SLAVERY AND CIVILIZATION

The Virginia writer George Fitzhugh took the argument to its most radical conclusion, repudiating not only Jeffersonian ideals but the notion of America’s special mission in the world. Far from being the natural condition of mankind, Fitzhugh wrote, “universal liberty” was the exception, an experiment carried on “for a little while” in “a comer of Europe” and the northern United States. Taking the world and its history as a whole, slavery, “without regard to race and color,” was “the general,... normal, natural” basis of “civilized society.” Indeed, wrote Fitzhugh, slaveowners and slaves shared a “community of interest” unknown in “free society.” Since they lacked economic cares, he contended, “the Negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some degree, the freest people in the world.” White workers in both the North and South, according to Fitzhugh, would fare better having individual owners, rather than living as “slaves” of the economic marketplace.

It seems safe to assume that few non-slaveholding white southerners agreed that enslavement would offer them greater freedom than they already enjoyed. Nor was Fitzhugh entirely consistent. Sometimes, he argued that all free laborers would be better off as slaves. On other occasions, he spoke of slavery only for blacks—perpetual “children” for whom liberty would be “a curse.”

Abraham Lincoln would later observe that the essential function of the proslavery argument was to serve the interests of those who benefited from a system of extreme inequality. He imagined Dr. Frederick A. Ross, a leading proslavery clergyman, considering whether he should free his slave Sambo. God’s view of the subject, Lincoln noted, was not entirely clear, and “no one thinks of asking Sambo’s opinion.” Therefore, it fell to Dr. Ross to decide the question. “If he decides that God wills Sambo to continue a slave,” Lincoln wrote, “he thereby retains his own comfortable position; but if he decides that God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of the shade, take off his gloves, and [work] for his own bread.” Under these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Dr. Ross found the argument that Sambo should remain a slave very persuasive.

After 1830, southern writers, newspaper editors, politicians, and clergymen increasingly devoted themselves to spreading the defense of slavery. The majority of white southerners came to believe that freedom for whites rested on the power to command the labor of blacks. In the words of the Richmond Enquirer, “freedom is not possible without slavery.”

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