Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

Any reader of this blog knows that I am passionate about challenging my students to think historically. One of the best ways to do this is to give them documents written by defenders of slavery. Yesterday and today my U.S. survey course discussed two popular nineteenth-century defenses of slavery: George Fitzhugh’s “The Blessings of Slavery” (1857) and Thomas Dew’s 1852 theological/biblical argument in defense of slavery.

Fitzhugh, in what has become a classic pro-slavery defense, argues that the slaves in the nineteenth-century south were happier and more content and comfortable than the laboring class in the burgeoning industrial north. The north did not have to deal with the “nuisance” of slavery, but they still benefited from the peculiar institution. Without slavery and the goods that the slaves produced, the north would “starve.” Fitzhugh offers a stinging critique of antebellum industrial capitalism.

Dew argues that the Bible does not condemn slavery, but he does admit that slavery is incompatible with the “spirit of Christianity.” Despite this admission, Dew believes that it would be wrong, if not unChristian, to free the slaves. Emancipation would disrupt the social order (which is ordained by God) and would force slaves to live lives that were outside of their “calling.”

Because these authors are so reprehensible to my students, their natural response is to argue with them. They want to prove they are wrong. Some of them try to make biblical arguments to prove that slaveholders misunderstand the Bible.

This kind of moral judgement on the pro-slavery past is natural. But as Sam Wineburg reminds us, historical thinking is an unnatural act. Historical thinking requires my students to understand these figures from the past before they pass moral judgment. I tell them that such moral criticism is certainly possible in a history course, but it is not the primary goal as it might be in one of their Bible or ethics courses. I want my students to suspend judgment and make every effort, through the help of me and the other historians who they read, to place themselves in the world of the antebellum south. This kind of thinking cultivates virtues such as empathy, intellectual hospitality, and humility–virtues that my students will soon need when they leave the Messiah College bubble and engage a world where they will run into people with whom they do not agree.

3 thoughts on “Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

  1. James – that is not what Professor Fea is saying.

    The rule historians try to follow is that we should try to understand – and even empathize (i.e., “walk a mile in their shoes”) with people in the past before we “rush to judgment” to praise or condemn them.

    Historical empathy is the ability to see and judge the past in its own terms by trying to understand the mentality, frames of reference, beliefs, values, intentions, and actions of historical agents using a variety of historical evidence. Empathy is necessary to comprehend the thought of a historical agent or the ability to view the world as it was seen by the people in the past without imposing today's values on them.

    So, I think Professor Fea is advising us to suspend judgment at first, but after careful analysis, everyone is entitled to their own opinion (but, not their own facts).


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