Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Ten

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, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The wonders of slavery that Stringfellow laid out in Negro-Slavery, No Evil. revolved mostly around economics. That does make them sound especially cynical, but we should remember that Stringfellow had in mind critics who made economic arguments against slavery. Answering them would necessarily involve recourse to census figures and sectional comparisons. The morality of slavery hangs around the margins and occasionally takes center stage, but even then Stringfellow largely defends it by means of nineteenth century social science. He spends some time with the Bible, but his defense involves comparing the condition of slaves and whites between the sections and finding the South better off.

From all of that, excepting the Biblical exegesis, one might think Stringfellow had a mind of metal and wheels. The grew up in a time and place that tuned that machinery a bit far from our preferences, but his argument runs mostly on facts and figures. Twenty-nine pages into the pamphlet, Stringfellow finally gives his softer side a fuller display:

But there are effects procured by negro slavery, which are not exhibited in the census, can not be set down in figures, of far more importance than the acquisition of wealth, as mere increase of population. These are, its tendency to elevate the character of the white race, to give to that race a more exalted tone of moral sentiment; and in a republic of vital importance is its influence in giving to the white race a higher, holier, more stern and unyielding love of liberty; in making the white race emphatically a race of Sovereigns, fit members of a free government.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Calhoun said similar things, but Stringfellow did not reach back to old Calhoun in his grave. He had a dustier grave in mind and exhumed no less than Edmund Burke, the father of anglo-american conservatism. Burke never held slaves, but he had offered some rhetorical support to the American independence movement.

“There is however a circumstance attending these southern colonies, which fully counterbalance this difference and makes the spirit of liberty still more high, and haughty, than in those to the Eastward. It is, that in Virginia and the Carolines, there is a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom to them is not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks among them like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I can not alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly and with an higher and more stubborn spirit attached to liberty than those to the northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic Ancestors; such in our day were the Poles; and such will ever be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”

Burke said all that, and more, back in 1775. The idea that slavery makes people more jealous of their freedom naturally follows, just as wars and other calamities inspire us to appreciate our good fortune if we don’t suffer from them. In a slave society, every free person has an example of how their lives could run much worse in front of them day in and day out.

Stringfellow expanded on the point:

History attest the truth of every word uttered by him. Not only does the institution of slavery elevate the character of the master, and where the master is free render his devotion to liberty a high and holy feeling, fortify it and render it invincible, but, where, as in our country, the slave is of a different race, marked and set apart by his colour, it elevates the character not only of the master, the actual owner of slaves, but of all who wear the colour of the freeman. With us, colour, not money marks the class: black is the badge of slavery; white the colour of the freeman: and the white man, however poor, whatever be his occupation, feels himself a sovereign. Though his estate be but an empty title, he will not disgrace his station by stooping for moneys’ sake to become the slave of another: he will treat with others as his equals, exchange his labour for their money, not honoured by their service, but reciprocating the favour of equal to equal. His class respects him, with the jealousy of rank will stand by him, and for the sake of their order will sustain him.

Love of liberty and civic virtue trickled down from the prosperous slaveholder to the poor white, flowing through the color of their skin. Whatever his woes, the poor white man could imagine that his race ennobled him and made him just as good as the rich man. He would not and never could become a slave, but may with good luck win the ability to hold slaves and have that power over them. Even without the material prosperity, he participated together with the slaveholder in the social and economic system that set them both infinitely above the slaves.

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