Southern Pro-Slavery Arguments

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the main proslavery arguments in the years prior to the Civil War

Defending Slavery

A portrait of John C. Calhoun is shown.

Figure 1. John C. Calhoun, shown here in a ca. 1845 portrait by George Alexander Healy, defended states’ rights, especially the right of the southern states to protect slavery from a hostile northern majority.

With the rise of democracy during the Jacksonian era in the 1830s, enslavers worried about the power of the majority. If political power went to a majority that was hostile to slavery, the South—and the honor of White southerners—would be imperiled. White southerners keen on preserving the institution of slavery bristled at what they perceived to be northern attempts to deprive them of their livelihood. Powerful southerners like South Carolinian John C. Calhoun highlighted laws like the Tariff of 1828 as evidence of the North’s desire to destroy the southern economy and, by extension, its culture. Such a tariff, he and others concluded, would disproportionately harm the South, which relied heavily on imports, and benefit the North, which would receive protections for its manufacturing centers. The tariff appeared to open the door for other federal initiatives, including the abolition of slavery. Because of this perceived threat to southern society, Calhoun argued that states could nullify federal laws. This belief illustrated the importance of the states’ rights argument to the southern states. It also showed enslavers’ willingness to unite against the federal government when they believed it acted unjustly against their interests.

As the nation expanded in the 1830s and 1840s, the writings of abolitionists—a small but vocal group of northerners committed to ending slavery—reached a larger national audience. White southerners responded by putting forth arguments in defense of slavery, their way of life, and their honor. Calhoun became a leading political theorist defending slavery and the rights of the South, which he saw as containing an increasingly embattled minority. He advanced the idea of a concurrent majority, a majority of a separate region (that would otherwise be in the minority of the nation) with the power to veto or disallow legislation put forward by a hostile majority.

Calhoun’s idea of the concurrent majority found full expression in his 1850 essay “Disquisition on Government.” In this treatise, he wrote about government as a necessary means to ensure the preservation of society, since society existed to “preserve and protect our race.” If government grew hostile to society, then a concurrent majority had to take action, including forming a new government. “Disquisition on Government” advanced a profoundly anti-democratic argument. It illustrates southern leaders’ intense suspicion of democratic majorities and their ability to effect legislation that would challenge southern interests.

Calhoun’s Defense of Slavery

In this 1837 speech, John C. Calhoun, then a U.S. senator, vigorously defended the institution of slavery and stated the essence of this new intellectual defense of the institution: Southerners must stop apologizing for slavery and reject the idea that it was a necessary evil. Instead, Calhoun insisted, slavery was a “positive good.” He went further, making legal arguments about the Constitution protecting states’ rights to preserve slavery. Calhoun then offered a moral defense of slavery by claiming it to be a more humane method of organizing labor than the conditions wage laborers faced in industrial cities in Europe and the northern United States.

A large portion of the Northern States believed slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance. . . . I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless –and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain political control . . .
. . . By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great nations, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system. The conflicting elements would burst the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together. Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it–and the sooner it is known the better. . . . We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood . . .
. . . Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition.
I appeal to facts. Never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.
In the meantime, the White or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. . . .
. . . I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. . . I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. . . .
I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age.
Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. . . .
There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.
  • In what ways does Calhoun use legal arguments to defend the idea that Congress cannot interfere in the institution of slavery?
  • How does Calhoun go beyond the traditional legal defenses of slavery and attempt to convince the audience that slavery is, indeed, good for all involved?
You can visit this site to read John C. Calhoun’s “Disquisition on Government.” Why do you think he proposed the creation of a concurrent majority?

Link to Learning

Watch this video from Heimler’s History channel to learn more about some of the main pro-slavery arguments, including the social hierarchy argument, the civilization argument, the economic argument, the racial argument, and the biblical argument.

White southerners reacted strongly to abolitionists’ attacks on slavery. In making their defense of slavery, they critiqued wage labor in the North. They argued that the Industrial Revolution had brought about a new type of slavery—wage slavery—and that this form of “slavery” was far worse than the slave labor used on southern plantations. Defenders of the institution also lashed out directly at abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison for daring to call into question their way of life. Indeed, Virginians cited Garrison as the instigator of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion.

The Virginian George Fitzhugh contributed to the defense of slavery with his book Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854). Fitzhugh argued that laissez-faire capitalism, as celebrated by Adam Smith, benefited only the quick-witted and intelligent, leaving the ignorant at a huge disadvantage. Enslavers, he argued, took care of the ignorant—in Fitzhugh’s argument, the enslaved persons of the South. Southerners provided enslaved persons with care from birth to death, he asserted; this offered a stark contrast to the wage slavery of the North, where workers were at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control. Fitzhugh’s ideas exemplified southern notions of paternalism.

George Fitzhugh’s Defense of Slavery

George Fitzhugh, a southern writer of social treatises, was a staunch supporter of slavery, not as a necessary evil but as what he argued was a necessary good, a way to take care of enslaved persons and keep them from being a burden on society. He published Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society in 1854, in which he laid out what he believed to be the benefits of slavery to both the enslaved persons and society as a whole. According to Fitzhugh:

[I]t is clear the Athenian democracy would not suit a negro nation, nor will the government of mere law suffice for the individual negro. He is but a grown up child and must be governed as a child . . . The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian. . . . The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery.

In the last place, the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chase of free competition. . . . Our negroes are not only better off as to physical comfort than free laborers, but their moral condition is better.

What arguments does Fitzhugh use to promote slavery? What basic premise underlies his ideas? Can you think of a modern parallel to Fitzhugh’s argument?

The North also produced defenders of slavery, including Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor of zoology and geology. Agassiz helped to popularize polygenism, the idea that different human races came from separate origins. According to this formulation, no single human family origin existed, and Black people made up a race wholly separate from the White race. Agassiz’s notion gained widespread popularity in the 1850s with the 1854 publication of George Gliddon and Josiah Nott’s Types of Mankind and other books. The theory of polygenism codified racism, giving the notion of Black inferiority the lofty mantle of science. One popular advocate of the idea posited that Black people occupied a place in evolution between the Greeks and chimpanzees.

Two facing pages of illustrations depict the skulls of various humans and animals. On the first page, these include “Apollo Belvidere,” a Greek statuary head shown beside a skull labeled “Greek”; beneath this, “Negro,” a black man’s head shown beside a skull labeled “Creole Negro”; and at the bottom, “Young Chimpanzee,” a chimpanzee’s head shown beside a skull labeled “Young Chimpanzee.” On the opposite page, various drawings of animals and black humans are labeled “Orang-Outan”; “Hottentot Wagoner—Caffre War”; “Chimpanzee”; “Hottentot from Somerset”; “Mobile Negro, 1853”; and “Negro, 8200 Years Old.”

Figure 2. This 1857 illustration by an advocate of polygenism indicates that the “Negro” occupies a place between the Greeks and chimpanzees. What does this image reveal about the methods of those who advocated polygenism?

Try It


concurrent majority: a majority of a separate region (that would otherwise be in the minority of the nation) with the power to veto or disallow legislation put forward by a hostile majority

polygenism: the idea that Black people and White people come from different origins