Our readings for Tuesday address the features of slavery in the South as well as the politics of slavery in the West. And though on both fronts the so-called ‘peculiar institution’ faced different threats, from Federalists and Republic ‘Restrictionists’ politically and from non-slaveholding whites and dissident slaves domestically, the responses of slavery’s supporters to each threat shared a noteworthy similarity: by appealing to established convictions—either political, religious, or philosophical—leaders of the pro-slavery minority established solidarity along political, social, and racial lines.
On the political front, the assault on slavery by humanitarian Federalists and ‘Restrictionist’ Republicans evolved into a Constitutional debate with the admission of Missouri into the Union. For the pro-slavery Southern Democrats, this marked a crucial juncture for the protection and expansion of the institution which had experienced an unprecedented renaissance during the highly lucrative cotton boom of the 1790’s and early 19th century. Not only would the admission of Missouri as a slave state establish a pivotal four vote majority for the pro-slavery coalition in the Senate, but it would also ensure the expansion of slavery into the West, since, as Wilentz noted, “southerners worried that if slavery were banned in Missouri there would be precedent for doing so in all the states” (117). Characterized by intense factionalism on both sides, the debate over Missouri’s slave status echoed that of the Federalists and Anti-federalists just decades before. Insisting that the preservation of individual rights superseded that of the states’, Restrictionist Republicans argued for the Congressional power to restrict slavery in newly admitted states. Conversely, pro-slavery Southerners recalled the arguments of the Anti-federalists and Old Republicans, asserting state sovereignty and federal limitations. Missouri, they insisted, must decide the slavery question for themselves. Embroiled in the age-old debate of states’ rights and divided along regional lines, each faction became increasingly polarized and radicalized. In the South, “sectional bitterness spiked” along with “southerner’s militancy over slavery” (Wilentz 121). And in the fallout after the Missouri Compromise, bitter southerners made themselves known. Of those senators who voted against Senator Thomas’ clause, 2/3 were re-elected, a tremendous victory compared to the only 2/5 of Compromise’s supporters who earned reelection (123). By appealing to well-established Anti-federalist doctrines, pro-slavery Republicans ensured victory as well as political and regional solidarity.
On the domestic front, however, slavery faced much different opponents. Though outspokenly pro-slavery in the Senate, southerners themselves were not all slave-holders. In the antebellum South, “72 percent [of slaveholders] owned fewer than ten [slaves]” (Davis 198). In fact, the “typical” white Southerner at the time was a struggling small farmer, not a slaveholding great planter (185). Such a great number of non-slaveholders threatened the cohesion of the Southern slave society and plantation owner elites. In the Upper South, anti-slavery sentiment was on the rise, and in 1832, the Virginia unprecedentedly supported the notion that slavery was ‘ruinous to whites’ (185). Thus, “Southern slavocracy” entered a bitter battle with the threat of an alliance between non-slaveholding whites and dissenting slaves (185). But in the process, they treated each group similarly. To the enslaved, Southern elites adopted the practice of “Paternalism,” whereby slaveholders earned both the love and fear of their slaves by tempering their violent threats and abuses with acts of kindness and generosity, such as monetary bonuses and Christmas vacations (194, 196). To non-slaveholding whites, pro-slavery elites employed a strategy similar to that of paternalism, instilling a racist fear of freedom for slaves and a love of class cohesion for whites. By appealing to the long-established Aristotelean defense of slavery and the Biblical “Curse of Ham,” pro-slavery intellectuals, such as James Henry Hammond, fostered the notion of white supremacy in an effort to “command the loyalty of non-slaveholding whites” (192). Accordingly, African slaves were of a “inferior race. . . [that] will never effect . . . in any other condition as in that of Slavery” (189). In addition to the reinvigorated racism of the South, however, slavocracy had the two-fold effect of dissolving class differences amongst whites. Influenced by the disparity of liberty and equality between themselves and enslaved Africans, poor Southern whites could “take pride in their skin color and feel equal to the wealthiest and most powerful whites” (177). Thus, as in paternalism, pro-slavery elites exploited their subordinates—this time an increasing number of non-slaveholding farmer—by instilling both a fear of Africans through racism and and a love of white solidarity through class cohesion.
In her blog this week entitled “Not-So-Benevolent Paternalism,” Alia Karout stated “personally, I am not convinced that nineteenth century figures are above criticism for their faulty morality” (http://sites.davidson.edu/his141/not-so-benevolent-paternalism/). Though she conceded that perhaps Southerner’s “lack of humanity” could be attributed to “their misguided systems of belief,” I would encourage her to consider the typical Southerner of the antebellum South, the small, struggling farmer. Consider their exploitation by Southern politicians to endorse slavery for the sake of states’ rights, by Southern intellectuals to embrace white supremacy for the sake of ancient truths and Biblical legends, and by Southern elites to ignore class disparity for the sake of their liberty and equality. Can we not sympathize with white Southerners? Were they the victims of “misguided systems of belief” or the exploitative Southern elite?