Original Dishonor: Noah’s Curse and the Southern Defense of Slavery
Stephen R. Haynes/ Rhodes College
And Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. And God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.
|"While it is widely acknowledged that the so-called curse of Ham was the religious rationale for slavery utilized most often by antebellum southerners, scholarship has failed to penetrate the depths of the curse’s American reception."|
2. The Curse and southern Honor
Once light was shed on the role of honor in the southern psyche, it was inevitable that honor would in turn illumine the institution which the southern mind sought hardest to protect.2 However, attempts to elucidate the connections between honor, slavery, and its religious defense are conspicuously lacking from scholarly discourse. While it is widely acknowledged that the so-called curse of Ham was the religious rationale for slavery utilized most often by antebellum southerners, scholarship has failed to penetrate the depths of the curse’s American reception.3 Why have scholars of the American South consistently overlooked the links between southern honor and antebellum readings of Genesis 9? There are several explanations for this.
One is the disciplinary bifurcation that seems to plague study of the biblical justifications for slavery. On one hand, historians often reveal a superficial knowledge of the biblical tale and/or an unconscious tendency to fill a story’s gaps with extra-textual assumptions.4 On the other hand, most scholars of religion are unaware of the vast literature on southern culture and its implications for interpreting documents of the antebellum period. Furthermore, neither historians nor biblical critics have attended to Genesis 9’s history of interpretation, and thus remain unaware of the distinctive ways antebellum advocates of the curse read the story of Noah and his sons.5 Even scholars seeking to bridge the gap between studies of religion and southern history have failed to observe the dynamics of honor in readings of Genesis 9. For instance, Thomas Peterson’s influential study of the "Ham myth," while useful in clarifying the mythical function of Ham’s curse in the world of antebellum southerners, does not elucidate the story recorded in Genesis 9:20-27 or its peculiar history of interpretation.6 Obscured is the fact that when antebellum proslavery authors asserted the curse’s relevance to American slavery, they habitually retold the tale. While often supplementing the narrator's voice with their own, they generally related a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end; a story with characters, plot, climax, and denouement.
Another explanation for the general failure of scholars to explore connections between southern honor and proslavery interpretations of Genesis 9 is the assumption that those who discover in the Bible a justification for slavery must be of limited intelligence, grave foolishness, or profound insincerity. This assumption is widespread, even though it contradicts several facts. For instance, antebellum advocates of the curse included well-trained and respected professionals, including physicians, lawyers, politicians, clergymen and professors; these men were, relatively speaking, well-educated; and while it is impossible to ascertain their motives in writing about the curse, they appear as sincere on this topic as on the others they discussed.
Whatever the reasons for their inattention to the relationship of southern culture and the biblical defense of slavery, scholars of history and religion alike have failed to note that proslavery southerners were attracted to the story of Noah and Ham because it resonated with their most deeply-held cultural values. This essay begins with what is known -- that for southern proslavery intellectuals Ham’s act of gazing on his father’s nakedness and Noah’s subsequent condemnation of the descendants of Ham/Canaan to be "servants of servants" were definitive proof that enslavement of the "Hamite race" was God’s will; and it poses a heretofore unexamined question: Precisely how did these men read this story, and why? The answer offered is that almost invariably, antebellum southerners understood Ham’s transgression as a violation of familial loyalty that marked him and his descendants as utterly lacking in honor (and thus fit for slavery). In other words, Americans were unconsciously drawn to Genesis 9 because the story cast slavery’s origin in an episode of primal dishonor.
3. Reviewing the History of Interpretation
A survey of Genesis 9’s history of interpretation – from the rabbis and church fathers of the early common era through the biblical commentators of the twentieth century – is well beyond the scope of this essay. But the outlines of this history must be noted, since they provide an indispensable context for interpreting antebellum American readings of Noah’s curse.
The leading leitmotif in Genesis 9’s history of reception is Ham’s relentless vilification. The necessity of demeaning Noah’s son so has exercised the interpretive imagination because interpreters have assumed that if Hamites are deserving of the severe punishment announced by Noah, then Ham must have been evil indeed. Of course, the tendency to vilify Ham has found impetus in the belief – common until quite recently – that humanity’s sinful tendencies are hereditary, and thus find their origin in Noah’s family. Thus, for nearly two millennia biblical interpreters have held Ham and his descendants responsible for everything from the existence of slavery and serfdom, to the perpetuation of sexual license and sexual perversions (including incest and sodomy), to the introduction of magical arts, astrology, idolatry, witchcraft, and heathen religion. Readers of Genesis have associated Hamites with political tyranny, theft, heresy, blasphemy, the rebellion at Babel, war, and even deicide.7 As Benjamin Braude observes, in the medieval imagination Ham was "an archetypal Other, the example of qualities not to be emulated,...Ham imagery provided a great variety of themes that, given the appropriate social need, could be bent in any number of directions."8
Precisely because they wish to vilify Ham, interpreters have been obliged to describe the nature of his transgression, something that the story itself does not make clear. In fact, the precise character of Ham’s foul deed is a great gap in the biblical narrative. Genesis 9:22 states that "Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without" (KJV); and verse 23 contrasts Ham’s behavior with that of Shem and Japheth, who take a garment and use it to cover their father’s nakedness. But when verse 24 adds that "Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him," attentive readers are led to wonder if there was more to Ham’s behavior than inappropriate looking. Prompted by the text’s invitation to view Ham as a sexual offender and voyeur, Bible readers have interpreted Ham’s transgression in explicitly sexual terms.
Over the centuries, Ham’s act has been figured as attempted rape or castration of his father, as incest with his mother (an act that produced Canaan?), as willful violation of Noah’s policy of celibacy while on the ark, or as some combination of these. Explanations of Ham’s transgression that involve some grievous sexual offense have enjoyed a long interpretive life. Images of Ham "brimming with sexuality"9 were forged in rabbinic legend, adopted and shaped by church fathers such as Origen, Clement, Lactantius, and Augustine, and later became the germ for medieval legends, the subject of art, drama, and biblical commentary during the Renaissance, and the basis for explanations of human difference in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The very same sexualized images reappear in the writings of twentieth-century American segregationists.
A second explanation of Ham’s transgression – as filial disobedience, disrespect, or irreverence – also runs through the history of interpretation. But until the nineteenth century, the irreverence theme never displaced other forms of vilification, and was often supplemented by those that were regarded as more damning. For example, the same rabbis who allege that Ham spoke "disrespectful words against his father" also charge that he "added to his sin of irreverence the still greater outrage of attempting to perform an operation upon his father designed to prevent procreation." Likewise, Martin Luther, who condemns Ham’s disobedience toward his father, attributes this filial disrespect to "a satanic and bitter hatred," and associates Ham with idolatry, tyranny, and rebellion against God.
The conviction that Ham’s transgression was failure to honor his father – and nothing more – was first advanced by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. This interpretation was favored by a few European Protestant commentators writing between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, men who may have been influenced by Calvin’s own gloss on the story.10 It is also possible that this interpretive trajectory influenced American defenders of slavery – perhaps through their familiarity with the works of William Newton, Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, and Calvin himself. However, none of these exegetes invoked Genesis 9 to justify the enslavement of human beings; nor did they use Ham’s identity as a dishonorable son to explain the character of his descendants.
Thus, through the centuries the dominant paradigm for interpreting Ham’s transgression has been sexual. Given the biblical text’s invitation to view Ham’s violation in sexual terms and the need to identify a crime that fits the punishment meted out to Ham/Canaan, this fact is hardly surprising. In fact, we should expect to find sexualization of Ham’s offense whenever Genesis 9 is utilized to degrade the putative descendants of Ham. Furthermore, given the propensity of dominant groups to charge minorities with sexual impropriety, we should expect readers of Genesis 9 wishing to explain the perpetual enslavement of Ham’s descendants to exploit fully the sexual clues in the text and the tradition. Conversely, if we encountered members of a dominant societal group who were desirous of maligning Hamites but who consistently failed to sexualize Ham’s offense, we would be forced to conclude that for that group another version of Ham’s transgression was sufficient to justify the enslavement of his offspring.
4. Antebellum Readings of Genesis 9 and the Interpretive Tradition
|"If anything, proslavery authors were more respectful of Noah than their predecessors in the history of interpretation, since in their eyes Noah was not only a biblical patriarch but the patron saint of plantation life as well."|
Traditionally, as we have seen, the Hamite character was made a sufficient cause of Noah’s curse by blaming Ham and his descendants for a variety of crimes and evil practices. For this reason we would expect antebellum proslavery intellectuals to meet their own pressing need for a biblical defense of slavery by exploiting the interpretive traditions that cast Ham as sexual offender, heretic, blasphemer, magician, father of idolaters, arch-rebel, and friend of demons. But this is not the case. In fact, antebellum Americans are virtually silent on Ham’s conduct on the Ark, on his career following the flood, on his religious legacy, and on his standing with God and Satan. Strangely, they ignore the textual logic and interpretive history that point in a sexual direction; and one searches in vain for readings of Genesis 9 by proslavery intellectuals which state or imply that Ham was guilty of any sexual transgression. In fact, in reviewing over fifty primary documents from the antebellum period – all of which cite Noah’s curse as a central if not exclusive justification for slavery, I have discovered no explicit references to sexual misconduct on the part of Ham (or Canaan).12 Even when the authors of these documents strain to identify a crime that warrants eternal servitude, they consistently fail to take refuge in the ignominy of sexual assault.
Of course, Ham’s curse was so familiar in antebellum America that proslavery tracts which dwell on any details of the biblical story are rare. Not unusual is the approach of John Bell Robinson, who wrote simply that "Ham’s crime was a thousand times more flagitious [than Adam’s]."13 While Robinson placed great stock in Ham’s offense as a rationale for American slavery, his failure to describe the affront is typical of proslavery writings in the antebellum period. The lone exception to this generalization –an exception that effectively proves the rule – was Josiah Priest, whose Slavery as it Relates to the Negro or African Race (1843) was widely read in America prior to the Civil War. Not only did Priest dwell on Ham’s career and character in a manner that was quite uncharacteristic of antebellum writers, he offered the seamy details of Ham’s offense against Noah. Apparently following the rabbinic midrashic tradition, Priest argued that Ham’s outrage "did not consist alone in the seeing his father’s nakedness as a man, but rather in the abuse and actual violation of his own mother." He continued:
Priest’s defamation of Ham and his descendants extended beyond the charge of sexual impropriety. In fact, he asked his readers to imagine a scene in which Noah is explaining to Ham just why his malediction is deserved:This opinion is strengthened by a passage found in Levit. xviii. 8, as follows: "The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness." On account of this passage, it has been believed that the crime of Ham did not consist alone of seeing his father in an improper manner, but rather of his own mother, the wife of Noah, and violating her.
If this was so, how much more horrible, therefore, appears the character of Ham, and how much more deserving the curse, which was laid upon him and his race, of whom it was foreseen that they would be like this, their lewd ancestor.14
Considering the broad influence of Priest’s text and its relatively early date of publication – not to mention the widespread conception of the "lascivious African" and the popular notions that blacks were more "sensuous" than intellectual, naturally lewd, and in possession of unusually large sex organs16 – it is remarkable that antebellum slavery advocates did not follow Priest in exploiting the theme of sexual impropriety that is foregrounded in the history of interpretation and implied by the biblical text.Oh Ham, my son, it is not for this one deed alone which you have just committed that I have, by God's command, thus condemned you and your race, but the Lord has shown me that all your descendants will, more or less, be like you their father, on which account, it is determined by the Creator that you and your people are to occupy the lowest condition of all the families among mankind, and even be enslaved as brute beasts, going down in the scale of human society, beyond and below the ordinary exigencies of mortal existence, arising out of war, revolutions, and conflicts, for you will, and must be, both in times of peace and war, a despised, a degraded, and an oppressed race.15
In the absence of this tradition and its leitmotifs of vilification, how did antebellum proslavery intellectuals sufficiently impugn the character they regarded as the father of the African race? Interestingly, the answer is hinted at in Priest’s own reading of Genesis 9, which portrays Shem and Japheth as gentlemen who behave toward their father in a "delicate and thoughtful manner" and then retire in silence. While Priest’s sexual intimations were not reflected in readings of Genesis 9 among southern advocates of the curse, his allusion to the dynamics of honor in Noah’s family was recapitulated in dozens of proslavery publications in the second third of the nineteenth century. The culture of honor with which antebellum proslavery intellectuals identified apparently led them to locate Ham’s offense in a violation of honor, one that reflected his own dishonorable character.17 Thus, the silver thread that tied together disparate readings of Genesis 9 in antebellum America was the assumption that in reacting to Noah's shame Ham revealed his fundamentally dishonorable character.18
5. Varieties of Interpretation in the Antebellum South
With regard to the story of Noah and his sons recorded in Genesis 9, American proslavery treatises published between 1820 and 1865 fall into three categories. The majority cite the story (as both a biblical justification for slavery and an historical account of slavery’s introduction in the post-diluvial world), but do not relate or analyze the tale beyond quoting from it. Texts in a second group cite the story as a rationale for slavery (either forced servitude in general or African slavery in particular) and in the process paraphrase or retell the tale of Noah and his sons; however, they do not characterize the offense for which Ham/Canaan is condemned to servitude. Texts in a third group analyze or retell the story, in the process describing or intimating the nature of Ham’s misdeed.
Texts in the first and largest category are of interest primarily because they confirm the central role played by Noah’s curse in the antebellum proslavery argument. Though many of them are not religious in orientation, these texts demonstrate that the great majority of slavery’s defenders invoked Noah’s curse at some point. Thus, these texts substantiate abolitionist Theodore Weld’s oft-cited claim that "this prophecy of Noah is the vade mecum of slaveholders, and they never venture abroad without it." Representative of tracts that invoke Genesis 9 without analyzing or retelling the story is James Smylie’s Review of a Letter from the Presbytery of Chillicothe, to the Presbytery of Mississippi, on the Subject of Slavery, published in 1836. Introducing the Old Testament evidence for his scriptural proslavery argument, Smylie writes that "It appears, from Genesis ix, 25, 26, and 27, that when there was but one family on the face of the earth, a part of that family was doomed, by the father Noah, to become slaves to the others. That part was the posterity of Ham, from whom, it is supposed, sprung the Africans."19
Texts in the second category–-those which paraphrase or retell the story of Noah’s curse but do not characterize Ham/Canaan’s offense-–serve several functions. Like those in the first group, they indicate Genesis 9’s central place in the antebellum defense of slavery. They also show that while antebellum proslavery writers almost universally affirmed and lamented Ham’s trespass, they very rarely depicted it. Finally, they demonstrate that proslavery writers did not feel obliged to apply traditional forms of vilification (particularly sexual perversion) to Ham in order to commend the curse to American readers. Typical of texts in this category is J. L. Dagg’s "moral science" textbook (prepared to rival Francis Wayland’s The Elements of Moral Science) which offered no clear reading of Ham’s offense. In exploring the origins of slavery, Dagg observed that the "curse was denounced by the patriarch Noah, because of a crime committed by his son Ham, the father of Canaan; . . . [The words of Noah] are a denunciation of God’s displeasure at the sin of Ham, and an explanation of the degradation which has fallen on his posterity"; yet despite his intention of defending the moral rectitude of slavery, Dagg failed to characterize Ham’s "crime" or "sin" in any way.20
Frederick Dalcho’s Practical Considerations Founded on the Scriptures Relative to the Slave Population of South-Carolina also endorsed the effects of the curse but remained mute on the exact character of Ham’s transgression. We are taught by the Bible, Dalcho argued, that human beings lost immortality through disobedience and sin. "And, perhaps, we shall find," he continued, "that the negroes, the descendants of Ham, lost their freedom through the abominable wickedness of their progenitor. . . . Canaan’s whole race were under the malediction. These people were peculiarly wicked, and obnoxious to the wrath of God." Finally, in his A Defence of Virginia published in 1867, the Presbyterian Robert L. Dabney characterized Ham and his descendants as "wicked," "depraved" and "degraded in morals." He referred to "the indecent and unnatural sin of Ham" and characterized slavery as God’s "punishment of, and remedy for . . . the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race," but never clarified the nature of the sin responsible for such degradation.21
It is the third category of texts, those which directly or indirectly communicate the nature of Ham’s offense, that are most useful for understanding the distinctive way antebellum proslavery writers viewed the story of Noah and his sons. The theme that unites texts in this group is violated honor, and the term I will use to describe them is "honor-bound." With this designation I mean to suggest that these proslavery readings of Genesis 9 share many or all of the following elements: (1) the statement or implication that Noah was a man deserving of honor, and that his drunkenness did not alter this fact; (2) the conspicuous absence of forms of vilification traditionally applied to Ham, particularly the sexualization of his alleged offense against Noah; (3) the claim that Ham dishonored or shamed his father and in the process revealed his own dishonorable character; (4) the assumption that Ham’s dishonorable behavior constituted a serious offense, and is the one for which he (or his son Canaan) was cursed; (5) the contrasting of Ham’s dishonorable behavior with the respectful and dutiful action of Shem and Japheth; and (6) the prediction of future degradation or "social death"22 for the descendants of Ham/Canaan, who must reflect this condition through some form of servitude until the world is redeemed from the effects of sin.
Perhaps the most explicit honor-bound reading of Genesis 9 to appear in antebellum America was published in 1860 in an anonymous pamphlet entitled African Servitude. The author of this pamphlet wrote that "the family was instituted by God," who gave to its head "great power and corresponding honor and responsibility." Following the flood, Noah received from God "directions for the government of the world." Then,
With its language of "honor," "dishonor," and "shame," and its contention that Ham’s primal dishonor resulted in social death ("death of his body, or the forfeiture of it for the benefit of others") African Servitude explicitly links honor and slavery in its rendition of Genesis 9:20-27.Noah became a husbandman, planted a vineyard, and partaking too freely of the fruit of the vine, exposed himself to shame. The Scriptures do not state that he was guilty of anything more than an act of imprudence. In his exposed state he was discovered by his younger son, probably his grandson Canaan, who informed his father Ham, and one or both of them, so far from feeling or expressing grief for the dishonor of their parent, exultingly informed others of it, glorying in his shame, despising his power and authority, and his office as ruler and priest of God to them and the rest of their father’s family, lightly esteeming also his parental blessing, as well as the blessing of God.
A true spirit of filial regard, love, honor and obedience moved Shem and Japheth to protect their father; just the reverse of that which influenced their brother Ham to dishonor him. On the part of the former, it was an act of faith; of the latter, unbelief. . . . Ham . . . knew that God had chosen his father as the honored head of the human family, declaring him faithful, and communicating to him his designs. . . . In refusing to honor his parent, he refused to honor all governors, natural civil, ecclesiastical, human, and divine. The sin was a representative one, and, under the circumstances, it was no light one in Ham and his son. It manifested in them no love for their parent, but an evil heart of unbelief toward God. . . .
In consequences of his lack of faith, his sinful conduct of defection, and that of his family, the Judge of all the earth deprives him and his children from their equal position in the great human family, and in His righteous judgment determines that they shall be made subject to, or become servants to, the rest of the families of the earth. . . . God, who knows the end from the beginning, and is acquainted with the hearts of all men, for wise purposes allowed the faith of the three sons of Noah to be tried, and Ham was found wanting. . . . Ham, the son of Noah, broke the first command on the second table, by scorning and deriding his father, the legal consequences of which seems to be death of his body, or the forfeiture of it for the benefit of others. . . .
The fall, or defection of Ham, considered in all its results, is one of the most, if not the most, important event to the human race that has transpired since the flood . . . .23
Another proslavery text that foregrounds the language of honor in describing Ham’s transgression is Dominion; or, the Unity and Trinity of the Human Race, published in 1858 by Tennessee clergyman Samuel Davies Baldwin. In this 500-page expatiation on Noah’s prophecy (which the author regards as a "divine political constitution of the world"), Baldwin expounds the divine plan for the three races of humankind. Ham has been condemned to endure "the humility of bondage." But for what reason? Baldwin notes "Ham’s vile deportment toward his father," asserts that he was a "source of shame" to the patriarch, and intimates that Noah’s curse befell him for the sins of "filial dishonor," "mocking or making light of a parent,"and "base and shameless conduct." At one point, Baldwin pauses to remark on the apparent disjunction between the offense and its punishment:
It may be debated whether Baldwin’s standard for judgment is "revelation" or the interests of slave culture; what is clear, however, is that his interpretation of Genesis 9 hinges on Ham’s presumed dishonoring of his father.Filial dishonor is not regarded as a heinous offence by civil law; and many moralists, unconsciously governed by mere human statutes in their estimate of guilt, seem to look at Ham’s wickedness as venial. Viewed, however, in the light of revelation, it is more obnoxious to censure and punishment than theft, forgery, or falsehood, and stands before them in importance in the graduated scale of the Decalogue.24
A similar reading of the passage is to be found in Mississippi Presbyterian James A. Sloan’s The Great Question Answered (1857). Sloan discovered in Genesis 9 the origins of diversity among human beings, as well as the basis for "the subordination of one portion of the human family to that of another." In retelling the biblical tale, Sloan does not overlook Noah’s drunkenness; nevertheless, he blames Ham who,
Here the terms "decency," "shame," "respect" and "refine[ment]" indicate the honor-bound character of Sloan’s interpretation. Another clue is the author’s stress on Ham’s absolute dishonor and the punishment it warrants. Sloan contends that "Ham’s conduct really deserved death. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord they God giveth thee.’ – Exodus XX:12. Such is the express law of God; and passages bearing on this point are found scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments. . . ."26 In viewing death as an apt punishment for dishonor, Sloan elucidates the connection between honor and slavery, and the social death implied by the latter.instead of concealing the matter [of his father’s nakedness], as both decency and respect for his father should have directed, his bad disposition led him to give vent to his sinful feelings, and wishing his brothers to have a part of his unseemly enjoyment, he "told it to his two brothers without." Shem and Japheth did not enter into this improper and sinful sport of their brother, but took means to hide the shame of their father, and adopted a plan to accomplish that end which manifested the greatest respect for their parent, and at the same time, the feelings of refined delicacy toward their erring father. . . .25
H. O. R., the anonymous author of The Governing Race (1860), proffers a quite similar reading of Genesis 9. According to H. O. R., the "awful scene" involving Noah and Ham represents the third instance in which God punished a portion of the human race in retribution for sin. But what is the nature of Ham’s offense, which is "more wicked in its inception, more polluting in its nature than the fratricide of Cain"? According to The Governing Race, Ham is guilty of "dishonoring his father"; in contrast, Shem and Japheth exemplify "chaste reverence and filial obedience" and refuse to succumb to Ham’s "wicked temptation of dishonoring [Noah] by indulging in pithy imaginations concerning their father."27
Howell Cobb was another southern advocate of the curse whose reading of Genesis 9 belongs among these honor-bound texts. According to Cobb, the book of Genesis teaches that slavery was established as a punishment for sin, specifically, the transgression of Ham related in Genesis 9. But what "sin" did Ham commit? Cobb does not say, only calling Ham’s conduct toward his father "reprehensible." But Cobb’s view of the misdeed may be inferred, since he adds that "the text does not warrant the conclusion that Canaan participated in the mirth or contempt which the discovery of Noah’s condition occasioned. . . ." And thus,
Thus, for Cobb, Ham’s "mirth or contempt" evinces his "viciousness," which is the antithesis of the "virtuous regard" (we might well say "honor" or "respect") demonstrated by Shem and Japheth.The whole prophecy must be taken together – Shem and Japheth had shown a virtuous regard for their father; that virtue manifested itself in their posterity – it was that virtue that was blessed. On the contrary, Ham’s conduct was vicious (vice in his posterity has ever been their most marked characteristic) – it was that viciousness that was cursed, and which has been punished in so peculiar a manner.28
Some antebellum readings of Genesis 9 contain few references to honor and shame, but are nevertheless honor-bound, since they intimate that Ham’s crime consisted in his failure to act dutifully toward his father. Floridian Leander Ker wrote of Ham’s violation that it consisted of "exposing his father’s shame."29 An article entitled "The Curse of Ham and the Mark of Cain" appearing in the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1850 averred that "Ham had offended by exposing the nakedness of his father, Noah" and that Canaan was singled out for malediction because he participated in Ham’s offense.30 Likewise, Joseph C. Addington’s Reds, Whites and Blacks (1862) stated that Ham "failed to cover his father, when he saw him uncovered. This was the amount of his fault. The failure left Noah exposed to the gaze of others." Conversely, Shem and Japheth "covered their father in a way that evinced ingenuity and delicacy in a very high degree."31
Interestingly, while the culture of honor is regarded as a southern phenomenon, honor-bound readings of Genesis 9 are common among Northern proslavery writers as well. For instance, according to Pennsylvania Methodist John Bell Robinson, Genesis 9:22 demonstrated "the duty of children to parents under every circumstance of this life," that is, their duty to honor parents even when parents act dishonorably. In Robinson’s view, Noah’s curse represented God’s judgment upon Ham’s crime against "the old patriarch, who was [his] temporal parent." Shem and Japheth, on the other hand, acted "as every good child would. Therefore a blessing was pronounced upon them." Robinson concluded his gloss on this story by observing that "One of the most important points in this matter, is to show us that children must be respectful to their parents in and under all circumstances in this life. One of the commandments says, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord they God giveth thee.’ "32
|"Perhaps the most notorious proslavery writer of the antebellum period was New Yorker Josiah Priest, whose Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro, or African Race was reprinted eight times in a five year period."|
Perhaps the most notorious proslavery writer of the antebellum period was New Yorker Josiah Priest, whose Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro, or African Race (1843) was reprinted eight times in a five year period. Though, as we have seen, Priest indulges in sexualizing Ham’s offense, he also interprets the biblical story in an honor-bound fashion. For instance, Priest argues that "the Patriarch was deeply grieved on account of the reckless impiety of Ham," and concludes his rendition of the episode with these words:
Priest’s lengthy discussion of this story possesses all the elements of the honor-bound interpretation of Genesis 9 as it has been described here.On the subject of a child’s treating its parents with intended disrespect, see the opinion of God himself, Deut. xxvii, 16, who, in that place says, "CURSED be he that setteth light by his father or his mother, and all the people shall say amen." This sin, the treating a father or mother disrespectfully, was, by the law of Moses, punished with death. See Deut. xxi, 18, 19, 20, 21. Consequently, according to this law, Ham was morally worthy of death.34
Finally, there is evidence that even American antebellum authors who were opposed to slavery read Genesis 9 in an honor-bound fashion. The clearest example is Joseph P. Thompson’s Teachings of the New Testament on Slavery (1856). Though ostensibly treating the New Testament, this anti-slavery tract included a 3-page section on the "curse of Ham." Thompson took pains to show that Noah’s curse fell only on Canaan and was fulfilled in the Canaanites’ subjection by Israel "900 years after." Still, Thompson regarded the encounter of Ham and Noah as an affair of honor: "You, my youngest son, have put me to shame before your brethren; you shall feel the punishment of this in the degradation of your youngest son; he shall be put to shame before his brethren, and his posterity shall feel in their bones the curse of their dishonored ancestor."35
The prominence of honor-bound readings of Genesis 9 in antebellum America leads us to conclude that texts from this period which fail to describe Ham’s offense are not silent because their authors regard his transgression as inconsequential, but because author and implied reader assumed Ham’s offense to be an egregious violation of honor. As the story came increasingly to be read as a myth of origins for the relationship between white patriarchal slaveholders and the African American slaves believed to owe them filial respect, a standard honor-bound construction came to prevail. Because the influence of honor-bound readings made it increasingly unnecessary for expositors of the text to state the obvious, we may assume that honor is at work in virtually every antebellum reading of Genesis 9, whatever language it employs to tell the story.
6. Alternative Explanations?
It is argued here that antebellum proslavery writers failed to sexualize Ham’s behavior because they instinctively viewed his "sin" as a violation of honor. And since they regarded this offense with dreadful seriousness, they did not resort to other species of vilification. Not only was the charge of dishonor sufficient in their minds to demonize Hamites; it also bore for them a convenient relation to the condition of slavery. But perhaps there are other explanations for the absence of sexual motifs in antebellum American interpretations of Genesis 9.
One alternative is that antebellum authors eschewed sexualized readings of Genesis 9 because, unlike the rabbis and church fathers who developed and transmitted such readings, they felt obliged to interpret the biblical text as literally as possible.36 The problem with this argument is that, as abolitionists never tired of pointing out, proslavery intellectuals did not read Genesis 9:20-27 literally. For if they had, they would have been forced to acknowledge that Noah’s curse was aimed at Canaan, not Ham, and that Canaan – even according to the "table of nations" in Genesis 10 – was not the father of black Africans.
Another possible explanation for the conspicuous absence of sexual themes in antebellum readings of Genesis 9 is the authors’ fear of violating the Victorian sensibilities of white Bible readers. While this explanation appears plausible, it is plagued by several problems. For instance, earlier interpreters who wished to avoid the details of Ham’s nefarious act were nevertheless able to intimate its sexual nature.37 Also, nineteenth-century southern gentlemen frequently overcame their qualms regarding sexuality to exploit white fears of black sexual aggression. Indeed, scholars of the South since W. J. Cash have noted southern whites’ phobic concern with slave insurrections and with the sexual violence they imagined would befall white women if slaves successfully rebelled. southern Presbyterians, in fact, went on record as opposing recognition of slave marriages because, as they put it, no legal remedies would control the "deplorable sensuality of our Africans."38
Finally, the "Victorian sensibility" argument must convince us that the misgivings regarding sexual matters which purportedly controlled the antebellum mind were sufficient to counteract the textual, cultural, and historical factors that invited a sexual reading of Ham’s crime. If the history of biblical interpretation is any guide, textual cues alone have been enough to push many readers toward a sexualization of the biblical tale. As Randall Bailey has observed, though the language employed is ambiguous, the text "leads the reader to resolve that something sexual has transpired, and regardless of the act, it was enough to justify a curse of slavery upon at least one of the descendants of Ham."39 This sexualizing tendency gained momentum in the seventeenth century, when clever exegetes utilized Leviticus 18 to render the phrase "looking on the nakedness of one’s father" as a euphemism for sex with one’s mother.
When we go on to consider the historical and cultural forces that would inevitably bear upon interpretation of this text – including the hoary tradition that cast Ham as a promethean sexual force, widespread belief that the Negro was sexually aggressive and genitally prodigious, and the tendency for majority cultures to attribute deviant sexual practices to racial and ethnic minorities,40 it is really quite remarkable that sex does not animate at least a minority of antebellum southern readings of Genesis 9. As Lillian Smith noted so forcefully in Killers of the Dream, "the Negro," sex, and the body have long been bound up together in the southern mind.41 The unlikelihood of this bond being completely obscured in antebellum readings of the curse is underscored by the reappearance of sexual themes in twentieth-century invocations of Noah’s curse among white Americans.
7. Genesis 9 and the Nature of southern Honor
To this point, we have considered how antebellum advocates of Ham’s curse might have read the story of Noah and his sons (by briefly reviewing the history of interpretation of Genesis 9), and we have examined the ways they did read it (by carefully analyzing the writings of proslavery intellectuals). It remains to explore in more detail why these men read Genesis 9:20-27 the way they did. If antebellum proslavery intellectuals identified with the southern culture of honor in ways that unconsciously shaped not only their worldview, but their reception of biblical stories that became central to the proslavery argument, then we would expect scholarship on southern honor to elucidate our understanding of honor-bound readings of Noah’s curse.
And so it does. For one thing, honor scholarship confirms the essential place of honor in the southern mind. As John Hope Franklin wrote in 1956: "While the concept of honor was an intangible thing, it was no less real to the southerner than the most mundane commodity that he possessed. . . . To him nothing was more important than honor. Indeed, he placed it above wealth, art, learning, and the other "delicacies" of an urban civilization and regarded its protection as a continuing preoccupation."42
Among southern males honor "entered the very texture of upbringing," as they were socialized into "the most elaborate and deliberately articulated timocracy of modern times."43 Clement Eaton has observed that southern honor flourished in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, precisely when the majority of proslavery treatises were published. It did so, according to Eaton, in response to "strong political and external forces . . . operating on the southern psyche." These included abolitionism, which led southerners to idealize their society and portray slave masters as "paternal, high-minded and honorable gentlemen."44 Thus, the abolitionist attack on the South’s peculiar institution not only impelled southerners to embrace moral and biblical justifications for slavery, but – because it heightened southern awareness of honor and the need to protect it – also increased the likelihood that proslavery men would read Genesis 9 in an honor-bound fashion
Scholarship on southern honor also indicates how tensions between shame and guilt operated in the southern psyche. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown has emphasized, "honor, not conscience, shame, not guilt, were the psychological and social underpinnings of southern culture."45 While religious men felt acutely the conflict between these competing ethics, both systems agreed on the importance of deference to the older generation (cf. Ham and Noah), on which point "conscience and honor arrived at the same point from somewhat different perspectives."46
In addition, honor scholarship can help us appreciate the extent to which advocates of the curse regarded themselves as men in the tradition of Noah, patriarchs who were due filial respect from family members and slaves alike. As Wyatt-Brown puts it: "southern men were not, as one authority claimed, ‘would-be patriarchs.’ They were the genuine article, and intended to remain so eternally." Michael P. Johnson adds that in the South "patriarchal ideology did indeed structure planter families. Although few families attained the patriarchal ideal, many approached it."47 As Christopher Memminger of Charleston wrote concerning the model Christian slaveholder in 1835: "The Slave Institution at the South increases her tendency to dignify the family. Each planter in fact is a Patriarch – his position compels him to be a ruler in his household. . . ."48
|"As Bertram Wyatt-Brown observes, the greatest dread imagined by adherents of honor was 'the fear of public humiliation,' especially when it involved 'bodily appearance [which] was an outward sign of inner merit.'"|
Honor scholarship also aids us in imagining how men of honor might have identified with and reacted to the shame associated with Noah’s intoxication and disrobing. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown observes, the greatest dread imagined by adherents of honor was "the fear of public humiliation," especially when it involved "bodily appearance [which] was an outward sign of inner merit." Noting that cultures concerned with honor highly value appearance, Kenneth Greenberg adds that one of the greatest forms of dishonor in the Old South was the shaming of an opponent through literally or figuratively unmasking him "to identify an image as falsely projected and to show contempt for it." As in the notorious case of Jefferson Davis, who was unmasked by Federal soldiers at the end of the Civil War, Noah is stripped by Ham’s gaze, while his brothers re-clothe their father in an attempt to preserve his threatened honor.52 Ham’s report of what he saw was an element of the story stressed in honor-bound readings, since in the Old South "an affront [to honor] depend[ed] upon being made public, for repute is lost only in the eyes of others."53
Furthermore, honor scholarship aids us in comprehending why antebellum advocates of the curse were quick to overlook Noah’s own shameful behavior. For readers in the antebellum culture of honor, whether or not Noah had sinned when he became intoxicated was not the perplexing concern it had been for previous interpreters. As Greenberg explained, "when the man of honor is told that he smells, he does not draw a bath – he draws his pistol. The man of honor does not care if he stinks, but he does care that someone has accused him of stinking."54 For readers formed by southern honor, the point of the biblical story was not whether Noah had acted dishonorably, but whether his son had discovered his shame and revealed it to others. "[T]he real mystery of honor," Orlando Patterson wrote, "lies in the fact that although its existence is revealed, and its claims proven in acts of honor, such acts are always considered epiphenomenal. This should be evident from the common observation that two persons may perform the same act, yet the behavior of one is considered honorable while that of the other is not. Acting honorably is not the same thing as being honorable; it is not enough to abide by a code of honor."55 Because southern proslavery intellectuals assumed Noah possessed honor while Ham did not, the "dishonorable" actions of the two biblical characters took on considerably different meanings.
Honor scholarship also indicates how the encounter between Ham and Noah might unconsciously have been perceived among proslavery writers as an affair of honor. First, like the affair in the Old South, the biblical story deals with a conflict between men. Second, alcohol was involved in the biblical tale, as it often was in affairs of honor.56 Third, in order to avoid offense, antebellum southern men negotiated each other very carefully, often through deferential letters that assumed a standard form. Viewing the biblical story through this cultural prism, we might say that the deferential letter is to the breach of honor between men what Shem and Japheth’s carrying of the blanket is to Ham’s gazing at his father’s nakedness. In the first set of situations, a man of honor is approached carefully and according to custom, while in the second, custom is disregarded and the man of honor is approached without proper care. The absence of deference – highlighted by the respectful behavior of Shem and Japheth – creates the opportunity for an affair of honor.57 Fourth, in the Old South affairs of honor could be precipitated by an inappropriate look. According to an 1847 code penned by "A Soutrhon," a man of reputation could not afford to overlook "the sneers and scoffs and taunts, the burly bullying look, the loud and arrogant tone, the thraldom so often coveted to be exercised by the physically strong over the physically feeble,..." Wyatt-Brown adds that in the Old South "the eyes witnessed honor and looked down in deference or shame. Thus a steady gaze from a slave signaled impudence." This helps explain why an inappropriate look from the putative progenitor of the African race was perceived by southern readers as a threat to Noah’s honor.58 Furthermore, these analogies between the biblical story and the structure of antebellum affairs of honor may explain why proslavery readings of Genesis 9 placed so little importance on defining Ham’s offense. If the story was read implicitly as an affair of honor between men, focus would settle not on the nature of the "crime" committed but on the necessity of the satisfaction it required.
Scholars of Old South honor demonstrate that proslavery intellectuals who were not members of the aristocracy nevertheless were very likely to identify with the honor-bound values of the upper class. Following John Hope Franklin, Orlando Patterson argues that in the South "the notion of honor diffused down to all free members of the society from its ruling-class origins." Clement Eaton agrees: "What is remarkable about the southern practice of honor as a code of conduct was that it was not confined to the upper class..., through a process of osmosis [it was] acquired by all classes of southern society." Wyatt-Brown concurs, describing honor as "a people’s theology, a set of prescriptions endowed with an almost sacred symbolism."59
Also, studies of Old South romanticism suggest why the unlikely myth of Ham's curse may have so appealed to men of honor. According to scholars of the region, "there arose in the South between 1820 and 1861 a luxuriant romanticism of mind that formed the principal basis of southern honor." One effect of this trend was that the Old South was "powerfully influenced by myths." Other scholars have noted the significance of the stories men of honor generated: "Telling these stories about themselves, planter-class men renewed their belief in themselves, their explanations, and the institutional forms that served them so well."60 Given the appeal of these personal myths, it is no wonder the story of Noah and his sons was so widely told and retold in the Old South.
Similarly, by revealing the great respect accorded words spoken by men of honor, southern historians aid us in hearing Noah’s "prophecy" the way it must have been heard by antebellum Bible readers.61 As Greenberg writes, in the Old South "truth was a matter of assertion and force – and the master had it in his control." Orlando Patterson adds that honor has characterological attributes, for it is based on such questions as "Is he a man of his word? Is his oath inviolable? Can he assert his will as a man of honor?" Finally, Wyatt-Brown notes that in the Old South "the stress upon external, public factors in establishing personal worth conferred particular prominence on the spoken word and physical gesture as opposed to interior thinking or words and ideas conveyed through the medium of the page." The persuasiveness of Noah’s malediction, then, must have been enhanced for antebellum Bible readers because it was uttered by a man of honor, was stated forcefully, and had so clearly come to fruition in the history of Ham’s descendants.62
In addition, honor scholarship emphasizes the way loyalty and duty were associated in the Old South with honor, and thus how the behavior of Ham, Japheth and Shem would be judged by these standards. Wyatt-Brown writes that "from the earliest times in Western history, the cardinal principle of honor was family defense. To war against one’s own family was a violation of law – a law that, unwritten and often unspoken, superseded all others. John Hope Franklin adds that in the antebellum period "loyalty was connected with the concept of honor which required every man of the South to profess a kind of fidelity to his nation, his state, his family, even to his slaves."
|"Finally, honor scholarship makes explicit what is clear in the biblical text itself: that being gazed upon in one’s nakedness is a source of shame."|
Finally, honor scholarship makes explicit what is clear in the biblical text itself: that being gazed upon in one’s nakedness is a source of shame. As Julian Pitt-Rivers, puts it: "The private parts are the seat of shame, vulnerable to the public view and represented symbolically in the gestures and verbal expressions of desecration . . . as the means of procreation they are intimately connected with honor, for they signify the extension of the self in time."65
8. God, Honor and Noah’s Curse
In all these ways, scholarly analyses of southern honor illuminate the tendency among antebellum proslavery intellectuals to read Genesis 9 as a text of honor. Because "white man’s honor and black man’s slavery became in the public mind of the South practically indistinguishable,"66 southern proslavery intellectuals naturally viewed slaves as debased persons and slavery as a form of life without honor. Starting from the assumptions that Ham was the eponymous ancestor of Africans and that African American slaves lacked honor, proslavery intellectuals moved naturally to the conclusion that Africans had inherited their dishonorable condition from a common ancestor.67
Initially, proslavery men and women were drawn to Noah’s curse because it was located in holy writ and appeared to depict the normative relationship between the great races of humankind. As they reflected on the story, however, they unconsciously were grasped by its dynamics of honor and shame. In fact, once the biblical story received a compelling honor-bound reading in the early decades of the nineteenth century, its grip on the slaveholding imagination became extraordinarily powerful; so powerful that reasonable men and women, otherwise careful and insightful Bible interpreters, became oblivious to the manifest textual and historical problems with linking Noah’s curse and American slavery.
Furthermore, for proslavery intellectuals who were also devout Christians, Genesis 9 became an intellectual nexus where religion and honor commingled in support of a common cause. This observation elucidates a vexing question faced by students of southern culture: How did timocracy and religion co-exist in the antebellum American mind? At a basic level, "the connection between honor and the sacred [derives] . . . from the sacred nature of honor itself. . . ."68 Yet scholars have labored for some time to comprehend precisely how the ostensibly antithetical ethics of evangelical Christianity and manly honor functioned in southern culture. The evidence we have reviewed indicates that, at least in the effort to support slavery, the dissonance between honor and conscience was often submerged in symbiosis.
A widely-accepted view of the relationship of honor and evangelical Christianity in the Old South is expressed by Ten Ownby, who writes that among southern men evangelical behavior and the code of honor were "ever in conflict." Ownby claims that while evangelical Christianity and "masculine sinfulness" operated simultaneously, "male culture and evangelical culture were rivals, causing sparks when they came in contact and creating guilt and inner conflict in the many southerners who tried to balance the two. The two forces operated against each other in an emotionally charged dialectic, the intensity of each reinforcing the other."69
Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes the same paradox by observing that although "the southern mind has always been divided between pride and piety," no scholar has yet succeeded in portraying "the tortured relationship between Protestantism and popular ethics . . . .70 Wyatt-Brown attempts to do so by sketching the shifting dynamics of honor and religion as "ideologies . . . in contention for mastery of the soul of the South." Between 1600 and 1861 the balance of power between these ideologies slowly and fitfully shifted in favor of religion until the establishment of a Confederacy "based on a paradoxically dissonant union of honor and the cause of God." Especially in the "Age of Custom" (1600-1760), Wyatt-Brown contends, "honor, not Christian practice, provided the psychological framework in an unreliable world." However, "the hard code of family-based honor gradually softened" during the "Age of Fervor" (1760-1840), "as piety became a prerequisite for the determination of respectability."71 By the period of the "Age of Ambivalence" (1840-1861), the church’s power had grown sufficiently to jeopardize the rule of honor, yet barriers to the Christianization of southern culture remained in the habits of violence that plagued the region and the church’s own failure to transform popular attitudes on moral issues such as drinking and dueling. Wyatt-Brown concludes that while some honor-based southern ideals were compatible with Christian doctrine and faith, others were "clearly anti-Christian." In the latter case, the church was not in a position to challenge "the salience of honor and shame," so it upheld the honor system by serving as guardian of the social order, or simply coexisting with the system.
Wyatt-Brown argues that the church’s adaptation to–and ultimate embrace of–the southern code of honor may be seen in the language patriotic clerics used to welcome secession from the Union:
Since neither honor nor evangelical religion triumphed by the time war arrived, Wyatt-Brown observes that "the South would have to live thereafter with a divided soul. . . ."72Because honor to God and honor to self in this southern discourse [of secession and war] were so closely bound together, it was possible for churchgoers to reconcile the traditional ethic and evangelical belief. Romantic heroism – the badge of the Confederate cavalier – and Christian dignity and zeal could be – and were – congenially united. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis were both Christian gentlemen and men of honor in the highest sense of those terms that southern culture could produce.
Responding to Wyatt-Brown, Ownby, and others who emphasize the enduring conflict of religion and honor in the southern mind, Edward R. Crowther seeks to cast this troubled relationship in a new light. Historians have struggled to identify the interpretive strand that binds the Old South together, he argues, because "students of the southern mind have placed religion outside the mainstream of forces that shaped both southern behavior and secession. According to these scholars, concepts of honor, not religious beliefs, directed the southern male, or at least those southern men who exerted real influence."73 This is a false dichotomy, Crowther maintains, because the basis of the South’s remarkable cohesion was essentially religious. He notes, for instance, that
Crowther believes that the development of "holy honor" was made possible by the shared ethos of preachers and planters (a commonality rooted in shared class anxieties), and the desire of evangelical Christians to redirect rather than destroy concepts of personal honor. He concludes that "by the mid-nineteenth century both sacred and secular values reflected and were helping to transform a common ethos, at least at the level of ideals."75by the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president, secessionists uttered their calls for action in language borrowing from and mixing together evangelical rhetoric and traditions of honor, creating a southern civil religious litany. Over time, many religious and secular ideals, which were not necessarily dissonant in their expression, had fused to produce a hybrid and distinctly southern value, a holy honor that drew on evangelical and martial traditions for its sustenance and animated and, for white southerners, justified southern behavior.74
If Crowther is correct, and the antebellum South was infused with a "holy honor" that united planter and preacher in a common perception of the world’s order, then we would expect to find this perception reflected not only in the thought and behavior of southern planters (as examined by Crowther) but in the thinking and writing of proslavery intellectuals who identified with the planter class. As we have seen, antebellum readings of Genesis 9 indicate that the proslavery biblical imagination was indeed permeated by "holy honor" – that is, the fusion of evangelical Christianity and timocracy. To confirm this fact, let us revisit antebellum honor-bound readings of Genesis 9, paying special attention to the way they combine the idioms of honor/shame and righteousness/sin.
|"Some antebellum advocates of Ham’s curse attempted to baptize the concept of honor by claiming to discover it in the Bible."|
Some antebellum advocates of Ham’s curse attempted to baptize the concept of honor by claiming to discover it in the Bible. According to Samuel Davies Baldwin,
Citing the fifth commandment ("honor your father and mother...." Exodus 20:12; cf. Deuteronomy 27:16: "Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother"), Baldwin – along with Sloan and others – rooted the primacy of honor at Sinai rather than in South Carolina.Filial dishonor is not regarded as a heinous offence by civil law; and many moralists, unconsciously governed by mere human statutes in their estimate of guilt, seem to look at Ham’s wickedness as venial. Viewed, however, in the light of revelation, it is more obnoxious to censure and punishment than theft, forgery, or falsehood, and stands before them in importance in the graduated scale of the Decalogue.77
In these and other antebellum readings of Genesis 9, the lexicons of sin and shame are so intertwined as to appear synonymous. These texts indicate the fluid boundaries that existed in the antebellum American mind between honor and faith, shame and unbelief; and they provide a unique glimpse of the proslavery imagination as it strained to reduce the dissonance between faith and timocracy. As antebellum southerners embraced Genesis 9 as a chief rationale for human bondage, they also made a remarkable contribution to the development of "holy honor."
Bertram Wyatt-Brown has much to teach us concerning the crucial role of honor for understanding American history. "[W]ithout grasping the ancient, even pagan origins and continuities of honor," he wrote, "we cannot comprehend the endurance of racism as a sacred, intractable conviction, or the approach of civil war, or the desperate commitment of southern whites to hold black Americans forever in their power.78 We can now add that without grasping the "continuities of honor," it is not possible to comprehend the way American proslavery intellectuals read the biblical text they regarded as containing both the origin and justification for African slavery. Noah’s curse may not have been about race in the minds of all antebellum southern divines; but without question it appears to have been about slavery and honor.79
1. Ronald G. Waters, The Anti-Slavery Appeal: Abolitionism after 1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), 74. Return
2. The connection between slavery and the southern culture of honor was apparently made by opponents of the peculiar institution as early as the 1840s. This is evident in James Henry Hammond’s letters on slavery, where he argues that "it is true that the point of honor is recognized throughout the slave region, and the disputes of certain classes are frequently referred for adjustment to the ‘trial by combat.’ . . . Whatever evils may arise from them, however, they cannot be attributed to slavery, since the same notion and custom prevails both in France and England." See Gov. Hammond’s Letters on Slavery Addressed to Thomas Clarkson, the English Abolitionist (1845), Letter Two, 7. Return
3. A few historians of the Old South have made insightful observations on the religious meaning of the curse of Ham. For instance, W. B. Hesseltine notes that one reason for the Ham story’s popularity was the connection of sin and slavery in the Christian mind. See "Some New Aspects of the Pro-Slavery Argument," The Journal of Negro History 21:3 (July, 1936):1-14. Ralph Morrow observes that "the impact of proslavery dialectics inhered less in the quality of the presentation than in the processes of its assimilation. In other words, the satisfaction of believing in the morality of slavery was more decisive than the substance of anything believed." See Ralph E. Morrow, "The Proslavery Argument Revisited," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48 (1961): 93. Return
4. A striking example of apparent ignorance of the text occurs in Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Honor and Violence in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), where the author on several occasions refers to the "expulsion" (25) or "banish[ment]" (34) of Ham. The author seems to have confused Noah’s curse on Ham/Canaan with the punishment of Cain related in Genesis 4. For a summary of the story that imaginatively fills textual gaps without acknowledging doing so, see Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977), where the author refers to "the curse of the drunken Noah upon the descendants of his son, Ham (Africans) because of an invasion of the patriarch’s privacy" (171). Return
5. In The Presbyterian and the Negro: A History, Andrew E. Murray summarized the biblical proslavery argument thus: "The chain of scriptural argument began with the original divine decree in Genesis, which fixed the racial patterns of mankind by ordaining that Canaan should be a servant to his brothers as punishment for his sin against his father, Noah" (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966), 69. How this "sin" was understood by the text’s interpreters, Murray does not say. In fact, most of those who note the importance of this biblical story do not take the trouble to delineate how it was used to justify slavery. Return
6. In addition to Thomas Peterson, Ham and Japheth in America (Metuchen, NJ: American Theological Library Association, 1978), see Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984), who argues that the Ham myth represents "the castration of the father, the violent rejection of paternal authority and the acquisition of the father’s sexual choice" (63). Return
7. There is a long Christian tradition – beginning in the church fathers and extending at least through the fifteenth century – that links Ham and unbelieving Jews. In some anti-Jewish Christian readings of Genesis 9, Shem is substituted for Ham as recipient of the curse. Jerome noted that as Noah planted a vineyard, Christ planted the church and suffered, and identified Ham’s attitude toward his father with the Jews’ attitude toward the cross. According to Augustine, that Noah’s nakedness was in his house typified the treatment Jesus received from his own nation. That the two sons went backward symbolized the turning one's back on the sins of the Jews, which one does when reverencing the passion. See Jack P. Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968),177-78. Return
8. Benjamin Braude, "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods," William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 133. Return
9. Ibid. Braude maintains that the sexual understanding of Genesis 9 which dominated Christianity and Judaism through the sixteenth century is "manifest most strikingly in Michelangelo’s depiction of Ham and the drunkenness of Noah in the ceiling frescoes of the Sistene Chapel" in "How Did Ham Become a Black Slave?: Reexamining the Noahides in the Abrahamic Tradition," paper presented at the annual meeting of MESA, San Francisco, November, 1997 and graciously made available to the author, p. 7. Return
10. Winthrop Jordan cites two pre-Restoration English writers – the Reverend Jeremy Taylor and Sir Edward Coke – who regarded Ham’s sin as "dishonouring his parent" (White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968)., p. 54). Return
11. Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 48. Return
12. According to Peterson, many proslavery writers hinted that Ham’s transgression was somehow sexual in nature. He gives examples such as William Stringfellow’s use of the phrase "beastly wickedness" and James Sloan’s "indecency." But Peterson provides no rationale for interpreting such language sexually. Nevertheless, when he is analyzing the myth of Ham’s curse toward the end of Ham and Japheth, he refers to Ham’s "heinous sexual crime," "sexual crime" and writes that Ham committed "an indecent, sexual act" (117, 119).
Related to the sexual perversion theme is the notion that Ham’s sin was intermarriage; that is, that Ham was responsible for initiating the practice of racial amalgamation in the post-flood world. While this was not a common view of viewing Ham’s sin in the antebellum South, it was forcefully developed by John Fletcher of Louisiana, who used the biblical stigma of Cain and the American taboo against intermarriage to explain why Ham deserved Noah’s curse. In a move quite common in the history of interpretation, but unusual for antebellum advocates of the curse, Fletcher acknowledged that "the ill-manners of Ham towards his father were not the great cause of the curse. The cause must have previously existed. The ill-manners only influence the time of its announcement. And let us inquire, where are we to find an adequate cause for the immediate degradation of an unborn race, unless we find it in intermarriage?"
If this is the case, then with whom did Ham commit this transgression? For Fletcher, there is no doubt that "his intermarriage...could have been with no other than the race of Cain." This, then, explains the severity of Noah’s curse, and even his mention of Canaan:
The explanation that Ham’s sin was his marriage to "Naamah, the daughter of Lamech, of the race of Cain" conveniently allowed Fletcher to attach Cain’s mark – which he interpreted as black skin – to the descendants of Ham. Studies on Slavery, In Easy Lessons, Compiled into Eight Studies, and Subdivided into Short Lessons for the Convenience of Readers (Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing Co.,  1969), 446, 449. ReturnWhen Noah spoke to Ham, and said, "Cursed be Canaan," he had no reference to any particular descendant of Ham, but included them all, as the race of Cain, and in reproof and disparagement to his son, reproaching the connection. Suppose, even at this day, a descendant of Japheth should choose to amalgamate with the Negro, could not his father readily foretell the future destiny of the offspring, – their standing among the rest of his family.
13. Robinson, Pictures of Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Advantages of Negro Slavery and the Benefits of Negro Freedom. Morally, Socially and Politically Considered (n.p., 1863), 20. Return
14. Quoted in Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 98-99. Return
15. Priest, Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro or African Race, 75-80. Return
16. See Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 76-77. Return
17. It is also true that Ham was routinely accused by these interpreters of acting in a disorderly fashion, especially when he laughs at his father’s nakedness and broadcasts it to his brothers. But in most proslavery literature, lack of honor is understood to be Ham’s fundamental failure, and the ascription of rebellious or disorderly behavior is derivative of this primal dishonor; e.g., Priest, Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro or African Race, 81." Return
18. It is interesting to note that nineteenth-century abolitionists, despite their desire to undermine the use of this text in defending slavery as a divine institution, tended to read it in roughly the same way as those they attacked. That is, they did not dispute that Noah was righteous, Ham was wicked and had treated his father dishonorably, or that the curse had been pronounced as a result of this behavior. Instead, they contended that Noah’s curse was only a prediction (not a prophecy) of his sons’ destinies; they pointed out that the object of Noah’s curse was Canaan, not Ham, and that this curse had been fulfilled in the Israelite’s conquest of Canaan or some other previous episode in history; and they asserted that while black Africans were certainly Hamites, they were not Canaanites. Return
19. James Smylie, Review of a Letter from the Presbytery of Chillicothe, to the Presbytery of Mississippi, on the Subject of Slavery (Woodville: MS, 1836), 16. Significantly, despite the lack of any hint as to the nature of the sin for which the Hamites were cursed, Smylie emphasizes in his discussion of Paul’s teaching that slaves owe their masters honor, as well as obedience, hard work and loyalty. See Randy J. Sparks, "Mississippi’s Apostle of Slavery: James Smylie and the Biblical Defense of Slavery," Journal of Mississippi History 51 (1989): 103. Return
20. J. L. Dagg, The Elements of Moral Science (New York, 1860), 344. Return
21. Frederick Dalcho, Practical Considerations Founded on the Scriptures Relative to the Slave Population of South-Carolina (Charleston, 1823), 8,10; Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests against the Sectional Party (New York: Negro Universities Press,  1969), 90; 102. Cf. similar cryptic comments by George D. Armstrong in The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (New York: Negro Universities Press,  1969), 111. Return
22. African Servitude provides another excellent description of the social death that proslavery readers of Genesis 9 saw predicted for Ham’s descendants:
23. Quoted in Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 144-45; emphasis added. ReturnMight we be allowed to imagine the state of Noah’s feelings on that occasion, and also to give words to those feelings, they would be as follows: "Oh Ham, my son, it is not for this one deed alone which you have just committed that I have, by God's command, thus condemned you and your race, but the Lord has shown me that all your descendants will, more or less, be like you their father, on which account, it is determined by the Creator that you and your people are to occupy the lowest condition of all the families among mankind, and even be enslaved as brute beasts, going down in the scale of human society, beyond and below the ordinary exigencies of mortal existence arising out of war, revolutions, and conflicts, for you will, and must be, both in times of peace and war, a despised, a degraded and oppressed race (quoted in Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 144). Return
24. Samuel Davies Baldwin, Dominion; or, the Unity and Trinity of the Human Race; With the Divine Political Constitution of the World, and the Divine Rights of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Nashville, 1858), 60-62, passim. Return
25. James A. Sloan, The Great Question Answered; or, Is Slavery a Sin in Itself (Per Se) Answered According to the Teaching of the Scriptures (Memphis, 1857), 66; emphasis added. The reference here to "unseemly enjoyment" hints at sexual offense. Yet when Sloan writes that Noah the patriarch could not have known of the "indecent and sinful conduct of his son Ham from any other source" than the Holy Spirit (67), he confirms that Noah was not the victim of sexual assault. Return
26. Ibid., 74-5. Sloan writes: "So that, according to the law of God, Ham deserved death for his unfilial and impious conduct. But the Great Lawgiver saw fit, in his good pleasure, not to destroy Ham with immediate death, but to set a mark of degradation on him, as he had done with the first murderer, Cain, that all coming generations might know and respect the laws of God. Slavery was, properly, a commutation or a change of punishment." Return
27. H. O. R., The Governing Race: A Book for the Time, and for All Times (Washington, 1860), 5-7. Return
28. Howell Cobb, A Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery in the United States; with its Objects and Purposes (Georgia, 1856), 27; emphasis added. Return
29. Quoted in Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 74. Though he was a military man stationed in Kansas, Ker spent a good deal of time in the South. Ker wrote: "During my residence in the South, which was several years, I for the most part spent my time on large cotton and sugar plantations, on which were hundreds of negroes; and I went there with the prejudice and feelings of the North in reference to slavery, and I looked in vain for those scenes of horror and cruelty of which I had read and heard in my childhood; but I saw them not." See Slavery Consistent with Christianity, 3rd ed. (Weston, MO, Finch & O'Gormon, 1853), 32. Return
30. "The Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham," Southern Presbyterian Review (January, 1850):415-426. Return
31. Joseph C. Addington, Reds, Whites and Blacks, or the Colors, Dispersion, Language, Sphere and Unity of the Human Race, as Seen in the Lights of Scripture, Science and Observation (Raleigh, 1862), 30. Return
32. John Bell Robinson, Pictures of Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Advantages of Negro Slavery and the Benefits of Negro Freedom. Morally, Socially and Politically Considered (n.p., 1863), 23. Return
33. Ibid., 22 and 26. Return
34. Emphasis added. Priest’s is a very interesting case, for his interpretation of Genesis 9 actually falls into several of the categories described here. At some points of his rather lengthy treatment of the text, Priest is silent on the nature of Ham’s transgression. For instance, he writes that "why, or on what account, Ham came to intrude on the sacredness of his father’s rest is not known; but so it was. . . ." In the next paragraph Priest mentions the "the awful conduct of Ham" which his brothers considered a "crime of the deepest dye; a transaction if perpetrated at the present time, would mark the actor as a character of the basest and lowest kind," but does not describe the act. A few paragraphs later, however, Priest characterizes Ham’s sin as an "unchaste, unfilial, and unholy deed." There is a hint in this phrase that Ham’s offense has been sexualized, but the sexual theme is not as prominent as we would expect given Priest’s familiarity with the history of interpretation. Priest, Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro or African Race, 76ff. Return
35. Joseph P. Thompson, Teachings of the New Testament on Slavery (New York, 1856), 9; emphasis added. Return
36. The misleading claim that biblical defenders of slavery were literalists is often made by scholars. For example, Clement Eaton writes that "one of the most powerful arguments in the pro-slavery dialectic was the alleged support of the Bible, for the overwhelming majority of southern people were firmly indoctrinated in a belief in the sacredness of the literal word of the Bible." See A History of the Old South (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 386. Return
37. According to Pierre Bayle, Dictionaire Historique et Critique (1734), 403, Rabbi Samuel related that Ham "did a thing so vile and abominable that I want to say nothing about it for fear that I should hurt chaste ears." Return
38. Andrew Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro, 75. Particularly during Reconstruction, the potential for sexual aggression and desire for amalgamation that southern whites attributed to blacks were chief arguments in the defense of racial segregation. Return
39. Randall C. Bailey, "They’re Nothing but Incestuous Bastards: The Polemical Use of Sex and Sexuality in Hebrew Canon Narratives," in Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds., Reading from this Place, Volume One: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 134. Return
40. Bailey shows that this process is evident in Hebrew Bible texts (including Genesis 9), in which "the difference between ‘in’ and ‘out’ is expressed in labeling the other as one who practices a taboo sexual act" (Ibid., 124). Return
41. "Whenever, wherever, race relations are discussed in the United States, sex moves arm in arm with the concept of segregation"; Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (New York: W. W. Norton, 1949), 102. Return
42. John Hope Franklin, The Militant South (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1956), 34-5. Return
43. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, 75; Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), 94. Return
44. Clement Eaton, "The Role of Honor in southern Society," Southern Humanities Review 10 (1976, supplement):47-58; 52. In 1986, Bertram Wyatt-Brown confirmed this view, noting that "it was threat of honor lost, no less than slavery, that led [southerners] to secession and war," and that "whites in the antebellum South were a people of honor who would not subject themselves to the contempt of a ruthless enemy, as the Yankee supporters of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists were thought to be" (Honor and Violence in the Old South, 5; viii). See also Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause 1865-1920 (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), who points out that by 1830 the formerly liberal South "had developed a new image of itself as a chivalric society, embodying many of the agrarian and spiritual values that seemed to be disappearing in the industrializing North. The cult of chivalry developed, focusing on manners, women, military affairs the idea of the Greek democracy, and Romantic oratory" (3). Return
45. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, 22. Return
46. Ibid., 74. Return
47. Michael P. Johnson, "Planters and Patriarchy: Charleston, 1800-1860," Journal of Southern History 46 (1980): 46. Return
48. Quoted in ibid. Return
49. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Modernizing Southern Slavery: The Proslavery Argument Reinterpreted," in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, ed., Religion, Race and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), 30. In this article Wyatt-Brown describes the evolving nature of southern slavery and highlights three stages in its development: 1) crude chattel bondage, characteristic of the colonial period; 2) state racial regulation requiring civil bureaucracies and legal professionalization, which made only limited progress before 1861; and 3) the patriarchal model, a form that became prominent in the early national years, largely as a result of Christian evangelicalism. Return
50. Ibid., 30, 36. The domestic view of slavery was "intimately connected with evangelical and indeed scriptural reverence for familial government." According to those Wyatt-Brown calls the "southern church fathers," slavery was a condition rather than a moral evil, and as such "resembled the family, civil government, hierarchies, all elements of social organization with which God had forever equipped his fallen, self-seeking creatures." (32). Return
51. Julian Pitt-Rivers, "Honor," in David L. Sills, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 18 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 6:506. Return
52. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, viii, 33; Kenneth Greenberg, Honor and Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 7, 9. Greenberg writes that in the Old South "the man of honor was the man who had the power to prevent his being unmasked. Anyone could unmask the dishonored. For those who aspired to honor, what you wore mattered less than whether you could and would risk your life to repel any man who tried to remove what you wore" (25). Return
53. Pitt-Rivers, "Honor," 508. Return
54. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, 14. Return
55. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 80. Return
56. Ted Ownby notes the centrality of alcohol in southern male culture, and how it served as a stimulant to aggressive behavior: He describes the "drinking establishment as a setting for the typically masculine combination of drink, profanity and violence"; Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990), 53. Return
57. See Steven M. Stowe, Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987). Return
58. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, 59, 33; Franklin, The Militant South, 202-3. Return
59. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 100; Eaton, "The Role of Honor in Southern Society," 49; Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, vii. Return
60. Eaton, "The Role of Honor in the Old South," 47, 48; Stowe, Intimacy and Power, 49. According to Stowe, "The affair [of honor] was theatre and ideology; it happened and it explained what happened . . . particular affairs inevitably developed into stories about the social meaning of a man’s personal morality" (47). Return
61. "The central concern of southern men was to have their words treated with respect. . . . Words of masters had to be respected because they were the words of a man of honor" (Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, 7, 11). Return
62. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, 41, 80. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, 31. Return
63. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, 107-111. See also Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 79. Interestingly, Patterson regards the antebellum Sambo stereotype as "simply an elaboration of the notion that the slave is quintessentially a person without honor" (Slavery and Social Death, 96). Return
64. George D. Armstrong, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (New York: Negro Universities Press,  1969), 110. Return
65. Pitt-Rivers, "Honor," 505. Return
66. Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, ix, 16. Return
67. Evidence for this hereditary understanding of slavery is found in proslavery speculations that "Canaan" means "the submissive one"or "submissive knee-bender." Such speculations reflect the conviction that the slave lives without honor and must derive his or her very life from submission to the master. These musings on the meaning of Canaan’s name confirm the observation of Orlando Patterson that "the dishonor of slavery . . . came in the primal act of submission" (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 78). Return
68. Pitt-Rivers, "Honor," 506. Return
69. Ownby, Subduing Satan, 12; 14. Return
70. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "God and Honor in the Old South," Southern Review 25 (1989): 283. In Honor and Violence in the Old South, Wyatt-Brown had distinguished "primal honor," which was derived from the Indo-European system of ethics, and the "gentility" that arose from the English Deists. "Ancient largess became, under Stoic influence, Aristotelian magnanimity, which in turn grew into Christian charity" (38). The South’s concern with the classics, Wyatt-Brown says, "reflected the continued relevance of Stoic traditions of honor and virtue" (47). "During the eighteenth century, under the influence of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the southern model of honorable conscience conformed with the classical heritage. . . . By the 1830s, however, religious precept, somewhat democratic in character, transformed southern gentility" (51, 53). Nearly every southern community, Wyatt-Brown says, could boast a representative of this Christian gentility. Return
71. Ibid., 285; 289. Return
72. Ibid, 295. Wyatt-Brown comes closer than any other scholar to bringing the biblical defense of slavery and the culture of honor together. He even claims that the traditional ethic of honor was readily incorporated by southern clergy in part due to the "narratives and codification of honor to be found in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament" (Ibid., 284). He adds that "the desire to avoid the stigma of blame which was seen as a shaming of oneself, one’s family, and, indeed, one’s God, pervades the narratives of the Old Testament. The prophets’ jeremiads denounced the wayward people of Israel for the dishonoring offense of impugning the blamelessness of God. They took from God due honor and glory – two interconnected modes of praise rendered in the one Hebrew word KABOD. Even the commandment ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ meant, according to rabbinic tradition, to hold others – their properties and families – in honor as you would have them respect you, your relations, and your possessions. In other words, the act of loving involved the concept of honoring but the latter was probably then the foremost of the two" (284). Nevertheless, Wyatt-Brown does not discuss the story of Noah and his sons. Return
73. Edward R. Crowther, "Holy Honor: Sacred and Secular in the Old South," The Journal of Southern History 58 (1992):620. Return
74. Ibid. Return
75. Ibid., 631. Return
76. John H. Hopkins’ reading of the story, in which "eminen[ce]" and "piety" are connected in Noah, slavery and "the abominations of heathen idolatry" in Ham, provides another glimpse of holy honor at work. Return
77. Hopkins, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, 62. The other quotes are from pages 60 and 61. Return
78. Honor and Violence in the Old South, 24. Return
79. See Eugene D. Genovese, A
Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian
South, Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures, 41 (Athens and London:
Univ. of Georgia Press, 1998). Return
This article published 2/2/2000
© 1998-2000 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234