The Proslavery Argument in the Early Republic, 1790-1830

Morrison, Larry Robert, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ellis, Richard E., Department of History, University of Virginia
Brugger, Robert J., Department of History, University of Virginia

According to the standard view of Southern history, there was a strong antislavery tradition in the South until the 1830's when the militant abolitionist attacks upon not only slavery but also slaveholders forced Southerners into a defense of their peculiar institution. This view over­ looks, however, the strong proslavery tradition that also existed in the South from 1790 to 1830. This study is an attempt to re-examine this period and consider the proslavery arguments that did exist in the early United States.

Examining sources primarily from the public forum, such as speeches, newspaper articles, and pamphlets, this study focuses upon the proslavery positions presented in the early republic. It looks at not only the actual statements but also the rationale behind them. The defenses used ranged from Biblical sanction and historical precedent to “scientific” evidence, from constitutionalism and economics to social considerations and racism. In each instance, proslavery advocates justified the institution of black slavery, and the way of life based on it, as not only necessary but also beneficial for both whites and blacks.

Proslavery sentiment, however, was not a monolithic and unchanging creed during the period, but rather a fluid pattern of belief very much affected by other events of the period, such as the debates over ending the slave trade, the Missouri controversy, Denmark Vesey's attempted insurrection, and the efforts to get federal funding for emancipation and colonization. What did exist was a series of dis­ jointed but interconnecting arguments which formed a disparate combination of special pleadings and appeals.

Initially, in 1790, the majority of Southerners either quietly accepted the institution of chattel slavery or else was apologetic about it. This posture changed with the expansion of the institution and the attacks upon it. Whether fully accepted by everyone or not, by the Revolutionary period the institution of black slavery was an integral part of the Southern way of life. Both economically and socially many Southerners regarded slavery as necessary, and saw attacks upon it as attacks upon their way of life; thus, they rushed to defend slavery and slaveholding. By 1830, with repeated assertions and elaborations, the earlier disjointed arguments had been welded into a fairly comprehensive proslavery defense which lay a firm foundation for the later militant “positive good" theory of slavery.

In retrospect it seems that in the early republic slavery's advocates were as proslavery as they needed to be to defend the institution. Proslavery postures were so muted in these early years because the institution was basically accepted and proponents felt no real need to justify that which was so little questioned. However as the attacks upon the institution became more aggressive and pointed, so too did the defense and justifications for slavery. In the final analysis, the difference between the pro­ slavery sentiment of the early republic and that of the post-1830's was not the degree of the acceptance or commitment to black slavery, but the degree of the public acknowledgement and emotionalism attached to that commitment.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Slavery -- United States -- Controversial literature, Slavery -- Southern States

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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