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.


Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Nine

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

To hear Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow of the Platte County Self-Defense Association tell it, slavery had God’s approval. It uplifted people black and white alike. It produced more churches with more seats in the pews. It created more homes and fewer homeless. It produced a faster growing native population. It even led to less income inequality. It even, Stringfellow finally came around to saying outright, made for great fortunes:

The poor worn out slave-holding States, have in fact $417,523,392, more wealth than New England with all its boasted prosperity!

This is result is the more extraordinary because it reverses again all our experience. Since the days or Tyre and Sidon, commerce and manufactures have been regarded as sources of greater wealth, agriculture of least profit. In Europe tariffs are made to protect the farmer; commerce and manufactures are able to protect themselves. With us on the contrary, the farmers are not only richer than the trader, the merchant, the manufacturer, but tariffs are enacted to protect the latter — Agriculture not only protects itself, but carries on its shoulders commerce and manufactures. In despite of oppressive legislation, we find these agricultural, slave-holding States, in wealth, far in advance of New England, with its unequalled commerce, its unrivalled manufactures.

Slavery did not just bring all these social goods. It brought them in a handy package that invited you to come get rich. Step right up, by your slaves, put them to work, and watch them bleed money.

Stringfellow had it right that slavery produced great fortunes. If Southerners as a whole really had thrown their money away on slave property, they would soon have stopped or run out of money to throw away. They got returns on their investment, even if the nature of the market meant that often they ran cash poor. But Stringfellow got it wrong on the tariffs. Antebellum tariffs protected American cotton. They sustained virtually the entire American sugar industry. The New England manufacturer and the Carolina cotton magnate both reaped the benefits.

That said, Stringfellow got ahead of an obvious objection:

But we will be told that in this estimate we include our slaves that they should not be counted its property, but rated as persons, entitled to a share!

So Stringfellow ran the numbers counting slaves as both property of their masters and people entitled to a share of the wealth. The South still came out ahead. He declined, however, to take the wealth held as slave property out of the numbers and keep the slaves as legitimate stakeholders in the question. One might suspect deception here, or at least some kind of strategic omission, but the 1850 census lacked a line item for the value of slave property. It didn’t even track the names of enslaved individuals, though for the first time it did aspire to get the full names of every free person. Finding the value of all the slaves in a state would take more doing than just looking it up like Stringfellow could the number of churches or the blind. Modern economic historians have done the work, but Stringfellow might simply have lacked the tools.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Eight

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

According to Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, everybody benefited from slavery. The Bible endorsed it. Enslaved black people behaved better than free black people. Slavery led to more and larger churches to give a greater portion of the population, blacks included, access to religion. Slavery produced more homes and fewer homeless. Slavery produced a more fruitful native population, multiplying at a greater rate than Northern whites did. Even the slaves multiplied faster. Given all these spectacular advantages, the abolitionists had to have something gone wrong in their heads to damn it.

Slavery may have brought great wealth to whites, which also didn’t harm its appeal, but Stringfellow had some honest misgivings about great wealth:

That country, which has greatest wealth, is not necessarily the happiest or most prosperous. On the contrary, excessive wealth too often brings in its train vice and degradation. Real happiness is rather to be found where wealth is distributed; where each is above want, all are able to live free from the harassing exactions of poverty. This is it, which has ever presented the striking contrast between town and country; which has so fully warranted men in regarding towns as “sores on the body politic,” has given rise to the adage “God made the country, man made the town.” In the latter, great wealth gathered in the hands of the few, the toiling millions struggling for bread; the one class is corrupted by luxury, the other debased by destitution. In the country it is the reverse: there though there be no excessive wealth, there is no poverty: fortune is distributed, if not with exact equality, yet in such fair proportions, that none can oppress another, with neither luxury nor idleness to corrupt, nor want nor oppression to tempt and degrade, the people are happy, virtuous and prosperous.

While in New England, we admit there are more overgrown fortunes, more towns, more seeming wealth and prosperity, in (that distributed wealth, which marks real prosperity, in exemption from poverty with its ills, we assert that the slaveholding States are far in advance. Of necessity, a slaveholding people must mainly be an agricultural people. Among such, whatever wealth there be, must be better distributed than among the inhabitants of the cities: there must be fewer paupers. The census proves this.

Slavery makes for better societies because it forces a more equitable distribution of wealth. Returning to the census figures, Stringfellow proves he operates on more than bare assertion:

New England, with all her boasted prosperity, has nearly double 135 per cent. more paupers than these Southern States, which abolitionists would represent as impoverished by slavery. In New England, the land of thrift, 1 in 81 is a pauper, while in these Southern States there is but 1 in 191.

These numbers do not include the slaves who legally owned nothing in the comparison, of course.

The Yankee might answer back that Stringfellow found in the census poor immigrants. He would have none of it. Those immigrants built the North’s railroads and canals. They worked in its factories. They created the very wealth which abolitionists boasted of in damning slavery as economically backward. Furthermore, even if one did neglect the immigrants the census told a similar story about native-born northern paupers:

New England has of her sons almost double the number, nearly 70 per cent. more paupers than these impoverished slaveholding States.

Northern whites further advertised the greatness of free labor through the larger proportion of them counted by the census as blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill. Something went badly wrong to bring all this about and Stringfellow held freedom responsible.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Seven

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, lieutenant of David Rice Atchison and spokesman for the Platte County Self-Defense Association defended slavery on religious grounds. He went to the 1850 census to find proof that it benefited the slaves, finding there that free blacks suffered all manner of difficulty their enslaved counterparts did not. Then he proceeded to note that slavery brought benefits to the white race in the form of more churches per person. They built those churches for less and to accommodate more than did the holier than thou New England abolitionists, a clear win for slave labor. Furthermore, the slaveholding states built solid, orthodox churches not given to heretical doctrines like Adventism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, or Universalism. One might add Abolitionism to the list, as Stringfellow surely intended his readers to do.

The benefits to whites did not end at the church door:

We find in the census the first great test of the superior condition of our own over other countries, is in the larger proportion of our dwellings, to our families. It needs no argument to show that country the happiest which has most homes for its people. Not only is their physical condition, their mere comfort promoted, but there is nothing which more certainly conduces to health and good morals. The watchful care of the home circle, the cheerful happy fireside, preserve not alone the body from disease, but the mind, the heart from corruption and vice. We turn then to the census, and compare the homes and families of New England with the homes and families of these old slave States.

Me., N. H., Vt., Mass., R. I., Conn., 518,532 Families. 447, 789 Dwellings. Md., Va., N. Ca., S. Ca., Georgia, 506,868 Families. 496,369 Dwellings.

With equal population, New England has 11,564 more families, these Southern States 48,580 more dwellings! New England has 70,743 families without a home! In New England, the land whose “homes” the abolitionists delight to praise, one in every seven of the families is homeless! while in these Southern States but one family of fifty-two is without a home. Taking the average of the number composing a family, and New England has 373,700 of its population thrown upon the world, who have no place for a home!

Not only can those Yankees not church themselves properly, they can’t even manage regular houses. If they do so well without slavery, then why do so many of them lack a roof over their heads? Even with all those big cities, New England comes up short to the plain folk of the south with their humble cabins and opulent plantation houses.

One might argue back that Stringfellow neglects population growth. The North did grow faster than the South and one can’t expect new houses to just pop up on the occasion of every birth. Stringfellow anticipated that and had an answer: The North did not, in fact, grow faster than the South.

Anybody looking at the population aggregates in the census knows otherwise, but Stringfellow zeroes in on natural increase. His measure of the health of society depends on the growth rate of people adding to the population by the hallowed tradition of childbirth. Immigration does not count, as immigrants come from different environments. Their condition has to do with where they came from as well as their current residence. Taking the immigrants out of the equation, Stringfellow finds

With equal population, with 11,564 more families, New England has 16,535 less annual births: the natural increase by birth being 27 per cent. greater in the Southern States than in New England! Estimating the number of families, the proper mode of estimating natural increase, and these Southern States increase by birth more than 29 per cent faster than New England. Here again we find the laws of nature vanquished; the rule reversed: the North, instead of supplying population to the South, is far behind in natural increase.

Those figures include South Carolina and Georgia in the South, two states that many nineteenth century Americans saw as downright toxic, malarial swamps entirely unfit for the white race to inhabit and toil within. Only black people could work safely in such disease-haunted lands.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Six

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow defended slavery on religious and benevolent grounds. How could the abolitionists censure what the Bible endorsed and which so benefited the slaves? His claims reached farther than that, though. Stringfellow also insisted that slavery benefited the white race. At this point, a modern reader immediately thinks that of course whites benefited. The profits made with the theft of black labor flowed into white pockets. Surely Stringfellow meant not that whites benefited in a materialistic sense. One could not defend slavery just by saying how rich one got from it or how it funded fine civic projects.

Yet he did. Abolitionist and antislavery Americans of the age viewed slavery as an economically backwards, unproductive enterprise. It retarded progress and put a millstone around the nation’s neck. Nineteenth century Americans loved progress above most other concepts. Believing in America meant believing in progress. That progress could come through territorial expansion, the opening of new lands to white settlement, or technological development, but it all fed into the spirit of the time. They rode the railroad and telegraph into the future. Calling slavery a retrograde impediment to progress also called it unpatriotic and unwelcome in the future of iron and steel that seemed just around the corner.

Stringfellow would have none of that:

We have now the statistics furnished in the census: they are in reach of all; their truth can not be disputed, and we are now enabled to determine beyond controversy the effects of negro-slavery. The men of the north are peculiarly, a “calculating” people, accustomed to deal with facts and figures; and a large majority of them we believe disposed to be just, to listen to fair argument, to yield to the force of truth: to them we submit with confidence the startling evidence furnished by the census.

Listen up, Yankees. You like your numbers and B.F. Stringfellow has some numbers for you. Taking pains to make fair comparisons, he chose to weigh the statistics for the New England states against their similarly developed slaveholding peers: Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Going through the census, Stringfellow found

These five Southern States, with a free population of only 2,198 greater than the six New England States, have nearly double the number of churches, capable of accommodating a million more worshippers, at but little over half the cost!

Godly New England seems awfully disinterested in building houses of worship, even though it had more towns in which to situate them. The slaveholding states built more churches, for more people, for less money. They surely could not have done the last without the benefit of slave labor. The blood and sweat and toil of black slaves made for godly white men. And they even let the slaves worship with them, contrary to abolitionist claims that slaveholders kept back from their property the benefits of religion:

These Southern States contain a population, including slaves, of 720,410 more than New England: yet in New England there are 200,000 more who cannot find a seat in the house of God! These Southern churches can not only accommodate every man that could be crowded into the temples of New England, but would then give room to more than a million of slaves!

The picture grew even worse for New England when accounting for the fact that more than two hundred of its churches called themselves Unitarian or Universalist, and thus not really Christian at all. In all the South, the census found only eight such dens of heterodoxy.

Something about the northern air sent people to imagining dubious religious innovations in general:

Out of the census, we can point to Mormonism with its polygamy; Millerism, Spiritualism, as taking their birth, flourishing alone where abolitionists are found. The Stowes, and Beechers, with the Fanny Wrights, and Abby Folsoms, are to be found alone in that land which produced Joe Smith, Miller, the Misses Fox.

What is it which has thus reversed the condition of these people, set at naught all our experience; has converted the indolent thoughtless Southerner into the humble orthodox Christian; while the men of the north, the world over noted for religious enthusiasts, the sons of the Puritans, have fallen from their simple stern devotion, become setters up of strange doctrines?

The abolitionist movement did draw a great deal of support from Upstate New York’s Burned-Over District, known for its religious innovations. One can’t argue with those facts, though one need not share Stringfellow’s suspicion of new, novel religious ideas.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Five

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

Stringfellow hammered the point that the census showed slaves as better off in terms of physical and mental health than free blacks, neglecting any difference in their ability to access what the nineteenth century had to offer in terms of social welfare for those so afflicted.  Stringfellow pressed on from there. He had the Bible on his side. He had the census. But he had still more statistics to advance his thesis that slavery benefited the slave and slaveholder alike.

Even in slaveholding Missouri, free black people just did little to no good. They had slaveholding whites and faithful slaves all around them, but appeared to take little from their good example. Stringfellow knew because he lived in their company:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character

It did little to just assert that free black ne’er-do-wells rampaged across the South, though. People of the time would probably not call him a racist for it, but they would know all too well that a proslavery man has a strong motivation to exaggerate or outright invent sins of those who slipped slavery’s noose. Stringfellow went to the crime statistics to back himself up.

Of the moral condition of the slave, as contrasted with that of the free negro, the census also gives us no information. But so full are the annals of crime, of evidence on this head, we would waste time in making the contrast. Of the slave we fearlessly assert that as to all the higher grades of crime, he will contrast favorably even with the white man. But “children of a larger growth,” kindly, affectionate in their dispositions, their wants all simple, amply supplied, they have neither the temptation nor the inclination to commit crime. They may be led astray, they are easily ruled, they may commit a petty trespass; but let alone, with none to corrupt them, they pass through life happy, contented and innocent.

Slaves behaved themselves, absent some abolitionist giving them bad ideas. Free black people? Not so much:

On the other hand, the unhappy free negro, thoughtless and improvident, driven from the society of the good and the virtuous, an outcast among the vicious, is regarded as a nuisance even by the abolitionist! He is not a mere nuisance, but the criminal statistics of the North show, that crime of the highest grades, offences which are punished by confinement in the penitentiaries, prevail among the free negroes to an unheard of extent. In Massachusetts, composing less than one-hundredth part of the population, they furnish one-tenth of the convicts. In other States, the proportion is even greater. In the South, on the other hand, offenses of this character are even more rare than among the whites.

I wish Stringfellow gave a source for his numbers. Despite his proud declaration that he has them, we receive only this one from his text.

That said, let’s grant for the sake of argument that Stringfellow spoke the general truth. He ignores, and can’t have missed the fact having lived in a slave society, that slaves had little to no access to the criminal justice system. If they committed a grievous crime, it might make a sensation in the newspapers and be on everyone’s mind for a while. That slave or free black person, however, stood little chance of coming before a court, facing trial, and receiving a sentence. The white South, seeing its survival at stake, dealt with these things brutally but informally.

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s

Abraham Lincoln told the story of one such case in Stringfellow’s own Missouri back in the 1830s:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

McIntosh murdered a prominent citizen of St. Louis. Even on its chilly frontier, where cotton did not grow, the white South dealt with that kind of thing far more often by means of private violence than the courts.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Four

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow had the Bible on his side, if he did say so himself. He knew piratical abolitionists would flood Kansas with pauper mercenaries. That flood would not just take Kansas away from slavery, but also inflame antislavery sentiment in the adjacent Missouri slave belt. Ruin and race war would come unless he and his Platte County Self-Defense Association comrades stood against it. Stringfellow knew from the horrifying example of Haiti that without white tutelage, black people would return to their supposed natural state of idolatrous savagery.

Even if one granted Haiti as a clear example that black people simply could not govern themselves, nineteenth century Americans had another example of a black population living without slavery. Stringfellow could hop on a train, catch a river boat, ride or walk a few hundred miles and find himself deep in a free state. Every free state had at least some free black people living there, despite the best efforts of their white neighbors. If the natural experiment of Haiti suggested that blacks needed slavery, didn’t the natural experiment of the free states suggest that they did not?

Stringfellow didn’t think so. He had facts and figures to back up his assertion that slaves benefited from slavery. The 1850 census, like the 1840 census, did more than just count the people and note their race and sex. In fact, the census for the first time tried to count every single person in the nation. The census takers also counted the “deaf and dumb”, the blind, and “insane and idiots”.

Loss of speech, of hearing, of sight, as certainly indicate physical, as idiocy and insanity do mental suffering. By the extent to which the negro, slave and free, is subject to these afflictions, we are enabled to determine his condition. Blindness, insanity and idiocy especially result from destitution and distress.

That makes good sense as far as it goes. If we looked at a group of people working in a particular industry or living in a particular area today and found that they had statistically significant higher rates of blindness, mental impairment or illness, or loss of speech, we would think something had gone wrong. Stringfellow compared the census figures for whites and free blacks to start, finding their rates of the aforementioned afflictions:

Of Deaf and Dumb, 1 to 2151 White, 1 to 3005 Free Negro
“Blind 1 to 2445 ” , 1 to 870 ” ” 
“Insane and Idiots 1 to 1374 ” , 1 to 980 ” “

From these he concluded that free blacks suffered such things at a greater rate than whites. What about the slaves? Stringfellow constructed a proper table of the data:

Deaf and Dumb. Blind. Insane and Idiots.
White 1 to 2151 1 to 2445 1 to 1374
Free Negro 1 to 3005 1 to 870 1 to 980
Slave 1 to 6552 1 to 2645 1 to 3080

Not only did the slaves suffer less than free blacks, they actually came off better than whites! How could that be? Stringfellow posited that “the watchful care of the master” and “the simple genuine happiness of the slave” explained it all.

Counting the disabled had been a problem in the 1840 census, which returned figures so obviously wrong that when confronted with specific examples even John C. Calhoun would admit that the federal marshals made errors in recording them. In some cases, the number of black people with disabilities exceeded the total black population and Calhoun would not pretend anything other than error occurred there. Furthermore, in order to get on the census lists for disability one had to live in some kind of institution, poorhouse, or benefit from some kind of local charity. Whites would receive precedence over blacks in the North, possibly to the point of complete exclusion, but down south even that asked a great deal. A disabled slave would remain a slave and most likely take tasks for which the disability didn’t matter so much and might go unmarked. The 1850 census came from the work of nineteenth century lay Americans, not twenty-first century statisticians and demographers. The numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

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.

The Bible on Slavery: The Christian Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Yesterday, I ran through examples that Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and other antebellum defenders of slavery could and did use to defend the institution on religious grounds. When engaging the text this way, I often note a kind of implicit bias against the Hebrew Scriptures. When one must talk about the parts of the Bible that modern morality finds wanting, the citations tend to dry up right at the time the Gospels start. This practice implies very strongly that while the Bible has difficult parts that few people today feel great swells of pride or inspiration in reading, all of those parts belong to some other person’s Bible. They, those Jewish people, had all the bad stuff but Jesus came along and corrected it all for the benefit of Christians.

The comparison fits into an ancient and infamous narrative that holds Judaism and Jews as inferior quasi-Christians, morally suspect and rightly excluded from the community of decent people. I don’t think that everyone who does this means that consciously, but it still happens. The proslavery passages one finds in the Christian Scriptures generally exhibit less explicit endorsement and regulation of slavery. Any fair count will probably find fewer such passages in absolute number as well.

But these facts compare some apples to oranges. The Hebrew Scriptures include legal codes that the Christian Scriptures did not replicate. They had little need to reinvent the wheel for the parts they kept. Furthermore, the Christian canon contains many personal letters that do not aspire to describe society and history in the same way as the Jewish histories did. In addition, the Christian canon simply has fewer works, by fewer authors, who wrote over a shorter span of time, than the Jewish canon in which to find examples.

This does not mean, however, that no examples exist. Paul, the very opposite of an obscure and unimportant figure in Christian history, opines on slavery in Ephesians 6:5

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;

Slaves ought to obey their masters as they obey Christ. The power of the slaveholder appears just as righteous as the power of Christ.

The theme returns in Colossians 3:22

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

And 1 Timothy 6

Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.

And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.

But what if you have a terrible master? What then should a slave do? 1 Peter 2 has an answer:

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

One can’t get much more explicit than that.

It would do to repeat what I said about this post and the last yesterday. I have no theological agenda to press here. I intend solely to highlight parts of the Bible that slaveholders like Stringfellow read as endorsing and blessing slavery. Just as abolitionists sincerely viewed slavery as religiously abhorrent based on their reading of the Bible, so did their opponents have a reading that supported the institution wholeheartedly. They need not have invented or imagine it. The words speak for themselves. I could dig up passages the abolitionists used, and might someday do so, but I suspect that the modern reader would have no difficulty finding the obvious sentiments at apparent odds with holding slaves. They remain quite familiar even in our more secular times.

The Bible on Slavery: The Hebrew Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

After writing yesterday’s post, I realized that I referred to Biblical passages, as did Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and many others, and like him neglected to quote or cite them. It would do to rectify that. It might take us far afield from this blog’s usual haunts, and I don’t propose to turn this into a blog about the Ancient Near East or religion, but proslavery propagandists of the nineteenth century had the chapter and verse on hand. They could quote it at will, though in a far more religious time they rarely needed to announce their texts. We don’t live in that world and for very obvious reasons these passages have turned decidedly obscure to many Americans since 1865.

Before I get into it, however, I want to say up front that I take no position at all on what a Christian, Jew, or any other person ought to believe about their religion, which version of it is true, or anything like that. In quoting these lines, I no more intend to lay expectations on the behavior of modern Christians than I lay similar expectations on modern southerners for their ancestors’ beliefs. I intend here only to highlight texts relevant to nineteenth century slavery defenders, not to promote any particular modern theology. I have chosen to refer to the two familiar divisions of the Bible by more neutral terms for the same reason.

For maximum familiarity, both for my audience and to American protestants nineteenth century, I’ve used the King James Version. I have also selected passages that appear most pertinent to a nineteenth century context rather than attempted an exhaustive catalog of all that Bible has to say about slavery.

In the name of his god, Noah curses Canaan in Genesis 9

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The sin of Ham justified American slavery to a great many all by itself. They believed that Africans descended from Ham and that settled things.

One could object that Noah spoke out of turn. I take no position on this, considering it a matter of theology. One could also object in that a servant need not necessarily be a slave. The text offers some difficulty for this latter objection in Exodus 21:

21 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

23 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

24 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

You can buy a servant. You own that person for the duration. If that servant gets married, he can take his wife when he goes free. If, however, you buy the wife separately then you get to keep the wife and any children of the union. The colony of Virginia took a key step in changing its system of indentured servitude for black and white people alike into slavery for black people alone by legally adopting the rule that slavery came inherited through the mother. If we can call that slavery, then we can call these servants in the Bible slaves also.

The same chapter of Exodus goes into some detail about other ways one can treat a slave

20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Even South Carolina forbade, at least on paper, outright murder of a slave. However, the slave codes have no shortage of allowances for slaves who die as a result of violent “correction”.

If a thief could not make restitution for his crime, then Exodus proscribed selling him into slavery:

If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.

If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

New Jersey preserved a penalty of that kind for black residents convicted of crimes all the way up to the war. If the jury found you guilty, rather than imprison you New Jersey would sell you South.

One might object to this code on the grounds that you can get out of it a few years down the road. That must make it a bit more like indentured servitude, right? In a way, yes. Not much daylight separates indentured servants from chattel slaves during the term of the indenture. But let me quote the first bit again, from Exodus 21:22:

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

If a passage extends the seven-year term of slavery to gentile slaves, I haven’t found it. I have read arguments to that effect, but never one that could quote a chapter and verse. If anybody reading this has such a passage, I would be happy to see it.

At any rate, I have no doubt that had Virginia adopted a slavery system for its white residents, they would in most eras have received better treatment in the law than its black residents enjoyed. One need not speculate, as Virginian whites would be the ones writing the law. In fact, they did just that, establishing a harsher regime that lasted lifetimes and went generation to generation for blacks while retaining the older system for whites.

This has run long, so I will return with the Christian Scriptures in another post.