“Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery

In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery”:

Dabney, “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (April–May, 1851)

For a historical (and historiographical) introduction to the letters see Part 1 here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” This post contains brief commentary on each of the nine letters.

Letter 1

The reception of the letters is interesting. The editors of the Enquirer clearly think that Dabney’s arguments, “if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights.” Dabney was no minor figure in 19th century Virginia, he had influence in both the sacred and the secular sphere. Second, it is interesting that Dabney explicitly repudiates the common Southern sentiment that “slavery is a regrettable but unavoidable necessity” and instead posits a strong and unapologetic “slavery is righteous, just, benevolent, and above all, Biblical.” Dabney saw that arguing for slavery from the Bible was “profitable” and “safe” and would give them a “great advantage.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that even here, he can’t help but acknowledge that things would have to change (which, history demonstrates, they never did): 

“but slaveholders must pay something for all these striking advantages of the discussion; and the tribute which they must pay, is to grant to the slave those rights which are inalienable to humanity—a just and humane treatment, the right of serving his Creator, and those domestic privileges which God gave to all men, when he placed them in families. If we represent slavery as a thing which necessarily includes the overthrow of the slave’s right to life, and of his moral, religious, and marital rights, then we make it a thing indefensible; for these things are a part of that essential humanity, of which no human being can be rightfully deprived.—If we make our institution a something which secures these rights to the slave, then it is defensible: and the victory is ours! To secure these inalienable rights of humanity to the slave, we invoke, not so much legislation, though perhaps a prudent legislation might ameliorate some things, as conscience, justice, and mercy.” 

Note the conditional “if we make our institution” more just “then it is defensible.” But even here, he shies away from legislating any of these changes. Exactly how the institution would so fundamentally change, Dabney never shows, he merely hypothesizes.

Letter 2

Dabney makes a great point here for “immediate emancipation”: if slavery is sinful, it ought to cease at once, no dabbling around the edges with “gradualism”: 

If I did not believe that the bible taught this, I must, in consistency, be a thorough abolitionist. I cannot see how men can say in one breath, that slavery is a malum per se and in the next, that a conscientious man may lawfully continue it for the present, because of the difficulties of emancipation. My conscience and my bible teach me that, if an act is wrong, in its own essential nature, sin, I am to cease it at once. I have no right to look at the supposed evil consequences or difficulties of the reformation. God has not told us that we are to love his law when convenience and safety permit; he has told us that if we do not love it in preference to convenience, profit, and life itself, we cannot be his disciples. Consequences belong to God, duty belongs to us. What would be the thought of the man, who should plead that he ought not to cease living in an adulterous connexion, because a change would be dangerous and inconvenient?—Would not you answer, “unless you cease that connexion at every risk, you are an immoral man?” So, in answer to all the pictures of the mischiefs which emancipation would bring on master and slave, if I believed that slavery were, in its own abstract nature, malum per se, I should be compelled to answer in the words of the well known maxim : Fiat justitia, ruat cælum!

These words could have come from the pen or mouth of William Lloyd Garrison, apart from the very first conditional.

I should note that Dabney’s entire edifice of Old Testament argument hangs on identifying Southern slavery with what is described in the Bible with the Hebrew word עבד (“abad”), an utter lexical fallacy that shows up in his reasoning. Here’s one example: 

An attempt has been made to parry this, and other Old Testament arguments for the lawfulness of slavery, by asserting that the slaves of the Hebrews were only hired. This assertion is only good to display the ignorance of those who make it. A truly learned and honest anti-slavery man, such as the venerable Moses Stuart, would blush to employ it.—All antiquity proves that these servants were slaves for life. They were “bought for money.” They were denoted by one certain Hebrew word, while an entirely different word was employed to denote a hired servant, and was never used interchangeably with the former.

Unfortunately for Dabney, this is easily disproved. עבד is the Hebrew word Dabney claims “was never used interchangeably” with the word for a hired servant. However, in Genesis 29 Jacob עבד Laban his uncle. He does not עבד for nothing, but his service includes specific terms and wages (Gen 29:15, 18, 20, 25). When this agreement is broken, Jacob is angry that he has been deceived (Gen 29:25). The terms are updated. When the time period is complete, Jacob demands to leave along with his “wages” (Gen 30:26, 29). (For a thorough outline on the uses of עבד in the Pentateuch, see “עבד: “work/service/slavery” in the Torah”). This foundational error in Dabney’s exegetical framework leaves his entire argument on unsustainable ground.

Letter 3

In this letter, Dabney attempts to draw strong continuity between the Old Covenant laws and the New Covenant Christian. As a Baptist, I already reject much of the fundamental framework of continuity that Dabney starts with. Nevertheless, in terms of the Old Testament ethics, Dabney claims that “if we find any particular thing sanctioned, or enjoined, in these peculiar, civil, or ceremonial institutions of Moses, it does not prove that thing to be binding on us, or necessarily politic and proper for us; but it does prove it to be, in its essential moral character, innocent.” Because God ordained “slavery” (already a fallacy for Dabney), it must not be an evil in itself. However, in all his discussion on this, Dabney never addresses Jesus’s own teaching which does precisely this:

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32).

“The Pharisees said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9)

Setting aside an in-depth discussion of “divorce and remarriage” for Christians, it is evident that Jesus has a category for something in the Law of Moses that was there temporarily because of “the hardness of your hearts” but that, if practiced now, would constitute something sinful (“adultery”). I would say that the treatment of Gentiles by the nation of Israel falls completely in this category: no intermarriage; no eating together; on occasion going to war to kill and conquer them; and harsher terms of servitude than for “Hebrew servants” — all of these fall under the temporary, and even the “for the hardness of your hearts,” aspect of the Old Covenant. Dabney does not refute this—he doesn’t even address it.

Letter 4

Moses Stuart

Dabney continues answering abolitionist objections to Old Testament arguments for slavery. One interesting point to note is the use he makes of “a northern man, and no friend of slavery, Rev. Moses Stuart.” Moses Stuart (1780–1852) was a professor at Andover Theological Seminary (near Boston), and was considered to be one of the leading biblical scholars of the time. He was also a quintessential example of the Northern “moderate,” who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery, but unwilling to actually do anything about it, and actually spent considerable time and energy opposing abolitionists instead for being “too radical.” Stuart himself supported “colonization” (shipping free Black people back to Africa), and discouraged the students at Andover from engaging in abolitionist activism. When George Thompson, an abolitionist from England, came to America in 1835 at the invitation of William Lloyd Garrison, he made a stop in Andover. At chapel, Stuart sounded forth: “”I warn you, young gentlemen, Iwarn you on the peril of your souls, not to go to that meeting tonight” (in Claude M. Fuess, An Old New England School, A History of Phillips Academy, Andover, 226). When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Stuart publicly supported it, publishing an entire treatise defending it: Conscience and the Constitution with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster on the Subject of Slavery (Boston, 1850).

Needless to say, abolitionists opposed moderates like Stuart as fiercely as they opposed the “fire-eaters” in the south. The pages of the Liberator frequently critiqued Stuart along with other Christian churches and theologians. Abolitionist William Jay published his own Reply to Remarks of Rev. Moses Stuart, Lately a Professor in the Theological Seminary at Andover, on Hon. John Jay, and an Examination of His Scriptural Exegesis, Contained in His Recent Pamphlet Entitled, “Conscience and the Constitutionin response as did George Perkins in Prof. Stuart and Slave Catching. Remarks on Mr. Stuart’s book “Conscience and the Constitution.” The conflict in the North between abolitionists and moderates is important for understanding these debates (for more on this see: ““We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society,” and ““Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race.”) Stuart was the perfect kind of “anti-slavery” figure for Dabney to quote for his own rhetorical purposes.

Letter 7

In letter 7 Dabney directly contradicts himself from just ten years earlier. In a letter sent to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, on January 22, 1840, Dabney admits that 

“I do not believe that we ought to rest contented that slavery should exist forever, in its present form. It is, as a system, liable to most erroneous abuses… Do you think that there will be a system of slavery, where the black is punished with death for an offence for which a white man is only imprisoned a year or two; where the black may not resist wanton aggression and injury; where he is liable to have his domestic rela­tions violated in an instant; where the female is not mistress of her own chastity; where the slave is liable to starvation, oppression and cruel punishments from an unprincipled master—that such a system can exist in the millennium? If not then, it is an obstacle to the Prince of Peace, and if we would see his chariot roll on among the prostrate nations it is our duty to remove this obstruction”

Life and Letters of Dabney, 68. 

Yet, in 1851, in Letter 7, Dabney has completely reversed course:

But they [anti-slavery men] ask: Must not the spread of the pure and lovely principles of the gospel ultimately extinguish slavery ? Yes, I hope it will; not by making masters too good to be guilty of holding slaves, but by so correcting the ignorance, indolence and thriftlessness of laboring people, that the institution of slavery will be no longer needed.

Here is the first hint of an idea that will be much more elaborately expressed in subsequent letters: slavery is right and just because it is a benevolent way to correct “the ignorance, indolence, and thriftlessness of laboring people” — and by “laboring people,” Dabney was referring specifically to Black people.

Letter 8

In Letter 8 Dabney moves from his scriptural argument to arguments from “reason.” Central to his reasoning is the notion of the “common good” or the “good of the whole” or the “general good of society.” The arbiters of just what constitutes the “general good of society” is, of course, upper class white men like Dabney. Mix in some racism, and Dabney can assert that slavery is justified because it is for the “common good”:

“all men are by nature equal in their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, except so far as the good of the whole requires the submission of all to degrees of restraint corresponding to their qualities and circumstances.”

“Now, we assert, that this surrender of individual, savage, independence to the general good of society, is of the essential nature of slavery… If it can be shown that the degree of restraint which amounts to slavery, is necessary for the best condition of ruler and subject, then it is justifiable”

It is here that Dabney’s racism supplies the crucial premise in the argument. Why is slavery good for society as a whole? Why, for the welfare of the inferior Black people:

“And that the necessities of order, social happiness, and the welfare of the slave himself do call for the relation of domestic slavery, is proved by the admissions of all who have any practical knowledge of the African, and by the disasters which have attended his emancipation.”

Only white-supremacy could argue so audaciously that slavery is for “the common good” and especially good for “the welfare of the slave himself.”

Letter 9

Francis Wayland

In Letter 9, Dabney tries to refute the objection that because American slavery was rooted in kidnapping, “a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave-catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has ; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time.” This is a powerful objection, and it should be noted that Dabney doesn’t actually answer it in the letter. Instead, he points the finger back at Northern anti-slavery figures, and says, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well what about the land you stole from the ‘New England Indian’? Are you going to give that back? Didn’t think so. Leave me alone.” He blusters that anti-slavery moderate Francis Wayland had “begged the question” and made a proposition “worse than questionable” but he never actually addresses Wayland’s reasoning, other than those side-stepping assertions. He concludes the letter with a very self-congratulatory justification for the situation: “The relation so iniquitously begun at first, but so fairly and justly transferred to subsequent owners, has resulted in civilization, religious instruction, and untold blessings to the slaves. Its dissolution would be more ruinous to them than to the masters” — indeed, a proposition worse than questionable.

Letter 10

Letter 10 contains the most concentrated dose of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy:

In considering these supposed evils of slavery, we must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure… It would have been a curse that would have paralyzed the industry, corrupted the morals, and crushed the development of any nation, thus to have an ignorant, pagan, lazy, uncivilized people intermixed with us, and spread abroad like the frogs of Egypt. The remedy is slavery.

Notice how Dabney’s white-supremacy infuses his Christianity in this pro-slavery argument:

And let us ask, what has slavery done to rescue the South and the Africans in these portentous cir­cumstances? It has civilized and christianized the Africans, and has made them, in the view of all who are practically acquainted with their condition, the most comfortable pea­santry in the world… we see that through the civilizing agency of domestic slavery, the much-slandered christianity of the South has done far more for the salvation of heathen men than all the religious enterprise of Protestant christendom!

Dabney’s “common good” argument rests squarely on the foundation of white-supremacy:

Under such circumstances as these, can we avoid conclu­ding that slavery is lawful and righteous? Are not its bless­ings proofs of its righteousness? Is it wrong to promote the greatest good of all classes?

Frederick Douglass

Reflecting on Dabney’s case for slavery, stretched out over these eleven letters, it seems that it was this white-supremacy that was the heart beat that invigorated both his “literal Biblical” reasoning on slavery and his Scottish “common sense” reasoning on the same topic. What might otherwise be neutral interpretive and rational tools (literalism, common sense) become infused with the racism undergirding it, and it shows in Dabney’s work. In answer, let me just quote Frederick Douglass: 

“…the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. Slavery had the power at one time to make and unmake Presidents, to construe the law, dictate the policy, set the fashion in national manners and customs, interpret the Bible, and control the church; and, naturally enough, the old masters set them selves up as much too high as they set the manhood of the negro too low. Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line.” (“The Color Line,” The North American Review (1881), 593.

Letter 11

Adam Smith

In Dabney’s final letter, he takes up the objection that slavery is less productive than free labor. This claim had been made most notably by Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Book  III, Chapter II), and Dabney feels compelled to try to address it. The letter is an amalgam of ad-hoc arguments, and his own comparisons with conditions in the north, in which he can claim that  free labor is more “oppressive” than slavery:

But compared with the hardships, diseases, separations of families, and op­pressions, to which free labor is liable, in its poverty and in its severance from a master’s protecting arm, all the oppres­sions of Southern slavery are trifling. 

I think my favorite argument in the letter amounts to this: “I know a guy who lived in Ohio (a very reliable fellow, trust me), and he says that our farms in Virginia are better than theirs.” Evidently, at this point in the argument, it was time to wrap it up. Dabney’s concluding paragraph includes all the core elements in his argument: race, religion, and “common sense reason” — a powerful recipe: 

If a slave-holding society is more productive than one pos­sessing free labor, and if the institution of slavery secures to the laboring classes a more comfortable share in the profits of the community, then slavery is a merciful and benev­olent institution for a world and a race such as ours. The wisdom and goodness of our Creator are conspicuous in au­thorizing it. We have not then claimed his sanction to an unjust, cruel and mischievous system; but we have found that, contrary to the confident assertions of the wisdom, falsely so called, of this world, it is a system as accordant to justice and benevolence, as it is to that book whose teachings are unmingled righteousness, and whose spirit is mercy.

Slavery was no “blind spot” for Robert Lewis Dabney — it was a foundational cornerstone in his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

Further Reading

Giltner, John H. “Moses Stuart and the Slavery Controversy: A Study in the Failure of Moderation.” Journal of Religious Thought (1961): 27–39.

Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).

Mullin, Robert Bruce. “Biblical Critics and the Battle Over Slavery.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 61.2 (1983): 210–26 (available on JSTOR).

Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Chapter 3: “The Crisis over the Bible.”