Journal of Southern Religion

David F. Ericson. The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 241 pages.

Near the end of The Debate over Slavery, David F. Ericson quotes from a Civil War speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln in which the president noted, “the world has never had a good definition of the word liberty…. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing” (p. 157). This debate over contrasting definitions of liberty, never settled satisfactorily even after the war, continues to resonate for citizens and scholars. Ericson contributes to this discussion with a careful analysis of antislavery and proslavery arguments in antebellum America. The author provocatively contends that both positions remained firmly embedded in the intellectual and ideological traditions of American liberalism. Antislavery and proslavery advocates developed radically different notions of liberty from the same political principles. Ericson unveils the complex and uncomfortable connections between slavery and freedom, much as Edmund Morgan did for an earlier era of American history.

"A political scientist, Ericson modifies and extends the 'liberal consensus' thesis proposed by Louis Hartz in the 1950s."  


A political scientist, Ericson modifies and extends the “liberal consensus” thesis proposed by Louis Hartz in the 1950s. Like Hartz, he American believes that liberal ideas synthesized political thought and were, therefore, primary compared to other intellectual traditions such as that even the republicanism and Protestantism. Ericson goes farther than Hartz in arguing proslavery movement, so easily dismissed as merely attacking the reactionary and racist, presented coherent liberal arguments in defense of slavery, just as antislavery activists did in institution. maximized the Both movements appealed to concepts of personal freedom, consensual government, and private property ownership to claim that their vision of the world practical liberty of the greatest number of men. To demonstrate this point, Ericson delivers a precise analysis of political prominent figures in rhetoric in the writings and speeches of six the antebellum debate over slavery: the antislavery activists Lydia Maria Child, Dew, George Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips and the proslavery advocates Thomas R. Fitzhugh, and James H. Hammond. Ericson and liberties to describes the emergence and evolution of “an antislavery liberalism that envisioned the progressive extension of equal rights all Americans and a proslavery liberalism that redefined such progress as a declension toward the social anarchy of a … state of nature” (p. 36).

For example, Child highlighted the tension between slavery and freedom, calling slavery a “cancer” that threatened the national security and economic prosperity of the country. She claimed that history condemned the institution for blocking inevitable progress toward liberty and equality for all people. Douglass agreed, dismissing slavery as an anachronism. In his famous Fourth of July oration of 1852, Douglass argued that continual progress in communication and commerce increasingly exposed the hypocrisy of the institution and the terrible inequities and injustices it perpetuated. Phillips was a disunionist who believed that only separation from the South could protect the North from the evil effects of slavery and the pernicious political attacks of the Southern slavocracy. He also hoped that disunion, or at least the threat of disunion, would encourage the South to dismantle the institution.

In the second half of his book, Ericson turns to the proslavery supporters and presents what likely will be his most controversial ideas. Dew, Fitzhugh, and Hammond, each in their own way, tried to portray themselves as the progressive liberals, arguing that not only did slavery not retard progress but that it actually advanced the special historical mission of the United States. In Cannibals All! or Slaves without Masters, published in 1857, Fitzhugh criticized Northern society for its allegedly high rates of crime, violence, poverty, and civil unrest. He defended slavery as an essential protective institution that brought order, safety, and prosperity to Southern society. For Fitzhugh, then, slavery was a superior social and economic institution compared to the unstable arrangements in the North, and it was also more liberal in that it supposedly united the interests of masters and slaves. Hammond argued that abolitionists failed to understand that slaves exchanged a portion of their natural liberty for a more secure form of civil liberty. He believed that antislavery agitators, who claimed to be progressive, were in fact only agents of destruction. In the end, Ericson contends, the failure of these proslavery arguments represented a failure of Southern power more than a failure of political rhetoric. Although the Civil War eventually destroyed the institution, in the decades before the war the proslavery position became a potent and effective ideological force in the South.

Ericson’s concentrated, even dense, analysis moves swiftly, devoting little more than 100 pages to the actual writings and speeches of the six participants in the debate over slavery. He illuminates the nature and development of American liberalism in the antebellum period, revealing a common yet flexible political heritage that resulted in diverse expressions of liberal ideas. At the same time, Ericson provides little context for the authors, their works, and the history of the antislavery and proslavery movements, assuming a familiarity on the part of readers with the political and social debates of the era and the intellectual origins of American notions of liberty. Due in part to this tight focus, some significant questions remain unexplored. Ericson, for example, does not examine the connections between liberalism and Protestantism, although most of the authors he treats mobilized or responded to religious arguments to support their positions. His claim that religious ideas were secondary to liberal concepts could use stronger support, particularly given that so many scholars since Max Weber have posited a strong link. Another issue is that the proslavery arguments seem much more convoluted and strained than the antislavery arguments. It is difficult not to conclude that judgments about racial inferiority form the critical intellectual foundation for proslavery liberalism. If so, what does such a conclusion say about Ericson’s overall thesis that liberalism provided the most basic intellectual material for both proslavery and antislavery positions? Nevertheless, Ericson’s clear and compelling analysis should provoke further investigation of these issues, perhaps in some instances following his creative blueprint for comparative study of antislavery and proslavery rhetoric.

Tracy Neal Leavelle, Smith College

2001 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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