Preserving the Institution of Slavery: An Overview

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Preserving the Institution of Slavery: An Overview

For generations, historians have grappled with the question of which came first, racism or slavery in the New World. Two historians framed this debate. Winthrop Jordan (1931–2007), in his 1968 work White Over Black, suggested that Europeans' notions of good and evil influenced their reaction when they first encountered Africans. Dark was inherently bad, and therefore Africans were inherently inferior because of their dark skin. Edmund Morgan's (b. 1916) 1976 American Slavery, American Freedom argued that Euro-Americans used white indentured servants as evidence that race was not a prerequisite for bondage. According to Morgan, planters in the New World shifted from white indentured servants to black slaves as mortality rates leveled, making the hefty investment worthwhile. Out of fear that poor whites and slaves would combine forces in insurrection, the planter class began implementing racial codes to elevate even the poorest whites to a status above the enslaved blacks. Both historians made compelling arguments and provided substantial evidence. White southerners probably did not examine the roots of their racism or slavery to the extent that historians have, yet the institution of slavery as it developed in the United States became inextricably linked to race. The preservation of slavery and the proslavery argument, therefore, relied on whites' racism, both in the North and the South.

Despite James Henry Hammond's (1807–1864) bold proclamation that "cotton is king," perhaps southerners felt they had a tenuous grip on the institution of slavery. Before the 1820s, southerners often apologized for their reliance on slave labor. The 1820s and 1830s brought tariff increases, the rise of the abolitionist movement, and sectional tensions as both slave and free states expanded into western territories. The politics of these decades turned white southerners' views of slavery from a necessary evil to a positive good. E. N. Elliott wrote in 1860 in defense of slavery, "According to [abolitionists'] definition, a slave is merely a 'chattel' in a human form; a thing to be bought and sold, and treated worse than a brute; a being without rights, privileges, or duties" (pp. v-vi). Elliott denied such an institution existed in the South. He went on to describe slavery as he saw it:

Slavery is the duty and obligation of the slave to labor for the mutual benefit of both master and slave, under a warrant to the slave of protection, and comfortable subsistence, under all circumstances. The person of the slave is not property, no matter what the fictions of the law may say; but the right to his labor is property, and may be transferred like any other property, or as the right to the services of a minor or an apprentice. (pp. v-vi)

According to this view, slavery benefited all those involved, and northerners and abolitionists misrepresented the institution when they described it as a harsh system. By viewing slavery as beneficial and benevolent, white southerners, in particular the planter class, found several reasons to support their subjugation of African Americans, from science to religion to history.

Scientific racism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. Dr. Charles Caldwell (1772–1853), a North Carolinian physician who studied medicine in Pennsylvania, became the leading phrenologist in the United States. Other phrenologists promulgated the science, but Caldwell "did the most to generate interest in the subject and used it to advance supposedly empirical proofs of the innate differences between the races" (Horsman 1981, p. 118). The study of skulls became a popular method of attempting to prove racial inferiority. For example, another scientist, John Campbell (1810–1874), argued that African skulls were shaped like ape skulls, playing into whites' preconceived notions of Africans as ape-like and bestial (Campbell 1851, pp. 50-51). The fuzzy science of the study of skulls from different races prepared people for the notion that different races had distinct characteristics and innate abilities. This gave way to the idea of polygenesis, and although Campbell declared that not all people had descended from Adam and Eve—they merely served as allegorical characters—most nineteenth-century Americans objected to this blatant disregard for the Genesis story (ibid., p. 4). Throughout the century, however, even the monogenetic view adopted the theory of permanent differences between the races. Christians proved "willing to accept and defend the idea of inherent inequality while attempting to maintain their religious orthodoxy. One could either argue for divine intervention at some time after the original Creation, or simply assert that subsequent to the Creation separate races had developed permanently inherited characteristics" (Horsman 1981, p. 52).

Of course, one of the most prominent notions of the beginning of the African race comes from the biblical story of Noah's son, Ham. In the book of Genesis, Noah cursed Ham's son, Canaan, stating, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25). Europeans looked to this passage to justify their enslaving Africans, the supposed descendants of Ham and Canaan, and the biblical rationalization came to the United States with the slaves. Citing the Hamitic myth, one southerner wrote, "May it not be said in truth, that God decreed this institution before it existed; and has he not connected its existence with prophetic tokens of special favor, to those who should be slave owners and masters?… God decreed slavery—and shows in that decree tokens of good-will to the master" (Stringfellow 1856, p. 9). Not only did God sanction slavery; he created it with this curse. White southerners, therefore, saw themselves as doing God's work by enslaving Africans, a people cursed to be slaves.

White southerners used other biblical arguments for their right to own slaves. In addition to passages instructing slaves to be faithful servants, southerners also noted, "In Judea, in Asia Minor, in Greece, in all the countries where the Saviour or his Apostles preached the Gospel, slaveholding was just as common as it is today in South Carolina" (Elliott 1860, p. 22). If Christ and the apostles never bothered to condemn slavery, why should northern abolitionists? White southerners made the argument that they had taken it upon themselves to Christianize the slaves, bringing them up from their pagan African roots. This, in turn, lifted the white southerners, as well, because they did God's work. Historian Thornton Stringfellow explained:

The South did not seek or desire the responsibility, and the onerous burden, of civilizing and christianizing these degraded savages; but God, in his mysterious providence, brought it about…. But God intended (as we now see) to bless these savages, by forcing us against our wills, to become their masters and guardians; and he has abundantly blessed us, also, (as we now see) for allowing his word to be our counselor in this relation;… divinely appointed protectors … The North, after pocketing the price of these savages, refused to bear any part of the burden of training and elevating them. (1856, p. 144)

In this view, the greedy and godless North dismissed the call to care for the helpless barbarians, whereas the reluctant but benevolent South heeded God's command to care for the Africans. God, in turn, blessed the planters for obeying His command.

God blessed white southerners, in the planters' eyes, through economic prosperity. In the 1850s, cotton constituted 58 percent of all the U.S. exports, and the South supplied 70 percent of Britain's imported cotton. Elliott pointed out, "Slavery is not an isolated system, but is so mingled with the business of the world, that it derives facilities from the most innocent transactions" (1860, p. 55). Slavery was necessary not only for the South's economic prosperity, but for the whole nation and Europe.

The economic argument for slavery, although compelling for the preservation of the institution, gave the South no moral stance, however, so white southerners tended to focus on other justifications. The argument of their paternalistic nature toward the childlike Africans proved so enduring that many earlier historians of slavery, such as Ulrich Phillips (1877–1934), argued this point, as well. According to white southerners, Africans, by nature, were savage, and "savage and civilized man cannot live together, and the savage can only be tamed by being enslaved or by having slaves" (Pro-slavery Argument 1852, p. 15). Just being enslaved had a civilizing effect on Africans because of their close proximity to whites. George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) explained:

It is objected that slavery permits or induces immorality and ignorance. This is a mistake. The intercourse of the house-servant with the white family, assimilates, in some degree, their state of information, and their moral conduct, to that of the whites. The house-servants, by their intercourse with the field hands, impart their knowledge to them. The master enforces decent morality in all (1857, p. 45).

Rather than slavery detracting from the South's morality, white southerners argued that slave owning was highly noble. White southerners increased their piety as they civilized Africans.

Besides Christianizing and raising slaves from their previously savage state, owners claimed to take care of their slaves, giving them food and shelter. Although planters owned slaves to increase their profits, they attempted to mask this by taking on an air of noblesse oblige. As the custodians of society, African Americans especially relied on them. Some planters genuinely internalized this ideology of paternalism, which became a major part of their identity. They felt responsible for their enslaved labor, up to a point. Slaveholders never truly forgot the monetary value of their slaves; they kept ledgers with the worth of each laborer for tax purposes or for the purpose of selling their property. Still, the proslavery argument often glossed over this last point and emphasized the paternalistic nature of the slaveholders. And when one's debts piled up, or when a master died, whites often sold slaves and separated the families.

In addition to improving Africans' conditions, slavery advocates argued that owning slaves was part of history. Hammond wrote to abolitionists, "You will say that man cannot hold property in man. The answer is, that he can and actually does hold property in his fellow all the world over, in a variety of forms, and has always done so" (Proslavery Argument 1852, p. 4). Furthermore, the American South followed in the footsteps of great empires. To the northern abolitionists who argued that a republic necessarily excluded bondage, the white South would point to the Roman republic or the Greeks, the inventors of democracy. Not only had slavery always existed, an argument in and of itself, but the greatest civilizations, the models the United States looked to for its own government, condoned the institution. If Rome and Greece preserved slavery, so should the American South.

Not only did history support the institution of slavery, but, according to slaveholders, African slaves were well-off and happy. According to Fitzhugh, northern laborers would be better off and happier if the industrialists would enslave them. Fitzhugh argued that the industrialists had essentially enslaved the laborers by owning their labor. Therefore, industrialists had "all the advantages, and none of the cares and responsibilities of a master." Fitzhugh believed they treated their cattle better than they did their laborers. If they owned their laborers, they would have more of an investment in their well-being, and everyone in the system would benefit the way everyone in the South benefited from slavery (1857, pp. 31-32).

Nehemiah Adams (1806–1878) took a similar view in his work, A South-Side View of Slavery, his account of his three-month journey in the South, visiting such places as Charleston and Savannah. Adams observed that the slaves in Savannah appeared very happy and laughing, different than the grouchy laborers in New York: "I began to like these slaves. I began to laugh with them. It was irresistible. Who could have convinced me, an hour before, that slaves could have any other effect upon me than to make me feel sad?" (1855, p. 15). Throughout his visit in Savannah, he continually mistook slaves for freedmen because of their cheerful disposition, bright clothes, and carefree lifestyle, claiming, "A better-looking, happier, more courteous set of people I had never seen, than those colored men, women, and children whom I met the first few days of my stay in Savannah" (pp. 17-18). On slavery in general, Adams concluded, "It is but fair, in this and all other cases, to describe the condition of things as commonly approved and prevailing; and when there are painful exceptions, it is but just to consider what is the public sentiment with regard to them" (p. 35). Adams and Fitzhugh, along with other advocates of slavery, argued that slavery proved no worse than the capitalist system of labor in the North, and in ways, slavery offered a better system because of the paternalism of the slaveholders.

White southerners ransacked every aspect and approach to knowledge to make arguments to support their preservation of slavery. In the process they turned in upon themselves and turned from an open society of inquiry to a defensive society that insisted all ideas had to support the preservation of slavery.

Every aspect of southern society became intertwined with slavery, and it took the cooperation of nonslaveholders in the South to preserve the institution. In some areas, only about 25 percent of white southerners owned slaves, and the majority of those owned five slaves or less, yet those with twenty or more slaves held all the power. Because the majority of the white southern population did not own slaves, the planters had to keep nonslaveholders aligned with them politically. The values of slavery infiltrated the whole South. For example, state and federal laws required nonslaveholders to support restrictions against slaves by participating in slave patrols. Although obligated to do so by law, this also allowed nonslaveholding whites to feel superior to African American slaves, thereby elevating their social status. As long as slavery existed, whites could overlook class differences; poor whites could remind themselves they were not on the lowest rung because they were not enslaved. This harkens back to Morgan's argument that slavery produced racism. For slavery to have taken hold as it did in the American South, however, Euro-Americans must have already had ideas of their own superiority when they encountered Africans, which is precisely what Jordan suggested.

The combined forces of racism and slavery proved an enduring legacy in the United States. Also in defending slavery, white southerners developed an ideology of racism that has proved more insidious and more difficult to get rid of than the institution of slavery itself. The preservation of slavery relied on white southerners' constant vigilance in promoting their economic, social, and moral reasons for the institution. But with such a small percentage of southerners owning slaves, the planters seemed to aim the arguments that everyone benefited in the slave society as much at nonelite white southerners as at northern critics. It took the cooperation of the whole South to preserve slavery.


Adams, Nehemiah. A South-Side View of Slavery; or, Three Months at the South in 1854, 3rd ed. Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1855.

Campbell, John. Negro-Mania: Being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality of the Various Races of Men. Philadelphia: Campbell & Power, 1851.

Elliott, E. N. Cotton is King, and Pro-slavery Arguments. Augusta, GA: Abbot & Loomis, 1860.

Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters. Richmond, VA.: A. Morris, 1857.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: D. Appleton, 1918.

Pro-slavery Argument: As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States. Charleston, SC: Walker and Richards, 1852.

Stringfellow, Thornton. Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, 4th ed. Richmond, VA: J.W. Randolph, 1856.

                                          Beatrice Burton

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Preserving the Institution of Slavery: An Overview

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