The Debate Over Slavery

The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America

David F. Ericson
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    The Debate Over Slavery
    Book Description:

    Frederick Douglass and George Fitzhugh disagreed on virtually every major issue of the day. On slavery, women's rights, and the preservation of the Union their opinions were diametrically opposed. Where Douglass thundered against the evils of slavery, Fitzhugh counted its many alleged blessings in ways that would make modern readers cringe. What then could the leading abolitionist of the day and the most prominent southern proslavery intellectual possibly have in common? According to David F. Ericson, the answer is as surprising as it is simple; liberalism. In The Debate Over Slavery David F. Ericson makes the controversial argument that despite their many ostensible differences, most Northern abolitionists and Southern defenders of slavery shared many common commitments: to liberal principles; to the nation; to the nation's special mission in history; and to secular progress. He analyzes, side-by-side, pro and antislavery thinkers such as Lydia Marie Child, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Thomas R. Dew, and James Fitzhugh to demonstrate the links between their very different ideas and to show how, operating from liberal principles, they came to such radically different conclusions. His raises disturbing questions about liberalism that historians, philosophers, and political scientists cannot afford to ignore.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2290-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Part I
    • 1 The Liberal Consensus Thesis and Slavery
      (pp. 3-13)

      This book is a study of American antislavery and proslavery rhetoric spanning the years from 1832 to 1861.¹ Throughout, I assume that rhetoric mattered. Rhetoric mattered in this period of American history not because the antislavery and proslavery arguments themselves abolished the Southern institution of racial slavery or prevented the institution from being abolished without a civil war or because those arguments themselves caused the Civil War. Rather, rhetoric mattered because the particular forms that the antislavery and proslavery arguments took during the antebellum period significantly affected the course of events that led to disunion, civil war, and emancipation.


    • 2 The Antislavery and Proslavery Arguments
      (pp. 14-36)

      In this chapter, I develop a schema of antislavery and proslavery arguments for use in the following chapters that examine specific antislavery and proslavery figures. Since this schema is intended to support a “liberal consensus” thesis, I begin by distinguishing liberal from nonliberal ideas and liberal from nonliberal antislavery and proslavery arguments.¹

      I define liberal ideas as a general set of ideas that appeal to personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values. Conversely, nonliberal ideas appeal to some notion of natural inequality based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or birthright that...

  5. Part II
    • 3 Child, Douglass, and Antislavery Liberalism
      (pp. 39-61)

      The antislavery movement in the antebellum North attempted to launch a process of institutional change. The abolitionists worked to destroy one institution—Southern slavery—and to replace it with another set of institutions—universal male citizenship, equal liberty under law, and competitive labor markets. They viewed these identifiably liberal institutions as the prevailing institutions of their section of the country.¹

      The antislavery movement did lead to institutional change in the desired direction. But it did not lead to as much institutional change as the abolitionists desired, nor did the abolitionists themselves concentrate on the abolition of Southern slavery as a...

    • 4 Wendell Phillips: Liberty and Disunion
      (pp. 62-90)

      Wendell Phillips voiced the “house divided” argument as early as 1837 in his very first speech as an abolitionist.

      Our fate is bound up with that of the South, so that they cannot be corrupt and we sound; they cannot fall, and we stand. Disunion is coming,unlesswe discuss this subject; for the spirit of freedom and the spirit of slavery are contending here for mastery. …Wemust prosper, and a sound public opinion root out slavery from the land, or there must grow up a mighty slaveholding State to overshadow and mildew our free institutions. (P. 5)¹...

  6. Part III
    • 5 Dew, Fitzhugh, and Proslavery Liberalism
      (pp. 93-120)

      The proslavery movement in the antebellum South attempted to forestall a process of institutional change. The defenders of slavery were ultimately not successful in preventing the abolition of the Southern institution of racial slavery, an event that unleashed a process of institutional change that at least partially remade the South in the North’s image.¹ This failure, however, seems to have been less a failure of the proslavery movement on a political or rhetorical level than it was a failure of Southern power. By all accounts, the defenders of slavery were successful within their own milieu.²

      That milieu was liberal. Despite...

    • 6 James H. Hammond: Slavery and Union
      (pp. 121-154)

      The multiple meanings of the “house divided” argument structured James Henry Hammond’s political career. At various times in his career as governor of South Carolina, United States representative and senator, and local statesman-in-waiting, Hammond took four different positions on the argument. Early in his career, he professed to see the union as a house divided ideologically between a South committed to slavery and a North committed to freedom. In the middle years of his career, he insisted that the union was not a house divided because Southern slavery was not really slavery nor was Northern freedom really freedom. Later in...

  7. Part IV
    • 7 The “House Divided” and Civil-War Causation
      (pp. 157-166)

      In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suggested a theory of civil-war causation based on a fundamental antagonism between Northern and Southern definitions of liberty.

      The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the samewordwe do not all mean the samething. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the produce of his labor; while with others the same word may...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 167-234)
  9. Index
    (pp. 235-240)
  10. About the Author
    (pp. 241-242)