Rethinking the Defense of Slavery in Antebellum America
This paper aims to reexamine the justifications for African slavery in America during the late eighteenth century and the period leading up to the antebellum crisis, as explored in Paul Finkelman’s book “Defending Slavery.” The initial focus will involve summarizing the first part of the book, which primarily addresses the racial dimensions of slavery. Following this overview, the paper will delve into two specific sections from the book’s second part: “Religion and Slavery” and “Racial Theory and Slavery.” The ultimate objective is to analyze how these thematic aspects were employed to rationalize African slavery during the early history of America.
In “Defending Slavery,” Finkelman compiles a collection of historical documents authored by politicians, lawyers, clergymen, and anonymous writers who advocated for proslavery viewpoints. The introductory portion of the book sets the stage by providing a concise introduction to the proslavery arguments prevalent in Antebellum America. A recurring thread among these proslavery perspectives is the reliance on racial considerations to justify the institution of slavery. One notable concept introduced is the “mudsill theory,” attributed to James Henry Hammond, a Senator from South Carolina. This theory posited a racial argument in favor of slavery, contending that prosperous societies necessitate a class of individuals engaged in menial labor to establish social hierarchies. It asserted that this labor should be assigned to the perceived inferior black race, further entrenching the socio-racial divide. Consequently, this perspective accentuated the role of slavery in exacerbating the gap between the “white” and “black” races.
“Religion and Slavery” constitutes a section of the book where Finkelman presents four documents authored by representatives of Baptist and Protestant denominations, as well as an anonymous contributor, all published and edited by De Bow’s Review—a widely circulated Southern magazine of the 19th century. These documents offer insights into the intersection of religion and slavery. In this context, religion was wielded to legitimize slavery, and the selected documents provide a glimpse into the theological reasoning advanced by proponents of slavery.
The second section, “Racial Theory and Slavery,” delves into the confluence of race and slavery, a pivotal aspect in justifying the subjugation of African individuals. This section dissects how racial theories were employed to lend credence to the practice of slavery. By linking notions of racial inferiority to a purported justification for enslavement, proponents sought to establish a framework that sustained the exploitation of African slaves.
In conclusion, this paper seeks to reevaluate the rationales behind defending African slavery in early American history by examining the racial aspects, religious underpinnings, and racial theories invoked to legitimize the institution. By delving into these aspects, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted strategies employed by advocates of slavery and the role of these ideologies in shaping the complex dynamics of pre-Civil War America.
The Racial Politics of Slavery” by Michael O. West (2020)
The Proslavery Argument” by James Oakes (2018)
Slavery and the Making of the Modern World” by Sven Beckert (2014)
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolutions” by David Brion Davis (2012)