Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Transforming a "necessary evil" to a "positive good"

Digging more deeply into research on the origins of the "slavery as a positive good" argument first articulated on the national scene by John Calhoun in a speech to the United States Senate in 1837, I'm finding a fascinating story. (photo of Calhoun on the right)

Calhoun was a moral objectivist, United States Senator, and plantation owner from South Carolina, and though the most well known and first national politician to set forward the thesis, he was not the first.

Sam Harris would have us believe that the argument originated with Southern clergymen, who were simply reading the Bible as it is written.

But the originator of the argument was not a Christian clergyman, but another moral objectivist, Thomas R. Dew (1802-1846), a political economist and President of William and Mary College who published in 1832 a glowing utilitarian defense of slavery in his Review of Debates in the Virginia Legislature.

The first Christian clergyman to advance the argument was James Smylie of Mississippi, who published his Response to the Chillicothe Congregation in 1836. As historian Lawrence Tise pointed out, Smylie, along with the other early clergymen who advanced the "slavery as a positive good argument" were all slaveholders themselves. Smylie owned 53 slaves, and was the third largest slaveholder in Amite County, Mississippi.

The abolitionist Gerrit Smith responded to Smylie with his own defense of the abolitionist position in 1837. Smith lived in Peterboro, New York, a small village in central New York, near Munnsville, another small village in which I lived as a young boy. I remember learning of Smith at the time, reading a few road side signs about him , and being disappointed that his role was that of an intellectual and not a general. Now, I wish I had learned more about him !

No comments: