When slavery was defined as a peculiar institution, it was thought to mean a distinctive aspect of the people of the US who had embraced it. In other words, it was used in a more positive light since those who partook of it believed that they were doing the right thing and the benefits that emanated from it were crucial to the lives of its stakeholders.
On the other hand, an external analysis of slavery as a peculiar institution reveals a lot of contradictions within it thus making it quite peculiar. First and foremost, it was regarded as a critical tool to self preservation by whites. They needed it both socially and economically at the time. Choosing to abolish it was feared to cause a number of casualties within their lives. However slavery took place at a time that was considered the age of enlightenment. There were obvious political and moral evils that the dominant group was aware of yet it could not oblige. The slaves were vehemently denied access to justice even when it was common knowledge that this was their right as human beings. Those contradictions make slavery something distinct or peculiar from any other undertaking in the American South or the entire US for that matter.
Slavery came to be defined very differently by both blacks and whites at that time. Slave masters often meddled in the lives of blacks where they would dictate how the latter live. For instance, they made decisions on whether to separate families or not, to nullify marriages, to threaten, punish and even sexually abuse slave women. Indeed, the objection to slavery by blacks was not primarily because of the hard work associated with it; instead, they objected to their loss of freedom and the control of their lives by their masters. In fact, many slaves tried to live as autonomously as was reasonably possible in an attempt to limit control by their masters. Whites on the other hand, presumed that they were offering their slaves security and care. For instance, they often gave them food rations or permission to till their own land. Additionally, they were provided with a small degree of medicine and clothing. However, the latter provisions were mostly prevalent after the civil war in 1861.
How the dominant group rationalized existence of slavery in a nominally libertarian and egalitarian nation
The defense of slavery can be analyzed under a five fold lens. Slave owners and other like minded individuals used religious backings as a basis for their actions. They asserted that the bible permitted slavery since certain scriptures mentioned the master-slave relationship.
Supporters of slavery often asserted that they were only perpetuating a deep tradition prevalent in many civilizations. Here they argued that even the ancient Greek and Roman empires depended on slavery for their existence so the United States was no exception. To these proponents, every civilized society had to have a way of securing labor for themselves and this was effectively done through the adoption of such a system.
Others argued that slavery was necessary in order to sustain the cotton economy which was especially prevalent in the Southern states. After the invention of the cotton gin, there was increased demand for cotton and hence labor through slavery. Whites in the South and North benefited from exportation of cotton and therefore perpetuated increased used of slave labor. In fact, when certain voices started raising questions against slave labor, several Southern slave masters asserted that it would create social disorder because the economy would be adversely affected. Furthermore, unemployment and a clamor for the few job positions prevalent in the nation would arise.
In the North, wage labor had been adopted and to the slave owners, this seemed like a step backward in terms of productivity or efficiency. A proponent of such a view was John Calhoun. He felt that the conditions of slave laborers in the South were more tenable than the struggles of free labor in the North. According to him, whenever paid labor existed, there would always be a struggle between capital and labor and this would lead to impeded progress. Slavery ensured that the relationship between capital and labor was never jeopardized as owners of capital could flourish from the proceeds of their efforts while their slaves could be treated well and offered security even up to their old age. In this regard, the south would be in a great position to advance because they could live off the efforts of their slaves while they were concentrated on the leisure of science, learning or even the arts.
Others took on a more aggressive ideological stance: that slavery was crucial in ‘civilizing’ Africans and removing them from the primitive ways of their ancestors. A notable proponent of these ideas was Robert Lee. The latter individual once asserted that Africans were actually in a better state as slaves than they were back in their motherland. He believed that this was a pathway to physical, social and moral development. Indeed, he asserted that the black race was destined for great things owing to the discipline they would receive from slavery. This was a way of instructing them on better living and how they could deal with their own problems. These adherents believed that there were certain racial differences between white and black people and therefore trying to make them equal would be nothing more than an exercise in futility. Some like George Fitzhugh actually believed that slavery put black people in their place. To him, blacks were lazy and unintelligent with the brain development of children. Consequently, it was imperative to restrict them so that they would not be a danger to themselves or others around them. The free world would be too much of a challenge for the black man because it would entail job searching, starvation or even begging by the latter individuals.
However, one does not have to go too far to see how inaccurate such viewpoints are. Slavery was a contradiction to Christianity as well as to the basic founding principles of the land which rested on the inalienable rights of every man. To purport that Blacks were an inferior race was simply to look for a way of justifying this erroneous institution. In truth, white slave owners shifted the controversy from the “institution” to the “person”. In other words, they made the slave not slavery the ultimate object of scorn. Indeed in the eighteenth century, several slave traders including Ashley Montagu who wrote “Man’s most dangerous myth-the fallacy of race” affirmed that slaves’ mental capacity rivaled that of whites or even superseded in certain scenarios. Slave supporters may have been threatened by abolitionists and antislavery supporters so they needed to look for some other justification for their actions.
Also, the view that slavery was a necessary machinery for the economy was also not justified because according to Alexis Tocqueville (in his 1835 book-Democracy in America) colonies with no slavery tended to be more populous and greatly flourished in comparison to those without. Slavery therefore undermined the economy as seen by the rural setting that persisted in the Southern States; the Northern states grew tremendously.