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Slavery - An Evil or a Good?

From the eighteenth century slavery had been regarded as a moral evil by many people; and there had always been societies, animated by amiable humanitarian impulses, devoted to a mild sort of emancipation propaganda. But in 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison established the Liberator in Boston, the opposition to slavery was taken up by a different sort of men and in a radically different spirit. Previously, the South had had little to fear from the prevailing Northern sentiment that slavery was in itself an evil, but that in the South, and under present conditions, it was probably a necessary evil for which the slaveowners were not to be held morally responsible, and which they must be left to deal with as time and circumstances might determine. Garrison and the "Abolitionists" altogether repudiated such views.

To say that slavery was a necessary evil was no reflection upon Southern planters. They had commonly, before 1830, said as much themselves. Many things in this world are necessary evils and are complacently accepted as such. It could be said, and was said, that the wretched condition of factory laborers in New England and old England cotton-mills was a necessary evil. But it was a different matter when people began to denounce slavery as an unnecessary evil, as a crime against humanity. Slave-owners might think the charge absurd, and as long as Abolition sentiment was confined to a few fanatics they could ignore it with contempt. But the danger was that Abolitionists might spread throughout the North, and if that came to pass, as it every day was coming to pass, the slave-owners knew well that it would be impossible to continue to live in political union with a people who regarded them as unworthy of a decent man's respect.

The Abolitionist argument could be adequately met only by proving that slavery was a positive good, an institution that harmonized with the nature of things, a social arrangement which was a blessing to society and a benefit to the slave. Between 1830 and 1860 serious and humane and gifted men formulated such a defense of slavery. They were only following a marked trend of thought throughout the world when they maintained that the phrases of the Declaration of Independence were no more than "glittering generalities." The truth is, said Chancellor Harper, not that "all men are created equal," but rather that "man is born to subjection." A careful and unprejudiced study of history, he said, would reveal the fact that : The exclusive owners of property ever have been, ever will, and perhaps ever ought to be the virtual rulers of mankind. ... It is the order of nature and of God that the being of superior faculties and knowledge, and therefore of superior power, should control and dispose of those who are inferior. It is as much the order of nature that men should enslave each other as that animals should prey upon each other."

This was written in 1837, and at that date it was easy to point out, with much semblance of truth, that the industrial civilization of New England and of old England, no less than the agricultural civilization of the South, was based upon the subjection of the many by the few. There was a wage-slavery as well as a chattel slavery, and the South maintained that the former was worse than the latter. In 1845 James H. Hammond published a series of letters in which he drew a heartrending picture of the condition of laborers in the great industrial centers. Since subjection was thus the essential basis of civilized society, that system was best where the master was responsible for the slave. Instead, therefore, of abolishing negro slavery in the South, this system should be taken as the model for the reform of industrial conditions in the North. The capitalists, according to Mr. Hammond, should become the owners of their laborers and as such be compelled to clothe and feed them decently; while in the West the public lands should be parceled out in great estates and tilled by the landless poor bound in perpetuity to the soil.

As this philosophy came to be the accepted social and political faith throughout the South, its advocates ceased to be content with the negative policy of preserving slavery where it already existed. For Southern extremists, no less than for Northern extremists, the slavery question became a moral issue, capable only of a logical and a radical solution.

One thing which may be said of the various sacred books of the world is, that just as soon and just so far as a people have come to regard any book as sacred, they have begun to be blind to its faults, to take it as an ultimatum, and to be unwilling to seek for, or even to receive, anything as by any possibility better than it. Thereafter its eyes are not turned forward but backward. Everything thenceforth must be estimated as good or bad, according as it does or does not agree with the teaching of the Book. Hence the strange fact that so many excellent Christian people in America defended slavery as something good and right. It happened that the people from whom the Old Testament part of our sacred book came, held slaves, and, in common with most other nations in that early age of the world, thought it right so to do.

The centuries that passed since that time had carried the world forward to the point where all the leading nations saw plainly that slavery is wrong. But the fact that the sacred book sanctioned slavery blinded many eyes. Instead of asking what was right, men and women asked what the sacred book taught: which was only equivalent to asking what was supposed to be right by a people of much lower civilization, two or three thousand years ago, at the time the Book crystallized into sacredness. This was a fearful mistake, which resulted in arraying tens of thousands of as conscientious and kind-hearted people as the world ever saw, on the side of as dark and cruel, and in its spirit unchristian, an institution as has disgraced the modern world. Such is a specimen of the evils that necessarily come from going back into the past, and taking a book written in an age long gone by, and for an age long gone by, and setting it up as a standard for the present age.

C. Vann Woodward noted that "In the 1820's the slave states contained a great many more antislavery societies than the free states and furnished leadership for the movement in the country. It would be false to suggest that slavery was on the way out, or, in spite of some amelioration, that the reformers made any very substantial alterations. But it is not too much to say that this was a society unafraid of facing its own evils.... In spite of the vigor of the movement and the depth of its root in Southern tradition, it withered away to almost nothing in a very brief period during the middle thirties. By 1837 there was not one antislavery society remaining in the whole South. Of the thousands of voices that had been raised in outspoken protest a short while before there were to be heard only a few whispers. Opponents changed their opinions or held their tongues. Loyalty to the South came to be defined in terms of conformity of thought regarding one of its institutions.... The South concentrated its energies upon the repression of heresy and raised intellectual barricades against the ideas of a critical and unfriendly world."

"... in the mid-forties something happened. It happened rather suddenly. The floodstream of criticism dwindled to a trickle and very nearly ceased altogether. It was as if some giant sluice gate had been firmly shut. The silence that followed was soon filled with the clamor of voices lifted in accusation, denial, or recantation. No reputation was now secure from the charges of the heresy hunters, the loyalty investigators, and the various committees on public orthodoxy and conformity. Choruses were lifted in rapturous praise of the very institutions that had been so recently the objects of attack-and the choruses were joined by many of the former critics." ["The Irony of Southern History" From C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History]

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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:22:16 ZULU