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The Decline of Antislavery Sentiment in the South Previous Next
Digital History ID 4572


During the late 18th century, the South was unique among slave societies in its openness to antislavery ideas. In Maryland and North Carolina, Quakers freed more than 1500 slaves and sent them out of state. Scattered Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers condemned slavery as a sin "contrary to the word of God." Meanwhile, many planters, especially in Virginia and Maryland, described slavery as a source of debt, economic stagnation, and moral dissipation.

During the early 19th century, however, Quakers and Unitarians who were strongly antagonist to slavery, migrated out of the region. Many southern religious sects that had expressed opposition to slavery modified their religious beliefs. By the second decade of the 19th century, antislavery sentiment was confined to Kentucky, Maryland, the Piedmont counties of North Carolina, and the mountains in eastern Tennessee and western Virginia.

Many white Southerners who felt genuine moral doubts about slavery directed their energies into "reforming" the institution. They tried to Christianize slaves, ameliorate their position, and make slavery conform to the ideal depicted in the Old Testament. During the 18th century, the slave codes were exceedingly harsh. They permitted owners to punish slaves by castration and amputation. Slaveowners had no specific obligations for housing, food, or clothing, and many observers reported seeing slaves half-clothed or naked.

During the early 19th century, southern state legislatures defined killing a slave with malice as murder and made dismemberment illegal. Three states forbade the sale of young slave children from their parents. Many of the new laws went unenforced, but they suggested that a new code of values was emerging under slavery. Paternalism was the defining characteristic of this new code. According to this new ideal, slaveholding carried strict obligations. Humane masters were supposed to show concern for the spiritual and physical well-being of their slaves.

These limited efforts at reform were accompanied by tighter restrictions on other aspects of slave life. Private manumissions were made illegal. Most states placed tight restrictions on slave funerals and barred black preachers from conducting religious services unless a white person was present.

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