God and Honor: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 19

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

We left Charles Sumner offering a solution to the fugitive slave problem: let the states do whatever. That included rendering over no slaves at all as well as granting them all the due process that a white man would expect, up to and including a jury trial. Few Northern juries would eagerly send someone back into slavery, given the general popularity of efforts to aid fugitives and extreme unpopularity of the Fugitive Slave Act. Even people who otherwise found antislavery politics tedious could struggle with sending a person standing before them back to whipping and unrequited toil.

That all brought Charles Sumner to his actual close, seventy-five pages in. There, as with the rest of his long conclusion, he returned to a theme he had developed before:

The Slave Act violates the Constitution and shocks the Public Conscience. With modesty and yet with firmness let me add, sir, it offends against the Divine Law. No such enactment can be entitled to support. As the throne of God is above every earthly throne, so are his laws and statutes above all the laws and statutes of man. To question these, is to question God himself.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

The faithful always find the Almighty on their side, whichever side they have. Sumner would have the Senate know that those in the chamber who voted for the Fugitive Slave Act sinned as much against revealed religion as civic. He appealed, as William Seward had a few years before, to a Higher Law. Men could err, but the divine never did. Fallen men could not presume their laws comported with those of God, or they would “presumptuously and impiously” put themselves on his level. But where one man could sin, another might not. Thus men must question one another. No one would dispute that if Congress ordered a murder, but instead one would take recourse to one’s own conscience.

Much of this gospel of self-doubt and conscience must have fallen on death ears. Since the Revolution, perhaps before, the North’s culture had developed in ways that stressed individual judgment and conscience in ways different from that of the South. In the slave states, the old ways of honor that put reputation and community regard above all remained strong. A Southern man mastered others, whether black, women, or children. He had license to conduct himself largely as he willed, so long as he remained within the community’s broad guidelines. If he thought them wrong, he must comply anyway lest he suffer disgrace. A Southern man might take an interest in religion, and should make proper pious demonstrations, but no odium attached to him if he took his wife to church on Sunday and declined to attend himself. He may have had as much conscience as anyone else, but making it his sole guiding light would have flown in the face of his upbringing. By contrast, men like Sumner felt somewhat more at liberty to dissent from their community and chart their own courses. They felt more controlled by guilt than shame, more disciplined by themselves than others.

One can take this comparison too far. Northerners once acted much as Southerners did and they had not shaken the old ways entirely. Northern politicians did not shy away from the language of honor and disgrace. Nor did they all adopt a pious, inward-looking attitude. Likewise Southerners could find their customary ways deficient and adopt ideas that seemed more fitting to modern conceptions of Christianity and good conduct. Honor and conscience may occupy different ends of a spectrum, but do share one.


Charles Sumner and Freedom of Religion: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; full speech

Charles Sumner informed the Senate that the work of his neighbor in the chamber, James Mason, imperiled white liberties as well as black. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had no language to restrict its application to black Americans. A slave catcher could, in theory at least, accuse anyone on the street of having absconded, haul that person before a commission where they could not speak on their own behalf, and have them bundled off to the slave states for a life in bondage without any of the customary protections that white Americans saw as their birthright. They would have not a trial, but “summary proceedings.” They would surrender the power to enslave a white man at will to a civil servant appointed by a court and dismissed by the court on any whim at all, and pay that commissioner more to rule for slavery than freedom. The commissioner could hear evidence without opposition and without the accused having a chance at cross-examination. The Fugitive Slave Act trampled Habeas Corpus. Finally, in defiance of the founders’ clear will at the Constitutional Convention, it rendered fugitives at public expense.

Those sins matter, then and now, but it does come across as a lawyer’s indictment. Sumner focused for most of a page on procedural guarantees and rights one exercises in the context of a trial. While that doesn’t trivialize them at all, it does render them a bit esoteric for people who don’t expect to face charges in a court of law. To those Sumner added a right dear to far more Americans:

The Constitution expressly secures the “free exercise of religion;” but this Act visits with unrelenting penalties the faithful men and women, who may render to the fugitive that countenance, succor, and shelter, which in their conscience “religion” seems to require.

As with Sumner’s condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act for not limiting itself to whites, this raises an unlovely set of issues. Few Americans want anyone sufficiently white and of sufficiently familiar faith to suffer interference in the exercise of their religion. This results in preferential treatment for religions familiar to white Americans, which in Sumner’s time mainly meant Protestant denominations. But we also think the law ought to apply to everyone the same and that people should not suffer compulsion to comply with religious dictates not of their own choosing. These values conflict on nearly every point. When religions require the usage of controlled substances as part of their practice, we scruple little about outlawing them. When they require us to impose our sexual mores on others, especially women, millions of Americans will cheer.

I write this with modern conflicts in mind, but in Sumner’s time one might well have objected that antislavery Christians impinged the freedom of conscience of proslavery Christians by interfering with the God-ordained institution of slavery. Antislavery Christians would answer back that interference with opposing slavery and forcing them to act in conformance with its preservation trampled their own devout convictions. Both could have it perfectly right. As moralists, we can prefer one or the other and invent a constitutional doctrine to justify it like we do any of our other preferences, but the essential conflict remains. Someone has to lose and Sumner, like the rest of us, chose the other side.

Christianity and Slavery

The abolitionists don’t figure very large in the general memory of the American Civil War. They deserve quite a bit more prominence, but then we would have to all admit just what the majority of the slave states chose to fight for. When they do come up, one often hears about them of people of great Christian virtue. Through their example, they give proof positive that we need more Christianity in our lives and, more pointedly, our government. The speakers will sometimes make a faint ecumenical gesture and say “faith” or “religion” but they mean Christianity. Nobody honestly thinks they mean we need to get right with Zeus. Nor do they mean any of Christianity available, but rather their specific sort.

I don’t want to debate the merits of that suggestion today but, in discussing such a sensitive topic, fairness demands I lay my cards on the table. I am a thoroughgoing secular humanist, an unbeliever in every religious creed of which I have heard and expect ever to hear. While I have a significant interest in religions as cultural and historical phenomena, they do not engage me as they would a believer. At this point I must add, because the question naturally arises and some who agree with me on some points of understanding with regard to religion opt to make asses of themselves, that I don’t think religion necessarily makes morally or intellectually inferior or that irreligion makes one in the same ways superior. I have not come here today to praise faith of any sort or to damn it, but my perspective does come necessarily informed by unbelief.

LincolnIn the absence of very compelling evidence to the contrary, I take the abolitionists’ religious convictions essentially at face value. They understood slavery as an abomination in the eyes of their god and took up arms, eventually literally, against it. The line from their faith to their action seems fairly straightforward. As Christians, they believed Christians could not hold slaves. To do so turned them away from the Almighty and invited his wrath

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln never made for much of an abolitionist until the very end, but most of them would have heard their convictions in that.

If I could end there, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this. Antislavery Americans did have secular arguments against slavery and we would do well to understand them, but they had religious scruples as well. One does not negate the other. The problem comes in the fact that proslavery Americans did much the same. They, as Christians, believed that they ought to hold slaves. They believed that through slavery they taught a savage and inferior race the rudiments of civilization and brought the light of faith to otherwise damned souls.

How studiously they tended to that Christian obligation naturally varied. Anything that seemed likely to lead to literate slaves, particularly gathering with other slaves under minimal or no supervision, could raise eyebrows and provoke suffocating scrutiny if it somehow escaped legal proscription. Likewise we should consider that the enslavers thought the right sort of Christianity might pacify their restive human property. But we can’t deny a genuine, if far from benevolent, missionary impulse played its part.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

We take antislavery Christians seriously when they go into their scriptures and come out with religious arguments against slavery. We must grant the same consideration to proslavery Christians who the same. If the abolitionists could draw a straight line from their faith to their politics, why couldn’t the other side? I ask because when one sees two contradictory claims, one naturally wonders which has the right of it. While you will find the occasional sort who praise the antebellum South for its fine Christian character, most modern Christians probably agree more with Frederick Douglass:

I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

To Douglass, enslaver Christianity amounted to no Christianity at all. I have nothing but sympathy for his desire to share no religion with them, just as I dislike sharing the name of atheist with Joseph Stalin. More than that, I see in Douglass an intensely admirable man with whom I do not eagerly disagree on matters of his particular expertise. However, to make a distinction as Douglass does requires us to decide that there exists one true Christianity against which we measure all who claim the name. When we find those who claim the title differ from the true faith, we can pronounce anathema on them.

If believers wish to find that true Christianity and pronounce those anathemas on their own account, they may do so. I don’t consider them insincere or dishonest for it. I do, however, not consider these judgments to have bearing on points of history. The means by which believers make these distinctions amongst themselves come down to theological commitment and devotional exercise, with historical argument rarely playing even a peripheral role. Even apparently objective criteria like examining the statements of Jesus in the Bible inescapably come freighted with presumptions about the role of scripture and its correct methods of interpretation which have caused intense, sometimes bloody, controversy within Christianity for so long as the religion has existed.

Granted a particular set of premises about them, I might make the same judgment. But which of the competing Christianities ought one take as definitive? History offers no answer to that, nor can it. We can say which Christianity we find more admirable and thus would rather prevail, of course. The question, however, often comes to rather more than that. By asking which Christianity deserves the name, we make an implicit judgment about Christianity. Do we consider it primarily good or bad?

Here I must demur. I see Christianity as far too large and sweeping a thing to reduce to a one word answer. We may as well as the question about freedom or government and then find ourselves instead considering the freedom to do what or from what, or which government, doing what, and when. Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought slavery. Other Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought for slavery. Christians have done good and evil, each time citing their faith as the cause. On a personal level, religion has brought great agonies and great comfort. Beautiful works of art and horrifying destruction alike have come from hearts fired by faith. Proslavery and antislavery Christians alike saw good, honest, faithful faces in the mirror. I prefer the latter; I hope you do as well. But our preferences can only tell us about ourselves, just as the preferences of historical actors tell us about them. Frederick Douglass considered slavery evil and Christianity good. Therefore an enslaving Christian made as much sense as a square circle or six-sided triangle. The enslavers, by and large, thought the opposite. Abolitionists, they held, had wandered from the true light of faith. With that in mind, I can only say that historically Christianity proved equally compatible with slavery and abolition.

I apologize if my answers don’t satisfy, but I have no others to give.

Governor Shannon Introduces Himself, Part One

Before I get back into Kansas, I encourage everyone to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ response to the predictable reception that the president’s remarks in this vein at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Adherents to the hobbits’ view of history do not take such things well.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Back to Kansas, then. I previously had some trouble finding other than a very brief summary of Wilson Shannon’s first public address to the people of Kansas, which he naturally gave in Missouri. In the course of looking for other things today, I found a more complete report in the Herald of Freedom for September 28, 1855, courtesy of a reporter from the St. Louis Democrat. It also appears in volume 5 of Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, with a more legible text.

A person could read the Herald’s original summary of Shannon’s speech as ambiguous with regard to slavery, if not the proslavery bogus legislature, though it would take some effort to maintain the position. The governor could have spoken from ignorance or naivete. The fuller account removes that ambiguity:

Governor Shannon began his remarks by thanking the audience for their courteous reception. It gratified him, he said, not because it was personally flattering, but because it showed that they were not disposed to decide on his official career in advance. It showed him that he might rely on “your aid” in endeavoring to overcome obstacles which he was aware existed, but hoped were not insurmountable.

A voice: “Yes, you shall have our aid.”

Shannon gave this speech in Westport, Missouri. While he might reasonably expect some Kansans in the audience, asking the help of Missourians in Missouri for his job in Kansas scans like an open invitation to further border ruffian filibustering. Shannon might need some elections stolen later on. Could the Missourians help with that? Sure thing, Governor.

But Shannon might have other jobs for them as well. He knew about the free state movement:

This was a revolutionary movement, which was greatly to be deplored. He regretted, he said, that he had arrived too late to form the acquaintance of the members of the legislature. He knew nothing of the laws passed by them, but, from the ability and patriotism of the gentlemen who composed it, he doubted not they were wise and judicious. But, even if they were not wise and judicious, open resistance and nullification of them was not the proper way to defeat their provisions. If they were unconstitutional, there were courts to appeal to, which had been created for the purpose of deciding such questions.

Courts, one should add, that the proslavery men ensured only judges and lawyers who swore to uphold slavery could serve. But even if we take Shannon at his word here and grant him perfect ignorance of the bogus legislature’s many offenses against freedom, he stood behind even bad laws. That didn’t leave him any room to disavow the oaths proscribed. The act of declaring, sight unseen, for anything the legislature had done committed him entirely to the proslavery party. He would help the proslavery men and they could, perhaps, help him with that little revolution.

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.

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.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Two

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

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

Defense of Slavery, Part 1

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered slavery a positive good for white and black alike. The activities to which the Platte County Self-Defense Association and similar groups pledged themselves take on an additional layer of meaning. The men of western Missouri did want to defend themselves, their families, their property in human lives, and their profits. At least some of them also saw themselves as engaged in a project for social betterment in the broader national context. If slavery did so much good, why wouldn’t one want to prevent the establishment of a new free state just for its own sake? Free states become legal mistakes that cause social calamities for both races. For the good of the nation and all its people, decent Americans should unite to abolish them.

To make his case, Stringfellow began where a great many Americans of his age would have begun on a moral question; he opened his Bible. There he found a god who ordained and blessed slavery.

This broad proposition will doubtless cause the abolitionist to sneer — it will strike as bold, the good men of the north who have been so long deceived; it may even seem hard of proof to those in the slave-holding States who have feared to investigate the subject; but we have the evidence at hand. A good lesson has been taught us, and we have profited by it. So long and so oft had it been proclaimed from the pulpit, that slavery was a violation of God’s law, men begun to doubt whether a slaveholder could be a Christian. Men of the world, too little versed in the teachings of the Bible, feared to investigate the question. Our Divines, misled by their text-books, took for granted the dogmas of their Doctors. Yet so soon as one man dared approach, the Holy Book, dared to “search the scriptures,” it was found, that instead of being a violation of God’s holy law, slavery was actually established by that law! The truth was proclaimed; discussion followed; the result was, that investigation fixed beyond controversy the fact, that by the first law given to man by his Maker, the law proclaimed from Sinai, slavery was established! Moses, the divine law-giver, was a slaveholder! Slavery was recognised and regulated by our Saviour! A “fugitive slave,” instead of fleeing aided in his escape, was returned to his master by Paul, the great Apostle, to the Gentiles!

So triumphantly and conclusively was the consistency of slavery with the Christian religion established, that abolitionists were driven to infidelity, to blasphemy: they trampled under foot the Bible, spurned the God and Saviour of slave-holders!

That bears some unpacking. Stringfellow notes that the abolitionists have opened their Bibles too. They’ve made religious cases against slavery. But to do that, they had to look selectively. As the product of a slaveholding time and slaveholding culture, the Christian and Jewish religious works alike acknowledge and support slavery in clear terms. Slavery did not just happen in Biblical texts; those same texts regulated and endorsed it. Submissions on this point appeared so often in DeBow’s Review that the editor published one with a resigned note that they had done the subject to exhaustion.

The question of whether a Christian could hold slaves had divided denominations before Stringfellow wrote and would continue to do so. Some of these divisions remain today, though the slavery issue has long since vanished into the past. The Free Methodists split from the other Methodists because they believed a Christian could not hold slaves and slaveholders ought not rise to positions of leadership in the faith. The Southern Baptists split from the other Baptists because they believed one could and objected to the exclusion of slaveholding leaders. These divisions don’t feature prominently in most surveys of the roots of the Civil War but Calhoun mentioned them in his final speech (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and they occupied the minds of many Americans at the time. Religions might not have been part of the state apparatus, but they did form threads common national culture that came under strain and in many cases snapped in the years before Fort Sumter.

The Northern Clergy

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

With the KansasNebraska Act Stephen Douglas, and the Southern politicians who forced his hand from David Rice Atchison and Phillip Phillips to Archibald Dixon, stood poised to split the Democracy in three, unite the North against it, and generally put to rest the last vestiges of the old political order where both parties competed in both sections and neither much cared to speak about slavery. That might seem inevitable now. Events of 1850 strained the system badly, but given time it could potentially have recovered. Though he hardly set out to do so, Douglas ensured that no such recovery would happen. The North already had a final slavery settlement that it could live with and did not take kindly to the Little Giant, on behalf of slave power oligarchs, tossing it out.

If one went back in time and visited an anti-Nebraska meeting, one would have to work hard to miss the presence of the clergy. Previously, American men of the cloth generally took pains to avoid much comment on slavery. When they had, it often meant splitting their denominations in two. Like most Americans, most clergymen cared little about slavery. They came along tardy even to the anti-Nebraska movement, only arriving in great numbers when other conservative men already had. A few years prior, they largely acquiesced even to the Fugitive Slave Act.

I don’t write that to damn them any more than to praise them, but I confess a certain dislike of the account one usually gets of American churches. To hear some tell it, one could think that the day John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence the entire American ecclesiastical community united to sign their own declaration damning slavery, from which they never faltered. With some incidental help from white laypeople, and even more trivial help from black Americans, they slew the dragon of slavery. This view rightly acknowledges the role of various religious leaders in abolitionist circles, but it also turns all American clergy into stealth Quakers. That would have stunned most of them at the time. It would have scandalized the multitudes of Southern clergymen who, like their neighbors, believed slavery good and godly. Apparently when it comes to matters of religion, only the parts of the past we find laudatory deserve recognition.

The usual answer to the example of proslavery clergy involves citing the true meaning of Christianity. I have no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of American Christians today would condemn slavery if asked. Most certainly see it as a brutal, evil institution and so the antithesis of their faith. Those words come easily with slavery safely in the rear view mirror. We know for a fact that many Christians of the time thought quite differently. Their faith got along just fine with slavery. The Bible preached it, right up to the point of setting prices. Jesus never condemned it. Paul instructed slaves to faithfully serve their masters.

None of that means that modern Christians must go over and agree with nineteenth century proslavery clergymen. Rather we must admit that the true meaning of any religion does not present itself to us on a silver platter, plain as day. Divining it and then making judgments about what does and does not fit with the soul of one’s faith, however sincerely done, amounts to a devotional exercise. I do not think that historians have any particular expertise on this matter.

For my part, I see the question as beside the point. History concerns what happened and why, not who went to Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else. The Northern clergy had largely remained silent or preached acceptance in 1850. They did not in 1854. Though they took their time coming around to it, they joined the anti-Nebraska movement with petitions, editorials, sermons, and other acts of protest. They blessed anti-Nebraska meetings. In Douglas’ own Chicago, clergy of all faiths united to damn the bill. More than three thousand New England ministers signed a petition in the name of the Almighty against it. One Massachusetts clergyman condemned “aggression by our Southern masters.” Like the rest of the white North, they worried more about freedom for free white men than for black slaves.

In response to all of this, Douglas cried foul. The Nebraska bill involved politics, not faith. The clergy should go back to worrying about souls and let him worry about the Great Plains. Furthermore, he protested the unfairness of their speaking out on the one day of the week that secular men could not answer. The days of 1850 had not come again. Clergy who once, with little question of constitutional proprieties or their proper role, damned their abolitionist brethren found themselves suddenly on the same side. A year before, they called those same abolitionists dangerous revolutionaries.