Proslavery Arguments: An Overview

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Proslavery Arguments: An Overview

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, sectional tensions between North and South manifested themselves in both popular and political discourse. Even though abolitionism, as a political cause, remained unpopular in the North and South, antislavery literature such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave (1854), and the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) were widely consumed by Northerners and Southerners alike. These books and pamphlets indicted slavery, but also indicted Southern culture writ-large by emphasizing the power slavery gave to uneducated working-class overseers, the sexual exploitation that produced "tragic mulattos," and the inconsistency between Christian morality and forced African American enslavement. In defense, Southern writers, intellectuals, and clergy began producing their own literature meant to position slavery as integral to the nation's honor, economic future, and moral stability.

The proslavery position often vacillated between viciously stereotypical denigrations of enslaved people that linked them intellectually with animal property and sentimental romantic depictions of content and docile slaves. Often the former were rooted in popular pseudoscientific theories developed in the wake of the European Enlightenment. Richard Colfax's 1833 monograph Evidence against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes represents a typical example of the proslavery position that attempted to "scientifically" dehumanize African Americans. Albeit reluctantly, Colfax employed physiognomy, a theory developed in the late eighteenth century that used analyses of facial features to determine an individual's intelligence and personality traits. Colfax combined physiognomy with skull analysis, arguing that "inherent" facial characteristics of African Americans indicated that their brains were primarily devoted to "animal functions" rather than the rationality and reason that dominated Anglo-Saxon brains. Colfax's pseudoscientific conclusions were reproduced in one form or another as late as the twentieth century.

Historians have noted that a key aspect of proslavery ideology was planters' investment in paternalism. This paternalism provides a way for scholars to explain the propensity of slave owners to view their plantations as extended households, themselves as benevolent fathers, and enslaved African Americans as wayward children in need of guidance. Although paternalism is a complex concept and has implications for a number of historical debates around the nature of slave labor and masters' economic investment in productive workers, the key aspect of paternalism for the proslavery position was that the ideology produced romantic archetypes of enslaved people that reduced them to specific types. These archetypes found their way into much Southern writing, whether it was explicitly proslavery or merely romantic literature. The most common paternalist archetype was the Sambo. The Sambo was the perfect combination of paternalist ideologies, as he was tricky, irresponsible, and in need of guidance, yet childlike in his desire to love and be loved by his master and mistress. African American women, particularly those who worked in plantation households, were described as "mammies." Like the Sambo, mammies were eager to serve, but they also understood themselves as second mothers for white children. Indeed, for paternalists, the loving care mammies showed white children was not compelled by the lash—being permitted to give it was the highest honor African American women could receive in the plantation household. Willing domestic labor by African American women remained a marker of class and respectability in the South throughout much of the twentieth century. Paternalistic rhetoric not only justified slavery, it also established cultural norms that persisted in Southern culture and society for decades.

One of the most damning components of antislavery propaganda was its ability to make slavery appear un-Christian. Ironically, while abolitionist causes were institutionally linked to the Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s), the most prolific religious proslavery advocates were also caught up in new revivalism, specifically Presbyterian millennialism. Southern preachers insisted that slavery was acknowledged within the Bible and that Jesus had compelled enslaved people to be obedient to their masters. Moreover, millenialists such as James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862) argued that slavery was a necessary evil that must exist until humanity achieved spiritual perfection via the second coming of Christ. Southern missionaries who sought to convert enslaved people to Christianity believed that Christian faith would strengthen slaves' notions of discipline and duty, not encourage them to pursue emancipation.

Finally, popular novels allowed Southerners to defend slavery and critique the immorality of the lot of Northern "white slaves"—the poor, immigrant working class. Caroline Rush's The North and the South; or, Slavery and Its Contrasts (1852) follows the tragic tale of a widowed Philadelphian whose family suffers abuse, poverty, illness, and death after the death of her husband. Novels like Rush's insisted that sympathy for enslaved Africans was misplaced: Working-class whites were the true victims in antebellum society. G. M. Flanders's The Ebony Idol (1860) attempted to expose the inherent racism of the abolitionist movement. In her novel, a New England abolitionist rues the day he invites a young emancipated slave, Caesar, into his household when Caesar's eventual engagement to a young white woman ends in mob violence and death. Interestingly, themes of white poverty and Northern fear of social integration were, in many ways, entirely accurate. Though allied with the immorality of slavery, proslavery literature shined a spotlight on the inconsistencies within abolitionists' antislavery ideology and their belief in white racial supremacy.


Colfax, Richard Colfax. Evidence against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes. New York: James T. M. Bleakley, 1833.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Flanders, G. M. The Ebony Idol. New York: Appleton, 1860.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Maddex, Jack P. "Proslavery Millennialism: Social Eschatology in Antebellum Southern Calvinism." American Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1979): 46-62.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. Auburn, NY: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1854.

Rush, Caroline. The North and the South; or, Slavery and Its Contrasts. Philadelphia: Crissy and Markley, 1852.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. London: Clarke and Company, 1852.

Tischler, Nancy M. "The Negro in Modern Southern Fiction: Stereotype to Archetype." Negro American Literature Forum 2, no. 1 (1986): 3-6.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.

                                    Kwame A. Holmes