Slavery, Capitalism, Antebellum America, Abolitionism, Socialism, Planter Class


The abolitionist movement in antebellum America provoked a frenzy of pro-slavery reaction. With the very foundation of their society under assault from the 1830s onward, southern planters, intellectuals and ministers penned countless speeches, essays, letters, and even poems in defense of bondage. Previously, the lack of a movement for immediate abolition gave slaveholders little reason to forcefully argue for the coerced labor of black people, but the rise of an energized opposition in Britain and America required ever more sophisticated justifications for the “peculiar institution.” The result was southern intellectuals began to justify slavery not only in terms of racial hierarchy or practical necessity, but also by critiquing the model of free labor offered by Northern abolitionists as an alternative. Through these critiques, southerners articulated an alternative vision of capitalism, one based on ostensibly more humane bound labor and the racial and social stability it maintained. However, I argue that this vision was fundamentally reactionary and situational. It was only articulated in response to attacks from British and northern abolitionists and, despite arguing for slavery universal superiority to wage labor, Southerners never advocated expanding it beyond the Southern, black population.