Moral Debates on Slavery

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Moral Debates on Slavery

In the United States the American Civil War (1861–1865) is one of the most significant events in American history, and in the years prior to this precipitous event the debates over slavery constitute one of the most dominating themes in American life. While it is true that antislavery sentiment that had developed during the revolutionary period did not disappear during the early years of the republic, the militant phase of American abolitionism occurred during the last three decades of the antebellum period. It was between the years 1830 and 1860 that discussion over slavery in the United States became a fierce sectional debate with pronounced moral themes (Franklin and Moss 2000, p. 193). The moral debate over slavery between the North and the South was initiated by the appearance of William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) Liberator in 1831, the same year as Nat Turner's (1800–1831) revolt, and was concluded by the events of the Civil War, in particular the Emancipation Proclamation and the decisive Union victories in the second half of the Civil War. The debate over slavery during these years, as already indicated, was strongly moral in tone, but these moral sentiments cannot be separated from other factors, such as economic ideals, social values, and political events. In fact, the moral debate over slavery was sometimes shaped by the political context of the times.

In January 1831 Garrison laid down the challenge to the pro-slavery forces with the following declaration in the Liberator: "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or write with moderation" (Hyser and Arndt 2008 [upcoming], p. 186). The Liberator's editor was not the only voice among the abolitionists, and many others in the movement spoke as resolutely or nearly as inexorably as Garrison did. It was the effectiveness of the abolitionists' campaign for immediate emancipation, in both its content and the manner of its presentation, that incited the various southern responses, including the pro-slavery moral arguments.

Much of the abolitionist argument was set in religious terms and with a religious tone. Using the Bible, many abolitionists centered the religious part of the debate on the Golden Rule. Utilizing sentiments developed by the Quakers during the eighteenth century, abolitionists proposed a brotherhood of humankind wherein, as Jesus had taught, each person would treat another person as he wished to be treated by any and every other person. The abolitionists' assumption was that no one would want to be treated as a slave but would want to be a liberated person living in freedom. Based on this ideal, Elizur Wright Jr. could write: "It is the duty of the holders of slaves to restore them to their liberty, and to extend to them the full protection of the law" (Stewart 1976, p. 44). Like the Quakers before themselves, the nineteenth-century abolitionists considered the enslavement of another human to be a sin. However, the abolitionists developed their case against human bondage thoroughly by documenting the specific sins of southern slavery. Among others, these sins consisted of "economic exploitation, sexual license, gambling, drinking and dueling, [and a] disregard for family ties." Abolitionists contrasted such sins with "the pure ideals of Yankee evangelicalism" that imbued the households of true Christians, most definitely their own, in the North (Stewart 1976, p. 41).

As John Ashworth (1995) notes in his study of slavery during the antebellum period, the moral arguments of the abolitionists should be taken seriously, but they should also be understood within a particular socioeconomic context. His book presents the abolitionists as righteous men and women who, in their opposition to slavery, promoted ideals of self-reliance and a highly individualistic self-determination within the North's expanding capitalism. Abolitionists opposed human bondage because slave work on southern plantations stole a man's labor and also because such work stole his conscience. To make his point, Ashworth quotes from The Chattel Principle; the Abhorrence of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. In that pamphlet, the abolitionist Beriah Green (1794–1874) argues that "every child of America" should be guaranteed the right of "wielding, within reasonable limits, his own powers, and employing his own resources, according to his own choice" (Ashworth 1995, p. 182). Abolitionists were confident that all humans, including those that had been wrongfully enslaved, could have a well-developed and efficacious conscience if nurtured within a wholesome family. The abolitionists meant a home based on the four cardinal virtues of the "cult of true womanhood." Having been raised in homes such as these—ones similar to those in which the abolitionists had been raised as children—all individuals would be prepared to navigate the treacherous shoals and nefarious currents of capitalism. Unfortunately, as Liberty Party candidate James Birney (1792–1857) noted, southern slavery nullified every one of these virtues.

During the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s radical abolitionism incited the defenders of slavery to respond in two ways: the development of an apologetics of slavery and repression. The latter, which is discussed at the end of the article, contributed to the antislavery argument. In terms of developing a defense of slavery, apologists argued that bondage was the natural state for Africans. Some, especially those who relied on the Bible, developed a moral philosophy of slavery and insisted that enslavement benefited the enslaved. A minority of apologists relied on science to develop what the historian William Sumner Jenkins (1960) calls the ethnological justification of slavery, and these theorists did not emphasize the benefits of human bondage.

Perhaps surprisingly, the defenders of slavery did make a more effective use of the Bible than did the abolitionists. The advantage that the southern apologists had over the abolitionists in using Scripture is that while slavery is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, the references do not censure the institution. In fact, with Noah's curse on Canaan in Genesis 8:25-27, pro-slavery theorists believed that they had found biblical proof that the natural state of some people is bondage; in particular, they tried to prove that the curse on Canaan encompassed the Africans. Even more decisive for the pro-slavery apologists were the passages in Leviticus 25:44-46 and Joshua 9:27. In the former passage, God, speaking through Moses, authorizes the chosen people of Israel to make slaves of strangers in their promised land. In the latter passage Joshua and the Israelites turn the Gibeonites into their slaves. Furthermore, the advocates of slavery added that neither Jesus nor the apostles who had contact with the institution of slavery condemned it. A favorite book of the New Testament for the proslavery defenders to cite was Philemon because the apostle tells the runaway slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, Philemon. The abolitionists' rebuttal to such biblically based arguments was to quibble over words. For instance, when the proslavery advocate read the word slave in a particular verse, the abolitionist insisted on the word servant. Moreover, abolitionists contended that the conditions of slavery in the Bible were not harsh and evil such as those in the antebellum South. The other form of rebuttal to southerners' biblically based arguments occurred when some abolitionists shifted their morally based arguments away from Scripture to appeals to the human conscience. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), a moderate abolitionist, argued that "the words of Christ" can be found in one's own conscience and not just the Bible; furthermore, she believed that "Protestants [southern proslavery apologists], in their blind hereditary worship of the Bible, worship an image as truly as the Catholics do" (Ashworth 1995, p. 173). When abolitionists such as Child had assumed such a nonbiblical position, the proslavery theorists believed that victory in the argument had been decided in their favor.

The proslavery theorists also used the Bible to develop a theory of society that was very different from the one propounded by the abolitionists. While the abolitionists advocated a society based on radical individual freedom, wherein any person would be a self-governing individual, southerners offered a hierarchical and patriarchal system wherein both master and slave had obligations. In the southern system the role of the church was to instruct each party in the ways that it should fulfill its obligations. Regarding how southern slave owners had fulfilled their duties in the antebellum South, Bishop Stephen Elliott (1806–1866) of Georgia stated, "We are educating these people [the southern slaves] as they are educated nowhere else; that we are elevating them in every generation; that we are working out God's purposes, whose consummation we are quite willing to leave in his hands" (Jenkins 1960, p. 218). In practical, everyday terms pro-slavery theorists believed that, in contrast to conditions of the industrial laborer in the North, the slave in the South had security. During a recession in the North, workers lost jobs, but in the South, George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) proudly proclaimed: "If his present master cannot support him, he must sell him to one who can" (Jenkins 1960, p. 298).

Another argument that a few southern theorists used to justify slavery was the one based on the diversity of races. This ethnographic argument, put forth by such persons as Josiah Clark Nott (1804–1873), assumed that there was a plural origin for humans and not a unitary one. Nott's theory provided the underpinnings for the assumption that the human species consisted of separate races. The appeal of the theory to some southerners was that it assigns blacks to be genetically inferior to whites. Therefore, because blacks are fundamentally inferior, their roles in southern socioeconomic order would naturally be toilers of drudgery. However, because many of the assumptions in the theory conflict so overtly with a literal understanding of the Bible, few southerners adopted it. In the words of the Fitzhugh, "the argument about races is an infidel procedure" because it not only challenges the Bible, it also undercuts the paternalistic relations between master and slave that should be based on Christian sentiments (Ashworth 1995, p. 237).

As noted earlier in this article, southerners responded to the abolitionists' attacks with repressive actions as well as with arguments. In the long term these actions were counterproductive because the abolitionists were able to use them as examples of the threat posed to a liberal democratic society by what they called the slaveocracy. During the 1850s, with the reinforced Fugitive Slave Act bringing "man stealing" to the North, popular sovereignty allowing for the possibility of slavery in the Kansas Territory, and the judgment in Dred Scott v. Sandford apparently upholding pro-slavery views of the Constitution, the abolitionists' visions of a proslavery conspiracy that would undermine a free America became a view adopted by many northerners. The final decade before the Civil War witnessed an ever-expanding antislavery sentiment in the North. As early as 1836 Gerrit Smith (1797–1874) had warned that northerners would have to act in self defense against many acts that threatened the rights of all citizens, such as: the expulsion of antislavery persons from the South; the gag rule in Congress; rifled mailbags; broken printing presses; the push for the annexation of Texas; the murder of abolitionists; and other "unrestrained excesses of the South" (Stewart 1976, p. 80).

Although, during the thirty years from the first issue of the Liberator in January 1831 to the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the abolitionists had failed to convince a majority in the North to join their crusade, they did have two notable achievements. Certainly by the 1850s the abolitionists had made slavery the number one issue in the country. Seemingly, slavery—and, for abolitionists, the evils of slavery—were being talked about everywhere, and neither a gag rule in Congress nor mobs in northern as well as in southern cities could silence the debate. Secondly, as James Brewer Stewart notes in his book, while the abolitionists did not become popular and their cause of immediate emancipation that led to universal brotherhood was not nationally adopted, their strong stance against repression made them martyrs of their cause. Moreover, other northerners eventually accepted the abolitionists' dedicated stance for the rights of slaves as constituting a defense for the rights of white citizens in the country against the aggressiveness of pro-slavery southerners.


Ashworth, John. Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol. 1: Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press, 1995.

Carson, Clayborne; Emma Lapansky-Werner; and Gary B. Nash. The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2007.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Hyser, Raymond M., and J. Chris Arndt, eds. Voices of the American Past: Documents in U.S. History, 4th ed. Boston: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2008 (upcoming).

Jenkins, William Sumner. Pro-slavery Thought in the Old South. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1960.

Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.

Thomas, John L. Slavery Attacked: The Abolitionist Crusade. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965.

                                  George Sochan

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Moral Debates on Slavery

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