Slavery in the South
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Slavery in the South


What was the institution of slavery in the South that is so quickly condemned by the self-proclaimed defenders of the Rights of Man?  It is a complex thing, brought together from the inweaving of a series of events and circumstances particular to Dixie, and by no means the morally simplistic outrage normally presented to the inquirer.

Let us start at the beginning, with the settling of the Southern colonies, when a superabundance of land presented unique challenges to the colonists. Rowland Berthoff writes,

The easygoing land policy even tended to perpetuate the shortage of labor which it was designed to remedy.  . . .  The colonial economy obviously needed a class of immigrant laborers who could not achieve independent landownership, at least for a period of years.  There appeared very early, therefore, the seemingly paradoxical institutions, in the midst of abundant cheap land, of white indentured servitude and Negro slavery.  Actually there was no paradox:  servitude and slavery for some persons were direct consequences of the excessive opportunity for landownership which most others enjoyed.  Slavery, and with it the perpetual American dilemma of an unfree caste in a free country, came into existence precisely because from the outset America was as free a country as it was (An Unsettled People: Social Order and Disorder in American History, New York, Harper & Row, 1971, p. 40).

But contrary to present-day belief, there was little animosity between white and black in the Southland:

 . . . well before the end of the eighteenth century white and black Americans were inextricably bound together in only marginally variant forms of speech, religion, and other aspects of a common culture (p. 43).

John Devanny explains further,

Mr. Mariner begins his work on familiar ground already plowed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and T. H. Breen.  He accepts the thesis that Virginia in the seventeenth century was a society with slaves, but would slowly develop into a slave society by the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet, even as the legal status of African American slaves became that of chattel, and the liberty of free African-Americans came under greater and more onerous legal restriction, the reality was far “less fixed, much more muddled and fluid.”  For example: slaves received and owned property granted to them by their masters, slaves often were allowed to hire themselves out and keep a portion of the wages, slave resistance was significant in both passive and more violent forms, and segregation was virtually nonexistent.  But, dear reader, there is more.  To quote Mr. Mariner,

Blacks and whites, slave and free, lived in close proximity, knew each other and dealt with each other on a daily basis.  They regularly mingled together, and sailed together.  They went to church together, drank together, and celebrated together.  They hatched crimes together, and stood together before courts.  Not infrequently they lived in the same houses and slept in the same rooms. (15)

Yet there is still more.  African Americans successfully sued for their freedom in the county and magistrate courts.  (These findings lend support to the recent findings of Professor DeRosa regarding slave standing and litigation successes in local, county, and state law courts.) The suits became more frequent through the eighteenth century.  As a result, Virginia’s law makers passed a law requiring all such suits by African Americans to be in forma pauperis, that is the plaintiff had to employ local counsel and damages awarded could only total one cent.  Nevertheless, the number of such suits increased, and in some cases Mr. Mariner found that the in forma pauperis provision was ignored.

There were more than enough brutes who treated their slaves badly, but the overall ethos of the institution of slavery in the South was very much akin to this:

As the proslavery divines and serious Christian laymen acknowledged, [the Bible] also specifies the master-slave relation as a trust to be exercised in accordance with the Decalogue, the standards of the Abrahamic household, and the teachings of Jesus.  The Southern divines had their work cut out for them, for they could hardly deny that Southern slavery, as legally constituted and daily practiced, fell well short of biblical standards.  Accordingly, when they rallied their people to secession and war, they did not blithely assure them of a God-given victory.  Instead, they warned that, to retain God’s favor in a holy war, Southerners would have to prove worthy of His trust, specifically, of the trust He had placed in them as Christian masters.  Hence, the divines called for repentance and reform.

Principal church leaders — Calvinist and Arminian, theologically orthodox and theologically liberal—agreed that God, in sanctioning slavery, commanded masters to follow the example of Abraham and to treat their slaves as members of their household and as brothers and sisters in the eyes of the Lord.  Two questions haunted the sincere Christians among white Southerners:  First, did not the actual conditions of slave life in the South significantly lapse from biblical standards?  And second, would not the changes necessary to bring Southern slavery up to biblical standards in fact replace slavery with a markedly different form of personal servitude?  These questions kept surfacing even in the texts of those who seemed chary of raising them directly.  Prominent Catholics and Jews joined Protestants in upholding the biblical sanction for slavery while they complained that Southern slavery fell short of biblical norms (Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South, Athens, Ga., U of Georgia Press, 1998, pgs. 5-6).

Is this really the epitome of evil?  The forerunner of Nazism as Dinesh D’Souza claims, and other such charges?  It is not.  Slavery in the South was an expression of her commitment to the social norm of hierarchy, the reverence for which was with her from the start, before African slaves even arrived in Dixie.  Her defense of slavery was part of her defense of hierarchy overall.  Robert Lewis Dabney put it this way:

“…[We] must teach, with Moses, the Apostle Paul, John Hampden, Washington, George Mason, John C. Calhoun, and all that contemptible rabble of “old fogies,” that political society is composed of “superiors, inferiors, and equals”; that while all these bear an equitable moral relation to each other, they have very different natural rights and duties; that just government is not founded on the consent of the individuals governed, but on the ordinance of God, and hence a share in the ruling franchise is not a natural right at all, but a privilege to be bestowed according to a wise discretion on a limited class having qualification to use it for the good of the whole; that the integers out of which the State is constituted are not individuals, but families represented in their parental heads; that every human being is born under authority (parental and civic) instead of being born “free” in the licentious sense that liberty is each one’s privilege of doing what he chooses; that subordination, and not that license, is the natural state of all men; and that without such equitable distribution of different duties and rights among the classes naturally differing in condition, and subordination of some to others, and of all to the law, society is as impossible as is the existence of a house without distinction between the foundation stone and the cap-stones.”

—Quoted by Boyd Cathey,

Likewise, William Gilmore Simms added the following, focusing more specifically on slavery:

Employing a conception of society as a hierarchy of proper degree, Simms argued in an essay in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1837 that the founders of the Republic interpreted democracy not as social leveling but as “the harmony of the moral world.”  Liberty is defined by the moral and intellectual capacities, by the powers of mind.  “He is a freeman, whatever his condition, who fills his proper place.  He is a slave only, who is forced into a position in society below the claims of his intellect.  He cannot but be a tyrant who is found in a position for which his mind is unprepared, and to which it is inferior.”  Holding that the Negro is completely unprepared for freedom, Simms declares that the slaveholders of the South have a holy contract with God to be the stewards of their African slaves.  Having “the moral and animal guardianship of an ignorant and irresponsible people under their control,” they “are the great moral conservators, in one powerful interest, of the entire world.”

Simms declares:  “There is no propriety in the application of the name of the slave to the servile of the south.  He is under no despotic power.  There are laws which protect him, in his place, as inflexible as those which his proprietorship is required to obey, in his place.  Providence has placed him in our hands, for his good, and has paid us from his labor for our guardianship.”  (Lewis P. Simpson, The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature, Athens, Ga., U of Georgia Press, 1975, pgs. 54-5)

One can see the shortcomings of some of Southern thinking about their African slaves as regards their intellectual and moral capacities.  But their larger point - that hierarchy, classes, and sometimes slavery are necessary in society - is very much in keeping with Christian teaching: 

Hegel's philosophy was an explicit challenge to the Christian view of political freedom and slavery, which regarded the latter as a secondary evil that could be turned into a great good if used for spiritual ends. "For he that is called in the Lord," said St. Paul, "being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant" (I Corinthians 7.22; see also the epistle to Onesimus). So "live as free men," said St. Peter, "yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God" (I Peter 2.16).

St. Augustine developed this teaching: "The first cause of slavery is sin; that is why man is subjected to man in the state of slavery. This does not happen apart from the judgement of God, with Whom is no injustice and Who knows how to apportion varying punishments in accordance with the differing deserts of those who do wrong.

"The heavenly Lord declares: 'Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin' (John 8.34). That is why when, as often happens, religious men are slaves of unjust masters, their masters are not free. 'For whatever a man is overcome by, to that he is enslaved' (II Peter 2.19). And it is better to be the slave of a man than a slave of lust. For lust is a most savage master and one that devastates the hearts of men; this is true, to give only one example, of the lust of mastery itself. But in the peaceful order of human society, where one group of men is subjected to another, slaves are benefited by humility and masters are harmed by pride. By nature, as God first created man, no one is the slave, either of man or of sin. But slavery is ordained as a form of punishment by the law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and prevents its disturbance. Had that law never been broken, there would have been no need for its enforcement by the punitive measure of slavery. So the Apostle instructs slaves to be subject to their masters and to serve them wholeheartedly. Thereby, if they cannot get freedom from their masters, they can make their slavery into a kind of freedom, by performing this service not in deceitfulness and fear but in faithfulness and love, until injustice passes away and all dominion and human power are brought to nothing and God is all in all..."

—Vladimir Moss, A Monarchist Theology of Politics, pgs. 10-1,

St John Chrysostom teaches,

In order that one might be subject, and the other rule (for equality is wont oftentimes to bring in strife), He appointed it [the family] to be not a democracy (δημοκρατίαν) but a monarchy (βασιλείαν); and as in an army, this order one may see in every family.  In the rank of monarch, for instance, there is the husband; but in the rank of lieutenant and general, the wife; and the children too are allotted a third station in command.  Then after these a fourth order, that of the servant.  For these also bear rule over their inferiors, and some one of them is oftentimes set over the whole, keeping ever the post of the master, but still as a servant.  And together with this again another command, and among the children themselves again another, according to their age and sex. . . .  And everywhere God has made governments at small distances and thick together, that all might abide in concord and much good order (Quoted in Archpriest Josiah Trenham, Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Cal., 2013, p. 195)

The existential threat to a man, in the Christian view, is not his enslavement to another man, but his enslavement to sin.  And if being in involuntary bondage to another helps him overcome his sinfulness, then that should be regarded as the greatest of blessings and not the worst of evils.  However, the modern religion of Human Rights turns this idea on its head:

The problem with Christianity, however, is that it remains just another slave ideology, that is, it is untrue in certain crucial respects. Christianity posits the realization of human freedom not here on earth but only in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity, in other words, had the right concept of freedom, but ended up reconciling real-world slaves to their lack of freedom by telling them not to expect liberation in this life. According to Hegel, the Christian did not realize that God did not create man, but rather that man had created God. He created God as a kind of projection of the idea of freedom, for in the Christian God we see a being who is the perfect master of himself and of nature. But the Christian then proceeded to enslave himself to this God that he himself created…Christianity was thus a form of alienation, that is, a new form of slavery where man enslaved himself to something that he himself created, thereby becoming divided against himself (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992, p. 197, quoted in Joseph Farrell, God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes, and Their Cultural Consequences, Vol. III: History: A Theological Pathology of the Second Europe, 2016, p. 656; text adapted from first e-version of God, History, and Dialectic; thanks to J for his help with this document,

Man must be free from all that hinders the exercise of his will, even God; the autonomous individual is everything:  This is at the heart of Modernity’s teaching.  The South, to her credit, rejected it.  But the hierarchy that developed within Dixie was flawed in two major ways:  It was based mainly on race, and it made the slave status nearly permanent.  However, with the conditions that have sustained the middle-class status of so many in the States now beginning to wane (e.g., lack of cheap land, the rise of crowded cities, mechanization and automation of many jobs), the South’s experience with hierarchy, imperfect though it was, will prove helpful in charting a peaceful way forward (whether with or without some form of temporary, non-racially determined bond-status for some people, actual conditions, and not abstract ideology, should dictate) - but only if folks are willing to listen to her.

Author: Walt Garlington