From temporary evil, to necessary evil, to positive good. How the South came to romantacize slavery.

18 Aug

In his book The Impending Crisis, David Porter writes about the change that took place in the northern and southern minds about slavery from 1830-1860.  Prior to this period, southerners joined northerners in considering slavery immoral, evil, and in tension with either Christianity, republican and founding values, or both.  And northerners joined southerners in assuming moral responsibility for it.  After all, Southern leaders had agreed that the slave trade was evil (and favored abolishing it in 1808) and agreed that the Northwestern Territory should exclude slavery in 1787.  There were more emancipation organizations/societies in the south by far than in the north prior to 1830.   Several southern states seriously considered joining northern states setting a target for emancipation. But between 1830 and 1860, as he says, “in an era of uninhibited romanticism, sentimentality, the southern upper class built a fully elaborated cult of chivalry,… castellated architecture, a code of honor, and the enshrinement of women.”  Their defense of slavery went from it being a temporary thing, a necessary evil, to a positive good for slave and society.  When compared to the “free labor” system of northern capitalism and industrialization, it was morally superior than the “impersonal, dehumanized irresponsibility of ‘wage slavery,’ which treated labor as a commodity.”  How did this happen?  How did the conceded paradox between slave labor and Christian/republican virtue give way to an ardent defense of the morality of slavery?  Potter suggests that before the philosophy of the South changed, the New England puritanical attitude about America and the South changed.   He blames radical abolitionism.  Abolitionism was a diverse movement with many motives, not most of which were righteous or humanitarian (though some were).  Abolitionists began to publish books, articles, songs, and pictures caricaturing the South as a wasteland of backwards, anti-progress (read capitalism), biracial, slow, uneducated, mixed race, people.  Slavery to them had no place in America, not only because it was distasteful, but also (and mainly) because it created a culture of disgusting racial integration, racial intermingling, and racial diversity.  Blacks impede the progress of whites and slavery disturbed the inevitable progress of white America from assuming its place among the great rich and powerful nations of the world.  Such a system made the south a drag on white American progress (influenced, as it was, by an inferior race in their midst) and robbed white “free laborers” of their racially superior rights to labor over blacks.  Lincoln himself explained his opposition to the expansion of slavery into western territories: “I am in favor of this not merely for our own people who are born amongst us, but as an outlet for free white people everywhere.”  As for the South, it was so far gone, so out of tune with the new vision of America’s destiny (more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian) that it needed an invading, cleansing, occupation, of a superior unpolluted species of men (New Englanders) with the right view of America (no blacks, no Catholics, no immigrants, no Native Americans, but instead an industrial and world leading superpower blessed by God and engineered by white protestants).  Think “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Instead of socially integrating with blacks through slavery, America should socially segregate from blacks through deportation (or let them simply go the way of the “doto bird,” as one abolitionist said, when they get freedom and can no longer be fed, clothed, and protected by their masters).  Only then will real progress start and America can finally be what God had destined it to be, that “city shining on a hill.”  Some went so far as to support slave uprisings (e.g., financing the violence of John Brown and mourning his execution).  So demonized were southerners over this 30 year attack that the South developed a paradigm, a narrative, to try and occupy the moral high ground seized by their radical abolitionist attackers, making them fear northern moral crusaders as inevitably coming for them, their families, land, and “adopted servants” (as they like to think of them, erroneously).  This leads Potter writes, “Northern anti-slavery men had begun to abandon their tone of gentle, persuasive reproachful in discussing slavery and had fallen not only to denouncing slavery as a monstrous sin, but also to castigating slaveholders as hideous… One should not accept the apologia that the South would itself have got rid of slavery if this indiscriminate onslaught had not compromised the position of the southern emancipationists, but it does seem valid to say that, in the face of such bitter condemnation, white southerners lost their willingness to concede that slavery was an evil — even an inherited one, for which Yankee slave sellers [traders and creditors] and the southern slave buyers of the 18th century shared responsibility.  Instead they responded by defending slavery as a positive good.”  Porter pp. 458-460.

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