April, 1861: All men are brothers, but some need to be slaves.

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

I have drawn material several times from DeBow’s Review, a bastion of slavery apologetics in the deep South. In the April, 1861 issue, DeBow gives a glowing review of a book:

The testimony of modern science to the unity of mankind; being a summary of the conclusions announced by the highest authorities in the several departments of physiology, zoology, and comparative philology in favor of the specific unity and common origin of all the varieties of man. By J. L. Cabell … With an introductory notice by James W. Alexander, D.D.

Debow cites Cabell’s arguments for the single origin of humankind. It was a point of some scientific contention at the time, whether all humans were descended from Adam, or whether, as the proponents of “polygenism” argued, there had been multiple creations responsible for the different races. I have described elsewhere how the noted naturalist Louis Agassiz, one of the last holdouts against Darwin’s theories, was a polygenist, perhaps mainly because of his revulsion toward blacks. Cabell also takes on the polygenist arguments of Samuel Morton, as presented in Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s 1854 “Types of Mankind“. This latter work was popular with slaveowners, as the theory of polygenism seemed to help justify slavery. Similar views had been both presented and refuted by essayists published in DeBow’s review previously.

DeBow likes Cabell’s view that polygenism is unnecessary to justify slavery:

The man of science will see at once that it is only weakening the argument on the subject of domestic slavery, to contend for the negro a separate creation. There is no necessity for it, and to sustain it you must discard revelation; and that, with the enlightenment of the present day, rende[r]s it obnoxious to all Christianity. “Thus saith the Lord,” is far more potent in convincing men of the path of duty, or of right, than all reasoning based upon supposed hypothesis.  
Our author says, “We trust that those who, in the providence of God, have been placed in that part of our common country in which the African race is held in servitude, will not be induced by the weak reasoning of a shallow book to put themselves in a false position before the Christian world, and foolishly to seize upon a scientific error, as a mode of asserting rights which have been guaranteed by the Federal Compact, and which are incident to relations recognized and sanctioned by the inspired Apostle to the gentiles.” 

I found the quote from Cabell above a bit too ornate for my 20th-century mind (yes, I’m a product of the previous century. I can’t claim the 21st), so I went to Cabell’s book for more clarification. The “shallow book” is “Types of Mankind”, and Cabell makes his position quite clear in a footnote on the same page (266):

While thus protesting against the scientific error which asserts that the black man is an animal of different origin and species from his white master, we must protest with equal emphasis against the absurd and, in their consequence, wicked doctrines which modern fanaticism strives to erect upon the admitted truth of the unity of mankind. If the inferior races “cannot come into competition with civilized man without becoming extinct before him, as Hugh Miller so forcibly argues, — if, while only “a few individuals may be recovered by the labors of some zealous missionary, it is the fate of the race, after a few generations, to disappear, for it has fallen too hopelessly low to be restored,”— it certainly deserves thoughtful inquiry whether the singular growth of the black population in the Southern States of our confederacy, and the marked improvement of the race in physical and moral characteristics, may not have resulted from its contact with a superior race in the only relation that could exclude the fatal “competition ;” whether, in a word, the actual bondage of the blacks in America was not intended, in the merciful and wise providence of God, as the only means of extricating them from their otherwise inevitable “destiny,” and of bringing them under the tutelage of a superior race without danger of becoming ” extinct before” such higher race. A little reflection on the subjects suggested by such inquiry would make patent duties and responsibilities on the part of every American citizen, nay, of every true Christian, with reference to American Slavery, far different from those sought to be inculcated by the zealous abolitionists of the day both in our country and in Europe. See Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon.

Once again, we have the slavery apologists’ claim that slavery is actually doing the poor inferior Africans some good because they come in contact with superior whites. Looking back from 150 years’ distance, I note that Africans have not yet become extinct, though, and in fact don’t show any sign of it — though the legacy of colonialism still ravages their continent.

Note: James Lawrence (Laurence?) Cabell was a physician and professor at the University of Virginia. During the war he was the director of the Confederate military hospitals. He was apparently a friend of Joe Johnston’s, as an 1870 letter attests. The Special Collections library at the College of William and Mary has some of his papers. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that he was probably a collateral relative of my wife’s, since she is descended from the Virginia Cabells.

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2 Responses to April, 1861: All men are brothers, but some need to be slaves.

  1. Andy Hall says:

    This is good stuff. I’ve got one coming up on DeBow, as well. Brilliant mind in the service of an awful cause.

    • Allen Gathman says:

      Indeed. I find him invaluable in that he gives a direct window into the philosophical underpinning of the Southern world view. I often find him making arguments that I had thought were just straw men from anti-slavery writers.

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