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Southern Justification of Slavery

The following arguments were put forth in Southern books, pamphlets and newspapers to defend the institution of slavery:

  • Slavery was good for the slaves; the slaveowners took on the burden of caring for the interests of inferior beings, seeing that they would be fed, clothed and given religious instruction.
  • In a comparative sense, Southern slaves were better off than many of the immigrant workers in Northern factories who were confined in unhealthy workplaces for long hours.
  • Slavery was the key to national prosperity—for both the North and the South; nearly 60 percent of U.S. exports of this era were cotton; the slavery advocates argued that if their economy were tampered with, the great industrial cities of the North would crumble; many Southerners viewed the North as a parasite, nourishing itself on slavery while at the same time criticizing it.
  • Slavery was vital for the continuance of a superior Southern lifestyle which emphasized good manners and graciousness; they did not want to become like the fast-paced, money-grubbing North. At the constitutional convention held in Virginia in 1829, a debate took place whether to abolish slavery in the state. The discussion became more intense after the rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831. In response, Thomas Dew, president of the College of William and Mary, wrote a book that defended slavery. His biblical justification provided a certain degree of moral authority for the pro-slavery position during the decades that followed:
    With regard to the assertion that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general assertion, but deny most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offense in holding slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slaveholders and were not condemned for it. All the patriarchs themselves were slaveholders; Abraham had more than three hundred, Isaac had a "great store" of them; and even the patient and meek Job himself had "a very great household." When the children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they made one whole tribe "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and they were at that very time under the special guidance of Jehovah; they were permitted expressly to purchase slaves of the heathen and keep them as an inheritance for their posterity; and even the children of Israel might be enslaved for six years.
    Subsequently, in 1837, William Harper, author of the South Carolina Nullification Ordinance of 1832, wrote that slavery was not just a necessary evil which the Bible did not forbid, but a positive good for slave, master, and civilization:
    President Dew has shown that the institution of slavery is a principal cause of civilization. Perhaps nothing can be more evident than that it is the sole cause. If anything can be predicated as universally true of uncultivated man, it is that he will not labor beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain his existence. Labor is pain to those who are unaccustomed to it, and the nature of man is averse to pain. Even with all the training, the helps, and motives of civilization, we find that this aversion cannot be overcome in many individuals of the most cultivated societies. The coercion of slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labor. Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no tastes for comfort or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization.
    Writing in 1854, George Fitzhugh, a Southern sociologist and lawyer, put forward the most aggressive defense of slavery possible, that it was not merely justifiable in the South but economically superior to the free society of the North and would eventually dominate through the country. His biting analysis of the manufacturing system of the North was similar to that of Karl Marx, writing about the conditions in England at about the same time. The two of them drew entirely different conclusions from their analyses.