The South and the Slavery Controversy

Part I: The Peculiar Institution 1793-1860

Questions to Consider:

1.       How were slaves able to create a community life even under the constraints of the slave system?

2.       How were Americans able to reconcile the persistence of slavery in a land of freedom? What role did racism play in this?

  1. The Old South
    1. Emergence of slavery as "peculiar institution"
    2. Cotton and the growth of southern slavery
      1. Central place of cotton in world economy
      2. Southern dominance of world cotton supply
    3. Slavery's impact on national life
      1. Political
      2. Economic
        1. In North
        2. In South
    4. Plain folk
      1. Remoteness from market revolution; self-sufficiency
      2. Class strata
        1. Isolated poor
        2. Yeomanry
      3. Relation to planter elite
        1. Alienation
        2. Bonds
          1. Racial
          2. Familial
          3. Political
          4. Regional
      4. Investment in slave system
        1. Material
        2. Ideological
    5. Planter elite
      1. Measures of regional dominance
        1. Scale of slave ownership
        2. Size and quality of landholding
        3. Income
        4. Political power
      2. Economic engagement in world market
      3. Paternalistic, non-competitive ethos
        1. Defining features
        2. Contributing factors
        3. Influence on southern values
    6. Proslavery argument
      1. Rising currency in southern thought
      2. Elements of
        1. Racial assumptions
        2. Biblical themes
        3. Notions of human progress
        4. Prospects for equality among whites
      3. Shift to more hierarchical defense of slavery
  2. Life under slavery
    1. Slaves and the law
      1. General patterns
        1. Status as property
        2. Pervasive denial of legal rights
        3. Power of slave owners over enforcement
        4. Law as mechanism of master's control
      2. Nineteenth-century trends
        1. Legislation to humanize bondage
          1. Features
          2. Contributing factors
        2. Legislation to tighten bondage
          1. Features
          2. Contributing factors
    2. Free black population
      1. Size
      2. Social and civil stature
        1. Blurry line between slavery and freedom
        2. Broad denial of legal rights
      3. Growing reputation as threat to slave system
      4. Regional variations
        1. Lower South
          1. Small numbers
          2. Concentration in cities
          3. Free black elite
        2. Upper South
          1. Concentration in farmlands
          2. Ties to slave community
    3. Slave labor
      1. Diversity of occupations
      2. Agricultural
        1. Small farms vs. plantations
        2. Gang labor (cotton, sugar) vs. task labor (rice)
      3. Urban
        1. Relative autonomy and independence
        2. Growing reputation as threat to slave system
    4. Modes of order and discipline
      1. Physical punishment
      2. Manipulation of divisions
      3. Material incentives
      4. Threat of sale
  3. Slave culture
    1. General features
      1. Central arenas
        1. Family
        2. Church
      2. Chief functions
        1. Survival of bondage
        2. Preservation of self-esteem
        3. Transmission of collective values across generations
      3. Sources
        1. African heritage
        2. American values and experiences
    2. Slave family
      1. Demographic foundation
      2. Legal constraints
      3. Resiliency
      4. Distinctive kinship patterns
      5. Vulnerability to break-up through sale
      6. Gender roles
        1. "Equality of powerlessness"
        2. Assertion of gender roles where possible
    3. Slave religion
      1. Practices
        1. Black preachers on plantations
        2. Urban black churches
      2. Influences
        1. Fusion of African and Christian traditions
        2. Religious revivals in South
      3. Slaves' version of Christianity
        1. Solace amid bondage
        2. Hope for liberation
        3. Sympathy for the oppressed
        4. Brotherhood and equality
      4. Negation of masters' pro-slavery version
    4. Desire for freedom and justice
      1. As expressed in folk tales, spirituals
      2. Reflection of American language of freedom
  4. Resistance to slavery
    1. "Day-to-day"; "silent sabotage"
    2. Escape
      1. Obstacles
      2. Destinations
        1. Southern cities
        2. Remote areas within South
        3. North
      3. Underground Railroad
        1. Resourcefulness
        2. Harriet Tubman
      4. Large-scale collective escape
        1. Infrequency of
        2. Amistad episode
    3. Slave revolts
      1. Major nineteenth-century episodes
        1. Gabriel's Rebellion
        2. Louisiana sugar plantation slave rebellion
        3. Denmark Vesey conspiracy
        4. Nat Turner's Rebellion
      2. Notable patterns
        1. Infrequency
        2. Blend of African and American influences
        3. Link between open rebellion and quieter resistance
        4. Bleak prospects for success in South
      3. Aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion in South
        1. White panic
        2. Wide-spread assaults on slaves
        3. Tightening of restrictions on blacks (slave and free)
        4. Stifling of slavery debate, abolitionism






Thomas R. Dew on Emancipation after Nat Turner (1832)

Thomas R. Dew wrote this pamphlet in 1832, a few months after Nat Turner's violent slave revolt. Dew was a prominent professor of political economy at the College of William and Mary. Here he described the unique legislative debate in the Virginia legislature in response to Nat Turner's rebellion.

Questions: As you read the account, determine what arguments Dew gave for or against emancipation. Why did he urge restraint for the legislature at this moment? Would his article and the debate that sparked it have been possible even a decade later? How were southern opinions of slavery and race changing during these years?

...In our Southern slave-holding country, the question of emancipation has never been seriously discussed in any of our legislatures, until the whole subject, under the most exciting circumstances, was, during the last winter, brought up for discussion in the Virginia Legislature, and plans of partial or total abolition were earnestly pressed upon the attention of that body. It is well known, that during the last summer, in the county of Southampton in Virginia, a few slaves, led on by Nat Turner, rose in the night, and murdered in the most inhuman and shocking manner, between sixty and seventy of the unsuspecting whites of that county. The news, of course, was rapidly diffused, and with it consternation and dismay were spread throughout the State, destroying for a time all feeling of security and confidence; and even when subsequent development had proved, that the conspiracy had been originated by a fanatical Negro preacher, (whose confessions proved beyond a doubt mental aberration,) and that this conspiracy embraced but few slaves, all of whom had paid the penalty of their crimes, still the excitement remained, still the repose of the Commonwealth was disturbed,--for the ghastly horrors of the Southampton tragedy could not immediately be banished from the mind--and Rumour, too, with her thousand tongues, was busily engaged in spreading tales of disaffection, plots, insurrections, and even massacres, which frightened the timid and harassed and mortified the whole of the slave-holding population. During this period of excitement, when reason was almost banished from the mind, and the imagination was suffered to conjure up the most appalling phantom, and picture to itself a crisis in the vista of futurity, when the overwhelming numbers of the blacks would rise superior to all restraint, and involve the fairest portion of our land in universal ruin and desolation, we are not to wonder, that even in the lower part of Virginia, many should have seriously inquired, if this supposed monstrous evil could not be removed from our bosom. Some looked to the removal of the free people of colour by the efforts of the Colonization Society, as an antidote to all our ills. Some were disposed to strike at the root of the evil--to call on the General Government for aid, and by the labors of Hercules, to extirpate the curse of slavery from the land. Others again, who could not bear that Virginia should stand towards the Central Government (whose unconstitutional action she had ever been foremost to resist,) in the attitude of a suppliant, looked forward to the legislative action of the State as capable of achieving the desired result. In this state of excitement and unallayed apprehension, the Legislature met, and plans for abolition were proposed and earnestly advocated in debate.

Upon the impropriety of this debate, we beg leave to make a few observations. Any scheme of abolition proposed so soon after the Southampton tragedy, would necessarily appear to be the result of the most inhuman massacre. Suppose the Negroes, then, to be really anxious for their emancipation, no matter on what terms, would not the extraordinary effect produced on the legislature by the Southampton insurrection, in all probability, have a tendency to excite another? And we must recollect, from the nature of things, no plan of abolition could act suddenly on the whole mass of slave population in the State. Mr. Randolph's was not even to commence its operation until 1840. Waiting then, one year or more, until the excitement could be allayed and the empire of reason could once more have been established, would surely have been productive of no injurious consequences; and, in the mean time, a Legislature could have been selected which would much better have represented the views and wishes of their constituents on this vital question. Virginia could have ascertained the sentiments and wishes of other slave-holding States, whose concurrence, if not absolutely necessary, might be highly desirable, and should have been sought after and attended to, at least as a matter of State courtesy. Added to this, the texture of the Legislature was not of that character calculated to ensure the confidence of the people in a movement of this kind.... It appears...that the Legislature was composed of an unusual number of young and inexperienced members, elected in the month of April previous to the Southampton massacre, and at a time of profound tranquility and repose, when of course the people were not disposed to call from their retirement their most distinguished and experienced citizens.

2005 W. W. Norton & Company




John C. Calhoun Sees "Slavery in its true light..." (1838)

In this excerpt from a speech given in 1838, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun declared that slavery was not a moral evil, as some even in the South (including Thomas Jefferson) had once maintained. He argued that slavery seen in its true light was a blessing to both races (but especially to African-Americans), a haven from the racial warfare that would otherwise break out, and the best and most stable foundation for free society.


As you read Calhoun's defense of slavery, consider how he believed that slavery, the ultimate denial of freedom, could be contribute to American freedom. What were the most important attributes of that freedom? What alternative system existed in the North and how did it undermine freedom? How does Calhoun's defense of slavery differ from those from the Revolutionary period?

He saw (said Mr. C[alhoun]) in the question before us the fate of the South. It was a higher than the mere naked question of master and slave. It involved a great political institution, essential to the peace and existence of one-half of this Union . A mysterious Providence had brought together two races, from different portions of the globe, and placed them together in nearly equal numbers in the Southern portion of this Union . They were there inseparably united, beyond the possibility of separation. Experience had shown that the existing relation between them secured the peace and happiness of both. Each had improved; the inferior greatly; so much so, that it had attained a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country. Under no other relation could they co-exist together. To destroy it was to involve a whole region in slaughter, carnage, and desolation; and, come what will, we must defend and preserve it.

This agitation has produced one happy effect at least; it has compelled us to the South to look into the nature and character of this great institution, and to correct many false impressions that even we had entertained in relation to it. Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world. It is impossible with us that the conflict can take place between labor and capital, which make[s] it so difficult to establish and maintain free institutions in all wealthy and highly civilized nations where such institutions as ours do not exist. The Southern States are an aggregate, in fact, of communities, not of individuals. Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative. These small communities aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is [sic] equally represented and perfectly harmonized. Hence the harmony, the union, and stability of that section, which is rarely disturbed except through the action of this Government. The blessing of this state of things extends beyond the limits of the South. It makes that section the balance of the system; the great conservative power, which prevents other portions, less fortunately constituted, from rushing into conflict. In this tendency to conflict in the North between labor and capital, which is constantly on the increase, the weight of the South has and will ever be found on the Conservative side; against the aggression of one or the other side, which ever may tend to disturb the equilibrium of our political system. This is our natural position, the salutary influence of which has thus far preserved, and will long continue to preserve, our free institutions, if we should be left undisturbed. Such are the institutions which these madmen are stirring heaven and earth to destroy, and which we are called on to defend by the highest and most solemn obligations that can be imposed on us as men and patriots


George Fitzhugh, "The Universal Law of Slavery" (1850)

After 1830, increasingly radical arguments emerged both for and against slavery. In the South, the lawyer and author George Fitzhugh became perhaps the most radical defender of slavery and the hierarchical social order of which it was the lynchpin. He disdained America's claim to be a "free society" and welcomed the eclipse of that ideal in favor of the "community" of masters and slaves, united in their mutual dependence.


As you read his argument, consider the role of the rising theories of scientific racism in his conclusions. What does he say about the "free labor" society that was being celebrated by the more urban and industrial North?

He the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. We shall not dwell on this view, for no one will differ with us who thinks as we do of the negro's capacity, and we might argue till dooms-day in vain, with those who have a high opinion of the negro's moral and intellectual capacity.

Secondly. The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery. In the last place, the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chaos of free competition. Gradual but certain extermination would be their fate. We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro's providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals. At the North he would freeze or starve.

We would remind those who deprecate and sympathize with negro slavery, that his slavery here relieves him from a far more cruel slavery in Africa, or from idolatry and cannibalism, and every brutal vice and crime that can disgrace humanity; and that it christianizes, protects, supports and civilizes him; that it governs him far better than free laborers at the North are governed. There, wife-murder has become a mere holiday pastime; and where so many wives are murdered, almost all must be brutally treated. Nay, more; men who kill their wives or treat them brutally, must be ready for all kinds of crime, and the calendar of crime at the North proves the inference to be correct. Negroes never kill their wives. If it be objected that legally they have no wives, then we reply, that in an experience of more than forty years, we never yet heard of a negro man killing a negro woman. Our negroes are not only better off as to physical comfort than free laborers, but their moral condition is better.

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides' they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and liberty, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. "Blessed be the man who invented sleep." 'Tis happiness in itself--and results from contentment with the present, and confident assurance of the future.

A common charge preferred against slavery is, that it induces idleness with the masters. The trouble, care and labor, of providing for wife, children and slaves, and of properly governing and administering the whole affairs of the farm, is usually borne on small estates by the master. On larger ones, he is aided by an overseer or manager. If they do their duty, their time is fully occupied. If they do not, the estate goes to ruin. The mistress, on Southern farms, is usually more busily, usefully and benevolently occupied than any one on the farm. She unites in her person, the offices of wife, mother, mistress, housekeeper, and sister of charity. And she fulfills all these offices admirably well. The rich men, in free society, may, if they please, lounge about town, visit clubs, attend the theatre, and have no other trouble than that of collecting rents, interest and dividends of stock. In a well constituted slave society, there should be no idlers. But we cannot divine how the capitalists in free society are to put to work. The master labors for the slave, they exchange industrial value. But the capitalist, living on his income, gives nothing to his subjects. He lives by mere exploitations.

2005 W. W. Norton & Company



Twelve Years a Slave (1853)

In this narrative the former slave Solomon Northup described the system of supervision on large plantations and the cruelty of overseers.


As you read the account, consider how the slaveowners kept control of their slaves. What was the role of the white overseer? What was the role of black "drivers"? According to Northup, what motives did the owners have for setting up such an inhumane and potentially deadly system?

On larger estates, employing fifty or a hundred, or perhaps two hundred hands, an overseer is deemed indispensable. These gentlemen ride into the field on horseback, without an exception, to my knowledge, armed with pistols, bowie knife, whip, and accompanied by several dogs. They follow, equipped in this fashion, in rear of the slaves, keeping a sharp lookout upon them all. The requisite qualifications in an overseer are utter heartlessness, brutality and cruelty. It is his business to produce large crops, and if that is accomplished, no matter what amount of suffering it may have cost. The presence of the dogs are necessary to overhaul a fugitive who may take to his heels, as is sometimes the case, when faint or sick, he is unable to maintain his row, and unable, also, to endure the whip. The pistols are reserved for any dangerous emergency, there having been instances when such weapons were necessary. Goaded into uncontrollable madness, even the slave will sometimes turn upon his oppressor. The gallows were standing at Marksville last January, upon which one was executed a year ago for killing his overseer. It occurred not many miles from Epps' plantation on Red River . The slave was given his task at splitting rails. In the course of the day the overseer sent him on an errand, which occupied so much time that it was not possible for him to perform the task. The next day he was called to an account, but the loss of time occasioned by the errand was no excuse, and he was ordered to kneel and bare his back for the reception of the lash. They were in the woods alone-beyond the reach of sight or hearing. The boy submitted until maddened at such injustice, and insane with pain, he sprang to his feet, and seizing an axe, literally chopped the overseer in pieces. He made no attempt whatever at concealment, but hastening to his master, related the whole affair, and declared himself ready to expiate the wrong by the sacrifice of his life. He was led to the scaffold, and while the rope was around his neck, maintained an undismayed and fearless bearing, and with his last words justified the act.

Besides the overseer, there are drivers under him, the number being in proportion to the number of hands in the field. The drivers are black, who, in addition to the performance of their equal share of work, are compelled to do the whipping of their several gangs. Whips hang around their necks, and if they fail to use them thoroughly, are whipped themselves. They have a few privileges, however; for example, in cane-cutting the hands are not allowed to sit down long enough to eat their dinners. Carts filled with corn cake, cooked at the kitchen, are driven into the fields at noon. The cake is distributed by the drivers, and must be eaten with the least possible delay.

When the slave ceases to perspire, as he often does when taxed beyond his strength, he falls to the ground and becomes entirely helpless. It is then the duty of the driver to drag him into the shade of the standing cotton or cane, or of a neighboring tree, where he dashes buckets of water upon him, and uses other means of bringing out perspiration again, when he is ordered to his place, and compelled to continue his labor.



Father Henson's Story of His Own Life (1858)

This excerpt is from the classic autobiography of former slave Josiah Henson, which was published in 1858 with a forward by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Henson described the cruel treatment of his father at the hands of the overseer and his master. Like other slave autobiographies, this narrative contributed to a growing revulsion to slavery in the North. As you read this opening chapter, consider what an account like this revealed about the system of slavery and the culture that developed around slaves and whites involved the institution.


What kept the slaves on the plantation? What rights did husbands and wives have over themselves or their children? What effect might such a narrative have had on northern and southern readers?

I was born June 15th, 1789, in Charles county, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was a slave of Dr. Josiah McPherson, but hired to the Mr. Newman to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remember which occurred while my mother continued on Mr. Newman's farm, was the appearance one day of my father with his head bloody and his back lacerated. He was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering. The explanation I picked up from the conversation of others only partially explained the matter to my mind; but as I grew older I understood it all. It seemed the overseer had sent my mother away from the other field hands to a retired place, and after trying persuasion in vain, had resorted to force to accomplish a brutal purpose. Her screams aroused my father at his distant work, and running up, he found his wife struggling with the man. Furious at the sight, he sprung upon him like a tiger. In a moment the overseer was down, and, mastered by rage, my father would have killed him but for the entreaties of my mother, and the overseer's own promise that nothing should ever be said of the matter. The promise was kept - like most promises of the cowardly and debased - as long as the danger lasted.

The laws of slave states provide means and opportunities for revenge so ample, that miscreants like him never fail to improve them. "A nigger has struck a white man;" that is enough to set a whole county on fire; no question is asked about the provocation. The authorities were soon in pursuit of my father. The fact of the sacrilegious act of lifting a hand against the sacred temple of a white man's body - a profanity as blasphemous in the eye of a slave-state tribunal as was among the Jews the entrance of a Gentile dog into the Holy of Holies - this was all it was necessary to establish. And the penalty followed: one hundred lashes on the bare back, and to have the right ear nailed to the whipping-post, and then severed from the body. For a time my father kept out of the way, hiding in the woods, and at night venturing into some cabin in search of food. But at length the strict watch set baffled all his efforts. His supplies cut off, he was fairly starved out, and compelled by hunger to come back and give himself up.

The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed. The negroes from the neighboring plantations were summoned, for their moral improvement, to witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes. Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile, and then a pause ensued. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable property he must not be damaged. Judicious men felt his pulse. Oh! he could stand the whole. Again and again the thong fell on his lacerated back. His cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to the final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place. Then came a hurra from the degraded crowd, and the exclamation, "That's what he's got for striking a white man." A few said, "it's a damned shame;" but the majority regarded it as but a proper tribute to their offended majesty.

It may be difficult for you, reader, to comprehend such brutality, and in the name of humanity you may protest against the truth of these statements. To you, such cruelty inflicted on a man seems fiendish. Ay, on a man; there hinges the whole. In the estimation of the illiterate, besotted poor whites who constituted the witnesses of such scenes in Charles County, Maryland, the man who did not feel rage enough at hearing of "a nigger" striking a white to be ready to burn him alive, was only fit to be lynched out of the neighborhood. A blow at one white man is a blow at all; is the muttering and upheaving of volcanic fires, which underlie and threaten to burst forth and utterly consume the whole social fabric. Terror is the fiercest nurse of cruelty. And when, in this our day, you find tender English women and Christian English divines fiercely urging that India should be made one pool of Sepoy blood, pause a moment before you lightly refuse to believe in the existence of such ferocious passions in the breasts of tyrannical and cowardly slave-drivers.

Previous to this affair my father, from all I can learn, had been a good-humored and light-hearted man, the ringleader in all fun at corn-huskings and Christmas buffoonery. His banjo was the life of the farm, and all night long at a merry-making would he play on it while the other negroes danced. But from this hour he became utterly changed. Sullen, morose, and dogged, nothing could be done with him. The milk of human kindness in his heart was turned to gall. He brooded over his wrongs. No fear or threats of being sold to the far south - the greatest of all terrors to the Maryland slave-would render him tractable. So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his after fate neither my mother nor I have ever learned; the great day will reveal all. This was the first chapter in my history.