Digital History
Cotton Is King: Pro-Slavery Arguments
Digital History ID 275

Author:   E.N. Elliott


By 1860, slave labor was becoming an exception in the New World, confined to Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, some small Dutch colonies, and the South. In all of those areas, except the South, slavery could not long survive the ending of slave importations from Africa since the slave populations had a skewed sex ratio and were unable to naturally reproduce their numbers.

Within the South itself, slavery was sharply declining in the upper South and slave ownership was becoming concentrated in fewer hands. Whereas a third of southern whites owned slaves in 1850, a decade later the proportion had dropped to one-quarter. In Missouri, between 1830 and 1860, the proportion of slaves in the population fell from 18 percent to 10 percent; in Kentucky, from 24 to 19 percent; in Maryland, from 23 to 13 percent.

By 1860, southern leaders were eager to vindicate slavery, to demonstrate that it was moral, progressive, and not out of step with the times. Cotton Is King represented an attempt to refute arguments like those of Hinton Rowan Helper. The book's essays, written by leading southern politicians, attorneys, and theologians, argued that slavery was a humane and truly Christian institution, economically productive and justified by Scripture.


There is now but one great question dividing the American people, and that, to the great danger of the stability of our government, the concord and harmony of our citizens, and the perpetuation of our liberties, divides us by a geographical line. Hence, estrangement, alienation, enmity, have arisen between the North and South....

Witness the growing distrust with which the people of the North and South begin to regard each other; the diminution of Southern travel, either for business or pleasure, in the Northern States; the efforts of each section to develop its own resources, so as virtually to render it independent of the other; the enactment of "unfriendly legislation," in several of the States, towards other States of the Union, or their citizens; the contest for the exclusive possession of the territories, the common property of the States; the anarchy and bloodshed in Kansas;...the existence of the "underground railroad," and of a party in the North organized for the express purpose of robbing the citizens of the Southern States of their property;...the attempt to circulate incendiary documents among the slaves in the Southern states;....and finally, the recent attempt to excite, at Harper's Ferry, and throughout the South, an insurrection, and a civil and servile war, with all its attendant horrors.

All these facts go to prove that there is a great wrong somewhere, and that a part, or the whole, of the American people are demented, and hurrying down to swift destruction....

Under the Jewish law, a slave might be beaten to death by his master, and yet the master go entirely unpunished, unless the slave died outright under his hand. Under the Roman law, slaves had no rights whatever, and were scarcely recognized as human beings; indeed, they were sometimes drowned in fish-ponds, to feed the eels. Such is not the labor system among us.... The true definition of the term, as applicable to the domestic institution in the Southern States, is as follows: Slavery is the duty and obligation of the slave to labor for the mutual benefit of both master and slave, under a warrant to the slave of protection, and a comfortable subsistence, under all circumstances....

It is objected to the defenders of American slavery, that they have changed their ground; that from being apologists for it as an inevitable evil, they have become its defenders as a social and political good, morally right, and sanctioned by the Bible and God himself. This charge is unjust.... The present slave States had little or no agency in the first introduction of Africans into this country; this was achieved by the Northern commercial States and by Great Britain. Wherever the climate suited the Negro constitution, slavery was profitable and flourished; where the climate was unsuitable, slavery was unprofitable, and died out.

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