The Moral Good of Slavery

No, not really. But have you ever wondered how people in the South could have twisted their heads into thinking that the institution of slavery, with all its brutality, could possibly be a good thing, or how some Southeners, even poor whites, could have been so heated in their defense of their “peculiar institution”?

I have. The antebellum South has always seemed deluded to me. Often, their struggle against the North was framed in terms of freedom, liberty, and so on, even as they denied freedom and liberty to a whole class of their people. But I’ve never been satisfied with this conclusion. Most of the time, “delusional” thinking on someone else’s part is more correctly described as ignorance on your part–ignorance of some factor that, while possibly incorrect, at least brings that thinking within the realm of rationality.

So this article on Winds of Change has been a revelation to me. Its context is more modern: how does modern American society preserve public virtue today? (Or, more pointedly, does modern American society preserve public virtue at all?) But it makes its point by reference to the different theories of public virtue which held in the North and South before the Civil War, and how those views are still expressed today, although in different ways:

But North and South diverged on how best to keep the tree of public virtue well-watered and flowering. The puritan republicans upheld personal morality as the solution: A virtuous people could not help but be a virtuous republic.

And the South?

Rigorous private moral virtue was not necessary in the agrarian republican model — and was little esteemed among men in the South. Instead, jealousy of power and careful attention to governance would keep the flame of public virtue alive. Govern well, put men of pure virtues and total leisure in power, guard against demagogues and tyrants, and live as well as you please.

Callimachus coins the phrases “totalitarian liberty” and “aristocratic liberty” to describe the respective approaches taken by the North and South. While the North sought to preserve public virtue by forcing private virtue on its citizens, in the South public virtue was preserved by an orderly class hierarchy. Slavery was essential to preserving this hierarchy, as the wealth of the higher classes was supported by the wealth of the lower classes.

And where did the South get this idea of public virtue? From history:

As odious as much of the old South is to modern attitudes, it had the approval of history. The Spartan, Athenian, and Roman republics — the principal examples available to the Founders — all were built on essentially the same social and economic model, with a mass of slaves at the bottom.

Thus, attacking the institution of slavery was seen as a way of attacking the foundations of the Republic at its base, drawing forth the stirring defenses of liberty you often see from such folks as John C. Calhoun.

They would have been right, of course, except that they didn’t notice the alternate path ahead of them. The North managed to preserve public virtue with a much flatter and less stratified view of society. The excesses of slavery didn’t look to Northerners like the bedrock of civil society; they just looked like needless brutality, certainly nothing that should be defended. And in the end, Northern victory did not bring about the end of democratic civil society, as so many Southerners thought it would.

But in all this moralizing, we have to recognize that the Southerners were right about some things, even if they were wrong about one particular detail. What if the North had been able to convince the South (without warfare) that industry could substitute for slavery in preserving that lowest level of society, and that it could do so without brutalizing whole classes of people? Perhaps today, we would have a better appreciation of some of those Southern values of days gone by: limited government, non-interference in personal affairs, and eternal vigilance as the price of liberty.