Devil’s Advocates: The Men Who Defended Slavery

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John C. Calhoun

Amongst the most influential defenders of slavery in the antebellum era was South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun. Having served as a Congressman, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, Senator, and Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun is best remembered for the 1837 speech on the Senate floor where he infamously declared that slavery was a “positive good” at a time when many slaveholding Americans were inclined to describe it as an evil (albeit a necessary one). “I hold that in the present state of civilization,” said Calhoun, “where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.”

Furthermore, Calhoun maintained that the presence of a laboring caste was a necessity for any prosperous society. Calhoun saw chattel slavery, when compared to the “wage slavery” of the North, as a solution to tensions of workers and property owners, given his presumption that it was the natural place of black people to be submissive to whites. “There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.”

Calhoun died in 1850, but his legacy lived on in the Confederacy, where he was lionized for his pro-slavery views and support for the concept of secession (he was even featured on the Confederate $100 bill).

James Henry Hammond

South Carolina governor and US Senator James Henry Hammond famously defended slavery in a 1858 Senate address where he introduced his “mudsill theory.” Having built upon the ideas of Calhoun, Hammonds address stressed the need in any society for a social class who is solely responsible for performing menial labor so others many occupy themselves with more leisurely pursuits. “Fortunately for the South,” said Hammond, “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.”

While defending black chattel slavery, Hammond condemns the north for “enslaving” white workers in factories for petty wages:

“Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and operatives, as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns.”

The moral superiority of chattel slavery over the northern system of labor was obvious through Hammonds eyes. Whereas northerners enslaved members of their own race, southerners enslaved an inferior race, and while northern wage slaves were starved and deprived of employment, southern slaves were well fed and cared for.

Hammonds personal life was blighted by coercive sexual relationships with his slaves, as unabashedly described in his personal diary. With mistresses as young as 12, he even had lecherous relationships with his own illegitimate nieces.

Jefferson Davis

As the first (and only) president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis was always an active supporter of the right of white people to own African Americans. As a young senator from Mississippi, Davis wrote a letter to a Malcolm D. Haynes in 1849 in which he claimed that slavery was biblically sanctioned and a guaranteed right in the US Constitution. Furthermore, he claimed that the federal government had no right to abolish slavery in territories that had yet to gain statehood.

His views hadnt changed much on January 21, 1861 when Senator Davis gave his farewell address to the US Senate upon the announcement that Mississippi has seceded from the Union. “[Mississippi] has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of races.” In the eyes of Davis, it was immensely obvious that black people did not count as people for the purposes of the Founding Fathers. “When our Constitution was formed, the same idea as rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men- not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths [human beings].”

In the postbellum era, Davis took a much softer stance, downplaying the significance of slavery during the formation of the Confederacy and describing the conflict primarily in terms of differences in theories of constitutional law. While legal scholars debate to this day the constitutionality of southern secession, Davis claims of defending “states rights” cannot be viewed in isolation from his belief that the right to own slaves was among the dearest rights of all.

Alexander Stephens

On March 21, 1861, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, newly-appointed Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia that history has remembered as the “cornerstone speech.” While discussing the reasons for secession, he named chattel slavery as the “cornerstone” upon which the Confederacy was founded. “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization,” claimed Stephens. “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

In criticizing the foundations of the United States, Stephens cited the fact that slaveholding Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, expressed guilt over their ownership of slaves. Ultimately, the United States main flaw in Stephens view is the implication in its founding documents that all men are created equal. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” claimed Stephens. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Furthermore, Stephens expresses an optimistic hope that the world would follow the example of the Confederacy and universally adopt chattel enslavement of Africans: “In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.”

Conclusions

Within respected antebellum and Civil War-era Southern society, support for slavery was rampant amongst the political elite. The two most powerful politicians of the Confederacy passionately defended the morality of slavery, while many other advocates of slavery deeply inspired Confederate political thought. In most cases, the defenders of slavery who lived to see the postbellum era suffered amnesia of what they had said in the previous years; what had once been a well acknowledged cornerstone of the Confederacy was reduced to a mere peripheral issue.

It should not be inferred, however, that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers signed up to defend slavery (most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves). Instead, the populist battle cry was based upon Southern patriotism and a sincere belief that Southerners were unjustifiably oppressed by the North. Nonetheless, the Confederacys twisted political elite knew perfectly well that they were fighting a war to defend the enslavement of four million Americans.