The Rights of Slavery

by  George McDuffie (1935)

Domestic slavery, therefore, instead of being a political evil, is the corner-stone of our republican edifice.

George E. McDuffie of South Carolina Since your last adjournment the public mind throughout the slaveholding States has been intensely, indignantly and justly excited by the wanton, officious and incendiary proceedings of certain societies and persons in some of the non-slaveholding States, who have been actively employed in attempting to circulate among us pamphlets, papers and pictorial representations of the most offensive and inflammatory character, and eminently calculated to seduce our slaves from their fidelity, and excite them to insurrection and massacre. These wicked monsters and deluded fanatics, overlooking the numerous objects in their own vicinity, who have a moral, if not a legal claim upon their charitable regard, run abroad, in the expansion of their hypocritical benevolence, muffled up in the saintly mantle of Christian meekness, to fulfill the fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of the master and the slave, to whose fate they are equally indifferent, with the smouldering ruins of our peaceful dwellings. No principle of human action so utterly baffles all human calculation as that species of fanatical enthusiasm, which is made of envy and ambition, assuming the guise of religious zeal, and acting upon the known prejudices, religious or political, of an ignorant multitude. Under the influence of this species of voluntary madness, nothing is sacred that stands in the way of its purposes. Like all other religious impostures, it has power to consecrate every act, however atrocious, and every person, however covered with “multiplying villainies,” that may promote its diabolical ends, or worship at its infernal altars. By its unholy creed, murder itself becomes a labor of love and charity, and the felon renegado, who flies from the justice of his country, finds not only a refuge, but becomes a sainted minister, in the sanctuary of its temple. No error can be more mischievous than to underrate the danger of such a principle, and no policy can be more fatal than to neglect it, from a contempt for the supposed insignificance of its agents. The experience of both France and Great Britain fearfully instruct us, from what small and contemptible beginnings, this ami des noirs philanthropy may rise to a gigantic power, too mighty to be resisted by all the influence and energy of the government; in the one case, shrouding a wealthy and flourishing island in the blood of its white inhabitants; in the other, literally driving the ministry, by means of an instructed parliament, to perpetrate that act of suicidal legislation, and colonial oppression, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. It may be not unaptly compared to the element of fire, of which, a neglected spark, amongst combustible materials, which a timely stamp of the foot might have extinguished forever, speedily swells into a sweeping torrent of fiery desolation, which no human power can arrest or control. In the opinion of the intelligent West India planters, it is because the local authorities, from a sense of false security neglected to hang up the first of these political missionaries that made their appearance on the British Islands, that they are doomed to barrenness and desertion, and to be the wretched abodes of indolent and profligate blacks, exhibiting, in their squalid poverty, gross immorality and slavish subjection to an iron despotism of British bayonets, the fatal mockery of all the .promised blessings of emancipation.

Under these circumstances, and in this critical conjuncture of our afiairs, the solemn and responsible duty devolves on the legislature, of “taking care that the republic receive no detriment.”

The crime which these foreign incendiaries have committed against the peace of the State, is one of the very highest grade known to human laws. It not only strikes at the very existence of society, but seeks to accomplish the catastrophe, by the most horrible means, celebrating the obsequies of the State in a saturnial carnival of blood and murder, and while brutally violating all. the charities of life, and desecrating the very altars of religion, impiously calling upon Heaven to sanction these abominations. It is my deliberate opinion that the laws of every community should punish this species of interference by death without benefit of clergy, regarding the authors of it as “enemies of the human race.” Nothing could. be more appropriate than for South Carolina to set this example in the present crisis, and I trust the legislature will not adjourn till it discharges this high duty of patriotism.

It cannot be disguised, however, that any laws which may be enacted by the authority of this State, however adequate to punish and repress offenses committed within its limits, will be wholly insufficient to meet the exigencies of the present conjuncture. If we go no farther than this, we had as well do nothing.

The outrages against the peace and safety of the State are perpetrated in other communities, which hold and exercise sovereign and exclusive jurisdiction over all persons and things within their territorial limits. It is within these limits, protected from responsibility to our laws by the sovereignty of the States in which they reside, that the authors of all this mischief, securely concoct their schemes, plant their batteries, and hurl their fiery missiles among us, aimed at that mighty magazine of combustible matter, the explosion of which would lay the State in ruins.

It will, therefore, become our imperious duty, recurring to those great principles of international law, which still exist in all their primitive force amongst the sovereign States of this confederacy, to demand of our sovereign associates the condign punishment of those enemies of our peace, who avail themselves of the sanctuaries of their respective jurisdictions, to carry on schemes of incendiary hostility against the institutions, the safety, and the existence of the State. In performing this high duty, to which we are constrained by the great law of selfpreservation, let us approach to our co-States with all the fraternal mildness which becomes us as members of the same family of confederated republics, and at the same time with that firmness and decision, which becomes a sovereign State, while maintaining her dearest interests and most sacred rights.

For the institution of domestic slavery we hold ourselves responsible only to God, and it is utterly incompatible with the dignity and the safety of the State, to permit any foreign authority to question our right to maintain it. It may nevertheless be appropriate, as a voluntary token of our respect for the opinions of our confederate brethren, to present some views to their consideration on this subject, calculated to disabuse their minds of false opinions and pernicious prejudices.

No human institution, in my opinion, is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, than domestic slavery, and no one of His ordinances is written in more legible characters than that which consigns the African race to this condition, as more conducive to their own happiness, than any other of which they are susceptible. Whether we consult the sacred Scriptures, or the lights of nature and reason, we shall find these truths as abundantly apparent as if written with a sunbeam in the heavens. Under both the Jewish and Christian dispensations of our religion, domestic slavery existed with the unequivocal sanction of its prophets, its apostles, and finally its great Author. The patriarchs themselves, those chosen instruments of God, were slave-holders. In fact the divine sanction of this institution is so plainly written that “he who runs may read” it, and those over-righteous pretenders and Pharisees, who affect to be scandalized by its existence among us, would do well to inquire how much more nearly they walk in the ways of Godliness, than did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That the African negro is destined by Providence to occupy this condition of servile dependence, is not less manifest. It is marked on the face, stamped on the skin, and evinced by the intellectual inferiority and natural improvidence of this race. They have all the qualities that fit them for slaves, and not one of those that would fit them to be freemen. They are utterly unqualified not only for rational freedom, but for self-government of any kind. They are in all respects, physical, moral, and political, inferior to millions of the human race, who have for consecutive ages dragged out a wretched existence under a grinding political despotism, and who are doomed to this hopeless condition by the very qualities which unfit them for a better. It is utterly astonishing that any enlightened American, after contemplating all the manifold forms in which even the white race of mankind are doomed to slavery and oppression, should suppose it possible to reclaim the African race from their destiny. The capacity to enjoy freedom is an attribute not to be communicated by human power. It is an endowment of God, and one of the rarest which it has pleased His inscrutable wisdom to bestow upon the nations of the earth. It is conferred as the reward of merit, and only upon those who are qualified to enjoy it. Until the “Ethiopian can change his skin,” it will be in vain to attempt, by any human power, to make freemen of those whom God has doomed to be slaves, by all their attributes.

Let not, therefore, the misguided and designing intermeddlers who seek to destroy our peace, imagine that they are serving the cause of God by practically arraigning the decrees of His Providence. Indeed it would scarcely excite surprise, if with the impious audacity of those who projected the tower of Babel, they should attempt to scale the battlements of Heaven, and remonstrate with the God of wisdom for having put the mark of Cain and the curse of Ham upon the African race, instead of the European.

If the benevolent friends of the black race would compare the condition of that portion of them which we hold in servitude, with that which still remains in Africa, totally unblessed by the lights of civilization or Christianity, and groaning under a savage despotism, as utterly destitute of hope as of happiness, they would be able to form some tolerable estimate of what our blacks have lost by slavery in America, and what they have gained by freedom in Africa. Greatly as their condition has been improved by their subjection to an enlightened and Christian people (the only mode under heaven by which it could have been accomplished), they are yet wholly unprepared for anything like a rational system of self-government. Emancipation would be a positive curse, depriving them of a guardianship essential to their happiness, and they may well say in the language of the Spanish proverb, “Save us from our friends and we will take care of our enemies.” If emancipated, where would they live, and what would be their condition? The idea of their remaining among us is utterly visionary. Amalgamation is abhorrent to every sentiment of nature; and if they remain as a separate caste, whether endowed with equal privileges or not, they will become our masters or we must resume our mastery over them. This state of political amalgamation and conflict, which the abolitionists evidently aim to produce, would be the most horrible condition imaginable, and would furnish Dante or Milton with the type for another chapter illustrating the horrors of the infernal regions. The only disposition, therefore, that could be made of our emancipated slaves would be their transportation to Africa, to exterminate the natives or be exterminated by them; contingencies, either of which may well serve to illustrate the wisdom, if not the philanthropy of these superserviceable madmen, who in the name of humanity would desolate the fairest region of the earth and destroy the most perfect system of social and political happiness that ever has existed.

It is perfectly evident that the destiny of the Negro race is either the worst possible form of political slavery, or else domestic servitude as it exists in the slave-holding States. The advantage of domestic slavery over the most favorable conditions of political slavery, does not admit of a question. It is the obvious interest of the master, not less than his duty, to provide comfortable food and clothing for his slaves; and whatever false and exaggerated stories may be propagated by mercenary travelers, who make a trade of exchanging calumny for hospitality, the peasantry and operatives in no country of the world are better provided for, in these respects, than the slaves of our country. In the single empire of Great Britain, the most free and enlightened nation in Europe, there are more wretched paupers and half-starving operatives than there are negro slaves in the United States. In all respects, the comforts of our slaves are greatly superior to those of the English operatives, or the Irish and continental peasantry, to say nothing of the millions of paupers crowded together in those loathsome receptacles of starving humanity, the public poor-houses. Besides the hardships of incessant toil, too much almost for human nature to endure, and the sufferings of actual want, driving them almost to despair, these miserable creatures are perpetually annoyed by the most distressing cares for the future condition of themselves and their children.

From this excess of labor, this actual want, and these distressing cares, our slaves are entirely exempted. They habitually labor from two to four hours a day less than the operatives in other countries, and it has been truly remarked, by some writer, that a negro cannot be made to injure himself by excessive labor. It may be safely affirmed that they eat as much wholesome and substantial food in one day as English operatives or Irish peasants eat in two. And as it regards concern for the future, their condition may well be envied even by their masters. There is not upon the face of the earth, any class of people, high or low, so perfectly free from care and anxiety. They know that their masters will provide for them under all circumstances, and that in the extremity of old age, instead of being driven to beggary, or to seek public charity in a poor-house, they will be comfortably accommodated and kindly treated among their relatives and associates. Cato the elder has been regarded as a model of Roman virtue, and yet he is said to have sold his superannuated slaves to avoid the expense of maintaining them. The citizens of this State may not aspire to rival the virtue of the Romans, but it may be safely affirmed that they would doom to execration the master who should imitate the inhuman example of the Roman paragon. The government of our slaves is strictly patriarchal, and produces those mutual feelings of kindness which result from a constant interchange of good offices, and which can only exist in a system of domestic or patriarchal slavery. They are entirely unknown either in a state of political slavery, or in that form of domestic servitude which exists in all other communities.

In a word, our slaves are cheerful, contented and happy, much beyond the general condition of the human race, except where those foreign intruders. and fatal ministers of mischief, the emancipationists, like their arch-prototype in the Garden of Eden, and actuated by no less envy, have tempted them to aspire above the condition to which they have been assigned in the order of Providence.

Nor can it be admitted, as some of our own statesmen have affirmed in a mischievous and misguided spirit of sickly sentimentality, that our system of domestic slavery is a curse to the white population—a moral and political evil much to be deplored, but incapable of being eradicated. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. More than half a century ago, one of the most enlightened statesmen who ever illustrated the parliamentary annals of Great Britain, looking into political causes, with an eye of profound philosophy, ascribed the high and indomitable spirit of liberty which distinguished the Southern colonies, to the existence of domestic slavery; referring to the example of the free States of antiquity as a confirmation of his theory. Since those colonies have become independent States, they have amply sustained the glory of their primitive character. There is no coloring of national vanity in the assertion, which impartial history will ratify, that the principles of rational liberty are not less thoroughly understood, and have been more vigilantly, resolutely and effectively defended against all the encroachments of power, by the slave-holding States, than by any other members of the confederacy. In which of our great political conflicts is it, that they have not been found arrayed against every form of usurpation, and fighting under the flag of liberty? Indeed it is a fact of historical notoriety that those great Whig principles of liberty, by which government is restrained within constitutional limits, have had their origin, and for a long time have had their abiding place, in the slave-holding States.

Reason and philosophy can easily explain what experience so clearly testifies. If we look into the elements of which all political communities are composed, it will be found that servitude, in some form, is one of the essential constituents. No community ever has existed without it, and we may confidently assert, none ever will. In the very nature of things there must be classes of persons to discharge all the different offices of society, from the highest to the lowest. Some of those offices are regarded as degrading, though they must and will be performed. Hence those manifold. forms of dependent servitude which produce a sense of superiority in the masters or employers, and of inferiority on the part of the servants. Where these offices are performed by members of the political community, a dangerous element is introduced into the body politic. Hence the alarming tendency to violate the rights of property by agrarian legislation, which is beginning to be manifest in the older States, where universal suffrage prevails without domestic slavery, a tendency that will increase in the progress of society with the increasing inequality of wealth. No government is worthy of the name that does not protect the rights of property, and no enlightened people will long submit to such a mockery. Hence it is that in older countries, different political orders are established to effect this indispensable object, and it will be fortunate for the non-slaveholding States if they are not in less than a quarter of a century driven to the adoption of a similar institution, or to take refuge from robbery and anarchy under a military despotism. But where the menial offices and dependent employments of society are performed by domestic slaves, a class well defined by their color and entirely separated from the political body, the rights of property are perfectly secure, without the establishment of artificial barriers. In a word, the institution of domestic slavery supersedes the necessity of an order of nobility, and all the other appendages of a hereditary system of government. If our slaves were emancipated, and admitted, bleached or unbleached, to an equal participation in our political privileges, what a commentary should we furnish upon the doctrines of the emancipationists, and what a revolting spectacle of republican equality should we exhibit to the mockery of the world! No rational man would consent to live in such a state of society, if he could find a refuge in any other.

Domestic slavery, therefore, instead of being a political evil, is the corner-stone of our republican edifice. No patriot who justly estimates our privileges will tolerate the idea of emancipation at any period, however remote, or on any conditions of pecuniary advantage, however favorable. I would as soon open a negotiation for selling the liberty of the State at once, as for making any stipulations for the ultimate emancipation of our slaves. So deep is my conviction on this subject, that if I were doomed to die immediately after recording these sentiments, I could say in all sincerity and under all the sanctions of Christianity and patriotism, “God forbid that my descendants, in the remotest generations, should live in any other than a community having the institution of domestic slavery, as it existed among the patriarchs of the primitive church and in all the free states of antiquity.”

If the legislature should concur in these general views of this important element of our political and social system, our confederates should be distinctly informed, in any communications we may have occasion to make to them, that in claiming to be exempted from all foreign interference, we can recognize no distinction between ultimate and immediate emancipation.

It becomes necessary, in order to ascertain the extent of our danger, and the measures of precaution necessary to guard against it, that we examine into the real motives and ultimate purposes of the Abolition Societies, and their prominent agents. To justify their officious and gratuitous interference in our domestic affairs—the most insulting and insolent outrage which can be offered to a community—they profess to hold themselves responsible for the pretended sin of our domestic slavery, because, forsooth, they tolerate its existence among us. If they are at all responsible for the sin of slavery, whatever that may be, it is not because they tolerate it now, but because their ancestors were the agents and authors of its original introduction. These ancestors sold ours the slaves and warranted the title, and it would be a much more becoming labor of filial piety for their descendants to pray for their souls, if they are Protestants, and buy masses to redeem them from purgatory, if they are Catholics, than to assail their warranty and slander their memory by denouncing them as “man-stealers and murderers.” But this voluntary and gratuitous assumption of responsibility, in imitation of a recent and high example in our history, but imperfectly conceals a lurking principle of danger, which deserves to be examined and exposed. What is there to make the people of New York or Massachusetts responsible for slavery in South Carolina, any more than the people of Great Britain? To assume that the people of those States are responsible for the continuance of this institution, is distinctly to assume that they have a right to abolish it. And whatever enforced disclaimers they may make, their efforts would be worse than unprofitable on any other hypothesis. The folly of attempting to convert the slave-holders to voluntary emancipation, by a course of slander and denunciation, is too great to be ascribed even to fanaticism itself. They do not, indeed, disguise the fact that their principal object is to operate on public opinion in the non-slaveholding States. And to what purpose? They cannot suppose that the opinion of those States, however unanimous, can break the chains of slavery by some moral magic. The whole tenor of their conduct and temper of their discussions clearly demonstrate that their object is to bring the slave-holding States into universal odium, and the public opinion of the non-slaveholding to the point of emancipating our slaves by federal legislation, without the consent of their owners. Disguise it as they may, “to this complexion it must come at last.”

It is in this aspect of the subject that it challenges our grave and solemn consideration. It behooves us then, in my opinion, to demand, respectfully, of each and every one of the slave-holding States:

I. A formal and solemn disclaimer, by its legislature, of the existence of any rightful power, either in such State or the United States, in Congress assembled, to interfere in any manner whatever with the institution of domestic slavery in South Carolina.

2. The immediate passage of penal laws by such legislature, denouncing against the incendiaries of whom we complain, such punishments as will speedily and forever suppress their machinations against our peace and safety. Though the right to emancipate our slaves by coercive legislation has been very generally disclaimed by popular assemblages in the non-slaveholding States, it is nevertheless important that each of those States should give this disclaimer and the authentic and authoritative form of a legislative declaration, to be preserved as a permanent record for our future security. Our right to demand of those States the enactment of laws for the punishment of those enemies of our peace, who avail themselves of the sanctuary of their sovereign jurisdiction to wage a war of extermination against us, is founded on one of the most salutary and conservative principles of international law. Every State is under the most sacred obligations, not only to abstain from all such interference with the institutions of another as is calculated to disturb its tranquility or endanger its safety; but to prevent its citizens or subjects from such interference, either by inflicting condign punishment itself, or by delivering them up to the justice of the offending community. As between separate and independent nations, the refusal of a State to punish these offensive proceedings against another, by its citizens or subjects, makes the State so refusing an accomplice in the outrage, and furnishes a just cause of war. These principles of international law are universally admitted, and none have been more sacredly observed by just and enlightened nations. The obligations of the non-slaveholding States to punish and repress the proceedings of their citizens against our domestic institutions and tranquility are greatly increased, both by the nature of those proceedings and the fraternal relation which subsists between the States of this confederacy. For no outrage against any community can be greater than to stir up the elements of servile insurrection, and no obligation to repress it can be more sacred than that which adds to the sanctions of international law, the solemn guarantee of a constitutional compact, which is at once the bond and the condition of our union. The liberal, enlightened and magnanimous conduct of the people in many portions of the non-slaveholding States forbids us to anticipate a refusal on the part of those States to fulfill these high obligations of national faith and duty. And we have the less reason to look forward to this inauspicious result, from considering the necessary consequences which would follow to the people of those States and of the whole commercial world, from the general emancipation of our slaves. These consequences may be presented as an irresistible appeal to every rational philanthropist in Europe or America. It is clearly demonstrable that the production of cotton depends not so much on soil and climate, as on the existence of domestic slavery. In the relaxing latitudes where it grows, not one-half the quantity would be produced but for the existence of this institution, and every practical planter will concur in the opinion that, if all the slaves in these States were now emancipated, the American crop would be reduced the very next year from 1,200,000 to 600,000 bales. No great skill in political economy will be required to estimate how enormously the price of cotton would be increased by this change, and no one who will consider how largely this staple contributes to the wealth of manufacturing nations, and to the necessaries and comforts of the poorer classes all over the world, can fail to perceive the disastrous effects of so great a reduction in the quantity and so great an enhancement in the price of it. In Great Britain, France and the United States, the catastrophe would be overwhelming, and it is not extravagant to say that for little more than two millions of negro slaves, cut loose from their tranquil moorings, and set adrift upon the untried ocean, of at least a doubtful experiment, ten millions of poor white people would be reduced to destitution, pauperism and starvation. An anxious desire to avoid the last sad alternative of an injured community prompts this final appeal to the interests and enlightened philanthropy of our Confederate States. And we cannot permit ourselves to believe that our just demands, thus supported by every consideration of humanity and duty, will be rejected by States who are united to us by so many social and political ties, and who have so deep an interest in the preservation of that union.


Source: Oliver Joseph Thatcher, The Library of Original Sources — Ideas that have Influenced Civilization, in the Original Documents, Translated; Volume IX – 1833-1865 (University Research Extension Co. Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1915), pp. 83-94.


George McDuffie (Wikipedia) was born in Georgia, I 788. He graduated at South Carolina college. In 1814 he began the practice of law and four years later was sent to the South Carolina legislature. When a young man he favored a centralized government, but his sentiments changed with the development of the tariff and the slave questions, and while in Congress from 1821 to 1834 he fiercely opposed the “American Policy” of internal improvements and a protective tariff. He was one of the strongest defenders in the House of the Nullification doctrine. He was elected governor in 1835 and was a senator from 1843 to 1846, when he resigned on account of ill health.

He was one of the first to boldly advance the doctrine that slavery was a condition established by God, and the only one suitable to the negro race. His fierce hatred of abolitionists is shown in the address given below. He died in 1851.