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Why Did Southern Non-Slaveholders Support Slavery?

Why Did Southern Non-Slaveholders Support Slavery?
AI rendering of a mob attacking the office of an antislavery newspaper in Newport, Kentucky.

Historian Clement Eaton's Freedom of Thought in the Old South includes a chapter on the scattered, ill-fated attempts over decades across the South to publish antislavery newspapers. They never enjoyed a high readership and often met with violence, as in the case of William S. Bailey, whose Newport, Kentucky-based Free South newspaper got an unwelcome visit from a mob in 1859, shortly after the John Brown raid on the Harpers Ferry, (now West) Virginia arsenal.

Bailey was a mechanic from Ohio and tried a class-based appeal to white Kentuckians:

Working men of Kentucky, think of yourselves! See you not that the system of slavery enslaves all who labor for an honest living. You, white men, are the best slave property of the South, and it is your own votes that make you so.

That might fly with white working-class Northerners, but not their Southern counterparts. How come? Eaton explained:

The strata of Southern society from which one might expect outspoken critics of slavery to arise were the poor whites, the yeomen, and the mechanics. It is a mistake, nonetheless, to think that the poor whites and the yeoman classes of the South would countenance any free criticism of slavery. Kenneth Rayner, prominent in North Carolina politics during the ante-bellum period, declared: “The masses of the non-slaveholding population of the South were more violent in their opposition to ‘abolition’ and ‘abolitionists’ than were the slave-owners themselves. They had in their minds a fixed and definite meaning attached to the word ‘abolitionist.’ They regarded it as meaning one who was in favor of setting free all the Negroes in the country, to remain there among themselves, and to have all the rights and privileges of, and be on an equality with, the poor white man. Thus it was a question of caste, of social position, of personal pride, in regard to which, above all other things in the world, human nature is most sensitive.” D. R. Hundley, who wrote a pioneer[ing] book on Southern sociology, observed that the poor whites were proslavery in sentiment almost to a man. Even W. R. Gilmore, who was paid to travel in the South and write an antislavery book, admitted that the poor whites had a bitter hatred for the Negro and also for the abolitionist. [Frederick Law] Olmsted, however, during his journey on horseback through the back country of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee in 1854 talked with a number of mountain whites who were hostile to slavery. The poor whites supported the Democratic party with its platform of slavery extension.
J. D. B. De Bow wrote a masterly pamphlet on The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder. Two powerful motives, he asserted, operated to attach the non-slaveholder to the slavery regime: (1) most non-slaveholders hoped to acquire slave property; (2) they feared the consequences of emancipation. De Bow maintained that there was no competition between the yeoman farmers and the slaves, for the labor of the latter was exhausted in cane, cotton, rice, and tobacco culture, while the labor of the former was devoted chiefly to cultivating corn, wheat, and potatoes, and raising hogs. He pointed to a striking phenomenon of Southern society; “The sons of the non-slaveholders are and always have been the leading and ruling spirits of the South, in industry as well as in politics....In this class are the McDuffies, Langdon Cheves, Andrew Jacksons, Henry Clays, and Rusks of the past; the Hammonds, Yanceys, Orrs, Memmingers, Benjamins, Stephens, Soules, Browns of Mississippi, Simms, Porters, McGraths, Aikens, Maunsel Whites, and an innumerable host of the present; and what is to be noted, these men have not been made demagogues, but are among the most conservative among us.” Basing his conclusion on a wide and accurate investigation of Southern conditions, he declared that there did not exist at the South a class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property.
The hope of acquiring slaves on the part of the yeoman class was a strong deterrent to any radical criticism of the institution. The acquisition of slaves by a poor man marked a step upward in the social ladder, an advance in the esteem of his neighbors—the imprimatur of success. The ownership of such property was the highest ambition of the enterprising non-slaveholder, according to D. R. Hundley. He relates an anecdote of a yeoman who had recently purchased his first slave. With an air of pride the farmer called, “Jeff! you, Jeff! Come here you big black [n-word], you!” When Jeff responded, “Bres God, Mas’r, what's de marter?” his master said, “O, Nuthin, I only wanted to see how ‘twould sound jist—that’s all.” Frequently overseers, sprung from lowly origins, like Ephraim Beanland, who managed James Knox Polk's plantation in Mississippi, aspired to become planters or slaveowners—and succeeded.

Although adamently proslavery, De Bow demonstrated free thought – and a willingness to criticize the South – in other respects. He was one of the most fascinating – and unusual – figures surveyed in Eric H. Walther's The Fire-Eaters:

In dramatic contrast to most other fire-eaters, De Bow considered [planters'] nostalgic agragian romanticism an anathema. "Why ... should the planter above all others be permitted to pass his days and nights in listless idleness," he asked in the first volume of his Commercial Review in 1846. Planters must work, De Bow said, just like merchants and manufacturers. He called on planters to abandon the use of overseers and to "remember the old saying, 'the master's footsteps are manure to his land.'" Southerners should grow less cotton, he suggested, and more corn and forage and raise more livestock. Furthermore, the planter must teach his sons that "idleness is the 'road to ruin'" and his daughters that "they are not dolls or milliner girls, but that they are the future makers or marrers of this beautiful republic." In a subsequent issue De Bow complained: "That the South should be DEPENDENT upon the North for its imports, is inexplicable upon any sound principle of political economy, and evidences a state of things humiliating in the extreme. We do not want capital," he exclaimed, "but most sadly want enterprise." Whether they remained in the Union or chose to secede, De Bow insisted that all southerners must learn to provide for themselves.

De Bow deserves his own Antebellum Etc. video and will get one soon. Stay tuned.

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