W hen southerners referred to their ‘peculiar institution’, asin the course of sectional debates they frequently did, they meant no more than that slavery was peculiar to the southern states of the

Union. However, ‘peculiar’ can equally well mean strange, aberrant, or anoma-

lous, and that was precisely how it appeared to a growing number of their

fellow countrymen. There was, after all, something very peculiar indeed about

a nation supposedly founded on libertarian principles holding upwards of

a sixth of its population in bondage. Of course, excuses could be made as

excuses always can, but numerous and sophisticated though these came to

be they could not conceal the oddity of the situation.