Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Thomas Fleming offered two ways to avoid the Civil War and still end slavery: compensated emancipation and the dramatic expansion and consequent dilution of slavery across the continent. We tried both experiments and neither worked. As a matter of fact, probably neither could work. The South, whether in the 1820s or 1860s, would not accept the nation buying up and freeing it slaves even if such a tremendous sum of money fell from the sky. Nor would the proliferation of slave states have meaningfully attenuated slavery elsewhere within the South. The section, barring a few less enslaved regions of various states, had tied its fortunes to human bondage and the cruel alchemy that turned blood into profit. Though Fleming doesn’t go into detail with his solutions, he admits that Americans rejected both. Southerners rejected compensated emancipation and abolitionists rejected the absolute capitulation of their movement that the dream of diffusion required.

Fleming could follow past historians and declare a pox on both houses at this point. He his solutions excel in absurdity and impracticality, but he had found essentially one rejected by each section. The South would not sell its slaves to freedom. The North, or rather the antislavery North, would not permit the perpetual expansion of slavery. He needn’t even argue we should weigh these refusals identically in understanding the coming of the Civil War. Both sections can play a part without contributing equally. Fleming knows as much. Considering the relative positions of the South and the antislavery movement, he apportions the blame:

Alas, by the time Madison reached this conclusion [for diffusion], the abolitionists were in full cry, demanding immediate emancipation for every slave in the South, and smearing the reputations of slave owners and anyone who defended them. Immediate emancipation was never going to happen because the idea triggered the South’s primary fear – a race war. This fear became a full-blown dread when Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to reconquer the country we now call Haiti, to regain its enormous sugar profits for the French treasury. When the dictator’s army collapsed from yellow fever, a black army marched across Haiti and killed every white man, woman and child.

In other words, those damned abolitionists who demanded slavery end and cursed slaves who sought to end it themselves brought about “the holocaust we call the Civil War and its aftermath of hate-laden racism.” They damaged the self-esteem of the white South and kindled its fears, driving it into an ever-deepening embrace of slavery. One can’t argue with the fact that antislavery Americans employed the language of moral castigation. Nor can one deny that the white South, for all they declared the slaves content, lived in terror of a slave revolt. These points deserve consideration.

It doesn’t take a Southern upbringing, then or now, to understand that people called sinners, degenerates, perverts, despots, and criminals rarely appreciate the candor. Unless they already believe they have done wrong, such arguments rarely persuade. They may go further and alienate those who otherwise harbor doubts about the whole business, driving them into the arms of radicals. The more accurate the description, the more we might expect it to alienate. However, such a maneuver doesn’t necessarily reveal a moderate turned radical under attack. One who silences doubts and doubles down on an issue obviously can’t have had the strongest of doubts. We all have our share of pride and confidence in our supreme moral rectitude, but one who genuinely isn’t sure that one’s conduct comports with one’s self-image seems unlikely to choose pride over principle. Hostile language may drive some moderates into radicalism, but it can hardly drive one to an extreme with which one doesn’t already harbor some sympathy. As such, we might do better to understand it as revealing the radicalism that already, as a practical matter, exists.

The fear of a slave revolt certainly drove Southern politics, much as the fear of nuclear annihilation once drove American politics. They had edifying examples of what a slave revolt could do, both abroad in Haiti and at home with Nat Turner, Gabriel, and Denmark Vesey. Fear has convinced no shortage of people to adopt policies they otherwise understood as abhorrent. However, this only goes so far. As with pride, fear might drive people to extremes but it rarely motivates them to abandon all the ends they once had in favor of opposing ends. The most consistently and vocally anti-communist Americans did not decide they must adopt Marxism lest Soviet nuclear weapons fly. Quite the opposite, they proscribed a kind of far-right politics obsessed with purging the United States of suspected communist sympathizers and cheerfully mutilated civil liberties, legally and otherwise, to achieve it. In other words, they found their solution in pursuing the ends they had already adopted. The American experience in two consecutive centuries argues that fear, as a response to a real or perceived attack, behaves much like pride does in revealing rather than reversing convictions.

Even leaving this aside, Fleming’s argument assumes that the white South genuinely and generally wanted rid of slavery. In fact, he casts the section as almost desperate to emancipate and only driven into a corner by abolitionists and the slave revolts that they imagined abolitionists inciting. In so doing, he makes a claim of ignorance so staggering that he can only have adopted it by choice:

The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority.

Fleming asks us to believe that southerners did not pursue slavery for the tremendous profits enslaved labor put in their hands. We must expect this, as he clearly didn’t have any interest in looking at those profits. But this immediately poses the question of why white southerners would embrace slavery if not for the greed? They could have contented themselves with slower development and smaller margins and used free white labor to grow tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar. No abolitionist terrified southerners into doing otherwise. No government twisted their arms, wet blood, or begged on hands and knees that they employ slave labor. Rather the enslavers made a straightforward calculation that they could more rapidly develop the Chesapeake and exploit its soil for larger profits by instead relying upon the enslaved. They made a business decision to minimize costs and maximize profits. They might have made do with less, but greed dictated otherwise. Their choice and that of each subsequent generation made the South, by 1860, the nation’s richest section. To argue otherwise, Fleming must have relied upon the work of the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnel Phillips. He argued that enslavers didn’t much care for profit, but rather took on slaves as a kind of obscure charity project with lots of whipping. Few historians have agreed with him since the early 1950s. They happened to notice just where most of the nation’s millionaires lived.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

In denying the influence of white supremacy in proslavery thought, Fleming goes well beyond missing the differences in slavery in the Upper and Lower South. For him to know about compensated emancipation and the diffusion theory, he needs to have read material which would have nearly bludgeoned him with evidence to the contrary. Even if he went all the way back t0 Phillips’ ancient and discredited work on slavery, he would find white supremacy at the heart of Southern identity (PDF). A more modern scholar would tell him that Phillips ought to have said “American” where he said “Southern”. To make this claim, Fleming has to ignore not just repeated statements from Confederate leaders and their antebellum antecedents, but also almost every fact of any significance relating to American slavery beginning with just whom Americans enslaved. He asks us to ignore the fact that Southern law made every person black person a presumed slave, but likewise presumed whites free. He has to ignore mountains of writing on the inferiority of black Americans, not just from obscure racial theorists like Josiah Nott and Samuel Cartwright, but even the words of people he himself names and which any American past the age of six or seven would recognize.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson admitted that black Americans had ample reason to revolt, and white Americans to fear that revolt:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

That sounds like an angst-ridden Jefferson who fits smoothly into Fleming’s milieu of white Southerners desperate to rid themselves of slaves, though even here Jefferson makes it clear that the construction of race distinguishes black and white Virginians, the first necessarily enslaved lest racial Armageddon ensue and the last free by right of skin. The angst-ridden Jefferson then proceeds to tell us what he really thinks of black people as people, not as products of circumstance:

To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

The man on the nickel, who past generations believed could equal in intellect an assemblage of Nobel laureates in the White House by dining alone, argues that black people cannot live together in an equal society with whites because black skin makes them hideous. One might pass this off as a regrettable fact of the aesthetic sense of the time, which did prefer pallor even among whites, but Jefferson goes rather beyond holding black people responsible for their choice of skin and insisting they ought never darken his Virginia:

Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

People at the time really did believe that chimpanzees (as orangutan meant in Jefferson’s time) copulated with black women. Through all the genteel phrasing the Sage of Monticello also repeats the vile calumny that black men have a special lust for white women. The special lust of the white author goes, as always, unacknowledged. Jefferson didn’t know, as we do, that all humans trace their descent to Africa and call the apes of the continent our cousins, but by his own terms he seems to have had more than the usual share of chimpanzee in him.

Then Jefferson proceeds to matters that he would like his readers to think dearer to his heart:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.


They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

If these together do not constitute a theory of racial inferiority, then I do not know what could. Jefferson clearly intended it as exactly that. He wrote all the aforementioned not just to observe the faculties of black Virginians, but rather to explain to his readers why they could only live in Virginia as slaves, never as equals. White southerners from Thomas Jefferson’s time to Jefferson Davis’ time, and well beyond, concurred. A list of them all would read like the census rolls, and run nearly as long. One would struggle to find many white advocates of racial equality anywhere in the nation, but only in the slave states did white supremacy so consistently necessitate slavery.

We might grant Fleming a fraction of a point, had he done better. It seems clear from the example of Anthony Johnson and others, that the white South did not adopt white supremacy as its organizing creed until it adopted slavery as its dominant labor system. As a strict point of chronology, slavery precedes and produces racism rather than the other way around. But Fleming doesn’t care to admit even that much, instead denying voluminous evidence compiled not just by recent scholars, or even a half century of scholarship, but indeed rejects the entire corpus of slavery historiography in order to claim that white supremacy and slavery had little to do with one another. At this point one must wonder more seriously not what books Fleming read, but rather if he read any.


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