Anti-Slavery in the Antebellum South
American Southerners inherited the British colonial system of slave-labor plantations that enriched the Empire; and New England abolitionists of the 1830’s forgot it was their forefathers who were enriched in the nefarious slave-trade which exchanged low-quality New England rum for slaves. The slaves were fortunate to have benevolent Christian masters in the South, many of whom freed their slaves through deed and will.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
Anti-Slavery in the Antebellum South:
"To understand the play of public sentiment on the vexed questions of slavery from 1808 to 1831, we must also examine briefly the conditions of slavery and slaves in the United States. The best authorities on social conditions are the books published by European or Northern travelers in the South. No one who examines the evidence can doubt that, certainly before 1830, the majority of slaves were well-treated. Many men of the South bought slaves they did not need in order to keep families together. Household servants were often petted, and the field hands well-fed and well-lodged, with leisure time at their disposal. For the good treatment of the slaves the travelers bear abundant testimony. (James Kirke) Paulding, a Northerner who traveled in the South in 1816 (Letters From the South, pp. 24, 25, 118), and who distinctly asserted his hatred of slavery, was reconciled in some measure to the bondage of the Negroes by the appearance of the slave cabins on a Virginia plantation. "Since their lot is beyond remedy" it is consoling to find "kindness and plenty." He even wondered if the slaves were not often happier than the whites, since they were relieved of all care for either present or future. William Tell Harris, an English traveler in 1817-1819, stated that the condition of the slaves was often really better than that of many English peasants, except that they were slaves. Yet John Finch (visiting in 1823) states that the condition (of slaves) in our Southern States was better than that in the West Indies.
During the period between 1808 and 1830 many Southerners were trying to throw off or lessen the burden of slavery, while a large proportion of Northerners were apathetic. On the other hand, long before the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, even before the doctrine of immediate emancipation was advocated by Garrison in Lundy’s "Genius," extreme delicacy had appeared in the South on the subject of slavery. (Prominent)…Southerners who advocated emancipation and abolition…clergymen, politicians and literary men (were) found in the anti-slavery ranks.
David Rice, a Southern clergyman, the most of whose life was passed during the period before 1808, still exercised an influence in his later years. His attitude on the subject may be seen from a speech before the Kentucky Constitutional Convention (in 1792, where) he stigmatized slavery as "injustice and robbery," and owners of slaves as "licensed robbers." "The first thing to be done is to resolve unconditionally to put an end to slavery in this State." David Barrow, a Virginian by birth, was publicly expelled from an association of Baptist ministers in Kentucky "for preaching emancipation." John D. Paxton, born and educated in Virginia, was for some time pastor in Virginia and later in Kentucky. He believed in the "moral evil of slavery and the duty of Christians to aid them and free them," and was a member of the Presbyterian Assembly which denounced slavery in 1818.
Another prominent man of the South who later identified himself with the anti-slavery cause was James G. Briney, a Kentuckian by birth…(and) instrumental in the passage of acts designed to improve the condition of the slaves. Yet Birney was not an abolitionist until after 1832; he was a slaveholder…although, as he himself said, he could not remember a time when he thought slavery to be right. He confined his efforts to (stopping) importation, abolishing slave markets, and securing kind treatment for the slaves. Mr. Birney was at this time a good representative of many of the Southern slaveholders of the period, who, although firmly convinced that slavery was an evil, did not yet see clearly the true means for its removal.
In 1826 Edward Everett of Massachusetts was severely criticised by a resident of North Carolina for his speech in justification of slavery: "Slavery among our Southern politicians is almost universally acknowledged to be wrong in principle." In this year, also, a member of the (NC) Manumission Society was elected to the Senate of North Carolina, and Daniel Raymond wrote: "In our sister State of North Carolina, the advocates of general emancipation are increasing with a rapidity unparalleled in the annals of the nation.It is believed that nearly three thousand citizens of that State have enrolled themselves as members of anti-slavery societies within a period of two years."
(The Neglected Period of Anti-Slavery In America, 1808-1831, Alice Dana Adams, Corner House Publishers, 1973, excerpts, pp. 11-36)
“It has been well said that the chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. Most modern people appear to resent the past and seek to deny its substance for either of two reasons: one, it confuses them; or two, it inhibits them. If history confuses them, they have not thought enough about it; if it inhibits them, we should look with a curious eye upon whatever schemes they have afoot.”