Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What were James Henry Hammond's views on slavery?

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James Henry Hammond was a nineteenth-century slaveowner from South Carolina who vigorously defended slavery as a good idea. As governor of South Carolina, he stated that

American slavery is not only not a sin, but especially commanded by God through Moses, and approved by Christ through his apostles.

Hammond lived from 1807-1864. These dates are significant because during this period, the United States polarized into two camps: pro-slavery and anti-slavery. As time went on, both sides hardened into their positions, making compromise more and more impossible.

Abolitionist writing, especially the wildly successful Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, led those opposed to slavery to demand its immediate cessation everywhere. In response, Southern slave owners dug their heels in. While in an earlier generation, slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson freely admitted the evils of slavery, by the time Hammond was an adult, pro-slavery proponents were insisting that slavery was not only a necessary evil, but actually a positive good. Hammond contended that the institution of slavery was both necessary—the "mud" on which society was built—and a God-ordained, positive benefit to all. He said slavery simply needed to be reformed so that its abuses were abolished. He tried to make his plantation a model of a benign slave system, though it has been noted that he repeatedly raped two of his female slaves. 

By 1858, he gave a famous speech in Senate. In it, he declared that slaves were suited to their role performing the "drudgery of life." His aggressive defense of slavery and the happy plantation life he claimed the slaves led shows how far the two sides on the slavery problem had polarized. By this time, war was almost inevitable as the only way to resolve the question.

It should be noted that Hammond did not work for what he had, but married into wealth. He also molested four of his nieces. The ease of his success and the cavalier attitude he took towards his nieces suggests he wasn't a person with much experience of what it is to suffer or much imagination or empathy. He didn't, in other words, seem to have been able to see beyond his own needs and desires.

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James Henry Hammond was an ardent defender of slavery, which he characterized as a superior form of labor, and social organization, to northern wage labor. Hammond was the first to articulate what was known as the "mudsill" theory of social organization, in which society needed a lower class to rest upon so that elites might be free to contribute to the progress of society. In the South, Hammond argued in a famous speech before the US Senate, blacks were best suited to the forms of labor that undergirded plantation culture:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill...[Y]ou might as well attempt to build a house in the air...except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. 

So Hammond argued that black slaves, by virtue of their supposed inherent inferiority, were natural slaves. Without a labor force of socially inferior people, he claimed, society would collapse. Most of his other defenses of slavery were fairly typical of southern apologists. He claimed that slaves were well-fed, clothed, and cared for in their old age, while northern "operatives," who he characterized as "essentially slaves," were forced to labor to make enough money to scrape by. He further argued that oppression of whites, with immoral, quite different than the South's extraction of labor from slaves, who were "happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations."

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