The Enlightenment and American Slavery

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The Enlightenment as a Foundation of the American Debate

on Slavery and Racial Inferiority

That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.


This is the first paragraph from the Emancipation Proclamation given on September 22, 1862. The word from this passage which this paper will focus on is “persons” because the civil war was preceded by fierce and complex debate over whether slaves in the south could be considered persons, and, if so, what kind of persons they should be considered to be. Surrounding this debate is an apparent tension between a nation founded on ideals of liberty and a nation willing to relegate people to the status of property. Many explanations have been given for this phenomenon. For a time, the standard answer was that wealthy southerners strong armed the young United States into keeping slavery for economic reasons, and that this was morally permissible because the Judeo-Christian God had ordained slavery.

But this explanation seems lacking in that even though there were undeniable economic arguments given by the South for slavery, such arguments required a deeper moral justification in order to get off the ground. If the moral justification was as simple as God ordaining slavery, then the abolitionist would have been placed in an awkward predicament in which they must concede that if God had truly ordained slavery then they were left without a moral ground from which to attack slavery. Indeed there had to have been a more fundamental issue pertaining to the very essence and nature of humanity itself. This paper will suggest that the core issue in the defense of slavery and the general perception of blacks in antebellum America was a view of humanity rooted in the Enlightenment which shifted the focus from universal essences of humanity to particular empirical considerations concerning the merit and worth of different races allowing for the development of the idea that certain races are fundamentally inferior in such a way that disqualifies them from being considered fully human. This seemingly obscure philosophical idea rooted in the Enlightenment was demonstrably present in the South (and even the Founders) as they argued for and defended slavery based upon the inferiority of the black race, and explains the seeming inconsistencies of those who argued for both liberty and slavery.

This paper will assess the movement of racial superiority in early to mid 19th Century America and how the various camps within that movement shared certain fundamental a priori assumptions. Secondly this paper will survey important primary sources from the decades preceding the Civil War which will give the reader a glimpse into what those a priori assumptions were. Next will be a brief analysis of how the a priori assumptions concerning racial equality held by early-mid 19th Century Americans were also reflected by important founding figures who also had to reconcile American liberty with American slavery. Finally, this paper will trace the philosophical assumptions underlying this rationalisation of liberty and slavery via racial superiority to some of the most important Enlightenment thinkers who fundamentally changed the idea of what it means to be human.

The decades preceding the Civil War found the issue of man’s origins and the entailed issue of “inferior races” front and center on the American mind, thanks mostly to the issue of slavery. This debate was primarily divided between two camps; the monogenists and the polygenists. Within these camps were numerous other groups divided along scientific and religious lines.

The monogenists consisted mostly of the Adamites (who relied on a literal Genesis story of creation), those who tried to formulate a “hybrid” of sorts between a literal creation story taken from Genesis and current scientific theory, and the transformists who believed in something similar to modern day common ancestry from a single cell organism (or a small group of single cell organisms). The monogenism rooted in the religious camp took differences in race to be a result of the curse of Cain. The hybrid theorists and transformists took differences in race broadly to be a consequence of different climates. The upshot for each of these schools of thought was that if the races began equally but did not remain equal, then there could be inferior and superior races. Quatrefrages asks in The Human Species:

Does it follow that, because all the races of dogs belong to one and the same species, they all have the same aptitudes? Will a hunter choose indifferently a setter, or a blood-hound to use as a pointer or in the chase? Will he consider the street-cur as of equal value with either of these pure-breeds? Certainly not. Now we must never forget that, while superior to animals and different to them in many respects, man is equally subject to all the general laws of animal nature.

Essentially, there may be humans of the same species but not of the same value. Quatrefrages reveals an a priori assumption that humanity is something that is always changing for better or worse as “breeds” remain pure or are diluted.

The Polygenists could be divided into camps of neotraditionalists who shared the Adamites concern for a literal interpretation of Genesis but insisted that the different races of humans had different beginnings, a Mosaic school which thought that the roughly 5,000 years since the world had been created was not enough time to account for the diversity within the species of man if he had been monogenist; and the Lamarckian polygenists (closely related to a similar camp known as the Lamarckian monogenists) who believed that it was impossible from a geological perspective for man to come from a single ancestor yet spread all over the earth. Polygenists took species to be mostly invariable, and eventually favored the term “race.”

Both the polygenists and the monogenists contributed to the cause of slavery. Though they disagreed on the staticity of the races as well as the common descent of man, both camps took certain races, namely the black race, to be fundamentally inferior whether by unequal change through time or by unequal creation. With this basic tenet, a fundamental axiom is revealed which is that equality does not come with a universal essence of humanity, but rather particular advancements and aptitudes determine which races are empirically better and more fully human with the accompanying human value.  This axiom is revealed throughout Southern rhetoric in such a way that it appears to be fundamental to the South’s perception of blacks and the accompanying justification of slavery. This holds true for both the views of politicians and the more general southern public.

As a preliminary consideration, it should be noted that the idea of black inferiority was prevalent in both the north and the south. It is telling that even abolitionists in the north often focused primarily on economic arguments against slavery (at least in the early part of the 19th Century). It should also be noted that many apologists for slavery made economic, religious, and historical arguments. Even though such arguments arguably compose the bulk of arguments given for slavery on the whole, philosophical arguments concerning the fundamental nature of various races in some sort of hierarchy allowed for religious, historical, or economic concerns to pass the most basic concern of human equality. This paper will observe outliers to the argument for slavery from racial inferiority, but those who held such beliefs were outliers. This section is devoted to showing the widespread belief in a racial hierarchy as an essential role in the defense of slavery.

One would be remiss to survey defenses of American slavery without taking the time to observe John C. Calhoun who was arguably one of the most influential defenders of slavery and the South’s self-proclaimed right to practice it. Calhoun was especially important in his synthesis of liberty and slavery. Not only did Calhoun believe that the two were not opposed, he believed that the two were “natural complements of each other.” This is most visible in his 1837 address to the senate in which he argues:

I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. . . I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. . . I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

Calhoun explicitly makes two main points. The black race is inferior to the Caucasian race, and society necessarily involves one group relying on another. The Caucasian race is far more advanced, therefore, according to Calhoun, it is fitting that the black race be subservient to it. But this does not fully demonstrate how drastic Calhoun’s position is. Reacting to the Wilmot Proviso and the general sentiment that slaves could not be brought into new American territories, Calhoun stated:

What then do we insist on, is, not to extend slavery, but that we shall not be prohibited from immigrating with our property, into the Territories of the United States, because we are slaveholders; or, in other words, we shall not on that account be disenfranchised of a privilege possessed by all others. . . without discrimination as to character, profession, or color.

As far as Calhoun is concerned, blacks are so low on the racial hierarchy that they are simply property. As such, the value of black slaves seems to be the same as a wagon-load of cargo due to the fact that their race was inherently inferior to that of Caucasians based on physical, moral, and intellectual considerations.

In the same vein as Calhoun was James Henry Hammond who addressed the Senate in 1858 concerning the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Hammond’s address seemed to begin with a general appeal to an inescapable state of mankind in which a ruling class and a subservient class will always emerge without reference to the inferiority of one race to another. But Hammond promptly made race an integral part of his defense of the enslavement of blacks by stating:

Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.

Though accompanied by broadly Hegelian dialectical flavors (as was also the case for Calhoun), Hammond established the morality of Southern slavery by showing their natural disposition to being enslaved and the great improvement black slaves faced in their enslaved state.

Such a line of argument was not limited to the political realm. Also drawing upon the inferiority of the black race, Thomas R. Dew, a professor at the College of William and Mary, published his Review of the Debates in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 in which he made pro-slavery arguments on several grounds including Biblical, historical, racial, and philosophical considerations. This was after the slave revolt of Nat Turner in August of 1831. Perhaps this paper is getting ahead of itself in so mentioning, but Dew explicitly references thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, and Blackstone in a broad justification of slavery. Such a reference and reliance upon Enlightenment thinkers such as these for philosophical support is invaluable evidence in favor of the thesis that the Enlightenment thinkers played a foundational role in providing justification for Southern Slavery. But more strictly inline with the thesis of the paper (concerning the view of human nature through the lens of a hierarchy of races made possible by Enlightenment philosophy) is Dew’s appeal to the inferiority of the black race as a foremost consideration in the enslavement of blacks. He states that blacks are, “A race of people differing from us in colour and in habits, and vastly inferior in the scale of civilization, have been increasing and spreading, growing with our growth and strengthening with our strength, until they have become intertwined and intertwisted with every fibre of society.” Dew introduces the reader both to the concept of racial inferiority as well as the assertion that blacks tend to be reliant upon whites for their quality of life. Implied is the proposition that since blacks could not accomplish what whites accomplish without being intertwined with whites, it is in the best interest of blacks to be enslaved.

Carrying on this idea in popular culture, Mary Henderson Eastman published Aunt Phillis’s Cabin in 1852. This novel was a direct response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and sought to show how slavery is both natural and moral. Eastman sought to establish this on a religious level with statements such as, “The Lord has called himself the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. These holy men were slaveholders! The existence of slavery then, and the sanction of God on his own institution, is palpable from the time of the pronouncing of the curse, until the glorious advent of the Son of God. When he came, slavery existed in every part of the world.” Eastman also attempted to portray white slave owners as benevolent through lines such as, “It is the interest of a master to make his slaves happy, even were he not actuated by better motives. Slavery is an institution of our country; and while we are privileged to maintain our rights, we should make them comfortable here, and fit them for happiness hereafter.” Eastman also suggests that without the hospitality of their Southern owners, the slaves are significantly worse off due to their inferior nature. She recounts the following exchange in her closing remarks, “‘How did you get here?’ he said to the man. ‘Are you not a runaway?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ the man replied. ‘I came from Virginny.’ ‘Well, of course you are a great deal happier now than when you were a slave?’ ‘No, sir; if I could get back to Virginny, I would be glad to go.’ He looked, too, as if he had never been worse off than at that time. The fact is, liberty like money is a grand thing; but in order to be happy, we must know how to use it.” The obvious implication is that a black slave would not know how to use slavery, therefore, they are better off being enslaved. This hardly does Eastman’s slough of pro-slavery arguments justice as a summary, but the necessary point is that she appeals to the inferiority of blacks and the pragmatic benefits of their enslavement.

Breaking with the precedent set by these examples, there is one noteworthy outlier who focused more on race neutral dialectics than the necessary inferiority of the black race. Modifying Hammond’s argument which partially focused on a kind of master/slave dialectic, Fitzhugh mourned the end of Europe’s serfdom, and he believed that society is better off with one class ruling another. However, unlike Hammond, Calhoun, or most pro-slavery apologists, Fitzhugh decried the involvement of race in a defence of slavery. Though Fitzhugh was not alone in his position, he was certainly not in the majority.

Most pro-slavery arguments, even ones involving economics, history, or theology, included the inferiority of the black race as one of their major tenets. The preceding examples provide evidence of racial hierarchy as a defense of slavery from the realms of politics, academia, and literature. These examples span decades, and countless more examples could be given if there were adequate space. But these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of belief in a racial hierarchy.

Having demonstrated the supposed inferiority of the black race as being a key component of most pro-slavery thought, the reader can see that racial inferiority was a key component of the Southern pro-slavery apologetic. Analyzing some of the most noteworthy documents reveals some of the ideas and assumptions involved on the part of those using racial inferiority to justify slavery; the common threads being that slavery improves upon the natural state of the black race and a predominant focus on particular differences to demonstrate inferiority rather than a focus on shared nature as a ground for equality. Yet, seeing into the mind of pro-slavery advocates only confuses the main issue presented earlier in this paper even more. How can these pro-slavery Southerners subscribe to a heritage rooted in the idea that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights? If such a statement is true, then it seems as though a basic participation in humanity overrides any kind of empirical difference whether big or small in terms of equality. In order to better understand the rationale of the American mind in Antebellum America, it is necessary to observe two of the most important Founders in establishing liberty who also justified slavery on a personal and political level. An understanding of how they approached this seeming inconsistency will show by parallel how the position of men such as Calhoun were quite consistent with their love of liberty in their views on slavery.

In order to better understand how Jefferson, the man who wrote about inalienable rights as a result of equal creation, understood the enslavement of an inferior race to be justified, one must turn to an earlier version of his famous line from a “less ambiguous” draft of the Constitution presented by Dr. Diggins in “Slavery, Race, and Equality: Jefferson and the Pathos of the Enlightenment.” Jefferson stated, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” It is helpful to read Jefferson’s line as a conditional statement equating to something like, “If something is a man, then it has these rights.” The question is then what truly meets Jefferson’s definition of a man. Diggins points to a distinction between what Jefferson claimed publicly (which tended to be more inclusive of blacks) or privately in which Jefferson suggests that blacks may be viewed differently from whites because of “distinct ‘physical,’ moral,’ and intellectual ‘faculties’ that are fixed in nature.’ Negroes are not ‘equal to whites’ Jefferson wrote, and he therefore concluded, ‘as a suspicion only, that the blacks. . . are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.’”

It is of particular importance that Jefferson mentioned faculties that are fixed in nature. The monogenists believed in common ancestry and change of a race over time; therefore, Jefferson was likely not a monogenist which means he likely did not believe that the different races had common ancestry. Rather, polygenism is the position with which Jefferson seems to align himself. If such faculties are static in nature, then Caucasians and blacks (with their vast perceived differences) must have been created separately. Therefore, properly speaking, Caucasians and blacks cannot both me men (at least in the truest sense of the word) since all men are created equal, and the blacks were, in the mind of Jefferson, clearly not created equal. Because they were not created equal, blacks did not satisfy the first condition of Jefferson’s conditional statement. Even if Jefferson had been a monogenist, he could have asserted the fact that nature had long since changed the equality of the black and white races. Therefore, blacks still did not satisfy the first condition necessary to fit the definition of truly being men.

Jefferson seems to have not been alone in his intuitions. John Adams corresponded privately with Jefferson considering his Notes on the State of Virginia. Adams expressed high praise of Jefferson’s views concerning slaves stating, “I thank you kindly for your book. I cannot now say much about it, but I think it will do its Author and his Country great Honour. The Passages upon Slavery are worth Diamonds. They will have more effect than Volumes written by mere Philosophers.”

Indeed, Adams and Jefferson seem to have very close thoughts concerning the inferiority of the black race. This understanding of “all men are created equal” allows the reader to see that Jefferson disqualified inferior races as men on the grounds that, indeed, they had not been created equal in some sense or another. This understanding of the priority of equality stretching back to the Founding provides a light by which the arguments of Calhoun and Hammond become consistent with their high praise of liberty and republicanism.

Yet there is an important question that must still be addressed for a fuller understanding of the rationale of racial supremacist defenders of slavery. Why was it the case that these men focused on equality as a qualification to be empirically met rather than an a priori assumption of all men’s equality in and of itself? Not all Americans shared this intuition. For example, the Puritans took mankind’s inherent equality in his condition before God to be axiomatic in their views against slavery. Rather than looking to particular difference, the Puritans looked to a universal essence of mankind. So why did the Puritans start with a universal essence of humanity, whereas, Jefferson, Adams, and the defenders of slavery following in their example took qualitative equality to be the standard for manhood itself? The former assumes that all men share a certain universal trait which makes them equal, the latter assumes that something is not fully a man unless it is equal to other men based on certain empirically verifiable traits on physical, moral, and intellectual levels.

These differences amount to a distinction on the most fundamental of philosophical levels. One assumes that there are objectively real universal essences of things in which things truly participate, and the other assumes that the essence of a thing is to be assigned by an observer based on the qualities they take that thing to have. Ultimately, the Puritans differed from the Founders and the later defenders of slavery because they rejected the kinds of notions of equality espoused by the Existentialist philosophers who tended to throw out a priori considerations of essences, and focused on the empirically verifiable to categorize reality in the mind of the observer. The Enlightenment thinkers marked a crossroads in philosophical methodology that laid the foundation for the American minds whom they influenced to defend slavery starting with empirical equality as a standard disqualifying certain races from a true definition of humanity.

Nowhere is this more readily seen than in Locke’s question, “Wherein then, would I gladly know, consists the precise and unmovable boundaries of that species? ‘Tis plain if we examine, there is no such thing made by nature, and established by her amongst men.” Locke continues on later in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that we should, “quit the common notion of species and essences.” Locke implores that races be categorized “as they exist and not by groundless fancies that have been taken up about them.” Any kind of notion concerning the essence of mankind which had predominated philosophy was now brought into question by the methodology of Locke who wished to qualify a thing based upon its particulars. It is worth noting that Locke’s views concerning slavery were complex and the subject of much debate. Setting the details of his personal views aside, Locke’s methodology was foundational in switching from a focus on metaphysical universals to a focus on empirical particulars.

Locke’s kind of empirical methodology would become terribly important as it allowed other enlightenment philosophers to formulate more explicit views concerning racial superiority. David Hume notoriously suggested that Francis Williams, a Jamaican subject of an early social experiment who had been educated at Cambridge and trained to be a gentleman that later started a school for black children, was a mere parrot. Laying out his views of racial inferiority more explicitly, Hume claimed, “I am apt to suspect the negroes’ to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences.” Hume, similar to Locke in his well-known emphasis on empirical knowledge, laid the groundwork for the American minds that would follow him in his empirical focus on why some races are lesser than others. With any kind of universal considerations of human essence out of the way, Hume and the other Enlightenment philosophers were free to define humanity however they wished, and if a race was not equal to that definition then they were not to be considered fully human.

This may be seen in Voltaire who challenged any notion of fundamental equality of the races on the grounds that primitive man had once been essentially equal to other beasts, but particular advancements and differences elevated humanity above the other beasts, and, accordingly some races over others. Voltaire wrote in his 1719 Reflexions sur la peinture et sur la poeisie:

Just as two seeds from the same plant produce fruits of different qualities when these seeds are sown in different regions, or even when they are sown in the same region in different years, two children who are born with their brains formed in precisely the same manner will become two different men with regard to their mind and their disposition if one of them grows up in Sweden and the other in Andalusia.

Voltaire also stated:

It seems to me that my belief that there are different kinds of men, just as there are different kinds of trees, is well-founded; pear trees, fir trees, oak trees, and apricot trees do not all come from the same [kind of] tree, and the bearded whites, the wool-bearing negres, the horse-haired jaunes, and the beardless men, do not come from the same [species of man].

The merit of his scientific hypothesis aside, Voltaire’s methodology is what should draw the reader’s attention. Voltaire foregoes any kind of essence of trees in the same way that he foregoes an essence of humanity, and instead focuses on the particularities of each race to distinguish them from each other and establish them as fundamentally different kinds of things with no essence uniting them.

There is much more that could be said concerning the racism of the Enlightenment. It is worth noting that not all Enlightenment thinkers favored slavery. What is of significance to this paper’s thesis is that the Enlightenment signaled a broad shift in methodology that allowed for the particular differences between different races to be seen as qualitative differences making the races inherently unequal.

The methodology employed by Enlightenment thinkers who focused on particulars within different races laid the groundwork for arguments that sound essentially the same from Hume to Calhoun. One hardly needs to evidence the direct link between Enlightenment thinkers and the prolific figures of early America. Dew referenced them in the 1830’s in his justification of slavery. Locke and Montesquieu arguably did more than any other philosopher to directly shape the early American perspective on slavery, and both of them approved of slavery in various contexts. Even if, for the sake of argument, one suggests that the Enlightenment philosophers themselves had no direct impact on the American pro-slavery mind, the lasting effects of Enlightenment methodology had a demonstrable impact on the a priori assumptions of pro-slavery American apologists in antebellum America who shared the same view of what it means for races to be equally human with the Enlightenment thinkers themselves.

The Puritan resistance to Enlightenment categorization of human races in favor of a fundamental essence of humanity as being equal before God testifies in its own way to the profound effect that Enlightenment thought had on the American slavery debate. The Puritans demonstrate that without a fundamental change in the way in which humans are understood to be human, arguments from economics, historical precedent, or religion are insufficient to establish the inherent superiority of one race over another (though perhaps a religious case for slavery could still be made as a God-ordained function rather than the natural consequence of some race being less human than another).

The fact that the antebellum debate included such a prevalent focus on the inferiority of one race to another demands explanation. If all men are created equal, then the very notion of a superior race should be absurd. In order to fully understand the antebellum concept of a racial hierarchy, one must turn to the philosophical underpinnings of such idea. These include moral arguments from utility such as the idea that blacks as an inferior race are simply better off when they are ruled by whites. But even this moral argument does not fully explain the seeming contradiction between equality and racial superiority. In order to fully understand the pre-Civil War, pro-slavery arguments of the south, one must turn to the Founders for further illumination on the idea of what it means to be created equal. The Founders put forward equality as a condition to be met for the equal rights that come with full humanity, and if a race is not equal to another then it is not fully human. But supporting this line of thought is an even more foundational attitude towards what it means to be human (or anything for that matter). The Enlightenment provided that foundational attitude by stripping away the concept of essences which would inherently guarantee the equality of mankind.

It is difficult to say what slavery or the debate surrounding it would have looked like if the Enlightenment had never provided an epistemological and metaphysical foundation to defend it on the grounds of inferior races. Certainly it cannot be said that the Enlightenment caused American slavery, let alone the American civil war. This is demonstrated by the fact that slavery had existed and had been justified (in practice rather than actuality) before the Enlightenment thinkers forever left their mark on the world of philosophy. Nevertheless, the particular arguments based on a racial hierarchy used to support slavery in early America relied upon the philosophical trails blazed by enlightenment philosophers for their most basic view of what it means to be (or not be) fully human.

Author’s Note: Forgive the lack of footnotes which were in the original document.


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Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
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