In the book The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of The American People, Volume I, political historian Alan Brinkley highlights a line of reasoning many Southern whites used to justify enslaving African Americans. “The defense of slavery rested, too, on increasingly elaborate arguments about the biological inferiority of African Americans, who were, white Southerners claimed, inherently unfit to take care of themselves, let alone exercise the rights of citizenship.” In the book American Passages: A History in the United States, Volume I, the authors note that “Southern physicians went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that Africans and their descendants were physically and intellectually inferior to whites.”
I would argue that many of the defenders of slavery were disingenuous about their motives. If they sincerely believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior, for instance, then why where punishments established for a slave or free black caught teaching another slave or free black to read or write (e.g., Georgia 1829)? That assumes, of course, that educated African Americans existed. How else could one slave teach another slave? At some point, the apologists for slavery must have recognized that African Americans were capable of learning and teaching, which would have threatened the theory that undergirded the institution of slavery.
If the reason many Southern whites supported slavery was that they believed African Americans were incapable of assimilating into civil society, then why didn’t their support die out at first sight of evidence that proved otherwise? There were countless examples of civilized, educated African Americans before the Civil War. And yet slavery continued. It survived the eloquence of Fredrick Douglass and David Walker. It nearly survived Sojourner Truth. Evidence of African American intellect and refinement did not persuade the supporters of slavery. Perhaps the supposed inferiority of blacks was not the basis of slavery in the first place. The myth of black inferiority outlived slavery itself. It outlasted W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, “Black Wall Street,” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The most obvious motive for slavery was not biological at all. It was financial. According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, “One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all U.S. export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth.” One could argue that it was not the belief that African Americans were inferior that inspired support for slavery. Instead, it was support for slavery that inspired the belief that African Americans were inferior.
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