Defending Virginia’s Slavery
Dabney had long been convinced that the strongest argument on behalf of southern slavery would be one drawn from Holy Scripture. As early as 1851, he had held that southern response to the 1850 Wilmont Proviso, which sought to provide a solution to the balance of slave and free states, should focus on the “fundamental ethical question of the justifiableness of slavery.” Recognizing that the nineteenth century American mind still bowed to biblical authority, he believed that in order to affect “the general current of national opinion on this subject, ‘Is slaveholding intrinsically immoral or unjust?’ we must go before the nation with the bible as the test, and the ‘thus saith the Lord,’ as the answer.” This strategy was the only wise one, Dabney held, because “on the bible argument, we are, logically, impregnable.”
It is for this reason that the central part of Dabney’s Defence of Virginia sought to “push the Bible argument continually.” Dabney’s thesis was that “the Bible teaches that the relation of master and slave is perfectly lawful and right, provided only its duties be lawfully fulfilled.” In order to demonstrate this, he ranged widely over Old and New Testament texts. Dabney began with Genesis 9, a key text in the apologetics for American slavery. There he observed that while the curse of Ham and his son, Canaan, did not justify African slavery, it did provide “the origin of domestic slavery.” God provided slavery, according to Dabney, to remedy “the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race.” Because God sanctioned slavery for Ham and his posterity, slavery could not be sinful, he concluded. Dabney also considered Abraham and Isaac as a slaveholders. God clearly did not disapprove of Abraham’s slaveholding, Dabney argued, because God extended the sacrament of circumcision to include Abraham’s entire household—male sons and male slaves. Also, God told the runaway slave Hagar, who belonged to Abraham, to return to her master and submit herself to him when she had run away.
Another series of Old Testament texts that Dabney examined were the Mosaic laws. He tried to demonstrate that because God “expressly authorized” slavery in the Old Testament, it was “innocent” to hold slaves “unless it has been subsequently forbidden by God.” Finally, Dabney pointed out that slavery was mentioned twice in the Ten Commandments, “in modes which are a recognition of its lawfulness.” Both the Fourth and the Tenth Commandments explicitly mentioned slavery: the Fourth commanding masters to allow slaves to rest and worship on the Sabbath, the Tenth forbidding covetous attitudes toward another’s slaves.
The most incredible Old Testament argument that Dabney made, however, was that God himself was a slaveholder—in both Numbers 31:25-30 and Joshua 9:20-27, it appeared that God claimed a “tithe” of slaves akin to a tithe of grain or cattle. Hence, Dabney concluded, God could not have taught that slavery per se was sinful because God himself was a slaveholder.
While Dabney claimed that the inspired arguments of the Old Testament should be enough for Christians, still he believed that the New Testament also sanctified the master-slave relation. Though he held that the “mere absence of a condemnation of slaveholding in the New Testament is proof that it is not unlawful,” Dabney did not rest his case there. He pointed out that Christ applauded the faith of the slaveholding centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Further, the Apostles failed to act against slaveholding as a moral evil. In fact, slaveholders were prominent members of the early church and the apostolic writers wrote specific instruction to them about how they were to treat their slaves (e.g. Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1). Finally, Dabney pointed to the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, claiming that not only did Paul not rebuke Philemon for slaveholding, but Paul also returned Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus to him, apparently recognizing Philemon’s property rights in his slave. In defending slavery, Dabney believed that a common sense reading of Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery should be enough.