The Magazine

The Great Debate

Against slavery, as it happened.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By KEN MASUGI
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Sardonic Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and his “translation” of a Muslim justification for slavery, echoed Montesquieu’s satirical defense of racial slavery. Perhaps they also found inspiration in Shylock’s speech justifying his contract for a pound of flesh by comparing it to a slave contract. (The Merchant of Venice was then the most frequently performed Shakespeare play in America.) Without slaves, as one author puts it, how can we have “rum to make punch to intoxicate us”? The black poet Phyllis Wheatley, referring to “natural rights,” archly observes: “I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine” the superiority of liberty to servitude. To teach a lesson about inflicting pain, one Quaker even temporarily kidnaps the son of a slaveholding friend. 

Garrison’s Truisms (1831) would later encapsulate such contradictions (“Our slaves must be educated for freedom. Our slaves must never learn the alphabet, because knowledge would teach them to throw off their yoke”), and two Quaker women published an antislavery primer for children: A is an abolitionist. .  .  . H is the Hound. .  .  . S is the Sugar, that the slave / Is toiling hard to make, / To put into your pie and tea, / Your candy, and your cake. .  .  . W is the Whipping-post .  .  .  

Works of fiction expanded the collective imagination about slaves’ potential. Douglass’s only novel, Heroic Slave, portrays the crafty, historical Madison Washington, in anticipation of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. The same anonymous author who sketched the first black president in Garrison’s Liberator also imagines a successful civil war by blacks, with decisive intervention from Liberia and Haiti, the pleadings of black ministers for merciful treatment of whites, and demands for colonization or execution of former slaveholders. In addition to memoirs of slavery and slave-trading, William Wells Brown wrote a novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, about “a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves.” Brown observed, “Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair.” Behold a slave auction “at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars,” and her morality, intellect, Christianity, and “her chastity and virtue” would each raise the bidding by hundreds more. 

Of course, the plain facts of slavery suffice to teach its evil. In one tragicomic recollection, former slave Henry Bibb describes how slaves were prepared for examination and sale. Literacy had to be denied, as educated slaves would be more eager to escape. Allowed by his master to seek a purchaser who might take him with his family north, Bibb is mistaken for a slavetrader, as many Creoles “set their mulatto children free, and make slaveholders of them.” Another slave escaped by enclosing himself in a box and having himself sent to Philadelphia. Abolitionists would buy up slaves to free them. 

Slavery besmirched the national character, as those of the founding generation continued to argue well into the nineteenth century. John Jay, proposing restrictions on the internal slave trade during the Missouri crisis, and John Quincy Adams, in advocating the release of slaves in the Amistad case, attempted to save the Founders’ restrictions on slavery and the argument for universal, natural liberty. Jay would halt the “discordancy with the principles of the Revolution.” In “The Two Altars,” Harriet Beecher Stowe compares the altar of sacrifice of 1776 with that of 1850, which saw the fugitive slave laws passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. The founding generation’s sacrifices should be compared with those of the slaves’ loss of freedom. On the eve of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson sneers, “Who makes the Abolitionist? The Slaveholder,” and he eulogizes John Brown as “the founder of liberty in Kansas.” Two nations were forming in an increasingly divided house. Advocates for slavery, chastised by abolitionists’ heated denunciations, began to proclaim the virtues of slave society, and thus the Civil War came.