Upon first reading Aphra Behn's work Oroonoko, one might get the impression that this is an early example of antislavery literature that became so popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the short biography of Behn from the Norton Anthology of British Literature, we learn that Behn's story had a great impact on those who fought against the slave- trade. Although the horrors of the slave trade are clearly brought forth, I do not feel Behn was using these images towards the antislavery cause. I think it is more likely that the images were merely devices used in her travel narrative of Oroonoko.
To see any negative view of the slave-trade, the reader must turn to the perspective of Oroonoko. Through him the reader sees how horrible the treatment of slaves is and how inhuman the slave-trade is. It might escape me, but I do not recall any moment in the story where the narrator takes its upon herself to discuss the slave trade. It seems that in that way that she is disconnecting herself from any responsibility.
One could immediately say that this is because of her position at the time. Behn, being a woman, faced many prejudices from male writers and critics, although she was praised by some. Yet the anthology introduction states that she openly signed her name and talked back to critics. If this is true why would she be afraid to take a more open stance towards the question of slavery. Why does the antislavery perspective have to come from a slave, someone who is obviously going to be antislavery and not that of someone with a higher rank in society whose feelings toward the issue would be more considered.
It is funny that even though the narrator is considered to be a member of the middle class in the colony, she separates herself from it when it comes to slavery. Because of her rank class in the plantation setting, it seems likely she would have had slaves but this is never mentioned. It seems weird that someone who would revere Oroonoko so highly, even higher than some of her fellow colonists, would feel right owning slaves. Of course this is only a guess based upon the brief description of the narrator given. Whenever the narrator mentions the relationship between the colonists and the slaves she does not include herself with the other colonists, she calls them "they". "They" of course referring to the colonists. It seems by doing this she does not necessarily condemn the colonists' actions, instead she says that she was simply not involved.
I also question Behn feelings toward slavery because of her descriptions of the relationships between slaves and masters. The dark side of slavery is obviously shown but does Behn also show a more friendly tone. If this was truly an antislavery piece as some would believe, why would she show what a good relationship Oroonoko has had with some of his masters and how enamored Trefry is with Clemene.
Another example of why Behn's feelings towards slavery should be considered is another way the narrator uses her social status. The reader is told by the narrator that she has the power to save Oroonoko and yet she does not. Of course she could be intimidated by the other colonists but if she was truly strong in her convictions, this would not matter.
All these examples do is simply add to the confusion of Behn's work. Her work can be construed as both antislavery and although not necessarily pro-slavery, not against it. What is important is that although it might not have been her initial goal she set forth a particular discourse in literature that had great impact on later anti-slavery writers.
Much of the 18th century and 19th century saw the continuing debate over slavery. The pro-slavery ideology in the South peaked between the late 1830s through the early 1860s. By 1860, the slave states had approximately four million slaves comprising a third of the South’s population. Much of the American South believed that slavery was vital to the continuation of its livelihood and lifestyle and therefore defended the institution of slavery. As the abolition movement picked up, southerners became organized in their support of slavery in what became known as the pro-slavery movement.
When a society forms around any institution, like the South did around slavery, it will finds ways to forge strong arguments and evidence. The Southerners stood firmly with their arguments as the tensions in the country drew us ever closer to the Civil War.
People who were pro-slavery believed that killing the slavery system would also kill the South’s cotton reliant economy. In other words, the cotton economy would undoubtedly collapse and destroy the South if all slaves were freed. Those who favored slavery argued that if slavery was abolished, it would result in chaos, leading to revolts and uprisings and great economical destruction.
The pro-slavery population also claimed that, compared to Europe’s destitute and America’s workers,
Pair of Men’s Shoes from William B. Sappington Family, possibly made by a slave; slaves had better jobs and opportunities than the poor whites.
slaves were better off than most. Slave owners would protect and assist their slaves when they were ill and in need, unlike non-slaves who were fired and left with no aid. This argument demonstrates that slaves lack the ability to manage their own lives and are therefore more fortunate in a system where their lives are maintained by others.
The Southerners reflected on the consequences of the immediate emancipation of slaves. If all slaves were emancipated and free labor were abolished suddenly in the South, cotton could not be tended to and harvested and would ultimately result in the fall of the Southern economy. The slave owners are heavily reliant on free labor because it helps them profit more. Before the Antebellum period, it was widely known that the slaves themselves were the commodity that fueled the economy – their labor was not cheap, but it was free. Without the production of cotton in the South, Northern textile mills would eventually fall soonafter, ultimately creating economic destruction all over the nation.
Five dollar bill issued by the Farmers & Exchange Bank of Charleston and dated September 28, 1853. Bill depicts an African American tending to a wagon pulled by oxen. Engraved by Toppan, Carpenter, Kasilear & Company, Philadelphia and New York. Slavery, as shown above, took hold in the economy of the South.
On another note, every man, woman, and child in Europe benefited from the slave trade – it even fueled the Industrial Revolution. The slave trading process was considered necessary to the success and wealth of Britain by many. Both merchants and planters advised that getting rid of slaves would mean ruin for Britain, as the whole economy would collapse. Futhermore, if Britain did not engage in the slave trading process, then others surely would; if Britain no longer participated in slave trades with Africa, rivals such as the French and the Dutch would soon take their place, and the African Americans would find themselves in a much worse situation.
Defenders of slavery noted that slavery was often mentioned in the Bible. For instance, the Bible mentions that Abraham had slaves. They look to the Ten Commandments, in which one of them states that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, … nor his manservant, nor his maidservant.” In the New Testament, Paul returned Philemon, a runaway slave, to his master. Although slavery was common during the Roman era, Jesus never spoke out against it.
The defenders claimed that slavery was divine, and that it allowed Christianity into the lives of African Americans. According to this argument, slavery is a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said in speech on slavery:
“Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
Unlike most southern politicians, Calhoun thought that white southerners should not apologize for slavery. Instead, he argued that slavery was “indispensable to the peace and happiness of both” whites and blacks. He claims that slavery is“a good- a positive good” instead of an evil. This argument strongly characterized the entire debate over slavery until the Civil War.
In this speech, Calhoun responds to antislavery petitions sent to the Senate by abolitionist groups.
While biblical interpretation has long been debated, the pro-slavery perspective views the Christian Bible’s lack of opposition nor support of slavery as a way to claim the institution as appropriate. The treatise, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery by George Armstrong, 1857, is an example of defense of slavery. He argues that “the Bible is the sole authority for the life of the church.” With this statement in mind, he then continues to consider the “law and testimonies” of Christ and the Apostles and concluded that owning slaves is not explicitly stated as a sin in the New Testament. Supporters of slavery also argued that ancient religious texts contain passages in which key figures owned slaves – because of this, modern slavery was deemed acceptable.
Pro-slavery lobbyists believe that the refusal to mention slavery as property or anything else in the Constitution suggests pro-slavery ideals.
Those who were pro-slavery also looked at slavery through legal means. Although the economic and religious aspects of slavery helped to directly support the moral argument of pro-slavery Southerners, the legal aspects of slavery served as visible victories and defending events in Southern philosophy. The Dred Scott Decision is an excellent example of the legal side to the Southern arguments and the Southern definition of popular sovereignty. With the Dred Scott Decision, the courts declared that the whole African American race had no legal standing as persons in our courts; all blacks were seen as property, and the Constitution protected property rights of the people, which includes slave owners.
Moreover, pro-slavery Southerners used legal arguments found in the Constitution to defend their position on slavery by merely stating that the “supreme law of the land” did not even mentioned “slavery,” or at least not up until that time. They also made use of the Declaration of Independence – the idea of equality in the Declaration of Independence had different intentions and how the term “liberty” changed its meaning throughout the years to fit their defense. By this face, slavery was legally justified and, therefore, should and could be practiced.
In the United States, pro-slavery sentiment arose in the Antebellum period in response to the growing development of the anti-slavery movement in the United States. The period preceding the Civil War is widely known as the Antebellum Period. Those who favored slavery were often challenged by Abolitionists during this time period. Those who were for slavery included economics, religion, and legality to strengthen their arguments and defend their way of life.
- Armstrong, George D. The Christian Doctrine of Slavery. By Geo. D. Armstrong, Pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Va. New York: C. Scribner, 1857. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000409673
- Calhoun, John C. Remarks of Mr. Calhoun, of South Carolina, on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, Delivered in the Senate of the United States, February 1837. Washington, W.W. Moore, 1837. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009563422
- Greenberg, Kenneth S. “Revolutionary Ideology and the Proslavery Argument: The Abolition of Slavery in Antebellum South Carolina.” JSTOR. Southern Historical Association, 1 Aug. 1976. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2207157.pdf?acceptTC=true.
- Harper, William. “Harper on Slavery.” Charleston, 1852. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009588810
- U.S. Const. art VI, § 2. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. http://dp.la/item/5098f9e421230fefc75c6aa197befa8d?back_uri=http%3A%2F%2Fdp.la%2Fsearch%3Futf8%3D%25E2%259C%2593%26q%3DU.S.%2BConstitution