Can Slavery be Justified in the Ante-Bellum South?

Tabby Slave House

The justification of American slavery in the pre-Civil War period includes notions of paternalism and economics yet the documentation proves otherwise.

In an 1846 memoir written by former slave Lewis Clarke, the true picture of the Southern “Slave Society” is well documented. Anti-slavery leaders like Frederick Douglass, also a former slave, corroborate what many Northern citizens already knew. Despite the apologists for slavery such as George Fitzhugh, critics of the South could never justify slavery. “There are those living who know the mothers whom this accursed traffic has driven to the murder of their children,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Despite volumes of documentation detailing the brutality of Southern slavery, apologists still claim that the nation benefited from the economics of the institution.

Slavery in the Agricultural South

For Southerners, slavery had always existed. It began in the 17th Century when tobacco planters realized the utility of slaves over indentured servitude. Historians T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes document that free blacks co-existed with whites in early 17th Century Virginia, even attaining the status of planter, until mid-century when greater numbers of Africans were introduced into the Virginia plantation economy. (“Myne Owne Ground, Oxford University Press, 1980)

By the 19th Century, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun declared that, “Be it good or bad, it has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people.” As Northern opinion crystallized in opposition to slavery, Southern apologists began to use every means available to protect the institution and their livelihood. This included a Congressional “gag rule” on anti-slavery petitions, comparisons to the evils of Northern industrialization and the treatment of workers, as well as appeals to Biblical passages that supported slavery.

The Master – Slave Relationship

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s comment (above) was not without precedent. Lewis Clarke’s autobiographical account details two specific accounts of mothers killing their own children. According to Clarke, “…I have seen the two feelings struggling in the bosom of a mother – joy, which was beyond the reach the slave monsters, and the natural grief of a mother over her child.” The Charleston Mercury defined the master – slave relationship as, “a relation in society as necessary as that of parent and child…”

Yet slaves were not content, despite the positive images given by writers like George Fitzhugh. In his pamphlet Slavery Justified, he noted that, “slavery protects the weaker members of society…” This did not stop the Prosser, Vesey, or Turner revolts. Nor can it explain why slaves became fugitives, seeking the freedom of the North and ultimately Canada after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. It does not explain why slaves like Josiah Henson, betrayed by his master, took his family across the Ohio River to safety. Henson inspired the creation of Uncle Tom in Stowe’s novel.

The Historical Nature of Slavery

Slavery was an integral part of civilizations from the first settlements and early cities of the ancient world. Unlike the race-based slavery of Ante-Bellum South, however, it was not strictly racial. The Code of Hammurabi even included provisions governing slaves that would never have been part of Southern slave codes. If the Genesis account of the Hebrews in Egypt is to be considered historically accurate, it may be one of the few cases where specific races or groups were targeted for slavery in the ancient world. The slaves that followed Spartacus, for example, represented many ethnicities and came to Italy through the wars of the Republic.

Justifying Southern Slavery

To justify Southern slavery necessitates agreeing that slaves were property. In the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that, “…the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” This was hardly a defense of paternalism. In a letter to his former master, fugitive slave Anthony Chase asks, “…what can a man do who has his hands bound and his feet fettered…” He had “served” his master “faithfully” for 11 years. Securing his freedom, Chase was no longer property, but was a man who took the step of running away “to be free” and provide for his family.


  1. Lewis Clarke, Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery (1846)
  2. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)
  3. Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury (HarperCollins, 1997)