The Mirror of Evil – A Historical Perspective

“A House Divided”[1]

By the time Lincoln delivered his famous speech to the Republican State Convention on June 16, 1858, the growing animosity between “slave” and “free” had almost reached its climax. The differences between the cultures of North and South had been present since the founding of the nation and had intensified for the preceding three decades.

The mutual dislike and distrust that pervaded both geographic regions served to escalate what could be termed a war of cultures.[2]   The social, economic, ideological, and cultural differences of North and South were becoming increasingly evident.

Despite years of attempted compromise, disunion loomed closer than ever. As the rhetoric grew more heated, sectional rivalries and prejudices began to intensify. What had previously been a reasonably civil discussion began to degenerate into a bitter, often venomous debate. Opinions began to change, and even some leaders that had not previously defended slavery began to do so.[3]

In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, the issue of sectionalism came to the forefront. General animosity toward the opposing region became a primary element.The feelings of one Northerner were indicative of many on both sides:

There is no sett [sic] of People on God’s Earth that I despise and hold in such utter contempt as I do those Southern Rebels . . . in fact, I am at peace with the whole world, except them, and with them, I have a deadly hatred.[4]

“All Men are Created Equal”

The perception of division merely according to geographical lines is superficial and ignores deeper issues. The real controversy was ideological. This debate centered on the lines from the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While both sides of the issue had varying responses to dealing with slavery, essentially two options presented themselves. The great question of the day was “Are slaves to be considered human?” In the eyes of its opponents, slavery reduced the status of the slave to “the equal of a hog.”[5]   At best its proponents viewed the African slave as mentally and spiritually inferior.[6]  Faced with the logical implications of the phrase “all men are created equal,” the defenders of slavery were left with no other option than to deny the humanity of the black race.

The debate over the humanity of slaves had begun as early as the Constitutional Convention. One of the several compromises between the northern and southern states at that Convention was the “Three-fifths Compromise.” It was created to settle the dispute between the slave states and the free over counting population for purposes of taxation and representation. The resulting compromise established that for both, slaves counted as three-fifths a person. While not concretely denying their humanity, it clearly classified them as something less than fully human.

Through the following decades, the legal standing of slaves produced similarly conflicting compromises.As the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court would ultimately determine, the slave could never be a citizen of the United States and thus had no Constitutional rights. A slave, former slave, or descendant of slaves was banned from ever achieving citizenship.[7]  Yet in criminal cases, they were held to a standard of personal responsibility. [8]

Caught between the contradictory positions, it became popular to view the slave as less than fully human rather than inhuman. This compromise of principle was necessary to reconcile the glaring contradictions of slavery existing in a free, “Christian” society. However, it produced a condition where “A pig in the corn was not a thief; a slave in the smokehouse was. A horse that trampled the life from a cruel master was no murderer; a slave who struck out against brutality was. [9]

“A National Benefit”

Such a complicated position required equally complicated defenses. As the intensity of the pressure for abolition increased, so also grew the need for defense from slavery’s proponents. Originally, the arguments supporting slavery were based on three elements: the Constitution, nature, and moral law. In the earlier years of the debate, these were presented without the rancor and bitterness. [10]

The absence of Constitutional restrictions or overt mention seemed to support the idea that there was a given right to hold slaves. The Founding Fathers, who could word things precisely when they chose, had been deliberately ambiguous when it came to this volatile issue.[11]  Even many who opposed slavery were slow to address it in states where it pre-existed, choosing to fight its expansion rather than challenge the popular perception. [12]

The natural argument relied heavily on the fundamental notion that the Negro was mentally inferior to his white master. An example of this type of defense is found in Richard Colfax’s Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes:

If then it is consistent with science, to believe that the mind will be great in proportion to the size and figure of the brain: it is equally reasonable to suppose, that the acknowledged meanness of the negroe’s [sic] intellect, only coincides with the shape of his head; or in other words, that his want of capability to receive a complicated education renders it improper and impolitic, that he should be allowed the privileges of citizenship in an enlightened country! [13]

Based on this pseudo-scientific argument, the slavery proponents argued that slavery is not only right, but also a necessity. Incapable of any higher purpose in life, the African was a danger to himself and society if a “kind” master failed to provide for him.

At this early point in the debate, the influences of sectional hostility, race fears, and racial superiority were not the dominating elements they would become. As the pressure from abolitionists increased, however, so did the need for new arguments defending the institution. [14]

These arguments came from a variety of sources. Some argued from history. The great civilizations of the past had known slavery, therefore it could not be wrong. In order to reconcile slavery with Christian beliefs, many found the basis for their approval in the texts of Scripture. By both “precept and example”[15]  the Bible, according to their interpretation, endorsed slavery.

Thus, slavery became not only a necessity, but a moral obligation as well. In 1854, Congressman William J. Grayson authored a leading defense of slavery, The Hireling and the Slave. In it he describes the positive aspects of slavery:

What more can be required of Slavery, in reference to the negro, than has been done? It has made him, from a savage, an orderly and efficient labourer. It supports him in comfort and peace. It restrains his vices. It improves his mind, morals and manners. It instructs him in Christian knowledge. [16]

They labored under the delusion that slavery was beneficial for the slave. Comparison between the poor of the North and the slaves of the south became common. It was the South’s duty to maintain and protect such a beneficial system.

As the rhetoric on both sides intensified, the defense of slavery became even more extreme. The Governor of South Carolina declared, “Slavery is not a national evil; on the contrary it is a national benefit.”[17]  He went on to say that slavery “has exalted the white race itself to higher hopes and purposes, and it is perhaps of the most sacred obligation that we should give it the means of expansion.”[18]   Pastors preached sermons in its defense.[19]  Extremists called for the reinstatement of the slave trade.[20]  No longer just a right, or a necessity, slavery had become a moral obligation that had blessed the South and the slave. It must be defended at all cost.

Slavery was firmly established on economic self-interest. From the traders who first brought the slaves to the New World to the slave-owners themselves, “American slavery was prompted not by racism but by the pursuit of profit.”[21]

Throughout the decades of slavery, the pro-slavery forces argued that the South must have slavery in order to survive economically. Eventually, the economic argument became a cornerstone of its defense. As the defense progressed from “right” to “blessing,” so too did this line of reasoning.

At first, proponents argued that only the African could endure laboring in the tropical heat of the Southern region. Therefore, the only way for the agrarian culture to survive was to have slave labor to work. By the middle of the century, they argued that the South was experiencing unusual economic prosperity because of slavery. When this was disproved, pro-slavery Southerners reacted negatively.[22]


 [1] Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1989), 426.

[2] Kenneth M. Stampp ed., The Causes of the Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1974), 152.

[3] Carl N. Deggar “There Was Another South,” in Historical Viewpoints, Vol. 1, ed. John A Garraty (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 298.

[4] Stammpp, Causes, 159.

[5] Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 327.

[6] Richard H. Colfax, Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes (New York: James T. M. Bleakley Publishers, 1833), 24-25.

[7] William O. Douglas, Mr. Lincoln and the Negroes: The Long Road to Equality (New York: Atheneum, 1966), 19.

[8] Dinesh D’Souza, “We the Slaveowners: In Jefferson’s America, Were Some Men Not Created Equal?” Policy Review, Fall 1994, Number 74.

[9] D’Souza, “We the Slaveowners”.

[10] Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War: A Stimulating and Profound Analysis of the Factors Which Brought A Nation Into War with Itself (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 155

[11] William H. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1987), 135

[12] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 61.

[13] Colfax, Evidence, 24-25

[14] Craven, The Coming, 155-156

[15] Craven, The Coming, 156-157.

[16] William J. Grayson, The Hireling and the Slave, 2nd ed. (Charleston: John Russell, 1855), 12.

[17] Craven, The Coming, 158. 

[18] Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, Vol. II: A House Dividing 1852-1857(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), 579.

[19] George W. Freeman, The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders: Two Discourses Delivered on Sunday, November 27, 1836, in Christ Church, Raleigh, N. C. (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1837), 5-11.

[20] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 1809-1861 (New York: Dell Publishing, 1974), 263. 

[21] D’Souza, We the Slaveowners.

[22] D’Souza, We the Slaveowners.

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