Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow explained the intentions and policy of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Doing so gives us a valuable window into how the principals of the time saw themselves and the situation they faced. But he titled his pamphlet “Negro-Slavery, No Evil”. Like many nineteenth century authors, he had a longer version of the title too: Negro-Slavery, No Evil, or The North and the South. The Effects of Negro-Slavery, as Exhibited in the Census, by a Comparison of the Condition of the Slaveholding and Non-slaveholding States. Considered in a Report, Made to the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, by a Committee, through B. F. Stringfellow, Chairman.

Stringfellow makes it nearly ten pages into all that before he reaches the topic in the title. At first blush, a moral or other defense of slavery qua slavery seems a bit beyond the scope of a pamphlet laying out the Platte County group’s reasons for organization and action. Of course they believed slavery a good thing. They had an understandable fear of race war and losing their human property that further directly motivated them. The righteousness of slavery seems a few steps further removed, though. One might believe slavery right and good, or even merely the best of a bad situation, and still not think it imperative to carry the institution into Kansas. Plenty in the South did, considering Kansas a Missouri issue to which they had a sectional obligation and duty rather than a vital and immediate interest.

All that said, slaveholders resented the Missouri Compromise and other limits on slavery because they understood them as judgments about the institution’s morality. Limiting slavery implied undesirability, both for the institution and its practitioners. They did not view themselves as tainted inferiors who the nation ought to quarantine. Thus Stringfellow and company naturally saw the Kansas question as a part of the larger national debate and their stance on the morality of slavery as core to their undertaking. They cast their position in moral terms like anybody would. This ranges wider than the immediate problem of Kansas, so I’ve given it its own heading.

Stringfellow lays it out bluntly:

We assert that negro-slavery, as it exists in the United States, is neither a moral nor a political evil, but on the contrary, is a blessing to the white race and to the negro.

A Virginia patriarch might fret about slavery and say he wished it gone, all the while fighting ardently to keep it, but Stringfellow had none of that. White and black alike felt not the best of a bad situation. They did not have the wolf by the ears, as Jefferson had it, and worry about letting go. Rather they felt blessed by slavery. Just ask the white slaveholders.

That said, even Stringfellow had his limits:

Let us not be understood as suggesting that the number of slaves should be increased by violence, by opening again our ports to the importation of those whom the now abolitionists would then capture in the wilds of Africa. Though it has been wisely suggested, if this were done, abolitionists would give us no further troubles, they would as did their fathers, become slave-catchers, and thus being able to make a profit of slavery, would cease to hate slave-owners; would forget their mock love of the negro in their real love of money; though it may easily be shown that slavery has done more to civilize and christianize the African, than all the schemes of all the pious missionaries; yet our sympathies for the African are not such as for his good to induce us to bring among us a horde of savages. Our philanthropy does not extend, so far as to become the civilizers of savages, by bringing them into our families. We are now reaping the benefit of our fathers’ good works; we have the civilized Christian man, in place of the rude, vicious, and degraded heathen.

In smearing abolitionists as slave-catchers, Stringfellow had a small historical point. Many New Englanders helped build, crew, operate, and owned the ships that carried millions of slaves to the New World. They made good money doing it. But the era of New England slave ships plying the Atlantic ended decades before. The last slave importers who operated legally in the United States operated from ports in Georgia and South Carolina. Southerners, not Yankees, continued the trade on the sly. As the decade wore on, sons of the South a bit more radical than Stringfellow would prefer openly advocated for full resumption of the African slave trade. Even on the eve of civil war, that asked too much of most Southern consciences.

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