Thursday, March 3, 2011

America’s 19th Century Slave Economy

An answer to a reader’s question (+)...
by Charlie Leck

Based on what I wrote yesterday, one of my regular readers, Lynn, asked an interesting question about how the rest of the world felt about slavery in the American south:

“Do you think the other nations of the world at that time i.e. Europe, Norway, Sweden, etc., thought the U.S. barbaric in the use of slavery? England decried it openly at some point during the height of slave trade to the U.S.

Lynn is talking about the anti-slave-trading movement that grew so strong in England in the early 1800s – the topic of the wonderful movie, Amazing Grace. I wrote about the film in a blog in April 2007.

In fact, as best I can tell from my reading, Europe was also divided on America’s southern slave economy, but not as seriously as America was. We’ve got to remember that there was strong opposition to slavery in America, too. About 50 percent of the northern population totally opposed slavery and the other 50 percent was divided about the South’s right to a slave economy. Somewhere around 10 percent of the southern population also believed that slavery was immoral; however, this small group knew better than to speak up about their feelings.

Even in Europe the black human beings were a mystery and plenty of stories had circulated about the “uncivilized black man” from Africa. Yet, it’s also true that a number of black people had made their way into Europe and some distinguished themselves as scholars and succeeded in the economic system while others ended up as indentured servants.

Some scholars like to picture the division in America as one over the constitutional question of secession and withdrawal from the union and not a matter of race or racial injustice. That is not the case. It was a matter of moral and social justice and it was the debate over those ethical questions that pushed the South’s decisions about war.

The South had built a strong economy around slavery and slave trade. Its economic health and stability were threatened by the moral questions raised in America’s north and in Europe. As is often the question, morality and religious concepts are altered to be amenable with matters of economic success. There were very, very few voices in the churches of the South that condemned slavery during the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and there were strong voices among the religious of the South that justified it.

The general concept held fast to by the majority in America’s North and in Europe was that of natural rights and natural equality among men. The South built a moral argument that it was the opposite – that there was a natural inequality. In his Memoir of Slavery, William Harper argued that “man is born to subjection” and that “man struggles with evil choices and must choose between them.”

“It is what it is,” Harper declared.

Churchmen in the South argued that there was a biblical argument for slavery and they pointed to the Old Testament prophets in their argument that slavery was divinely sanctioned. Utopian, Henry Hughes built a theory of warrantyism and proposed that the black people “are charges put in the world for the slaveholder to care for and develop.”

Historical justifications for slavery were also used in the South. Edward Brown, a prolific pro-slavery writer, held that “slavery had ever been the stepping ladder by which nations have passed from barbarism to civilization.” The historical argument for slavery contended that it had been crucial to the development of all great civilizations.

It would be wrong to think that such moral justification were rare. In fact there was large-scale writing about the case for slavery. As Doctor David Blight (introduced to you in yesterday’s blog) explains, “In almost every slave owner’s library was an anthology of pro-slavery writing (at first more than 400 pages that grew to more than 900 pages in subsequent editions.)”

There was no great and strong defense of the South’s right to hold slaves anywhere else in the world (the emphasis is on the word strong). The anti-slavery movement in the north of the United States was very strong. It was a regular theme from the pulpit of northern churches. There were dozens of different anti-slavery organizations. The same was true in England and in most of Europe. America’s South had few international supporters other than those small organizations that benefited from the slave trade industry and the slave economy.

It is not amazing that such attitudes about the black African persisted in the South for so many, many years when one considers the intensity of the argument in the middle of the 19th century.

It’s a long answer to your question, Lynn, but one I enjoyed babbling out.


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  1. Good question. Excellent answer!

  2. Thank you for your response. You have so much knowledge on this subject. It is difficult to imagine the depth of prejudice in the south and how they could defend it. Being a first generation/second generation American, my experience is so different. I tend to view people as individuals but that we are the same in that we are Americans.