Slavery's Champions Stood at Odds: Polygenesis and the Defense of Slavery
Luse, Christopher A., Civil War History
One of the profound tragedies of American history is that racism has long survived the destruction of slavery. Historians continue to heatedly contest the nature of American slavery and its relationship to race. In antebellum America, whites from both the slave South and the free labor North embraced a vicious racism. This study examines a little-studied anomaly of American race relations: the opposition by white, Southern Christians to the growing power of scientific racism. Led by Southern clergymen, they defended religious orthodoxy and an idealized vision of Christian slavery as more important than race in preserving slavery. This defense of a paternalistic, Christian slavery demonstrates a more complicated connection between slavery and race than previously realized. For many white Southerners, slavery was not only a system of racial domination but also the foundation of a conservative worldview that they defended with their lives in a bloody Civil War. (1) On the eve of the secession of South Carolina, the Presbyterian Reverend James Henley Thornwell delivered a Fast Day jeremiad, measuring slaveholders against the standard of the scriptures, which they sorely failed to meet. Thornwell, a reluctant secessionist, called upon the Southern people to repent if they were to defend their embattled community based upon the ideal of Christian slavery. Thornwell, one of the most prestigious clergymen of the Old South, widely referred to as "the Calhoun of the Church," denounced a grave threat to slavery. The target of his wrath was not only the fanatical ravings of abolitionists but also an internal danger. He assaulted the "science, falsely so-called" that defended slavery by making "the slave a different kind of being from his master." Thornwell denounced those "who defend slavery upon the plea that the African is not of the same stock with ourselves" for threatening the legitimacy of slavery "by bringing it into conflict with the dearest doctrines of the Gospel." Thornwell was alarmed by the rising popularity in the South of a previously obscure doctrine within ethnology, the science of races. This emerging school of ethnology advanced the "diversity of the races," not merely classifying "lower" races as inferior, but as a separately created species, with a fundamentally different origin and nature. The ethnologists relentlessly attacked Genesis' account of the common creation of humanity. Within the South, a paradoxical debate raged. White Southern Christians, staunch advocates of slavery, attacked this rising form of scientific racism and vigorously defended the humanity of black slaves. The Southern opponents of polygenesis even employed many of the same arguments and sources used by abolitionists to attack white prejudice. Thornwell harshly denounced white Southerners who, impressed with the growing prestige of science, adopted "infidel" theories to preserve slavery. Thornwell admitted that "our offense has been, that in some instances we have accepted and converted into a plea, the conclusions of this vain conceit." (2) Southern clergymen played a prominent role in developing a coherent defense of slavery prior to the Civil War. Under an intensifying assault from Northern antislavery forces, Southern ministers proclaimed that slavery was no sin, but a divine institution ordained by God as the foundation of a Christian society. Proslavery Christians merged a literalist interpretation of the Bible with a paternalistic ideal of the master-slave relationship to create a conservative vision of Southern slavery. The literalist reading of the scriptures formed the bedrock of the religious defense of slavery. Southern Christians expressed supreme confidence that the Bible defended slavery. But as a writer to the Quarterly Review of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South contended, if the scriptures condemned slavery "at whatever cost of money or blood.... Let the will of the Almighty be accomplished." Southern Christians repeatedly announced that scripture represented the chief and sole legitimate defense of slavery. Southern Christians constructed a powerful defense of slavery by drawing upon the widespread American reverence for the Bible as the preeminent authority not only in religion but in all questions of morals, politics, and society. As The Southern Dial expressed it, "The Bible is the great standard of right and wrong, and our surest guide in ethics. To its precepts and teachings, we must bow in humble reverence and submission and 'thus saith the Lord' is the highest authority from which there is no appeal." As Mark Noll points out, one of the great strengths of the biblical proslavery argument was its simplicity. Anybody could use a concordance and find support for slavery in the "plain meaning" of the verses. (3)
It is tempting to dismiss the proslavery argument as the most naked, self-serving apologetics, now thankfully tossed on the garbage heap of history. David Donald, in 1971, wrote that "it is no longer necessary to discuss the validity of the proslavery argument; discredited by the researches of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and historians, it has approximately the same scientific standing as astrology or alchemy." However, those who promoted it were seriously wrestling with the massive changes convulsing Western society and culture. This struggle is the ongoing project of Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who argue for the depth and the seriousness of the intellectual life of the Old South. They contend that the biblical and paternalistic defense of slavery profoundly shaped the uniquely conservative and religious nature of Southern culture. Proslavery writers frequently linked slavery to the patriarchal family. In proslavery apologetics, black slaves as dependents and subordinates played an integral role in forming extended households. Under the supervision and personal care of benevolent masters, black slaves contributed to a just and stable social order. Under the paternalistic model of slavery, both masters and slaves had their respective and unequal duties and obligations. William F. Samford, editor of The Southern Dial, announced that "side by side with the relations of husband and wife, parents and children, the authority of inspiration [the Bible] puts master and slave, it states their obligations, announces their duties, and exhorts them to faithful obedience." A favorite verse of Southern clergymen was Colossians 4:1; "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a master in heaven." (4)
For the purposes of this study, a clearer understanding of "paternalism" is crucial. Genovese and Fox-Genovese argue that this paternalistic ideal represented not merely a polemical device, but a comprehensive worldview grounded in the nature of Southern slavery. Despite the nostalgia of "Lost Cause" sentimentalists, paternalism had little to do with the benevolence of masters. As Genovese points out, paternalism "grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation." Violence, represented by the whip, remained essential to slavery. Paternalists attempted to create a constricting system that produced dependent "Sambos." The paternalist and religious defenses of slavery were the ideological shields of the unique Southern slave system. A number of fundamental demographic features fostered a paternalist vision of slavery. These include the personal supervision of slaves by a resident master class and a naturally growing acculturated slave population. Especially important was the incorporating of slaves within the masters' household as subservient members. All these factors reinforced the tendency to view slavery in terms of personal relationships and reciprocal duties. (5)
White Southerners found paternalistic models throughout the Bible. They endlessly celebrated the patriarchs of the Old Testament as the ideal masters, possessing their man-servants and their maid-servants within a benevolent, divinely sanctioned hierarchy. Slaveholders defended this paternalistic relationship as the foundation of a Christian society. Proslavery advocates saw slavery as defining the social relations of the whole South, reinforcing tradition, authority, religious orthodoxy, and political stability. In contrast, they denounced the North as the home of dangerous "isms" such as abolitionism, spiritualism, and socialism. They portrayed Northern "Free Society" as disordered, immoral, and corrupt. Proslavery writers celebrated slavery as more humane and Christian than the "wage slavery" of free workers increasingly mired in poverty and misery. George Fitzhugh of Virginia maintained that "domestic slavery must be vindicated in the abstract, and in general, as a normal, natural and in general necessitous element of civilized society, without regard to race or color." For many religious defenders of slavery, the race of Southern slaves was fortuitous but not necessary. They believed that subordination was essential to all societies, and that slaves throughout history came from all races. Paternalists merged "African slavery" with the biblical subordination of wives and children within a well-regulated household. Southern critics of polygenesis enthusiastically supported this conservative social vision. (6)
Southern Christians viewed polygenesis as not merely an assault on the orthodox account of the creation of humanity in Genesis, but as part of a broader "infidel" attack on their conservative and religious worldview. Thomas Atkinson, the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, lamented that there is no single position in religion, in ethics, or in science "that is not now assailed, and by many considered doubtful." Sadly, the bishop concluded that we lived in an age of revolution. (7)
Proslavery Christians explicitly linked both the threat of abolitionism and polygenesis to a worldwide assault on the Christian foundation of Western society. They commonly linked the ethnologists to a veritable rogues gallery of infidels such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Thomas Paine, all enemies of Christian religion. Thomas Smyth of Charleston's Second Presbyterian Church, in 1850, noted that the new racial science "undermines altogether the authority of the Bible as an inspired book, and paves the way for that universal skepticism ... which has been introduced in modern times by Rousseau and Voltaire." (8)
Proslavery Christians especially denounced the reliance of ethnologists on the new German school of "Higher Criticism." Mobile physician Josiah Nott, drawing heavily upon the research of David F. Strauss, DeWette, and Eichorn, contended the "the Pentateuch is an anonymous production of unknown origin, compiled many centuries after the time of Moses, and consequently of no authority in settling issues of science." German "Higher Criticism" subjected the scriptures to the same rigorous analysis as any other secular document, employing the latest findings in archaeology, philology, and ancient history. Conservative Christians accused the "neologists" of denying the divine origin and veracity of the Bible. Proslavery Christians especially targeted Strauss's "Life of Jesus" for reducing Christ's divinity and miracles to an allegory. They saw theethnologists as just another reemergence of "infidelity" in an ongoing war against Christian orthodoxy. Critics of polygenism pointed to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as the high tide of infidel "speculations" that exalted human reason over revelation. The participation of Southern Christians in these transatlantic debates illustrates Michael O'Brien's central contention that Southern intellectuals actively engaged in the tumultuous changes in Western culture and thought. (9)
Defenders of Christian slavery noted the ominous fact that abolitionism and polygenism arose together. Until the 1830s, antislavery remained weak, apologetic, and reformist instead of revolutionary. Until the mid-nineteenth century, ethnologists overwhelmingly defended Genesis and embraced monogenesis. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, researchers such as German Johann Blumenbach, Frenchmen Comte de Buffon and Cuvier, and British James Prichard all staunchly defended the common origin of humanity. Only in the sectional crisis of the 1850s did the "unity controversy" became truly heated. (10)
Proslavery Christians frequently equated both abolitionists and ethnologists with a radical desire to overturn society. George Howe, professor of theology at the Columbia (South Carolina) Theological Seminary, noted the "coincidence between the infidel opposers of slavery and its infidel defenders." Both ethnologists and abolitionists displayed the same overweening confidence in rationalism and the same rejection of revelation and traditional authority. Both rejected the scriptures when they stood in the way of their radical theories. Southern Christians believed that it would be mad to throw away the Bible, the shield of slavery, to embrace a doubtful theory that would alienate religious sentiment around the world. A reviewer in the Southern Quarterly Review contended that the Bible remained "an immovable basis of truth" and embracing the new ethnology would allow enemies the moral advantage of representing "we hold our slaves only as a higher race of Ourangs" outside the precepts of Christian morality. The reviewer sadly concluded that the infidel science was "not only a new thing under the sun, but a strange and portentous anomaly in the progress of human experience." (11)
Southern white Christians wrestled not only with abolitionism, rationalism, and socialism but also with the nature of racism. Nineteenth-century ethnologists celebrated their insights into racial differences as a crucial advance in comprehending the natural world. They believed they had "discovered" the laws of race just as Isaac Newton discovered the laws of physics. Late in the antebellum era, ethnology emerged as an important weapon in the proslavery arsenal. The new ethnology received vigorous support from many leading Southern publications. De Bow's Review, The Southern Quarterly Review, and most of the leading Southern medical journals supported polygenesis. A number of prominent Southern physicians embraced this form of scientific racism. Josiah Nott, Samuel Cartwright, Samuel H. Dickson, and William S. Forwood were all active polemicists for polygenesis. (12)
A number of prominent Southern politicians used the latest ethnological evidence, although it …
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Publication information: Article title: Slavery's Champions Stood at Odds: Polygenesis and the Defense of Slavery. Contributors: Luse, Christopher A. - Author. Journal title: Civil War History. Volume: 53. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2007. Page number: 379+. © 1999 Kent State University Press. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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