Tied to this was the claim, which held up through most of the early national period, that an attack on slavery would undermine the Union itself. Second was the emerging economic argument: the South could not survive without slavery, and so slavery was vital to the success of the nation. Southerners were quick to point out that the nation's most important exports were tobacco and rice and, after 1800, cotton—all produced by slave labor. Finally, there was the historical argument that slavery had been part of the great classical societies and so must be legitimate. The importance of so many slaveholders in the Revolution, starting with Washington and Jefferson, seemed to confirm that slavery made the American Republic possible. The argument that slavery was a "positive good," however, was not widely employed in its full-fledged version until the 1820s.
arguments from scripture
Opponents of slavery turned to the Bible to attack the institution, but as early as the 1770s, ministers in the colonies and in England were using the Bible to defend bondage. Biblical arguments would become more fully developed in the antebellum period, but at the time of the Revolution, slave owners could draw spiritual comfort from ministers and scholars who pointed out that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible. Richard Nisbet's Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture, published in Philadelphia in 1773, was just one of a number of tracts and essays defending slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, published in London in 1788, provided ammunition for slaveholders in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as slave traders in England.
proslavery and race
Ultimately, slavery, especially in the United States, was about race. In the early national period scholars on both sides of the Atlantic began to consider why Africans were different from Europeans, and if that justified slavery. Well before the Revolution, David Hume argued that mankind stemmed from separate creations. Hume was not a defender of slavery, but his theory was attractive to those who were. Scientists in the antebellum period would elaborate on this theory and conclude that blacks were innately inferior to whites. This theory was in opposition to the single Creation described in the Bible. Religious defenders of slavery rejected the idea of a separate creation. They used the story of Noah to explain the existence of Africans. They argued that blacks were the descendants of Noah's cursed grandson, Canaan. The curse of Canaan was blackness, which led to a new proslavery argument, because the curse implied that Canaan would be the servant of his brothers—in other words, a slave. Thus, by the end of the early national period proslavery theorists were arguing that the Bible not only sanctioned slavery, but that blacks were created by God after the Flood to become slaves.
Perhaps the most important proslavery argument to emerge from the new nation came from Thomas Jefferson, the man who had drafted the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration may have asserted that "all men are created equal," but in his own writings Jefferson argued otherwise. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson asserted that "in general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course." Absurdly, he suggested blackness might come "from the colour of the blood." He even suggested that blacks might inbreed with the "Oran-ootan." He argued that bondage did not prevent Roman slaves from achieving distinction in science, art, or literature because "they were of the race of whites"; American slaves could never achieve such distinction because they were not white. Jefferson argued that American Indians had "a germ in their minds which only wants [lacks] cultivation"; they were capable of "the most sublime oratory." But he had never found a black who "had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw an elementary trait of painting or sculpture." Jefferson found "no poetry" among blacks. He wrote that
comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
Jefferson conceded blacks were brave, but this, he believed, was due to "a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present."
Jefferson's Declaration may have undermined slavery and provided a philosophical basis for antislavery in the generation after the nation's founding. But his Notes on the State of Virginia helped create a scientific and racial defense of slavery that would serve masters until the Civil War and segregationists for a century after that.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2nd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.
——. Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, a Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin Books, 2003.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by William Peden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.
Robinson, Donald. Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 1765–1820. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.