The Rhetoric of Mastery
Most of these biblical arguments were actually old saws in the proslavery toolbox. However, what made Dabney’s approach distinctive was the way he married his straight biblical defense for slavery with rhetoric of mastery that put forward a white patriarchal vision for social relations. Hence, what made northern social relations “anti-biblical” was the growing egalitarian sentiment evidenced in abolitionist and women’s rights rhetoric. It was in contrast to this that Dabney set forward “Bible Republicanism” as a way of ordering social and economic relations.
Dabney argued that “the integers of which the commonwealth aggregate is made up, are not single human beings, but single families, authoritatively represented in the father and master.” While the father served as master over the household and the mother served in her sphere, children and slaves were minors under the master’s tutelage. In many ways, the household operated as a little commonwealth, for slaves, like women and children, were under the master’s control: “The family is his State. The master is his magistrate and legislator…He is a member of municipal society only through his master, who represents him. The commonwealth knows him only as a life-long minor under the master’s tutelage.”
As a result, hierarchy, patriarchy and inequality were necessary for a properly functioning society. While all human beings had a moral equality before God—although Dabney would later challenge even that proposition when he sought to deny ordination to free Presbyterian blacks after the war—there is a natural inequality between sexes, races, classes, and ages. “Equity, yea, a true equality itself,” Dabney argued, “demands a varied distribution of social privilege among the members, according to their different characters and relations.”
Because a “just” society would restrain social privilege when it contained “a class of adult members, so deficient in virtue and intelligence that they would only abuse the fuller privileges of other citizens to their own and others’ detriment,” it was imperative for southern society that white male masters maintain hegemony due to the “degradation” of their African slaves. According to Dabney, black slaves “were what God’s word declares human depravity to be under the degrading effects of paganism.” In Africa, blacks were “barbarians,” who lived “but one remove above the apes around them.” Even though some have been brought to America and placed under the influence of the Gospel, blacks still were prone to particular vices, such as “lying, theft, drunkenness, laziness, waste” due to the fact they had “the reason and morals of children, constitutionally prone to improvidence.” In short, African Americans were “morally inferior.”
In addition, while he was careful to affirm the biblical truth of monogenesis, the claim that all humankind sprang from one set of original parents, Dabney concluded that blacks had become “a different, fixed species” of the human race, “separated from the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral, almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus.” By separating the races, subordinating blacks, and keeping power in the hands of the master class, there would be no fear of a “hybrid race, stamped with all the feebleness of the hybrid, and incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race.”
As a result, for Dabney and other southern white elites, white mastery and black slavery was necessary for the proper functioning of society. He actually claimed that slavery was necessary in order to restrain blacks from damaging themselves with freedom: “We certainly are not required by a benevolent God to ruin him in order to do him justice!” Dabney exclaimed. In fact, “Africans among us had a right to the protection of bondage.” If they were granted equality with white masters, including the rights to vote and to gain an education, they would become “a nuisance to society and early victims to their own degradation.” White mastery was necessary for the order of a society ordained by God.