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Outline and Summary of David F. Ericson’s The Debate Over Slavery (New York University Press, 2000)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Slavery on June 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

Allen Mendenhall

Ericson, David F.  The Debate Over Slavery:  Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America.  New York:  New York University Press, 2000.

 “The slavery issue in the antebellum United States was defined centrally by the failure of a people to bear witness to its own liberal principles” (90).

Chapter One

Rhetoric matters, and this book is about the anti- and pro- slavery rhetoric during the antebellum period.  Ericson argues that rhetoric separated a nation that was not so “divided against itself” as people assume.  Both anti- and pro-slavery rhetoric appealed to “liberalism,” according to Ericson, and thus the overall discourse at that time, in this country, under those circumstances, smacked of “liberty” and “equality”: concepts rooted in the mores of Christianity, Republicanism, and discursive pluralism.  Today we might lump these concepts into classical liberalism or neo-liberalism, but Ericson suggests that we should not lump concepts the way “consensus scholars” do; rather, he suggests that we accept that liberalism, in all its manifestations, is a complex and multifarious tradition inherited and adapted in many ways and for many purposes.  He endorses the approach of “multiple-traditions” scholars that reveals how advocates on both sides of the slavery debate attempted to conform their arguments to the tradition of liberalism.

Chapter Two

Ericson spells out liberalism and distinguishes it from “non-liberal” thought:  “I define liberal ideas as a general set of ideas that appeal to personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values.  Conversely, nonliberal ideas appeal to some notion of natural inequality based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or birthright that denies those liberal values to significant numbers of human beings” (14).  The proslavery liberal logic went as follows: “The institution was a just institution because slavery was the status in which African Americans could enjoy the most practical liberty in light of their present circumstances, which rendered them incapable of prospering as free men alongside European Americans” (14-15).  The antislavery liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied that African Americans were men with a birthright to freedom equal to that of European Americans” (14).  The antislavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied African Americans the opportunity to work, worship, and learn at the feet of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  The proslavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The institution was a just institution because African Americans constituted an inferior race consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15). 

Chapter Three

Abolitionists condemned slavery and too often considered that condemnation sufficient to abolish the institution.  Lydia Maria Child assumed the deontological antislavery stance (i.e., that slavery is morally wrong).  She also put forth some consequentialist arguments (slavery is harmful to both slaves and their masters).  Frederick Douglass took a hybrid approach and mixed the deontological, consequentialist, and contextualist arguments.  The rhetoric of Child and Douglass is essentially progressively liberal.

Chapter Four

Wendell Philips invented the notion of a house divided.  He and others like William Lloyd Garrison used disunionist rhetoric for fear that the nation would unite under liberalism and yet maintain slavery in doing so.  According to Ericson, Philips “argued that disunion was a way for the people of the North to (1) dissociate themselves from an evil institution (deontological), (2) induce the people of the South to dismantle that evil institution and thereby expand the rights and liberties of the African American slaves (consequentialist), and (3) protect their own rights and liberties from the encroachments of an imperious Southern slavocracy (contextualist)” (63).  Philips essentially argued for secession—secession of the North from the South.  When the South seceded, he initially had a “let them be” attitude in speeches.  He would later recant this position and argue for unionism without the existence of slavery.

Chapter Five

“Despite the way that they usually have been interpreted,” says Ericson, “the defenders of slavery did offer predominately liberal proslavery arguments, as they were the arguments most likely to appeal to their predominately liberal audiences in the South.  Hence, they did not rely solely, or even primarily, on racist proslavery arguments, instead preferring to continually, even if never completely, recast the racist beliefs they shared with their audiences as liberal proslavery arguments” (93).  The rhetoric of defenders of slavery was initially pro-union: preserve slavery and thus preserve the union.  Thomas R. Dew focused on the “positive good” of slavery.  He looked at the North-South relationship as one of colonialism: that is, at the North as a colonial power seeking to dominate another territory that it did not understand.  He worried about the consequences of sudden emancipation, drawing attention to the inability of the races to live together peacefully (he cited Haiti and Guatemala as examples) and to the slaves’ lack of preparedness for liberation (economic, social, and educational).  He suggested that because America was not ready for a post-slavery world, what would follow emancipation would be far worse than slavery itself.  Dew’s arguments are mostly consquentialist (what will happen if slavery is abolished will be more harmful than good).  George Fitzhugh argued that slavery is a protective institution; he likened slave masters to shepherds guiding a flock. The economic interests of slave-owners were shared by the slaves: both lived better during prosperous times, and thus everyone worked together to achieve the most efficient and healthy results.  Fitzhugh argued that nothing will change when slavery is abolished because Africans will essentially exist as slaves and be treated as such for many generations despite their legal status as non-slaves.  At least slavery provided benefits to Africans that would not be available to African Americans, Fitzhugh continued.  Fitzhugh believed that white Southerners are slaves of the North, and that Africans are slaves of the South, and that ultimately the North wanted to eliminate Southern slavery in order to preserve its domination over the white Southerners, whom Northerners “owned.”

Chapter Six

James H. Hammond, governor of South Carolina, U.S. House Representative and senator, started out as somewhat disunionist (though never totally so) and became a unionist by the outbreak of the Civil War.  His rhetoric represents a shift from deontological and consequentialist endorsements of slavery and disunionism to contextualist arguments in favor of unionism.  Hammond suggested that Southern slaves were happy being slaves, and he argued that abolishing slavery would impoverish the whole South.  Hammond argued, moreover, that America had the freest people in the world comparatively, and that Northerners and Southerners both stood for liberalism, despite the prevailing assumptions of disunionists.

Chapter Seven

Ericson claims that Southerners feared Lincoln for his “house divided” attitude because they considered themselves as of the same liberal tradition.  “They feared,” Ericson adds, that Lincoln’s election “portended the imposition of Northern liberty on Southern liberty” (158).  The South ultimately chose disunion rather than union without slavery—but the South did not do so easily, since Southerners were, according to Ericson, a nationalist bunch.  Southerners cast the issue as choosing liberty over Northern tyranny; they mostly avoided racist arguments in defense of slavery and rather focused on liberal justifications for the institution.  Ultimately, a nation that shared a liberal tradition disagreed over the direction and meaning of that tradition.  The moderates in the North and the South naturally embraced the liberal arguments of the friends and family closest to them until, at last, the rhetorical disagreements were so unstable that the nation itself became unstable.          


“If liberalism is itself a historically contingent phenomenon, then at any point in time, people who believe in liberal principles will be engaged in disputes over the nature of those principles and how best to apply them to their own concrete social settings.  As social scientists, we should not be surprised by such disputes, and we need not look to ‘multiple traditions’ to try to explain them.  As political actors, we should not skirt such disputes but face them boldly to help ensure that our side—the most just side, we presume—triumphs.  Lincoln and, even more, the abolitionists achieved such a triumph, although it was admittedly not quite the triumph they hoped to achieve” (165).


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