How did white Southerners defend slavery from the 1820s through the Civil War?

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When abolitionist attacks on slavery as an absolute moral evil grew more vehement and frequent after 1820, many southern slaveholders moved away from the idea of slavery as a "necessary evil." Instead, led by wealthy slave-owner John Calhoun, they began to assert that slavery was a "positive good." Calhoun, for example, argued that large plantation owners provided their slaves built communal values and therefore fortified the communal aspects of the republic. He also insisted that slaves were well cared for, especially in infirmity and old age, and that the natural inferiority of black people meant they were better off in slavery. While all of these arguments could be easily refuted, and while Calhoun had his own slaves beaten, this insistence on the "positive good" of slavery was a mark of the increased polarization between north and south.

Christianity was also used to justify slavery. Both Old Testament and New Testament verses appeared to endorse slavery as an acceptable social formation and southern slave owners used these to counter abolitionist arguments that slavery was a gross violation of Christian ethics. Slaveowners also justified slavery with the assertion that enslaved blacks had their souls saved by being removed from Africa and converted to Christianity.

Practical arguments for slavery were still articulated in this period, such as the claim that the agrarian and labor intensive southern economy would collapse without slavery.

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It can be said that there were three primary ways white Southerners defended the practice of slavery. However, it is likely that these various perspectives would have overlapped to some extent. Clearly, none of these perspectives are legitimate reasons for defending the practice, because they all neglect the humanness of slaves, but they do reflect how various aspects of the Confederacy (or, certain elements of it) would have supported and defended the practice of slavery. 

First, it was believed that the issue of slavery should have been left up to the individual states (this is still a common defense for the Confederacy today). This was the seat of the argument for "states' rights" during the Civil War era. Many Southerners felt that states' rights were being infringed upon by the Union. 

Second, there were those who would have simply denied the humanity of slaves. It is clear from history (through eyewitness accounts, art depictions, news articles, etc.) that many white Southerners (most likely those who owned slaves and defended the institution overall) did not view slaves as humans. The very practice of being able to "own" a human being and treat them in ways that slaves were treated evidences that the humanness of slaves was not realized—much less valued.  

Third, there were those who would have simply supported the institution of slavery because of the monetary benefit that it provided to certain elite elements of society. This, of course, paid little-to-no regard to the well being of the slaves and would have been solely based on benefiting the slave owners and the communities in which they lived. It is likely that the moral issues with this institution would not have even crossed the minds of those who defended slavery from this perspective—they were simply pursuing money. 


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White Southerners defended the institution of slavery on a number of fronts.  They said that it was necessary and they said that it was not forbidden, but they also argued that it was a positive good.

Southerners argued that slavery was an economic necessity.  They argued that there was no way to get anyone to do the sort of labor that was needed for tobacco (and later cotton) cultivation without coercing them.  They argued that slavery was therefore completely necessary for the Southern economy.

The Southerners also argued that there was no reason to think that slavery was immoral.  They looked to at least three sources to support this claim.  First, they looked to Biblical times.  They noted that there was slavery in the Old Testament and the New Testament and that Jesus never spoke against the practice.  Second, they looked at classical antiquity.  They argued that the Greeks and the Romans had slaves even as they were the source of Western civilization.  Finally, they looked to the time of the Founding Fathers.  They noted that the people who wrote the Constitution had slaves.  With all of these examples in mind, they argued that there was no reason to think slavery was wrong.

Finally, they argued that slavery was a positive good.  They argued that slaves were better off than “free” laborers in the North.  They said slaves were cared for even when they were too sick or too old to work.  This was in contrast to wage laborers in the North. 

In these ways, Southern whites defended the institution of slavery.

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