Southern Defense of Slavery

Southern Defense of Slavery: Analyzing the Vigorous Advocacy


The issue of slavery remains a crucial and contentious element within the annals of American history. Despite the inhumanity embedded within the institution of slavery, it was fiercely defended and upheld in the Southern regions of the United States up until its eventual abolition in 1865. Remarkably, the staunch defense of slavery was not solely or even primarily the agenda of the slave-owning class; instead, it permeated Southern society, eliciting support from non-slaveholders as well. With a mere 25% of the Southern population owning slaves, it begs the question: why was slavery so vigorously defended by the South?

This treatise seeks to explore the vigorous defense of slavery in the Southern United States, shedding light on the socio-economic, political, and cultural factors that collectively contributed to the preservation of this heinous institution. Delving into the Southern defense of slavery provides vital insights into understanding the complexities of American history and the enduring legacy of racial inequalities.

Historical Context

Slavery in the United States originated in the early 17th century when English colonists in Virginia purchased 20 Africans from Dutch traders. Over the following centuries, the institution expanded and became deeply entrenched within American society, particularly in the Southern colonies/states, where the economy was primarily agrarian. The cultivation of tobacco, indigo, and eventually cotton required extensive labor, rendering slavery an essential component of the Southern economy.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade facilitated the forced migration of millions of Africans to the Americas, providing the labor necessary for the profitable agricultural enterprises in the Southern colonies. As the United States emerged as an independent nation, the question of slavery became a significant and divisive issue, with Northern states gradually moving towards abolition while the Southern states clung to the institution that underpinned their economy.

The Southern defense of slavery was not a monolithic or static phenomenon. It evolved over time, adapting to the changing economic, political, and social landscapes. Initially, the defense of slavery was primarily economic, as slave labor was indispensable for the cultivation of cash crops that were the mainstay of the Southern economy. However, as the abolitionist movement gained traction in the North, the defense of slavery in the South became more ideologically charged and entangled with the identity and culture of the Southern people.

By the early 19th century, a pro-slavery ideology had crystallized in the South, underpinned by a combination of economic interests, racial prejudices, and a paternalistic worldview that justified the subjugation of African Americans. The Southern defense of slavery became a multifaceted phenomenon, drawing upon various sources of justification and garnering support from different segments of Southern society.


Economic Considerations

The Southern economy during the antebellum period was deeply entwined with the institution of slavery. The vigorous defense of slavery by the South can largely be attributed to the economic considerations that were closely linked to the practice.

Dependence on Slave Labor

Central to the Southern economy was the plantation system, wherein large farms produced cash crops for both domestic consumption and export. Tobacco, rice, and indigo were predominant in the early years, with cotton later emerging as the primary cash crop, especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The intensive labor required to cultivate and process these crops made slave labor economically attractive to plantation owners.

Slavery provided the South with a dependable and cheap workforce. The system allowed for significant profits to be derived from the labor-intensive agriculture predominant in the region. The profitability of slave labor was a driving force behind the Southern defense of slavery, as the economic prosperity of the region was perceived to be inextricably linked with the institution.

Wealth Concentration

The plantation economy led to the concentration of wealth among the planter class, who held significant economic and social power within Southern society. The planter class was comprised of individuals and families that owned large numbers of slaves and vast expanses of land. Their wealth was not only derived from the produce of their plantations but also from the value of the slaves they owned, as slaves were considered property and thus, assets.

Even though slave owners constituted a minority within the Southern population, their disproportionate wealth and economic influence made them a powerful group whose interests were often synonymous with those of the region as a whole. The non-slaveholding majority, while not economically invested in slavery to the same extent, were nonetheless influenced by the economic priorities and perspectives of the planter class. The economic dominance of the slave-owning elite played a pivotal role in shaping the Southern defense of slavery, making it a cause embraced by the wider population irrespective of their direct involvement in slaveholding.

Societal Structure and Identity

Southern societal structures and identity were profoundly shaped by, and intertwined with, the institution of slavery. The defense of slavery was not merely an economic imperative but was closely linked to the social fabric and identity of the South.

Racial Hierarchy

The institution of slavery was fundamentally underpinned by a belief in white superiority and black inferiority. Racial hierarchies ingrained in the society justified and normalized the enslavement of African Americans. This ideology of white supremacy served to legitimize slavery, providing a moral and social framework that supported the subjugation of black individuals.

The racial hierarchy not only justified slavery but also reinforced the social status and identity of white Southerners. In a society deeply divided by class, the notion of racial superiority provided even the poorest white individuals with a sense of social standing and identity. The defense of this racial order became synonymous with the defense of Southern society and identity, making the abolition of slavery seem like an existential threat to the social fabric of the South.

Southern Honor Culture

Honor played a pivotal role in Southern society, deeply influencing the behavior and self-perception of Southerners, particularly among the elite. The concept of honor was closely related to social status, masculinity, and control, all of which were connected to slaveholding. Owning slaves was seen as a marker of status and wealth, contributing to an individual’s honor and reputation within the community.

The preservation of honor often necessitated the vigorous defense of one’s way of life, including the institution of slavery. The Southern honor culture, therefore, contributed to the vehement defense of slavery as an institution integral to the social status and identity of slaveholders and, by extension, Southern society at large.

Political Influence and Control

Politics in the antebellum South were deeply influenced by the institution of slavery. Political power was often wielded in defense of slavery, with the interests of slaveholders significantly shaping the political landscape of the Southern states.

Political Power of Slaveholders

The political realm of the Southern states was predominated by the slave-owning class. Many of those in political office were either slave owners themselves or were sympathetic to the cause of slaveholders. Their influence extended beyond state legislatures to the federal government, where Southern politicians were instrumental in enacting laws that protected and propagated slavery.

Legislations such as the Fugitive Slave Act, the Missouri Compromise, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were designed to protect the interests of slaveholders, reflecting the considerable political influence wielded by this group. The political power of slaveholders not only facilitated the continuation of slavery but also played a crucial role in defending the institution against growing abolitionist sentiments and movements in the North.

Fear of Slave Revolts

Throughout the history of slavery in the United States, there were instances of slave rebellions and revolts. These events instilled fear in the hearts of slaveholders and the Southern white population in general. This fear translated into political action designed to prevent future insurrections.

Strict slave codes were enacted to control and oppress enslaved individuals further, aiming to quash any potential rebellious activities. The fear of revolts thus played a significant role in the political defense of slavery, with laws and policies being implemented to sustain the institution and suppress the enslaved population.

Religious and Moral Justifications

The defense of slavery in the South also extended into the realms of religion and morality, with many utilizing theological and moral arguments to justify and bolster the institution of slavery.

Pro-Slavery Theology

A significant number of Southern religious leaders and believers endorsed a pro-slavery theology, interpreting the Bible in ways that justified the enslavement of African Americans. Passages from both the Old and New Testaments were cited to provide divine sanction for slavery, portraying it as a biblically endorsed institution. This theological stance played a crucial role in providing moral justification for slavery, lending the institution a veneer of righteousness and moral acceptability.

Pro-slavery theology not only provided slaveholders with a sense of moral righteousness but also disseminated pro-slavery sentiments among the wider Southern population. Churches were influential institutions in the South, and the preaching of pro-slavery theology from the pulpit significantly shaped public opinion and attitudes towards slavery.

Moral Dilemmas

Despite the prevalence of pro-slavery theology, the institution of slavery posed significant moral dilemmas, even among its staunch defenders. Many were torn between the undeniable humanity of enslaved individuals and the perceived necessity of slavery for the Southern way of life. To navigate this moral quandary, a narrative depicting slavery as a “positive good” emerged.

Defenders of slavery argued that it was a civilizing and Christianizing institution, beneficial for the enslaved as it provided them with guidance, care, and exposure to Christianity. This paternalistic narrative served to alleviate the moral discomfort associated with slavery, providing slaveholders and the broader Southern public with a framework that justified continued support for the institution.

Non-Slaveholding Whites’ Support

Although a significant proportion of Southern whites did not own slaves, many among this group staunchly defended slavery. The reasons behind their support for an institution that they were not directly benefiting from are crucial for understanding the pervasive defense of slavery in the South.

Aspirational Ownership

For many non-slaveholding whites, the defense of slavery was rooted in aspiration. Owning slaves was not only a symbol of economic prosperity but also a marker of social status. For these individuals, the hope or possibility of one day becoming slaveholders themselves provided a strong incentive to support the institution. The defense of slavery was, in part, a defense of their aspirations and dreams of economic and social mobility.

The institution of slavery provided a ladder of upward mobility in the Southern society, and many non-slaveholders hoped to climb this ladder. As such, they were unwilling to see this pathway dismantled and were keen on preserving the possibility of owning slaves in the future.

Social Stability Concerns

Another motivating factor for non-slaveholding whites was the concern for social stability. There was a widespread fear that the abolition of slavery would lead to significant social upheaval, creating competition for jobs and destabilizing the established racial and social hierarchies. For non-slaveholding whites, slavery provided a buffer that maintained their social status and economic prospects.

The perceived threat posed by freed slaves to the social and economic order of Southern society galvanized many non-slaveholding whites to defend slavery vehemently. The institution was seen as a bulwark against social chaos and economic insecurity, making its defense a priority for a broad swath of the Southern white population, regardless of their slaveholding status.


In dissecting the vigorous defense of slavery in the Southern United States, it becomes evident that a multitude of intertwined factors contributed to the persistent support for this reprehensible institution. The defense of slavery was not solely based on economic considerations, although the Southern economy’s deep reliance on slave labor was undeniably a fundamental factor. Beyond economics, the defense of slavery was intricately connected to the social, political, and cultural fabric of Southern society.

Summarizing Key Points

The economy of the antebellum South was inextricably linked to slave labor, with the prosperity of the plantation system relying heavily on the exploitation of enslaved individuals. Economic interests, particularly those of the powerful planter class, played a significant role in the vehement defense of slavery.

Societal structures and identities in the South were also deeply influenced by slavery. The pervasive ideology of white supremacy and the importance of honor within Southern society contributed to the defense of an institution that was seen as integral to the Southern way of life. The political landscape, too, was shaped by the interests of slaveholders, with laws and policies being crafted to protect and perpetuate slavery.

Reflection on Legacy and Impact

The legacy of slavery and its defense continues to cast a long shadow over American society, influencing racial dynamics and societal structures to this day. Understanding the multifaceted defense of slavery provides crucial insights into the complexities of American history and the enduring impact of slavery on the nation.

Final Thoughts

Exploring the vigorous defense of slavery in the Southern United States illuminates the complexities and contradictions of this dark chapter in American history. The multifaceted support for slavery, encompassing economic, social, political, and moral dimensions, reflects the deep entanglement of the institution with the life of the South. Acknowledging and understanding this history is imperative for grappling with the legacies of slavery that continue to affect American society and for fostering a more inclusive and equitable future.

OUTLINE: Why did the south defend slavery so vigorously even though only 25% of the population owned slaves?

This is a question which needs answering if one is to truly understand what drove the South to Civil War. The outline below will make it clear that the south felt compelled to defend slavery for many reasons.

I. The Defense of Slavery

A. How did the South Defend Slavery?

1. Before 1830 – The South defended slavery as a necessary evil. They argued that the emergence of cotton as the most
important cash crop in the country made slaves necessary.

2. After 1830 – A number of factors (outlined below) forced
southerners to change their defense. Instead of defending slavery as a necessary evil, they began to defend slavery as a “positive good.” They argued that the slaves were in actuality happy, content and well cared for. They even went as far as saying that being a slave was better than being a worker in a northern factory, a condition referred to as “wage slavery.”

B. Why did the defense of slavery change?

1. Growing abolitonist sentiment.

2. Increased reliance on cottyon as an export crop. By 1860 cotton was 65% of all of US exports. This led cotton to be referred to as “King Cotton.”

3. While only 25% of southerners actually owned slaves these
select few were the ones with great political power. If one
considered that a slave in 1850 was worth $2000 then losing 200 slaves would mena a loss of $400,000. This was an astronomical sum at the time, equal to millions. Southern plantation owners were not about to lose that kind of money.

4. Almost all southerners, regardless of whether or not they owned slave, were basically racist. View of blacks ranged from them being inferior, to being animals, to them being likened to pets. In all cases slaves were viewed as property, not people.

C. How did Southern Representatives work to protect slavery?

1. Clearly southern represenatives would take any position that defended slavery and their general economic condition. The defended nullification, opposed tariffs and worked to get strict
fugitive slave laws passed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other fastens itself around your own.” In saying so Emerson looks at the nature of bondage. By owning slaves one become a slave. Too take away another’s freedom is to take away your own freedom on many levels.