The Justifications for Slavery

George Washington on his Plantation.

Early Americans, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery, explored the potential justifications for slavery in the United States.

In 1764, James Otis of Massachusetts asked “Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?” after pondering why only blacks had been enslaved. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), in Bernard Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776 (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 1: 439.

Some believed that slavery could not stand against the “relentless march of liberty and progress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 519. For example, James Madison believed that making noise on the issue of slavery would only slow down the march of progress within the United States. Id. at 525. Perhaps those who held this view perpetuated slavery, believing that it was bound to end eventually without action.

Others had more profoundly prejudiced and racist views toward slavery. Thomas Jefferson believed that “various characteristics of blacks . . . [such as] their tolerance of heat, their need for less sleep, their sexual ardor, their lack of imagination and artistic ability, and their music talent . . . were inherent and not learned.” Id. at 539. Jefferson believed that “blacks’ deficiencies were innate, because when they mixed their blood with whites’, they improved ‘in body and mind,’ which ‘proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life.'” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Peden, 138-43.

Even entire states took action that is hard to fathom in modern times, all with the underlying belief that slavery was justified and must be protected. The state of Kentucky wrote into its 1792 Constitution that “the legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners.” Robin L. Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006), 220, 232, 249, 236; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “A New Meaning for Turner’s Frontier: Part II: The Southwest Frontier and New England,” Political Science Quarterly, 69 (1954), 572-76. This language was added to Kentucky’s Constitution despite the fact that only a mere 16% of the state’s population were slaves. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 531.

All of these varying views affected American policy, both foreign and domestic. Taking foreign policy as an example, while Haiti had a slave revolution in 1803 that both ended slavery and proclaimed racial equality, and the United States typically was the first country to extend diplomatic relations to a new republic, it would not be until the Civil War that the “United States [would] recognize the Haitian republic.” Id. at 537.

As early Americans searched for justifications for slavery, many who were thinking critically would come to the same conclusion as James Otis: that there was no justification. However, those whose livelihoods depended on the existence of slavery were predisposed to never coming to that conclusion. Nonetheless, as is obvious from these varying views on justifications for slavery, hypocrisy was prevalent, ignorance was rampant (even amongst one of the greatest intellectuals, Jefferson), and at the very least, progress was slow.

Regardless of who was right or wrong about the issue of slavery, it is clear that the justifications for slavery ran deep, permeating societal beliefs and policy decisions, foreign and domestic. Not many issues have rivaled the contentious nature of slavery. But analyzing the justifications for slavery shows just how far an issue can reverberate throughout the country, touching even the very threads that hold society together.

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