Arguments for Slavery

The proslavery argument refers to the defense of chattel slavery that emerged in the late eighteenth century and became more popular in the nineteenth century. Planters, newspaper editors, ministers, lawyers, politicians, economists, sociologists, and other writers drew from a variety of sources and approaches to justify the existence of slavery. Proslavery writers used religion, politics, racial superiority, political economy, climate, classical and contemporary philosophy, history, and natural and biological sciences to shape their arguments. Proslavery literature came in a variety of forms, including newspaper editorials, books, religious tracts, journal articles, and political speeches.

In the late antebellum era, proslavery ideology emerged in the southern states as a challenge to the growing abolitionist movement in the North. In countering the abolitionist movement, the proslavery argument changed from defending slavery as a necessary evil to depicting it as a positive good. Writers such as James Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, George Fitzhugh, and Mississippian Henry Hughes argued that slavery as a social, economic, and labor system was superior to the free-labor economy found in Europe and the northeastern United States.

Because of its emergence as a slave state in the early antebellum era, Mississippi’s political culture aligned with the major proslavery arguments. The state’s Hughes and Matthew Estes articulated the major themes of the argument: the biblical defense of slavery, the existence of and need for a permanent laboring class, the inefficiency of free labor, and the superior standard of living experienced southern black slaves. Hughes developed his argument through an elaborate description and definition of sociology in his Treatise on Sociology (1854). He argued that slavery (warranteeism) existed in all social organizations and that slaves constituted the southern states’ mudsill class. Estes’s Defence of Negro Slavery (1846) concentrated mostly on the biblical defense of slavery, the history of the slave trade, African slavery, the inferiority of Africans, and the necessity of slavery to maintain white supremacy.

Further Reading

  • Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840–1860 (1977)
  • Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (1967)
  • Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972)
  • George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters (1857)
  • William S. Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (1935)
  • James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982)
  • William K. Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South (2002)
  • Christopher L. Stacey, Journal of Mississippi History (September 2001)
  • Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America (1987)
  • Michael Wayne, Journal of American History (December 1990)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Arguments for Slavery
  • Author
  • Keywords Arguments for Slavery
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 2, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018