January, 1861: DeBow: Non-Slaveholders should fight to defend slavery

James D. B. DeBow
James D. B. DeBow

I’ve reproduced articles from DeBow’s Review occasionally; it was a magazine of agricultural advice originally, but by the time of the war it had become one of the primary defenders of slavery. In January, 1861, DeBow published a particularly famous article, arguing that the non-slaveholders of the South should defend slavery. The full text is available in its original form here, or transcribed here. It’s particularly noteworthy, because the fact that many non-slaveholders fought for the South is sometimes used as evidence that the war was not about slavery. DeBow is making the opposite case here; that slavery was worth fighting for, even for non-slaveowning Southern whites.


DeBow starts by taking issue with figures purporting to show that slaveholders are a small minority of white Southerners. He argues that, if you include all members of households who own slaves, they would be around 2.25 million people, or about 1/3 of the (white) population of the South. Half the slaveholders have fewer than five slaves.

Assuming the published returns, however, to be correct, it will appear that one half of the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, excluding the cities, are slaveholders, and that one third of the population of the entire South are similarly circumstanced. The average number of slaves is nine to each slaveholding family, and one half of the whole number of such holders are in possession of less than five slaves. He compares this with the 1 in 3.5 families in New England who own agricultural land. He argues that if slaveholders and nonslaveholders are natural antagonists, why wouldn’t landowners and nonlandowners in New England be even more so?

Still, he says the non-slaveholders have a serious interest in slave ownership. Who are these non-slaveholders?

The non-slaveholders of the South may be classed as either such as desire and are incapable of purchasing slaves, or such as have the means to purchase and do not, because of the absence of the motive-preferring to hire or employ cheaper white labor. A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property does not exist at the South: for all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments to which Yankee controversy has driven our statesmen, popular orators, and clergy. Upon the sure testimony of God’s Holy Book, and upon the principles of universal polity, they have defended and justified the institution! The exceptions, which embrace recent importations in Virginia, and in some of the Southern cities, from the free States of the North, and some of the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas, are too unimportant to affect the truth of the proposition.

The non-slaveholders are either urban or rural, including among the former the merchants, traders, mechanics, laborers, and other classes in the towns and cities; and among the latter, the tillers of the soil, in sections where slave property either could or could not be profitably employed.

As the competition of free labor with slave labor is the gist of the argument used by the opponents of slavery, and as it is upon this that they rely in support of a future social conflict in our midst, it is clear that in cases where the competition cannot possibly exist, the argument, whatever weight it might otherwise have, must fall to the ground.

All the businessmen in Southern cities depend on the productivity of slave labor for their customers’ welfare. As for farmers who produce things slave labor can’t be used for,
those commodities are consumed by slaves and slaveowners, so they’re a market for the non-slaveholding farmers also. As for direct competition in production of the same crops, only black people are made to withstand work in the Southern heat:

The competition and conflict, if such exist at the South, between slave labor and free labor, is reduced to the single case of such labor being employed, side by side, in the production of the same commodities, and could be felt only in the cane, cotton, tobacco, and rice fields, where almost the entire agricultural slave labor is exhausted. Now, any one cognisant of the actual facts, will admit that the free labor which is employed upon these crops, disconnected with, and in actual independence of, the slaveholder, is a very significant item in the account, and whether in accord or in conflict, would affect nothing, the permanency and security of the institution. It is a competition from which the non-slaveholder cheerfully retires when the occasion offers, his physical organization refusing to endure that exposure to tropical suns and fatal miasmas which are alone the condition of profitable culture, and any attempt to reverse the laws which God has ordained, is attended with disease and death. This the poor white foreign laborer upon our river-swamps and in our Southern cities, especially in Mobile and New-Orleans, and upon the public works of the South, is a daily witness of.

He then goes through tables of wages in the South and North, showing that free laborers in the South are paid better. Also,

2. The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free States, to find employment in crowded cities, and come into competition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery. They have but to compare their condition, in this particular, with the mining and manufacturing operatives of the North and Europe, to be thankful that God has reserved them for a better fate. Tender women, aged men, delicate children, toil and labor there from early dawn until after candle-light, from one year to another, for a miserable pittance, scarcely above the starvation point, and without hope of amelioration. The records of British free labor have long exhibited this, and those of our own manufacturing States are rapidly reaching it, and would have reached it long ago, but for the excessive bounties which, in the way of tariffs, have been paid to it, without an equivalent by the slaveholding and non-slaveholding laborer of the South. Let this tariff cease to be paid for a single year, and the truth of what is stated will be abundantly shown.

Furthermore, Southern workers don’t have to compete with the “foreign pauper labor which has degraded the free labor of the North” as the South has few immigrants. It’s a little confusing to me why the immigrants don’t head South, where the wages are so much better. Anyway, the South doesn’t have all these “isms” either:

Our people partake of the true American character, and are mainly the descendants of those who fought the battles of the Revolution, and who understand and appreciate the nature and inestimable value of the liberty which it brought. Adhering to the simple truths of the Gospel, and the faith of their fathers, they have not run hither and thither in search of all the absurd and degrading isms which have sprung up in the rank soil of infidelity. They are not Mormons or Spiritualists; they are not Owenites, Fourierites, Agrarians, Socialists, Freelovers, or Millerites. They are not for breaking down all the forms of society and of religion, and of reconstructing them; but prefer law, order, and existing institutions, to the chaos which radicalism involves. The competition between native and foreign labor in the Northern States has already begotten rivalry, and heart-burning, and riots, and led to the formation of political parties, which have been marked by a degree of hostility and proscription to which the present age has ntot afforded another parallel. At the South we have known none of this, except in two or three of the larger cities, where the relations of slavery and freedom scarcely exist at all. The foreigners that are among us at the South are of a select class, and, from education and example, approximate very nearly to the native standard.

Most important, white non-slaveholders in the South always have someone to look down on:

The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the schoolhouse, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New-York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.” No white man at the South serves another as a body-servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household! His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, while his brother here has ascended several steps, and can look down upon those who are beneath him at an infinite remove!

Furthermore, non-slaveholders aspire to buy slaves, or at least their kids might be able to. Besides, lots of non-slaveholders have been influential in Southern politics — e.g. the “McDuffies, Langdon Cheeves, Andrew Jacksons, Henry Clays, and Rusks, of the past; the Hammonds, Yanceys, Orrs, Memmingers, Benjamins, Stephens, Soules, Browns of Mississippi, Simms, Porters, Magraths, Aikens, Maunsel Whites, and an innumerable host of the present”.

Slavery brings prosperity, he argues. Brazil has lots of slaves and is prosperous, while Haiti and Jamaica have been impoverished since abolishing slavery.

Lastly, if the slaves are freed, the slaveholders will be wealthy enough to emigrate, while poor whites will have to stay and submit to the “degrading equality which must result”.

In Northern communities, where the free negro is one in a hundred of the total population, he is recognized and acknowledged often as a pest, and in many cases even his presence is prohibited by law. What would be the case in many of our States, where every other inhabitant is a negro, or in many of our communities, as, for example, the parishes around and about Charleston, and in the vicinity of New-Orleans, where there are from twenty to one hundred negroes to each white inhabitant? Low as would this class of people sink by emancipation in idleness, superstition, and vice, the white man compelled to live among them would, by the power exerted over him, sink even lower, unless, as is to be supposed, he would prefer to suffer death instead.

He concludes that nonslaveholders know that a Southern Confederacy is the only way to protect their rights.

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8 Responses to January, 1861: DeBow: Non-Slaveholders should fight to defend slavery

  1. Mark says:

    DeBow is SO interesting to read! He brags how central and wonderful slavery is — how a man can buy one slave, and force that slave to work, then buy another with that money, double, then double their money several times, like magic, and be wealthy within a very short time.

    You can’t become wealthy like this, elsewhere, Debow claims. No one has ever seen such Godly wealthy formed at such speed, with so little work done by the person becoming rich. A really hideous boasting.

    Elsehwere DeBow insists that “God has silenced all opposition to slavery, by His Holy Word” (paraphrased). It wasn’t God, Debow knew, but he incredibly harsh laws against free speech. From the 1820’s on, as De Bow knew, men could be, and were, tortured, just for owning the wrong book, thanks to the “anti incendiary lawsy”. Not just black men, but WHITE men were tortured for owning the wrong book.

    You didn’t have to read the book, or give it to a slave, just owning the book could get you tortured.

    Before 1820 there were some 135 anti slavery publications in the South, according to the Book “The Other South”. But as slave owning families took virtual control of the legislatures, who passed the anti-incendiary laws – all such publications were made criminal. Men like Cassius Clay and Hiton Helper were escorted out of the South, while others were less fortunate.

    De Bow knew that from the 1820’s the South was not unlike Nazi Germany (if he had known the Nazis) in that ships were searched for “contraband” meaning books or pamphlets that questioned slavery. And of course, this totalitarian government control of what people could read, write, say, even preach. Yes, preaching was controlled by the government. This crush of free speech — for over a generation — by totalitarian slavers, is the most unreported aspect of antebellum US history.

    Anyway, back to De Bow. After the war, the man was in no mood for soul searching. He always saw the glass half full — because when slavery ended, he wrote that having the slaves to labor for meager wages (if any) was better than taking care of them for life. Hire them for a pittance, don’t take care of them if they are injured or sick, if one is injured, push him aside, and get another!

    Suddenly he realized slavery was not the way to go — but slave LIKE labor was better, it meant better profits for white man!

    If only God had told him that earlier!

    • Agathman says:

      It’s true that freedom of speech was widely infringed in the South, and even the postal service was constrained from mailing abolitionist literature to Southern states. I don’t think that the comparison to Nazi Germany is particularly helpful, though — that trope always tends to produce more heat than light. The difference in relative freedom of expression in North and South was commented on by Northern contemporaries, certainly. See Rep. Perry’s scathing remarks (http://gathkinsons.net/sesqui/?p=1924).

    • Brynn says:

      Mark, what’s your source for this comment?

      Anyway, back to De Bow. After the war, the man was in no mood for soul searching. He always saw the glass half full — because when slavery ended, he wrote that having the slaves to labor for meager wages (if any) was better than taking care of them for life. Hire them for a pittance, don’t take care of them if they are injured or sick, if one is injured, push him aside, and get another!

      Suddenly he realized slavery was not the way to go — but slave LIKE labor was better, it meant better profits for white man!

  2. Chris Moore says:

    It’s always interesting how two groups of people living at the same time and living through the same historical events can come to completely opposite conclusions. Whether it was actually true that, “A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property does not exist at the South:” could probably be debated, but to believe that “…all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments…” was utter bombast.

    Thank goodness for those, “crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas…” and maybe the free black population in New Orleans and perhaps that pesky pocket of non-slaveholding, Union lovers in eastern Tennessee/western North Carolina and I don’t suppose the scruples of the millions of slaves themselves could be counted, since being sub-human, they had none.

    Also note in DeBow’s own language, “or such as have the means to purchase and do not, because of the absence of the motive-preferring to hire or employ cheaper white labor.” So, slave labor was actually more expensive than white labor? Hmmm. Curiouser and curiouser…

    • Agathman says:

      Yeah, I thought he was contradicting himself in that last argument — since according to his data, white labor was better paid in the South than the North, it’s hard to believe that it was cheaper than slave labor.

    • Mike Goad says:

      Slaves hired out for labor drove the cost of labor down in at least some areas. To compete, the whites had to work for less — or leave.

      One ancestor of mine took his family north around 1850 for just that reason. A number of white non-slaveholding families left together to settle land in Illinois because they couldn’t compete.

  3. Pingback: Non-Slaveholders’ Stake in Defending the “Peculiar Institution” « Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

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