The Ideology of Slavery, by Drew Faust
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981):306
Reviewed by Andre Fleche
The development of a southern defense of slavery has often been associated with the appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Such a direct attack on their institutions, so the argument goes, forced southern whites to respond with justifications of slavery. Drew Faust's book challenges the notion that proslavery thought crystallized during the turbulent decade of the 1850's. Her collection of southern defenses of slavery dating back to the 1830's shows that southerners had been constructing an "ideology" in support of slavery even before the dissemination of abolitionist viewpoints forced southern self-reflection. Uncle Tom's Cabin, then, can be seen as part of a twenty year old dialogue between slavery's enemies and advocates. Stowe's novel, however, brought something new to the old debate. Fiction and popular culture now joined a battle once fought exclusively with dry scriptural theses, "scientific" proofs, and anti-capitalist polemics. The explanation for the popularity of Stowe's novel, and the cross-class appeals of its dramatization, may well lie in the changing nature of the debate over slavery and its defense.
Thomas Dew's 1832 essay "Abolition of Negro Slavery" represents the earliest southern defense of their "peculiar institution." Although it appeared in the same year as the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, Dew's essay responded to events in the South. Nat Turner's rebellion prompted a meeting of the Virginia legislature which seriously discussed abolition and colonization for the state's blacks. An "impartial" Dew responded by declaring that "every plan of emancipation and deportation which we can possibly conceive, is totally impracticable" (27). He then went on in great detail to enumerate the harm abolition would do to Virginia's economy, the prohibitive expense of colonization, and the likelihood that race war would accompany emancipation. While Dew remained ambivalent about the ultimate morality of human slavery, he presented the institution as clearly the most practicable arrangement of southern society.
As the visibility of northern abolitionists increased, others drew on the work of Dew to argue that slavery was a positive good. These arguments often exhibited, in the words of Drew Faust, "remarkable consistency" (4). If the best minds of the South agreed on the issue, the proslavery position would appear stronger. Although individual authors became associated with certain positions, similar themes ran through all their works. Josiah Nott popularized the "science" of ethnology by using comparative anatomy and skull size to argue that Negroes were a separate and inferior species (206). Henry Hughes used sociological language to defend the South's social structure which he termed a system of "waranteeism" (241).
Other proslavery themes relate more directly to Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1841 Thornton Stringfellow undertook a scriptural defense of slavery, parts of which appeared in the writings of most defenders of the institution. The Old and New Testaments, he argued, recognized and specifically sanctioned slavery. If northerners thought otherwise, then their religious education was lacking: "With men from the North, I have observed for many years a palpable ignorance of divine will, in reference to the institution of slavery," he wrote (139). He backed up his assertions with endless quotes from scripture. Little wonder, then, that Stowe's novel attacked most preachers and established church doctrine. Instead, she aimed at the religious consciences of her readers, and emphasized action over learned reflection. Tom, Eva, and, Stowe surely hoped, her readers, followed the example of Christ, not the literal pronouncements of the Old Testament.
Even more alarming to northerners must have been the at times explicit rejection of American ideals employed by proslavery advocates. William Harper was one of many to attack the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. "All men born free and equal. Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was ever born free, and that no two men were ever born equal," he asked (83). Others attacked capitalism and the North's "free labor" society. James Henry Hammond asserted that slave labor was superior to capitalist exploitation of workers since the slaves were fed, clothed, housed, and cared for by benevolent masters. The South, he argued, had no dangerous class of unruly workers that had to be kept in check by municipal police and militia.
George Fitzhugh, writing in the late 1850's, took such sectional attacks to the extreme. The only writer in the anthology to work after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Fitzhugh did not ignore popular culture in his defense of slavery. "All Northern and European books teach abolition either directly or indirectly," he proclaimed (278). In oblique reference to anti-Tom novels, he praised southerners for "beginning to write books-to build up a literature" of their own (278). More importantly, he took the attack on capitalism to a logical extreme. Poor whites, as well as blacks would be better off enslaved, he argued.
Although most southerners denounced Fitzhugh as absurdly radical, according to Faust a lecture tour in the North "attracted horrified attention" (273). Lincoln himself was said to have drawn on Fitzhugh's philosophy in composing his "House Divided" speech (19). In light of such strident sectional attacks on the North's free labor society, it is understandable that Uncle Tom's Cabin struck a nerve among northerners. It can be imagined that to the ragged Bowery crowd, George Harris came uncomfortably close to resembling a "beneficently" enslaved white worker. With each new sectional crisis, southern slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the threat the South posed to northern society was increasingly on the minds of the northern populace. Stowe's work can, in many ways, be seen as in dialogue with slavery's defenders, a dialogue which northerners were increasingly willing to listen to as the defense of the peculiar institution became more sectional and more strident.
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