The Civil War: J.D.B. DeBow: The Non-Slaveholders of the South

Nashville, Tennessee

December 5, 1860

J.D.B. DeBow had run into a friend on the street and talked with him about how, in the South, even non-slaveholders benefitted from the region’s slave labor system. Then, promising to expand on what he said, he wrote this friend a letter, setting out in detail—in ten points—those benefits. As is common in political discourse, people use fallacious arguments to support their positions. DeBow was one such person.

1. The non-slaveholder of the South is assured that the remuneration afforded by his labor, over and above the expense of living, is larger than that which is afforded by the same labor in the free States.

A daily wage in Chicago or Lowell, Massachusetts for a bricklayer was $1.50 to $2, but in New Orleans or Charleston, South Carolina, that bricklayer could have earned $2.50 or $3.50 a day, so wrote DeBow.

If one believed him, a southern wage laborer was better off simply by virtue of the fact that he worked in the South, and one need not look further than the figures he supplied.

Naturally, given his inclination toward slave labor, there was no regard for the morals of the system—or the lack thereof. But there was also no regard for the possibility that the higher wages, if they were in fact higher, correlated to the specific cities’ wage labor markets. Instead of account for this correlation and explain how slavery caused higher wages for bricklayers—a complicated task—DeBow simply relied on the numbers to persuade his friend.

2. The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free States, to find employment in crowded cities and come into competition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery.

3. The non-slaveholder is not subjected to that competition with foreign pauper labor, which has degraded the free labor of the North and demoralized it to an extent which perhaps can never be estimated.

4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant.

DeBow knew that industry was spreading throughout the country, and although it was unlikely that the South would soon rival the North in mass-producing goods in chaotic, dangerous factories, he put an image in the mind: could everything around them change so suddenly with the eradication of slavery? Could their southern society come to no longer exist and be replaced by a soulless one, intent on producing goods no matter the hazard? Could foreigners and people other than white men bring down the southern man in the way they had the northern?

DeBow had stuffed a strawman with all the hypotheticals that shook up southerners. None of these what-ifs were based in fact, but no matter; the strawman fallacy brought him to parade these hypotheticals in front of his friend in an effort to persuade him that more evils awaited them absent slavery than with slavery.

5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field.

6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders.

DeBow wrote that this was possible, with “ordinary frugality,” “in a few years, and is a process continually going on.” These were the fruits of slavery: the non-slaveholder could become the slaveholder; he could find his wealth enhanced and his family free from the toil they had known. After all, this is how many southerners had come to be slaveholders—and happily so.

7. But should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand that by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children.

8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South; in industry as well as in politics.

And if the non-slaveholder didn’t reach his goal of purchasing slaves in his lifetime, he could take heart in his children one day being slaveholders—potentially. It was DeBow’s view that, in the South, it was more unusual for poverty to pass through generations than for wealth to pass. Relying on nothing more than anecdotal evidence and high hopes, he supposed that the fortune of being a slaveholder was possible for any southern family.

9. Without the institution of slavery, the great staple products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results, which are distributed among every class of the community, and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease.

Slavery did not merely correlate with prosperity—it caused prosperity. Or so DeBow thought. Brazil, “whose slave population nearly equals our own, is the only South American State which has prospered,” he wrote. Those British colonies that had emancipated their slaves “have now ceased to be a source of revenue, and from opulence have been, by emancipation, reduced to beggary.” He had not been willing to consider that slavery may have correlated with prosperity rather than caused that prosperity—it simply being in existence at the time doesn’t establish as fact that it made Brazil more prosperous or that emancipation caused hardship to British colonies.

10. If emancipation be brought about as will undoubtedly be the case, unless the encroachments of the fanatical majorities of the North are resisted now the slaveholders, in the main, will escape the degrading equality which must result, by emigration, for which they would have the means, by disposing of their personal chattels: whilst the non-slaveholders, without these resources, would be compelled to remain and endure the degradation.

Different races coexisting in society—with a degree of equality—was the problem, according to DeBow: in “Northern communities, where the free negro is one in a hundred of the total population, he is recognized and acknowledged often as a pest, and in many cases even his presence is prohibited by law.” DeBow inquired what would then take hold in the South if emancipation came to pass and supposed it must be something resembling this dynamic he characterized the North having. It would surely lead to the moneyed slaveholders emigrating away from the South and the non-slaveholders faced with no option but to stay and to “endure the degradation” of being equals with the emancipated.

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