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Hardening of Proslavery Arguments from 1786 to 1837

Slavery in Early America In the eighteenth century and before, slavery was both diffused throughout the colonies and heterogeneous in how it was administered and regulated. Slavery was one of a number of unpaid labor arrangements including indenture. Slaves commonly worked side by side with other laborers in a broad range of manual and skilled tasks. Slaves were often manumitted and it was unclear whether the children of slaves were also to be held as slaves. Laws regarding slavery varied from colony to colony.
The Early Discourse of Slavery

The debate over slavery was similarly diverse. The debate was held within the dominant public and was common enough to be included as a school exercise in Bingham's Columbian Orator. While few argued for immediate abolition, most agreed that slavery in principle was wrong and should be eventually eradicated or its further spread prevented. This position is known as gradualism or "conditional termination."

Conditional Termination
1. enact post-nati manumission
2. prohibit slavery in new territories
3. ban African slave trade
4. recolonize slaves to Africa
26 Jun 1786
Jefferson, Letter to Nicolas DeMeunier
22 Aug 1787
Madison, Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention
Changes in the Economy of Slavery Trigger Hardening of the Debate As the country expanded some of the provisions of conditional termination were enacted. At the same time the economy of slavery expanded in the cotton, rice and sugar-growing regions of the Southeast. Meanwhile post-nati manumission laws took effect in the northeast, gradually eliminating slavery from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. But in the South, expanded economic dependence on slavery combined with the cut off supply of new slaves from Africa led to the entrenchment of familial chattel slavery and the American apartheid.
Northwest Ordinance: slavery prohibited in Ohio territory. First fugitive slave clause.
Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, stimulating industrial cotton production and increasing reliance on slave labor in the South.
Louisiana Purchase extends cotton and rice growing territory westward.
African slave trade prohibited.
The Later Discourse of Slavery
As the economy became entrenched so did the rhetoric. The central anomaly of caste slavery in a supposedly democratic society was justified as the "peculiar institution," giving new encouragement to a deeply held myth of African racial inferiority. Opposition from abolitionists further hardened the Southern position which now could not admit that slavery was in principle wrong, since there was clearly no intention of eradicating it. Slavery was now promoted as a "positive good."
Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes on the Missouri Question
Nat Turner's rebellion greatly increased fears of a widespread, violent slave revolt and generated a heated debate in the Virginia legislature over emancipation. In the same year, William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of The Liberator advocating immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery. During the 1830's a number of slaveholding states write a series of slave codes restricting freedom of speech and assembly of slaves and "free persons of color" and setting limits on the legal personhood of slaves.
John C. Calhoun and William Henry Hammond argue for slavery as a positive good in the course of the Gag Rule controversy