Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Three

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

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

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow could cite the Bible to support slavery, just as the abolitionists cited it to damn the institution. He could have left matters there, settling for the Bible’s blessing to declare slavery a positive good. Stringfellow had other plans. If he had more support for his position, he might as well give it all. A reader unpersuaded by any alone might find the combination enough to warrant a change of mind. Thus he pressed on, arguing that

Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence. Mrs. Stowe could not in fancy picture him a kinsman of poor Topsy; Fred Douglass would disown him as a country-man. It is not for us to question God’s purposes, but it is certain that from our first knowledge of the negro race, those only have been rescued from the lowest stage of heathen barbarity, who have been made slaves to the white man — those only have learned to know the God of the Christian, who have been instructed by their masters. Ages have rolled on, and still the labour of the pious, missionary has been in vain; the African in his native land is still an idolator! Even now the only hope of his elevation, in the scale of humanity, is by means of the liberated slave.

Just look at Africa! A whole continent full of barbaric, ignorant savages! They run around naked, sacrificing people to stone altars. They’re not even Christian! American blacks should thank American whites for enslaved them. Did they really want to go back? Only when white men took them away to the New World did they learn the rudiments of civilization.

An abolitionist could argue that Stringfellow never asked the slaves if they wanted to go back. Few slaveholders did and many ardently opposed any kind of national support for the American Colonization Society. The latter might lead to the state requiring them to send away their human property, after all. Thus colonization extended only to free blacks, who had usually been in the United States for generations, had friends and family there, and considered it their home as much as the home of any white man.

But what about those free black people? If they did well enough, then it mooted Stringfellow’s case. Should they have truly required removal to the New World and the tutelage of slavery, their subsequent success as free people would show that slavery had done its good work and could be put away.

But we go further and say that wherever the negro has been the slave of the white man, his condition has been better, not only than that of his race in the deserts of Africa, but better than when freed from the control of the white man, in whatever land the comparison be made. Whether we look to his condition in St. Domingo, the slave of the light-hearted Frenchman; In Jamaica, of the energetic Englishman; in the United States, of the indolent Creole of the South, or of the enterprising Kentuckian, as a, slave, the negro has ever been better and happier than when free.

They just liked it that way. Ignore the testimony of the broken tools, slow work, running away, and all the other ways slaves expressed their resistance to their condition. Instead look at the results of freedom upon them:

In St. Domingo and Jamaica, which once contained a population, prosperous and wealthy, the masters kind and indulgent, the slaves joyous and happy, with their light labors yielding abundant harvests, robbed of the care, protection and forethought of the white man, we see them fast sinking to the starving miserable condition of wretched savages.

The slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations would probably like a few words with Stringfellow about their light labors.

In our own country, with the advantage of the white man’s example before them, with all the watchful care of their friends, the abolitionists, to aid them, the condition of the free negro is far worse than that of the slave. Politically their condition is worse than that of the slave, for as to all the honors and offices of government, the privileges of a citizen, freedom is to the free negro worse than an empty name. Subject to the burdens, they are even by the abolitionists deprived of the benefits of government. They who so love the slave, that they will steal him from the care and protection of his master, will exclude the unhappy free negro from a home in their State. Unlike the slave, they have none to protect them. To the slave, the master is the government, a ruler with limited powers, whose interest is identical with his subject. To the master alone does the slave owe allegiance, from him he receives protection. To the free negro, the government is that of a stranger — he is as an alien, with all the burdens, with none of the privileges of a citizen. Until the free negro is made politically that which nature has not made him, the equal of the white man, his political privileges are in fact the worst species of oppression.

However nakedly self-serving, Stringfellow has the ghost of a point. Antislavery whites did also vote for laws keeping black people out of their states, out of their polling places, out of elected office, out of their schools, and so forth. Whatever manifold sins the slave states indulged in, however eagerly Stringfellow wants to ignore them, not a one of them demanded every black face driven from their bounds. Racial egalitarianism simply did not enter the minds of many nineteenth century American whites, though it came close to catching on for some during Reconstruction.

Twentieth and twenty-first century white Americans have a fair bit of work left to do on that front too.

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