Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.
Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.
Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering
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.
On the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.
Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.
Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.
Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:
I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.
Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.
But the seeds of predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:
Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?
Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.
A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.
Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.