Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the early 1830’s, southern apologists for slavery began changing their tactics from defending the institution to aggressively arguing its virtues. New proslavery arguments strengthened intellectual bonds among southerners, who saw slavery as a moral institution, in opposition to northern abolitionists.

Summary of Event

During the decades preceding the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), southerners advanced a wide range of arguments and theories—some old, some new—to justify the institution of chattel slavery. The distinctiveness of proslavery thinking during those years lay less in its content than in its tone or spirit. Defenders of the South’s “peculiar institution” were no longer on the defensive; their mood was no longer apologetic. Unlike most of their predecessors, they did not merely tolerate slavery; they defined it as a moral institution and many glorified it. They took the offensive on behalf of slavery partly in response to the attacks of northern abolitionists. Perhaps the primary objective of their aggressive proslavery campaign was to dispel the doubts of southerners as to the justice of slavery and to offer compelling proof to nonslaveholders and slaveholders alike that slavery found sanction in religion, science, and morality, that it constituted an essential part of a civilized economic and political order. Slavery;arguments in support of [kw]Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments (c. 1830-1865) [kw]Advance Proslavery Arguments, Southerners (c. 1830-1865) [kw]Proslavery Arguments, Southerners Advance (c. 1830-1865) [kw]Arguments, Southerners Advance Proslavery (c. 1830-1865) Slavery;arguments in support of [g]United States;c. 1830-1865: Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments[1510] [c]Human rights;c. 1830-1865: Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments[1510] [c]Economics;c. 1830-1865: Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments[1510] [c]Social issues and reform;c. 1830-1865: Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments[1510] [c]Civil rights and liberties;c. 1830-1865: Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments[1510] Dew, Thomas R. Garrison, William Lloyd Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;on slavery[Slavery] Fitzhugh, George Hammond, James Henry Nott, Josiah Stringfellow, Thornton

After 1830, proslavery discourse borrowed from a variety of sources, many of which had been used before calls for immediate abolition posed a new threat to slavery. Proslavery apologists pointed to the existence of slavery during biblical Bible;and slavery[Slavery] Slavery;and Bible[Bible] times and throughout most of history. They also called attention to the notion of entailment, which blamed the introduction of slavery on the British and predicted social catastrophe if slavery were to be abolished.

These arguments continued to dominate the thinking of most proslavery writers during the 1830’s, as evidenced, for example, in the scholar Thomas R. Dew’s Dew, Thomas R. Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (1832). Although Dew’s tract was once treated as the first work of the new proslavery discourse, later historians have seen it as the culmination of the earlier, less affirmative phase of proslavery writing in the South. Dew’s work, which was widely read, asserted that slavery was a preferred way of compelling efficient labor in the hot-climate states of the lower South. This view was the harbinger of the notions of perpetual slavery developed by later southern apologists.

Historians have traditionally understood post-1830 proslavery arguments as reactions to the launching of William Lloyd Garrison’s Garrison, William Lloyd journal The Liberator Liberator, The , which marked the beginning of the immediate-abolition movement, as well as the fear spawned by Nat Turner’s Turner, Nat Slave rebellions;Nat Turner[Turner] slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Both events occurred in 1831, but other issues intensified proslavery writing and abolitionist discourse during the 1830’s.

Proslavery polemics seem to have escalated along a continuum, rather than suddenly appearing after 1831. Two interrelated themes characterized this escalation of southern proslavery. The first was a reaction to the abolitionist mail campaign of 1835, in which northern abolitionists attempted to flood the South with literature arguing that slavery was immoral. In response, southern ministers and denominations took the lead in denouncing the moral foundations of abolitionists. Virulent antiabolitionism became a major feature—perhaps the single constant—in southern proslavery thought. Southerners denounced abolitionism as incendiary, a wanton and dangerous interference with southern safety. Southerners construed abolitionists as intent upon fomenting rebellion among southern slaves, and were also infuriated by the Congress’s gag rule, which persuaded northerners that southerners would trample on the First Amendment or any other right to preserve slavery.

The second theme involved a defense of slavery more ideological in tone, which blended biblical Bible;and slavery[Slavery] Slavery;and Bible[Bible] literalism with conservative social theories, some of which were quite popular among New England Federalists during the early nineteenth century. This strain of thinking challenged industrial economics and modern reform movements, asserting that a stratified social order produced the best possible society. A heavy lace of paternal imagery, which threaded together honor and social responsibility, gave ornamentation to this new proslavery fabric. In the hands of the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;on slavery[Slavery] , this two-pronged argument proved that slavery was not an evil, as the abolitionists claimed, but

a good—a positive good . . . a great blessing to both races, [and ] great stay of the union and our free institutions, and one of the main sources of the unbounded prosperity of the whole.

Slavery in the United States and Its Territories, c. 1860





Typical of thinkers who championed this phase of proslavery writing was Thornton Stringfellow Stringfellow, Thornton , a Baptist Baptists;and slavery[Slavery] minister of Culpepper County, Virginia, whose Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery (1841) argued that slavery enjoyed “the sanction of the Almighty in the Patriarchal Age . . . that its legality was recognized . . . by Jesus Christ in his kingdom; and that it is full of mercy.” Godly southerners, Stringfellow maintained, should withdraw from abolitionists, whose moral notions must originate from some source other than the Bible. Bible;and slavery[Slavery] Slavery;and Bible[Bible]

In a speech before the U.S. Senate in 1858, James Henry Hammond Hammond, James Henry of South Carolina held that African American slaves provided the “mud-sill” of society, whose labor was necessary but whose mean estate made essential their exclusion from the political process. Slavery was essential to free “that other class which leads progress, civilization and refinement” for more enlightened endeavors. Fortunately, the senator observed, the South had found African Americans perfectly adapted to serve as the

very mud-sill of society and of political government . . . a race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.

During the 1850’s, other southern writers embraced even more extreme proslavery theories. However, these views attracted more interest from historians in the twentieth century than they did from nineteenth century advocates. For example, Henry Hughes Hughes, Henry , of Port Gibson, Mississippi, drew upon the infant discipline of sociology to buttress his proslavery views. He described slavery as “Ethical Warranteeism,” in which slaves labored for masters in return for food, clothing, and shelter. Josiah Nott Nott, Josiah , of Mobile, Alabama, embraced the theory of polygenesis, holding in Types of Mankind (1854) that Africans had arisen from a separate creation and were not Homo sapiens.

Others compared southern slavery with free labor in the North. In Sociology of the South (1854) and Cannibals All! (1857), for example, Virginian George Fitzhugh Fitzhugh, George suggested that the northern states would have to adopt some form of slavery to control the immigrant working classes, or else face moral and social chaos. Free labor, he asserted, produced class warfare in the North, while slavery permitted social harmony in the South. Southern masters had moral obligations toward, and were predisposed to kind treatment of, their slaves. Northern factory owners discarded their laborers at whim.


Most southerners adhered to the less extreme proslavery argument based on the Bible Bible;and slavery[Slavery] Slavery;and Bible[Bible] and the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. The proslavery argument became a justification for the entire southern way of life, whose culture, social structure, and economy were believed to depend upon the institution of slavery. Its ubiquity helped bind southerners together and produced the remarkable degree of unity among them in the days following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and his call for troops in April, 1861. Undoubtedly, the intensity and unanimity with which southerners defended slavery had much to do with the fact that they had come to identify the system of slavery with southern society as a whole and with their place in the union.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cain, William E., ed. William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from “The Liberator.” Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Selections from the abolitionist newspaper that helped to galvanize proslavery advocates. Cain’s introduction provides historical background on slavery and the abolition movement in the United States and the events in Garrison’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Excellent anthology of proslavery writings, augmented by a thoughtful introductory essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Shows clearly the complex uses southerners made of proslavery thinking and why a degree of intellectual unity was vital in a South divided against itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, William S. Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935. One of the oldest monographs on proslavery thinking, this book remains a useful starting point for the study of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snay, Mitchell. Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Illustrates how significant proslavery thinking was in southern clerical thought and how that created a great degree of intellectual unity in the South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Study of the interracial alliance that linked John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and others in the struggle to abolish slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Shows that proslavery thinking existed in both northern and southern states, and explains well the subtle shifts in southern proslavery thought after 1830.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Jeffrey Robert, ed. Proslavery and Sectional Thought in the Early South, 1740-1829: An Anthology. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. Collection of thirteen representative texts showing the development of proslavery arguments from colonial times to the early national South. Includes tracts, sermons, lectures, and petitions.

Social Reform Movement

Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion

Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator

Turner Launches Slave Insurrection

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Douglass Launches The North Star

Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

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Categories: History