Sunday, April 07, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013, April 7: Proslavery ideology and slave society in the South

Following up on yesterday's post about the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause before and during the Civil War, here a 01/22/2008 video of Professor David Blight of Yale talking about proslavery ideology, A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology YaleCourses Spring 2008:

From the caption to the YouTube video:

Professor Blight lectures on southern slavery. He makes a case for viewing the U.S. South as one of the five true "slave societies" in world history. He discusses the internal slave trade that moved thousands of slaves from the eastern seaboard to the cotton states of the Southwest between 1820 and 1860. Professor Blight then sketches the contents of the pro-slavery argument, including its biblical, historical, economic, cynical, and utopian aspects.

00:00 - Chapter 1. Introduction
08:39 - Chapter 2. The American South as Slave Society -- From the Foreign Slave Trade to the Slave Jail
23:54 - Chapter 3. Slavery for the Sake of Social Stability
33:54 - Chapter 4. Biblical, Historical, Amoral, Economic, and Utopian Arguments for Slavery
50:11 - Chapter 5. Conclusion

Complete course materials are available at the Open Yale Courses website:
The transcript of Blight's lecture is available here:

But how do we get to 1861 and that secession crisis with Alexander H. Stephens delivering this Cornerstone Speech, declaring that, "Hey folks, it's all about slavery and its preservation?" How did we get there? Today I want to talk about, we're going to dwell on, ultimately, the Southern defense of slavery--the arguments over time that they developed, layer upon layer, drawing upon earlier arguments and building them into new ones--sometimes quite original--toward ultimately a virtually utopian defense of slavery as a perfecting, perfectible, if not perfected system. [my emphasis]
Here he makes an important point about how fundamental slavery became to Southern society:

Now, in the South what developed--and let's define it at least quickly--what developed was one of the world's handful of true slave societies. What is a slave society? What do we mean when we use that phrase 'slave society'? Essentially, it means any society where slave labor--where the definition of labor, where the definition of the relationship between ownership and labor--is defined by slavery. By a cradle to grave--and some would've even said a cradle to grave and beyond--human bondage. Where slavery affected everything about society. Where whites and blacks, in this case--in America in a racialized slavery system--grew up, were socialized by, married, reared children, worked, invested in, and conceived of the idea of property, and honed their most basic habits and values under the influence of a system that said it was just to own people as property.

The other slave societies in human history--and you can get up a real debate over this, especially among Africanists, Brazilianists, Asianists and others, and it's why slavery is such a hot field in international history--but the other great slave societies in history where the whole social structure of those societies was rooted in slavery, were Ancient Greece and Rome; certainly Brazil by the eighteenth and nineteenth century; the whole of Caribbean--the Great West Indies sugar-producing empires of the French, the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and a few others--and the American South. Now, there were other localized slave societies, surely; certainly within Africa, to a certain degree even before Europeans arrived and certainly after Europeans arrived, particularly after the regularization of the Atlantic slave trade. There were certain localized slave societies in East Africa, out of Zanzibar by the eighteenth and nineteenth century. There were certain localized slave societies in the vast Arab world, in the Muslim world, well before there was even an Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. But the five great slave societies were those five. All were highly profitable in their primes. All tended to hinder technological innovation in those societies. All tended to have a high slave-to-free ratio of population. All of those slave societies had a population of slaves that was from one-quarter to one-half, and sometimes more, of the total population. In those slave societies, slaves--as an interest, as an interest--were both a political and a great economic institution that defined ways of life. [my emphasis]
In other words, it wasn't just slaveowners, or large slaveowners, who were influenced and shaped and even defined by slave society. So were nonslaveowning whites. The institution of the slave patrol, preserving which was the most urgent concern prompting the addition of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, was an important social device by which nonslaveowning whites were made to take a direct interest in the institution of slavery and to participate directly in doing the dirty work of the slavemasters.

As Blight points out here, this was an historical process. He places the development of a full-blown slave society in the South to the 1820s and 1830s at the least.

This is also the high tide of Jacksonian democracy. The emergence of a new political identity for organized labor and a new political consciousness of the dangers of organized money coincided with the consolidation of the slavery system into a form that was in direct conflict with the strengthening democratic sentiment. It emerged in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and in intensified form in the Nullification Crisis of 1832-3, in which President Andrew Jackson declared to the seditionists of South Carolina led by John C. Calhoun that "disunion by armed force is treason." The event that made Jackson regret even on his deathbed that he hadn't hanged John Calhoun for treason.

Bright characterizes the South proslavery ideology as "at its heart, a kind of deeply conservative, organic worldview. And by that I mean a Burkean conservatism, a set of beliefs that says the world is ordered as it is, for reasons, and that human beings ought not tinker with that order, very much." A reactionary worldview by the standards of the time, in other words. It emphasized stability. "In this worldview, institutions--human institutions--evolve only slowly over time and cannot be altered by abrupt human interventions. It's dangerous to abruptly intervene in the evolution of human institutions." So you got arguments about how slavery would someday, somehow in the distant future civilize the black race so that they wouldn't need to be held in slavery any more and the institution would fade away, sometime about when Hell would be expected to freeze over. Bright says:

As early as 1826 an important pro-slavery writer named Edward Brown argued that "Slavery," he said, quote: "had ever been the stepping ladder by which nations have passed from barbarism to civilization." There you have the roots and the kernel of the so-called "positive good thesis" about slavery. That slavery was a way in which you sustained a social order, a way in which you built an economy, a way in which you maximized the possibilities of those who deserved it, by using those who did not deserve the same fruits.[my emphasis]
Bright recalls that there was Biblical-based arguments for slavery and historical ones looking back to Classical times in Greece and Rome. There were arguments based in an anti-egalitarian twist on Enlightenment natural law ideas. And there were economic ones:

Now, then there's a whole array of economic arguments, and the cynic, the economic determinist, simply goes to the economic conclusions of pro-slavery and nowhere else. One of the greatest of these writers was James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who had plenty of mixed-race children. He was in some ways the epitome of the kind of cynical pro-slavery. In the end of the day, he wasn't bothered by morality. His argument for slavery was that ultimately it was amoral. But at the end of the day, he also essentially made a property argument or a property defense of slavery. He wrote, among other things, "The means therefore, whatever they may have been, by which the African race, now in this county, have been reduced to slavery, cannot affect us since they are our property, as your land is your property, by inheritance or purchase and prescriptive right. You will say that man cannot hold property in man. The answer is that he can, and actually does, hold property in his fellow, all over the world, in a variety of forms, and has always done so." Thank you very much, said Henry Hammond, don't talk to me about property in man.
But the proslavery argument became more affirmative over time, emphasizing slavery as a positive good, with a developing white racism playing an important part in this line of argument:

And then there's the whole vast category of racial defense and justification of slavery. At the end of the day that's where Alexander H. Stephens went, with his Cornerstone Speech in 1861. That's where all of them went at one point or another, some less than others. Probably the most prominent pro-slavery writer to make the racial case--and they all did--but probably the most prominent was George Fitzhugh. In a book called Sociology of the South--he's also the same George Fitzhugh who wrote a book called Cannibals All--but in Sociology of the South, his famous pro-slavery tract in 1854, he wrote this: "The Negro," he said, "is but a grownup child and must be governed as a child. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. Like a wild horse he must be caught, tamed and domesticated. We find slavery repeatedly instituted by God or by men acting under his immediate care and direction, as in the instance of Moses and Joshua. Nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we find the institution condemned, but frequently recognized and enforced." And probably his most famous line, "Men are not born entitled to equal rights. It would be far nearer the truth to say that some are born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them."
He also discusses a kind of crackpot-Utopian theory of slavery proposed by a Mississippian, Henry Hughes:

He wanted to build institutions that would be used for the sole purpose of perfecting the slave into the perfect worker. He was a bit of a mad scientist. And he was especially obsessed with racial purity. His writings are just replete with his fears about hygiene, that if white and black people touched or if they came together the whites would be soiled, and that any kind of intermixing of the races was to destroy ultimately the intellect, the ability, the capacity of a master race. He wasn't that widely read, I must admit, but it shows us how far pro-slavery could ultimately go. In Hughes's vision and Hughes's worldview slavery was not only a positive good--it was the possibility of man finding a perfected society, with the perfect landowners fulfilling their obligations, supported by a government that taxed the hell out of them to do it, and perfect workers, would make the South into the agricultural utopian civilization of history.
I've quoted extensively here from David Blight's lecture to encourage anyone who reads these excerpts to listen to the YouTube video and check out the full transcript. The Internet provides access to a lot of solid information, in this case a scholarly lecture from a leading historian in this field.

The flip side of that advantage is, of course, that there's also a world of dishonest drivel out there also on just about any subject you might think of. And lots that you haven't. Good judgment in sorting through information is more important than ever.

In this lecture, Blight gives a broader picture of how much "the South" in 1861 was identified with slavery. "And if you want to understand why so many white Southerners, especially in the Deep South, went to such great extents to save their slave society, remember the kinds of arguments and language used by its defenders."

Tags: ,

No comments: