Slavery was a central issue of the American Civil War. The 1860 election of anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln caused the Southern states to begin seceding from the nation. Faced with a challenge to their social and economic system, Southerners began to create rationalizations for slavery. These justifications usually had the air of legitimacy. Preachers, academics and politicians espoused these claims. Pro-slavery ideology was a central part of Southern society from 1830 through the end of the Civil War in 1865. After the war, the South witnessed similar assertions that weakened prospects of real equality for African Americans until 1965.
Slave owners relied heavily upon religion to justify the continued enslavement of African Americans. Southerners argued that slavery was a legitimate institution supported by God. Slave owners often claimed that slavery was a just punishment for African Americans as the descendents of Noah’s son Ham. In the Old Testament, Noah curses Ham and his prodigy. American slavery was thus completing what God had ordained. Another example of God’s endorsement of human slavery came from the patriarchs of the Old Testament. These prominent religious men owned slaves. The conclusion was that if God allowed slavery among his followers in the Bible, then the practice was acceptable in America.
Pseudoscience refers to theories based on incredulous data. It's practitioners falsely claim that their theories are grounded in acceptable scientific methodologies. During the Civil War-era, Southerners embraced such theories to rationalize slavery. Southerners often believed the size and shape of African-American skulls was considered evidence of the slave's mental inferiority. Slavery was thus a benefit in that African Americans received social training from their owners.
Sambo was a caricature created by Southern slave owners to explain why bondage was the proper place for African Americans. The smiling Sambo was a happy slave who loved the master. This image contrasted sharply with the abolitionist movement that in the 1830s began calling for immediate emancipation. Abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, considered slavery immoral. Sambo was the slave owner's counter to this attack on the Southern labor system.
Slave owners argued that slavery was the source of freedom in the South. To them, though the majority of the population was either enslaved or owned no slaves, the South was a region of equality. Whites did not have to work for others because the slaves provided the labor. With this level of independence, all whites could, the reasoning continued, eventually become a landowner. These property-owning white men could then vote, a general requirement during the era, increasing democracy.
David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.