How to Justify Slavery

On television the other night, I saw something that baffled me.

A New Orleans native (who is also a national celebrity) was being informed by a historian that, after researching his background and lineage, he had uncovered evidence of a relative who had fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War. The celebrity was aghast. “I find it humiliating,” he said, “that a relative of mine would fight to defend slavery.”

The professor, an African-American, told the local fellow, as white as they come, “Well, it’s not you. He lived in the South and almost every male between the ages of 16 and 45 had to go fight in the war.”

Had they asked, I would have added, “There were so many dimensions to that war and so many reasons soldiers took up arms. As one-dimensional as we want to make it now–“They fought to defend slavery!”–it was also about doctrines of States Rights, economics, fear, family, sectional prejudice, peer pressure, and a hundred other things.”

But yes, the bottom line is that whether this nation would be slave or free hung in the balance. We cannot escape that reality.

“America’s Great Debate” has taken over my nighttime reading the past couple of weeks. Subtitled “Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union,” this book, written by Fergus M. Bordewich, shows how slavery dominated politics in this country in the years before the Civil War. In 1849-50, Congress had to figure out what to do with California, Texas, New Mexico, and Utah. As they enter the Union, will they be slave or free? Should all new territories brought into the Union be free, as the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 instructed? Where should the borders of these states be? Isn’t California large enough for several states? But if we divide California, what of Texas, which is larger? Texas claimed portions of New Mexico right up to and including Santa Fe. Utah was being called Deseret and might as well have been located on Mars.

Running throughout every discussion, but unspoken–like the 600 pound elephant in the living room which no one wants to mention–was the issue of slavery. This practice was calling the shots on every issue, influencing the votes on every new state entering the Union, and driving the Southerners to insist that each state has the right to override federal laws if they conflict with the state law.  It was coloring every conversation, dictating every vote, poisoning every speech.

Reading of this on-going struggle that brought the U.S. Congress to a virtual standstill in 1849-50, over a century and a half later when slavery is universally acknowledged as the absolute worst idea humans ever concocted and entirely without any defense or justification, we are aghast at the way national leaders spoke of their fellow humans of dark skin, how they justified keeping them in bondage, and the legal maneuvering to protect that most terrible of institutions.

I am a child of the South. Even though all our historical research (what there was of it) shows every relative of ours on both sides of the family to have been poor and owning no slaves whatsoever, some of our relatives fought for the Confederacy. In no way were they fighting to preserve slavery in their minds, although that was the effect of it. They were, as simply as I know how to put it, on the wrong side of that war. It is good that the South lost that war.

Just reading the speeches, writings, and reports of conversation of slavery’s proponents back then horrifies us now. “What were you thinking?” we want to ask them. “What were you using for brains?” “Where was your heart?” “And you called yourselves Christians?” Some of them did.

We are amazed at the way they justified slavery–the way they played with words, twisted history, quoted authorities, cited statistics, claimed the high ground, and assailed those wishing to set the prisoners free.

Here are 10 ways to justify slavery, based on the activities of politicians in the years leading up to the Civil War. In citing these, we hope to hold up a mirror to our own times and the way political leaders would circumnavigate Truth in the name of expediency and furthering their own careers.

1. Quote the Constitution and call it patriotism.

Originally, the U.S. Constitution not only condoned slavery but made provisions for slaves to be worth 3/5 of a non-colored in the census and thus in the matter of representatives in Congress. Another provision called for slaves to retain their status even in free states.

Defenders of slavery called themselves “strict constructionists,” because they were holding to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.

Those provisions of the Constitution have, of course, been overturned. (I do not want to be too hard on the authors of this amazing document of 1789.  To insist that they should have gotten everything perfect is unrealistic.)

2. Plead the culture and call it the Southern Way of Life.

When I was a child growing up in Alabama, that euphemism–“the Southern way of life”–was actually code for segregation and keeping Blacks in their place. Little did most of us realize that this was the same language 19th century Southerners had used to refer to slavery.

3. Get historical and cite occasions of slavery in the highest of ancient civilizations.

The Romans had slaves, the Greeks had it, the Jews had it. So, this is supposed to prove that a) it’s normal, b) present in the most civilized people, and c) has always been present in humans and shall always be.  Some historical precedents are horrendous and should never be cited.

4. Open the Bible and reference Mosaic laws regarding slavery which never once outlaw or denounce it.

It is true that nowhere does Scripture say, “Thou shalt own no slaves.” It is likewise true that Jewish people were allowed to sell themselves into bondage for a time in order to satisfy debts or to compensate for severe poverty.

But does the Bible justify slavery? Jesus said He had come to “proclaim release to the captives” and “to set free those who are downtrodden” (Luke 4:18). That ought to be good enough for us. If we need anything further, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” ought to take care of it (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18).

5. Turn a blind eye to its horrors and fantasize that slavery is in the best interest of both races.

Suffice it to say that politicians in Congress actually said that. Those poor Africans brought to this country, if turned loose, could not take care of themselves. Therefore, we are “Christianizing” them–a phrase that was used–by showing them a higher standard of society.

One shivers at the sheer gall of the speaker to make such claims.

6. Focus on the economy and claim that the stability of industry and agriculture depends on it.

The cotton industry needed slaves because there were not enough whites in the South to farm all the land and many of them would not condescend to do the kind of labor the imported people from Africa seem to be keenly adapted for. That was the thinking and reasoning.

A lesser known fact of slavery is that the equipment used by slaveholders was purchased from northern factories. So, the economy of both the South and North was tied with slavery.

7. Dress slavery up in flowery words, disguise it in glowing euphemisms, hide it in the morass of laws and regulations.

Fergus Bordewich, author of the book which sparked all this, says until the “great debate” of 1849-50, Congress never actually spoke the word “slavery” in its deliberations. Instead, speakers addressing various laws and issues in Congress had their own polite language in referring to the custom. They would mention “the South’s peculiar institution” or “the uniqueness of the Southern culture” and such.

8. Slander its opponents as wicked and demonize them as not caring for the welfare of the poor slaves.

Go back and read some of the speeches of Southern politicians–these leaders who were noted for their gentility and gentlemanness–and be horrified at the way northerners like Daniel Webster and Frederick Douglass (and later Abraham Lincoln) were addressed. Abolitionists were mocked as destroyers, wicked, and traitors.

9. Personalize its proponents as benevolent and caring.

Ah, yes. Jefferson Davis was the model of kindness. John C. Calhoun–who more than anyone else in political leadership at the time is to blame for the Civil War–was a great man. The Mississippi politicians were southern diplomats. (As the Apostle Paul said concerning another issue, “I speak as a fool.”)

10. Make “compromise” a dirty word and attack those who even suggest finding a middle ground.

Henry Clay of Kentucky, in trying to forestall a division in the country, came up with an Omnibus of a bill (that is, containing many provisions addressing multiple problems) that called for compromise from each side. He was castigated by both sides as a selfish, ambitious, self-promoter. In time, “compromise” became a term associated with cowardice and spinelessness.

And so, with these and other verbal tactics, the defenders and promoters of slavery fended off the abolitionists and intimidated all who would limit the extension of slavery or end it altogether. What they did, of course, was to set their nation on a course for a head-on collision, the four-year event we call the American Civil War.

Those politicians with their take-no-prisoners mentality are responsible for the thousands upon thousands of deaths from that war.  God will be their ultimate Judge, but history leaves them no place to hide.

And now, we come to our day and the way politicians seek to justify….

–abortion as “a woman’s rights” and “freedom of choice,” without ever admitting what this procedure does to the life of an unborn child or the effects on the mother later on.

–the right of homosexuals to be married..

–the obligation of religious organizations to allow atheists and other unbelievers to join and be elected to leadership without any reference to their beliefs or unbelief.

–prohibiting any mention of God on any campus of tax-supported schools. No prayers at graduations, nothing.

And the list goes on, ad infinitum.

In the late 1980’s, I was pastoring in Charlotte, North Carolina, when Southern Baptists–my denomination–tried to self-destruct over the issue of biblical inerrancy. For several days, leaders and defenders of both ends of the spectrum and occupying several positions in between met at our Ridgecrest Conference Center outside Asheville, NC, to discuss and explore, pray and speak, listen to speeches and reflect. It all came down to one question: “Is the Holy Bible without error?”

No matter where along the continuum you situated yourself, you heard some call you spineless, compromisers, and unbelievers unworthy of the name Christian. No doubt some people left the SBC for the simple reason that they could not abide Christians attacking one another in such unkind ways no matter how holy the cause.

Politicians are not the only ones who know how to attack ones’ enemies and demonize them, glorify ones’ friends and sanctify them, twist the words of opponents’ and grant him no quarter.

The old joke about “a dog can whip a skunk, but it’s not worth it” is instructive for God’s people. If a battle is worth fighting, the behavior of the warriors and the holiness of the tactics should be worthy or the cause should be abandoned.

We will be Christlike or nothing.

“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:35).

11 thoughts on “How to Justify Slavery

  1. It’s a very good point that every generation works to justify something that very little investigation shows is horribly wrong. During the Civil war standing up in the south and saying “No this fight is not for me” could have likely cost you your life and everything your family had. It’s easy to understand why some just went along with the crowd.

    Today, taking a stand is cost us realatively little yet we still wimp out quite frequently.

  2. And to think that there were those (and some may still remain) who were convinced that people who were enslaved had no soul and were on the same plane with animals. Yet some of the most moving spiritual music was born during those miserable times from the very ones of whom it was said “they have no soul.” God forgive us!!

    • I am 65 years old, a descendant of slaves. My mom died in 1971 and dad died in 1975. They never knew freedom from racism as share-croppers in Mississippi, Working themselves half to death in cotton fields. They never knew full citizenship as black folks in American. They never had full support of the American government, and full protection of the law. They were despised and rejected by America. So were us children. Being separated from the African continent, We have tried to survive in America. We made Americas religion our religion. America used that religion to justify mistreating our race. After the Civil War, came Jim Crow, then the KKK, then segregation, then the fight for civil rights and school desegregation. White Americans were given the opportunity for forgiveness, God led Abraham Lincoln to.set the slaves free. God heard.the cries of the slaves, he saw the murders and the rape of black women, God wanted to right the wrong, but America refused. “Because I have called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and you disregarded it”, America has been experiencing troubles because of that. America is a stubborn disobedient nation. America will be Chastized!

  3. I thought you might be interested in the following link at The Patriot Post:


    My great grandfather’s Mom was supposedly, according to family members, a black lady. Which would make me one sixteenth, black. Looking at me, you wouldn’t know that unless I told you. My great grandfather was also a ‘horse and buggy doctor’ and owned an apothecary. Supposedly, again according to family members, delivered babies near his home in North Louisiana for chickens and pigs. I presume it was because they didn’t have “Obamacare” back then-Ha! But, even though I am one sixteenth black, I do not consider the “War Between the States”, a “Civil War”, it was anything but ‘Civil’ and was only secondarily about ‘freeing the slaves’ and certainly not to ‘preserve the union’. It was about primarily about ‘power’. The northern industrial states vs the agrarian Southern States. Lincoln, in his own words, was a racist. Agree, his words say he hated slavery, but he didn’t think blacks were equal to white people. The Civil War should be more appropriately be called The War of Northern Aggression. From the articles and books I have read, it should not have taken a War that killed or maimed over a million Americans, the worst war in our American History, to right the wrongs of slavery. No other nation ever allowed this to happen. General Lee said if he had known the attrocities that proceeded the “War” he would have died at Appomattox, sword in hand. Walter Williams, black economic professor from George Mason University, called the “War Between the States”(his words) the ‘Greatest Usurpation of the U.S. Constitution in History” (again his words-in attached linked article). Some historians that I have read and I happen to agree with, believe that the Southern States would have united with the Northern States prior to the end of the 19th Century and slaves would have been freed by their owners without subjecting the nation to the bloodiest war in our history. Of course, slavery is abhorrent and should never be justified. But, according to Mr. Williams, “(The War) also laid to rest the great principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Our primary founding document, the Declaration of Independence says “All men are created equal with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. I remember a preacher preaching that our goal should not be to be ‘happy’. Of which, I happen to agree. It should be to seek “His Will, not mine”. But, living in a free country with the right to pursue it is worth shedding blood over. But, never among brothers as Mr. Lincoln chose 151 years ago to do. He could have chosen, as some of the Founders have said, to allow secession for a brief period and then ‘out of economic necessity’ these errant States would have re-entered the Union on their own accord for economic survival. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. But, it seems to me that the trampling of our Constitution has been going on a long time and the ‘right’ to change the Constitution is a governed peoples’ right, not a judicial or exectuive branch’s right. That great usurpation, beginning with Lincoln, has been happening with increasing frequency. From requiring people to buy insurance, pay for abortions, fight to keep God out of schools or requiring us to recognize homosexual marriage rights. You might say, what does this have to do with trying to justify slavery? I believe that even though we are all ‘free under the law’ we all have different talents God has given us and the right to pursue them should not be ‘ursurped’ by our leaders. As slave owners did. Of course that did not begin only a few years ago, but it has accelerated recently. Our founders believed the greatest threat to our Representative Republic’s existance-was leaders who start off as Demagogues and end up as Tyrants. We think America’s destruction will be from foreign invaders. It might, but it will first start with a weakening of moral fiber from constant usurpation from our very own leaders. The above linked article provides some justification for that view and I have several other books if you would like to review them that happen to agree with this assessment. If slavery stymied the Congress in 1849-1850, what single factor has stymied the 2009-2012 Congress? We have always had a certain amount of Congressional gridlock and sometimes gridlock is better than doing the wrong thing. Our government leaders, in order to look like they are doing something for the people, seem to be unable to refrain from doing the wrong thing and with increasing frequency.


  4. Joe,

    Thanks so much for writing this. Needful and timely. Regarding scripture and slavery, the Apostle Paul did instruct that if a slave could gain his freedom, he should do do. I Corinthians 7:21. Probably, he did not mean to instigate a rebellion, but was refering to purchasing one’s freedom. Still, freedom is always preferable to slavery–of any kind.

    As for the SBC next week, with joy I’d cast my vote for Fred Luter. Such has been a long time in coming for Southern Baptists. Last fall we Virginia Baptists elected Mark Croston as president of the BGAV. I believe God will honor Luter’s election and use him in special ways. Indeed, He already has. Same is true for Croston.

    Prayers and blessings, Greg Loewer

  5. Slavery has its modern day equivalents, and it will always be so as long as religion meddles with politics (or vice-versa). History will prove that it is always wrong (& unChristian) to treat your neighbour as a pariah . . . or in a manner in which you yourself would not like to be treated. Christ welcomed everyone and everyone is created in His image . . . without exception.

  6. Been praying for Rev. Luter to be elected, also. Character should matter more than the color of a person’s skin-MLK, Jr.

  7. People then and now keep referring to the intent of the “Founders.” Well, there was one intent – to reach a compromise in a form of government that could join all 13 colonies with a balance between states rights and federal power. They wanted no king, so created three branches to divide power (still works to the consternation of both parties at times). Created two houses, one for the more populous states, and the other with equal representation so New York couldn’t dominate Georgia. The only area I know of that they deliberately dodged was slavery. Read the records. Had they taken any kind of stand on slavery, there would have been no union. They deliberately pushed the problem into the future, hoping the new nation would be strong enough at some point to deal with it. Incidentally, we heard all these arguments ad nauseum to defend integration. Somewhere I have a memo copy of a sermon preached by a prominent pastor of our state with all the tired arguments. Rationalization is great when you don’t want to deal with reality.

  8. Thanks Joe for this writing. And Thanks to all the above insightful arguments. Joe you third paragraphy said it well. There were many factors and states rights was a major one. There was also much hypocrisy on the part of the South and the North with homeless children being used in factors and discarded like an aborted fetus. This does not justify slavery. Yet, for the small portion of the southern population who possessed slaves their purchase price made the slave a valuable asset to be housed, feed, clothed and have medical needs met. It is good the south lost the war but a different course could have proven better for the nations and especially for the south. Let us stop trying to justify the abuse of life and keep with Matthew 7:12. – Blessings!

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