According to a pivotal conventional historical wisdom, one generation after Thomas Jefferson and other southern Founding Fathers called slavery a necessary evil (and only necessary until blacks could be removed from the United States), proslavery writers convinced all Southerners that slavery was a positive good (and should never be removed). The Virginia legislature’s two-week debate in 1832 allegedly marked the last southern consideration of antislavery. Thereafter, nothing was supposedly left to discuss, for everyone celebrated slavery’s glory.

This misconception errs in every essential. The necessary-evil argument remained widely believed in the Upper South. The dream of eventually removing blacks (and thus making the evil unnecessary) continued to thrive, including in the most advanced Upper South proslavery polemics. Important Upper South legislative discussions of slavery came after the Virginia 1832 debate. The most sophisticated Lower South intellectuals never completely mastered the proslavery puzzle. The ideological shortfall made political solutions to southern divisions seem all the more necessary.

The frustrating problem, ideologically no less than politically, was to reconcile unlimited slaveholder power with limited republican power. Attempts at ideological reconciliation took three colliding forms, based on class, race, and religion. Each received preliminary elaboration in the 1830s. All gained more polish in the 1850s. None swept all minds and hearts before the Civil War.

Some Southerners still emerged with fresh excitement about a better understood mission. Others gloomed about persistently intractable problems. Others hoped that slavery could be improved and then might wither away. In their climactic proslavery arguments, late antebellum Southerners still disagreed about why and whether the institution was a blessing—and about whether slavery could be reformed and/or eventually ended.


James Henry Hammond and the Unsolvable Proslavery Puzzle

After William Lloyd Garrison inaugurated his Liberator (1831), slaveholders desired a better defense than the necessity of an evil. By the mid-1840s, new arguments for slavery’s glory dodged the republican case for slavery’s shame: that masters possessed absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This first wave of proslavery writers severed a paternalist’s absolute power to uplift inferiors inside private homes from a republic’s restricted power to regulate equals outside private gates. Some 1830–45 polemicists claimed that by cleaving unlimited household rule from limited governmental rule, they had converted every southern republican to domestic absolutism. South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond proclaimed victory especially grandiosely. Yet Hammond demonstrated, in his published theory and in his domestic life, that pre-1845 proslavery writers had not reconciled republican and absolute power, whether inside or outside the home.

– 1 –

The clash between antislavery Northerners and proslavery Southerners often centered on domestic hearths. Southerners called slavery the Domestic Institution. Slave labor under caring paternalists inside domestic sanctuaries, they affirmed, beat free labor exploitation under uncaring employers beyond the home. Your homes, retorted Yankees, are bespattered brothels, not caring sanctuaries. You fornicate with your slaves and thus further dirty unchristian households.

Yankees wielded sexual slurs so self-righteously, so scornfully, and so pornographically that they could sound like anti-Catholic voyeurs, spinning tales of righteous priests abed with virginal nuns. “The slave States,” intoned George Bourne in an 1837 pamphlet published in Boston, “are one vast brothel,” featuring “incests, polygamy, adultery, and other uncleanness.” When the supposedly Christian master “forces” his slave, “she dare not complain.”

To illustrate the sufferer, Bourne told of a “nearly white” slave. Her master’s son compelled “her, whenever he pleased,” to share “his bed.” The servile “could not appeal to her master for protection, for he was guilty of like practices.” This “pious … victim of the brutal lust of a dissolute young man” had “no prospect before her” except “being again and again polluted, whenever his unbridled passions should dictate.”1

Southerners called the charge irrelevant sensationalism. How many southern Christians, after all, degenerated into sexual monsters? Quantities of grotesqueness, answered abolitionists, are irrelevant. A few masters’ sexual selfishness illustrated all masters’ license to be brutes. In addition to sexually exploiting slaves, owners sold black families apart, prevented slaves from reading the Bible, and brutally lashed their serviles. A Christian republic must check and balance fallen man’s power to devastate natural rights, in the home no less than in the government.

Englishmen no less than New Englanders pressed this plea. In 1845, James Henry Hammond, recently governor of South Carolina, answered the grand old man of the English antislavery movement, Thomas Clarkson. The South Carolinian’s swiftly published Letters to Clarksonsummarized the first wave of proslavery writing.

Hammond denied that slaveholders alone possessed absolute power. Unrestrained employers could fire or underpay powerless employees. Undernourishment ensued during free labor society’s boom times and unemployment in bad times. In all times, poor folks’ “illicit sexual intercourse” prevailed “from an early period of life.” If England’s Thomas Clarkson wished to protect impoverished laborers and hapless females, he should elevate his society’s so-called free laborers to the condition of “our slaves.” He would then accomplish “a most glorious act of emancipation.”2

Slavery emancipated free laborers from devastation, explained Hammond, because owners loved their things as fondly as they loved themselves. Thus the self-interested patriarch selflessly fed and protected his purchased people. The selfless slaveholder also ensured republican stability. In nonslaveholding republics, demagogues rallied “ignorant and poor free laborers” to seize employers’ property. In the free labor North, “a fearful crisis in republican institutions” will explode “at no remote period.” Slaveholder republicanism prevented such explosions. Because slaves, “the poorest and most ignorant” half of the population, could not vote, slavery provided the “foundation of every well-designed and durable” republic.3

Hammond here dared a political minefield. The colorblind case for enslaving all lower classes repelled the very class a slaveholding minority needed to rally, the southern white nonslaveholding majority. So Hammond, like almost all southern proslavery writers, aborted the colorblind argument before he had half developed it. After he swerved, in the conventional fashion, from slavery for all laborers to bondage for exclusively black laborers, he reiterated that vulnerable inferiors needed disinterested protectors. But he now declared that race, not class, doomed inferiors to haplessness. Without white masters’ paternalistic protection, Hammond warned, biologically inferior blacks, loving sleep above all and “sensual excitements of all kinds when awake,” would first snooze, then wander, then plunder, then murder, then be exterminated or reenslaved.4

This argument for exclusively black slavery better suited whites’ tastes. But Hammond’s racist appeal belied southern facts. Some planters trusted black drivers more than white overseers to supervise their plantations. Many Border South masters manumitted trusted black slaves, especially in Delaware and Maryland. These Southerners needed scientific evidence that seemingly superior blacks were really inferior.

Hammond offered biblical instead of biological proof. In the Old Testament, he argued, Hebrews often practiced slavery. In the New Testament, Christ never denounced servitude.

The argument invited the retort that Christ loathed the selfish spirit. Abolitionists, stressing the spirit of Christianity, denied that slaveholders’ selfishness guaranteed selflessness. Rather, self-interest impelled masters to sell slaves, to deny blacks the Bible, to lash them into hard labor, and to despoil them sexually. Enslavers, concluded abolitionists, not employers, exemplified the selfish individualist, that antithesis of selfless Christ.

The charge, like the abolitionist’s brothel terminology, laid bare the republican and Christian essence of the matter: Did masters’ self-interest sufficiently check and balance their unlimited power to be brutes? Hammond answered that abolitionists’ absolute liberty to be Jacobinical, not slaveholders’ absolute power to be abominable, caused any southern brutality. Hammond regretted that “the slave is not allowed to read his Bible,” but “the sin rests upon the abolitionists.” Because of their unchecked agitation, slaves would read Scripture not as “a book of hope, and love, and peace, but of despair, hatred, and blood.”5

Since antislavery fanatics “aim at loosening all ties between master and slave,” continued Hammond, we must somewhat “abandon our efforts to attach them to us, and control them through their affections and pride. We have to rely more and more on the power of fear.” While frightful discipline “is painful to us,” “we should be ineffably stupid” to allow our domestic servants to “read your writings” and “cut our throats!”6

Hammond answered abolitionists’ most distressing charge—unchecked sexual exploitation—with another castigation of Yankees’ unlicensed liberty. Antislavery perverts, regretted Hammond, had absolute freedom to publish pornographic fantasies. Sexually frustrated Yankees imagined that “licentiousness …necessarily arises from slavery.” But “such irregularities” as interracial sex and the resulting mulattoes occur “here, for the most part, in the cities.” Urban nonslaveholders or “natives of the North or foreigners” were the “chief offenders.” As “decided proof” of masters’ “continence,” Hammond called the “proportion” of mulattoes “infinitely small, and out of the towns next to nothing.”

Hammond inquired why female abolitionists, “learned old maids” all, would “linger with such an insatiable relish” on planters’ next to no “scandalous stories.” Only one explanation could occur “to even the most charitable mind. …Ladies of eminent virtue,” by their “delight to dwell” on “ridiculously false” charges, reveal that “rage without” which “betrays the fires within.” So too, Yankee clergymen, by condemning plantations as brothels,

Compound for sins they are inclined to

By damning those they have no mind to.7

This savage tone contrasted with Hammond’s serene conclusion. The South Carolinian thanked abolitionists for Southerners’ “perfect ease of conscience.” Before “abolition agitation,” many Southerners saw a “duty …to get rid of slavery.” But external attack compelled internal reconsideration. Southerners emerged with the “universal conviction that in holding slaves, we violate no law of God,—inflict no injustice on any of his creatures.”8 In the year 1845, exulted James Henry Hammond, conversion to proslavery had been totally accomplished, and the Slave South had become a monolith perfected.

– 2 –

So limited an argument could hardly score so unlimited a triumph. By deviating to slavery for only blacks, Hammond surrendered his colorblind case for enslaving all laborers. By never demonstrating blacks’ inferiority, the South Carolinian built no foundation for racist slavery. By charging that abolitionists caused slaveholders’ unchristian brutality, Hammond conceded that southern brutes existed. By sneering that only Yankee virgins and clergymen would dwell on planters’ “next to no” sexual brutalizations, he created the suspicion that the gentleman protested too much.

Hammond’s private papers confirm the suspicion. Hammond the polemicist called all blacks inferior to all whites. But Hammond the planter called his black driver superior to his white overseer. “I wish you to consult” my driver “on all occasions,” he wrote his overseer, “& in all matters of doubt take his opinion wh. [which] you will generally find supported by good reasons.”9

Again, where Hammond the theorist declared that selfishness impelled masters to uplift underlings benevolently, Hammond the practitioner subjected his initial slaves to a “year of severity which cost me infinite pain” to “subdue” them.10 While Hammond’s subsequent lashings decreased, his sexual exploitations accelerated. Six years before writing the Letters to Clarkson, Hammond purchased eighteen-year-old Sally Johnson and her one-year-old daughter, Louisa. The new owner enjoyed Sally—and later Louisa—as his bedmate(s). Hammond’s son shared these enjoyments. Hammond’s wife, upon discovering that her husband had turned her home into a bordello, demanded that the absolutist end the outrage. Hammond refused. His wife then left home for half a decade.11

Louisa and Sally bore Hammond’s—and/or his son’s—half-white children. Hammond kept his two mistresses and their children in a separate slave cabin, without a black male resident. Hammond’s deployment of absolute power thus precluded two black marriages and smashed his white family.

This antidomestic chapter in the history of the Domestic Institution told no tale of romantic love transcending class and racial barriers. “My love,” conceded Hammond, “has been either lustful or purely platonic.” No wife could be “purer, more high minded, and devoted” than his. But her purity could not satisfy “his appetites.”12

The slave women who satisfied Hammond’s “appetites” could not, he regretted, satisfy his “tastes.” His most distasteful problems involved his halfwhite children. In an 1856 letter to his legitimate son, Harry, Hammond declared that his—or were they Harry’s?—illegitimate children must not be freed. “It would be cruelty to them. Nor would I like that any but my own blood should own as Slaves my own blood.” James Hammond implored Harry not to allow “any of my children or possible children [to] be slaves of Strangers. Slavery in the family will be their happiest earthly condition.”13

Despite his antifamilial sexual sprees, Hammond here sincerely extolled familial slavery. Even blacks who possessed half his own genes, he thought, still needed a white paternalist’s protection. Because James Henry Hammond truly believed in paternalists’ absolute power, he writhed the more when abolitionists pointed out its antipaternal outrages. His apologetics—most proslavery arguments—brewed pride and shame into a polemic saturated with hate.

Perhaps Hammond spewed out especially hateful hypocrisy about abolitionist “clergymen and virgins” because his debauchery obliterated his central point about the Slave South: That selfishness drove slaveholders to be selfless. Supposedly benevolent despots have always hailed that position. The absolutist, allegedly possessing everything, allegedly can gain nothing by exploiting his subjects. But Hammond gained sexual pleasure by exploiting his slaves, even if he risked his good name and his good wife. He betrayed his highest interest by indulging his lowest appetites. No wonder republicans deny that absolutists will be selfless.

Sexually, Hammond was an exceptionally selfish absolutist. But his very exceptionalness confirmed abolitionists’ point. The licentious slaveholder was not the norm, just the most spectacular illustration that self-interest hardly guaranteed disinterestedness. In the very letter to his son that proved Hammond’s uncommon sexual grotesqueness, he also exposed a more common slaveholder selfishness. By pleading with his white son to retain ownership of half white slaves, he conceded that economically pressed heirs often selfishly sold servants, despite paternalism’s selfless code. As another slaveholder lamented, nothing could prevent the “possibility” that favorite servants might be sold away from their spouses and children. Even if “a good owner inherited a slave family,” the deceased could not “answer for” the heir’s “life—and the thousand accidents which befall property.”14

Nor could Hammond, even while living, altogether answer for his mulatto children’s treatment. After his slave Louisa alleged that Hammond had sired her son Henderson, the master decided to keep Henderson “in the family.” But Henderson’s “wild & daring spirit” and “propensity for petty theft” disrupted Hammond’s Big House. So the patriarch dispatched his perhaps son from his not-so-happy South Carolina home.

After being apprenticed to a Georgian, the unhappy Henderson unsuccessfully ran away. In retaliation, Henderson’s supervisor strung up Hammond’s maybe son by the feet, with the mulatto’s shoulders barely touching the ground and his arms bound behind his back. Hammond, although distressed enough to investigate, dared not intervene. What else could he do with the not-so-black “boy” who must not come “home”?15 His question raised another: Could every Southerner believe that absolute power had been reconciled with domestic happiness and Christian republicanism?

– 3 –

No way, as Hammond once again confessed in private. In 1848, upon reading a Border South minister’s supposedly proslavery tract, the South Carolinian privately termed the author “utterly opposed to slavery.” The Border South divine, Hammond pointed out, believed that Southerners would abolish slavery in “a moment if they could get rid of” blacks. Worse, the author hoped that African colonization would rid America of blacks, “and that is being three-fourths abolitionist in my estimation.” The softheart’s “views are these of the [Border South] regions” where he “was reared.” There, “the march of events will ere long abolish the institution entirely.”16

In 1847, some Charlestonians, seeking to preclude borderland abolition, asked Hammond to help establish a proslavery newspaper. Hammond refused. He “feared that a large proportion of slaveholders, who in every emergency will unite with us” against Yankee invasion, “would refuse to unite with us in sustaining an organ that supported slavery as a blessing to be preserved, when they are well known to regard it as an evil, which they one day hope to get rid of. The consequences of an open and avowed division … among the slaveholders on this vital point might be serious.”17 And this was the man who two years earlier had publicly pronounced Southerners “universally” converted to slavery’s permanent blessings.

The private rather than the public Hammond properly diagnosed the persisting variety of southern opinions. Proslavery writers in the 1850s often admitted that, Letters to Clarkson to the contrary, most southern conversions had occurred since 1845. Until “the last few years,” Virginia’s George Fitzhugh conceded in 1856, most apologists declared Negro slavery to be “justifiable” only because racially “exceptional.” Others, “by far the greater number,” called even Negro slavery “wrong in principle, and looked forward to gradual emancipation.” Only “very recently” had Southerners “taken stronger and bolder grounds.” Fitzhugh’s favorite Virginia proslavery writer, George Frederick Holmes, agreed that only “in recent years” had “an entire revulsion of feelings and judgment” alleviated “troubled” consciences and “speculative” doubts.18

Yet pleas to relieve doubts persisted. In 1851, an admirer of Iverson Brookes, a prominent South Carolina proslavery minister, offered to subsidize the cleric’s pamphlet, written to combat Kentuckians’ prayer for abolition. Brookes’s admirer feared that northern “fanaticism” might infect “the consciences of the weak minded good Christian people of the South, upon the question of Right.”19

A year later, a conscience-stricken Georgian wrote the Reverend James Henley Thornwell, South Carolina’s leading proslavery theologian, confessing a “very difficult” time forming “a settled opinion” on “correct principles.” According to the unsettled Georgian, “every man who conscientiously believes slavery to be wrong” must use “whatever influence he may possess against it.” Furthermore, every man who conscientiously believes “it to be right” must “defend and advocate it.” Could Thornwell “satisfy my mind?”20

The most important Virginia proslavery cleric of the 1850s aspired to satisfy unsettled minds. In 1856, the Reverend Dr. William A. Smith, president of Randolph-Macon College, published his classroom Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery. “A secret suspicion of the morality of African slavery in the South,” regretted Smith, troubled “many of our best citizens.” Too many slaveholders harbored the “private but painful suspicion” that something must be “wrong in the principle of domestic slavery.”21That suspicion extended beyond slaveholders. Smith’s greatest “difficulty,” he privately wrote the governor of Virginia in 1857, was “to get the ear of the white laborer,” of whom “nine-tenths” would abolish slavery “tomorrow,” if they could “vote the slaves out of the state.”22

George Sawyer, a Louisiana lawyer, who published his Southern Institutes in 1859, also regretted that “thousands” of Southerners “blindly acknowledge” slavery as “a great moral and political evil.” Such “consciousness of wrong gives a faint heart and a craven resolve to the bravest soldier.” The South could never achieve “breathless frenzy and indomitable zeal” until all her sons understood “the true character and spirit of our institutions.”23 Fourteen years after James Hammond’s Letters to Clarkson, a year before the South rose in rebellion, the George Sawyers still faced enervating suspicions that unlimited power might be anti-Christian and antirepublican.

– 4 –

Three questions bedeviled every post-Hammond attempt to reconcile republican and absolute power: Did colorblind theorists dare argue that white lower classes should be enslaved? Could racist polemicists prove all blacks’ inferiority to all whites? And what could deter absolute masters from violating the spirit of Christianity?

Answering these questions required transcending James Hammond’s effort—indeed transforming southern society. Hammond had retreated from his argument that republics must enslave all laborers of all colors. But if braver theorists insisted on the colorblind position, southern white free laborers would have to be enslaved. Again, the retreating Hammond had stopped short of proving blacks’ inferiority. But if racial theorists advanced to scientific proof of blacks’ biological hopelessness, a quarter-million southern free blacks would have to be reenslaved.

Whether future proslavery writers sanctified a transformed Domestic Institution on a racial or on a colorblind basis, the spirit of Christianity might require limits on anti-Christian selfishness. Even if Christ had never decried absolute power, He surely would have denounced Hammond’s sexual absolutism. Preachers would have to convince absolutists that only selfless paternalism served their God, their families, and their interests. If religious persuasion failed, southern legislatures would have to ban perversions of the Christian spirit.

But limits on masters, while rescuing the spirit of Christianity and of republicanism, would abolish unlimited power. Once again, perfecting a Christian republican’s defense of absolute power would require the world defended to be transformed. In the wake of the Letters to Clarkson, the puzzle of absolute versus republican power remained unsolved—and disconcerting either to put together or to leave in pieces.

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