chapter  2
29 Pages

Familial Relations: Dependents-by-Nature and the Antebellum Household

In chapter 1 I suggested that tracing the transformation of slaves into subordinate citizens would allow us to reassess the relation between racial ideologies and liberal and republican ones. Th e initial conditions under which slavery had been defended and integrated into the American republic set the terms for this transformation, however. To understand the later defense of subordinate citizenship, then, it is essential to develop a clear picture both of how racial slavery was itself defended, and the extent to which this defense was compatible with contemporaneous traditions of American thought. Th e centerpiece of this chapter, therefore, is an interpretive essay on proslavery ideology. Synthesizing a wide range of historical interpretations of slavery, I develop an account of antebellum proslavery thought as a variety of paternalist liberalism. Between 1776 and 1830 the power and implications of rhetoric that derived from the ideals of the Revolution, increasing black resistance to slavery, and the emergence of abolitionism would each challenge the presence of slavery in the new American republic. Proslavery writers developed a planter liberalism designed to meet these challenges, preserve slavery, and build coalitional alliances around the defense of slavery among non-slaveholders. Planter liberalism, as it emerged in the antebellum period, combined paternalist, liberal, and racial elements into a coherent ideology of the domestic relations at the heart of the planter household. Th is ideology, in turn, was adapted, in the early years of Reconstruction, by white southern planters hoping to ensure that postwar conditions remained as close an approximation to slavery as possible.