How was the slave trade justified?

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The primary justification given for the slave trade was economic; the South's economy was wholly dependent on it. Any attempt, then, to abolish it would lead to the collapse of the Southern economy and the society on which it was based. In reality, however, the slave trade held back the...

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Southern economy, preventing it from developing any kind of significant industrial base. This put the South at a distinct disadvantage in the Civil War, as the Northern economy was much more modern and diversified.

Strange as it may seem, many advocates of slavery used religion to justify their position. A narrowly literalist interpretation of Scripture formed the basis of much pro-slavery argument. Verses from the Bible were selectively quoted and distorted to make it seem that God himself had ordained the peculiar institution. At a time in the United States when Bible-based faith was widespread, this was a potentially powerful argument. If God has given us slavery, then who are we to defy His will? An economic activity such as the slave trade is always much more difficult to challenge if it has the stamp of divine authority.

An even more persuasive argument to many at the time was that black people were racially inferior. Even the vast majority of those opposed to slavery believed this, backing up their racial prejudice with pseudoscience such as phrenology, which sought to demonstrate biological grounds for the alleged inferiority of certain races. If black people were biologically inferior, so the argument went, then it was perfectly acceptable to treat them as such. Though this did not necessarily mean that they should be enslaved, it did at least lend some support to the argument that slavery and its associated trade were not just a manifestation of divine order, but of the natural order as well.

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The justification for slavery in the southern United States was, at its core, primarily economic, although the South went to great lengths to conceal this true motivation for enslaving Africans.

Once the economic structure of the American South became reliant on slave labor to continue to exist, its citizens, and especially its rich landowners, had to find a way to convince others that slavery was morally right, or at least tolerable, for more than just economic reasons.

One method was to use the Bible to justify the owning of slaves. Slavery is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament without any accompanying disapproval. Hence, Biblically, it seems that slavery is tacitly approved of. There is also the well-known passage in Genesis 9 in which Noah curses his son Ham, along with his descendants, with ongoing servitude. This passage was interpreted to mean that people of African descent had been Biblically cursed with slavery, although it does not actually do so.

Many people also attempted to justify slavery within a paternal context, claiming that Africans were unable to care for themselves as well as they could be cared for by their white owners.

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Something that we now look at with horror and revulsion enjoyed a great deal of justification.  Slavery was justified on many grounds.  The abduction of people into bondage could only be continued and expanded with such rationalization.  

One justification was on religious grounds.  As the Atlantic Slave Trade increased, the perception was that Africans were "heathens."  This view of Africans was one that suggested any non- Christian was an impediment to Christianity.  Such a view also helped to demonize Africans, making their subjugation easier and more widely accepted.  When Prince Henry of Portugal seeks the Pope's blessing for more slave raids and further enslavement and receives it, one sees how religious faith played a role in the justification of slavery.

Another justification of slavery was money.  There were large fortunes to be made in the business of slavery.  For many Europeans, the commodity of human trafficking was undeniable.  If they were not going to engage in this process, someone else was going to do so.  Slavery was seen as a way in which large sums of money could be made.  Given the fact that Africans themselves had no real way of stopping the growing power of European nations, this helped to further justify slavery.  It was seen as a business, as a form of commerce.  This helped to further increase the slavery business, justifying its expansion as a matter of commercial enterprise.

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How was the slave trade justified by the Africans who were involved in it?

Africans who were involved in the slave trade justified it as something that they had always done and something that they were not doing to their own people. 

The first thing to realize is that we tend to think that all Africans should have identified themselves as Africans and that they should have realized that they were all in it together against the Europeans.  But that is not how things were.  The Africans were divided into different states and kingdoms that were often in competition with one another.  We do not think it was strange that Romans fought their neighbors and enslaved them.  We should not think it was strange that some African groups fought their neighbors and sold them into slavery.

If we could ask an African from that time how they would justify themselves, they would likely have felt it was a strange question.  People have always fought one another and enslaved one another.  That is all that they were doing.  It is not like they were taking fellow citizens of their own country and selling them into slavery.

So, there are two major points here.  First, we should not think that all Africans saw themselves as Africans rather than members of specific states or groups.  Second, we should realize that many peoples have taken their enemies and enslaved them or sold them into slavery.

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