In Defense of Slavery

Longtime readers know that I get annoyed by attempts to who approach history as an arsenal, as a search for analogies to throw one's politics in stark relief. The prodigious slave society of the old South is a fertile ground for such partisans. One claim that you often see in these arguments is the idea that slaves in the antebellum South weren't seen as human.


But throughout the South there were (poorly enforced) laws against the murder of slaves. Enslaved people were often encouraged to embrace Jesus, and ministered to by white preachers--treatment that mules and dogs were generally spared. Slave populations were filled with the progeny of white people who had sex with slaves--again treatment which most mules and dogs (as far as we know) were spared. It is surely true that blacks were seen as biologically inferior, but they were nevertheless generally recognized as human.

This posed a philosophical problem for the nascent Confederate intelligentsia. Thomas Jefferson's notion that "all men are created equal," particularly rankled. If black people were part of "man," and all "men" were created equal, how could one justify slavery? Well, one could completely ignore the discrepancy, which is exactly what a lot of Confederates did. But a more radical proposal, one I find interesting, is the assertion that Thomas Jefferson was quite wrong.

On the eve of War, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy explicitly dismissed Jeffersonian view of slavery, for the "positive good" theory:

Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. 

It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. 

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew." Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.


But years earlier, our man George Fitzhugh went a lot harder. "Seward" is William Seward, who was anti-slavery:

We may be doing Mr. Jefferson injustice, in assuming that his "fundamental principles" and Mr. Seward's "higher law," mean the same thing; but the injustice can be very little, as they both mean just nothing at all, unless it be a determination to inaugurate anarchy, and to do all sorts of mischief. 

We refer the reader to the chapter on the "Declaration of Independence," &c., in our Sociology, for a further dissertation on the fundamental powder-cask abstractions, on which our glorious institutions affect to repose. We say affect, because we are sure neither their repose nor their permanence would be disturbed by the removal of the counterfeit foundation. The true greatness of Mr. Jefferson was his fitness for revolution. He was the genius of innovation, the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. His mission was to pull down, not to build up. 

He thought everything false as well in the physical, as in the moral world. He fed his horses on potatoes, and defended harbors with gun-boats, because it was contrary to human experience and human opinion. He proposed to govern boys without the authority of masters or the control of religion, supplying their places with Laissez-faire philosophy, and morality from the pages of Lawrence Sterne. His character, like his philosophy, is exceptional--invaluable in urging on revolution, but useless, if not dangerous, in quiet times. 

We would not restrict, control, or take away a single human right or liberty, which experience showed was already sufficiently governed and restricted by public opinion. But we do believe that the slaveholding South is the only country on the globe, that can safely tolerate the rights and liberties which we have discussed. The annals of revolutionary Virginia were illustrated by three great and useful men. The mighty mind of Jefferson, fitted to pull down; the plastic hand of Madison to build up, and the powerful arm of Washington to defend, sustain and conserve. 

We are the friend of popular government, but only so long as conservatism is the interest of the governing class. At the South, the interests and feelings of many non-property holders, are identified with those of a comparatively few property holders. It is not necessary to the security of property, that a majority of votes should own property; but where the pauper majority becomes so large as to disconnect the mass of them in feeling and interest from the property holding class, revolution and agrarianism are inevitable. We will not undertake to say that events are tending this way at the North. The absence of laws of entail and primogeniture may prevent it; yet we fear the worst; for, despite the laws of equal inheritance and distribution, wealth is accumulating in few hands, and pauperism is increasing. We shall attempt hereafter to show that a system of very small entails might correct this tendency.

I finished this book last week. It is a fascinating read. I really wish it were used in American lit classes. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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