Academic journal article Civil War History

Proslavery Professors: Classic Natural Right and the Positive Good Argument in Antebellum Virginia

Academic journal article Civil War History

Proslavery Professors: Classic Natural Right and the Positive Good Argument in Antebellum Virginia

Article excerpt

From St. George Tucker's Dissertation on Slavery through Thomas Roderick Dew's Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature and on to George Frederick Holmes's "Observations on a Passage in the Politics of Aristotle Relative to Slavery," nineteenth-century university professors in Virginia played an important role in shaping the discourse on slavery in their state. (1) In the latter part of the 1850s, these professors began to abandon Tucker's argument that slavery must be maintained as a necessary evil in favor of a defense that claimed slavery as a positive good. Historians have long distinguished between these two phases of the proslavery argument, but since the early 1980s, they have been beginning to question the usefulness of that distinction. They have attacked it in numerous ways: arguing that southern evangelicals did not make positive good arguments; that such arguments never became popular in Virginia; or, perhaps most controversially of all, that the differences between the two forms of proslavery argument are superficial and misleading. (2)

Indeed, the bulk of recent scholarship suggests that a search for a positive good defense of slavery can quickly become a chase after a red herring. Often, when southerners called slavery a necessary evil they did little more than put a rhetorical flourish upon a substantively positive good argument. Nevertheless, the shift between the two forms of the argument did occur, and its significance should not be overlooked. This change in terminology actually represents but a surface manifestation of a deeper transformation in the political thought of nineteenth-century Virginia: one that consists in the movement away from the modern idea of natural rights toward the ancient idea of classic natural right. Historians have long noted that proslavery theorists in the antebellum South did more than simply abandon modern natural rights, but they have failed to come up with an effective label for the replacement. (3) The term "classic natural right" provides an alternative.

The political philosopher Leo Strauss coined the term in 1950. He used it to refer to a "natural right doctrine which was originated by Socrates and was developed by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Christian thinkers (especially Thomas Aquinas)." According to Strauss, philosophers who professed this doctrine held to three propositions: first, that hierarchy exists according to nature; second, that the criteria for this hierarchy must be found in intellect, character, and virtue; and third, that wisdom represents the title to rule. According to Strauss, philosophers in the tradition of classic natural right argue that "some men are by nature superior to others and therefore, according to natural right, the rulers of others." What makes one superior to another is not physical strength but rather wisdom. As Strauss put it, "wisdom appeared to the classics as that title to rule which is highest according to nature." Classic natural right has little to do with the idea of egalitarian natural rights that English, French, and American thinkers later introduced to the world. Strauss isolated the primary difference between these conflicting philosophical systems: "From the point of view of egalitarian [modern] natural right, consent takes precedence over wisdom, from the point of view of classic natural right, wisdom takes precedent over consent." (4)

The label "classic natural right" accurately describes the mature phase of the proslavery argument. Why, then, has no one applied that term to that argument? The answer can perhaps be found in the intense swarm of controversies that have surrounded the scholarship of Leo Strauss. These center on the question of whether he and his students prefer the classic natural right teaching to its modern counterpart. The stock accusation seems to be that Strauss and his followers do adhere to the older teaching but find it, to say the least, politically incorrect to admit it. …

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