The American Nation
William Henry Holcombe: The Alternative


Introduction   As the United States drifted towards complete civil division over the slavery issue, leaders and thinkers in the southern United States began to defiantly frame the ideology of slavery in order to answer their increasingly vociferous Northern opponents. Perhaps the most influential of these "theories of slavery," was a pamphlet written and published by a homeopathic physician, William Henry Holcombe, in 1860. Holcombe relies heavily on Protestant, Enlightenment, and early American ideas (such as the millenium) to defend the southern institute of slavery, arguing that slavery is, in fact, such a humane system that "there will be no terminus [end]."

   In fact, in the four decades or so preceding the civil war, Southerners took their Enlightenment inheritance—ideas of human rights and the essential equality of all humans—and used it to construct a world view that incorporated black subjugation with an emancipated, enlightened, progressive world. This was a very unique transition; racial slavery was from the start merely an economic technology, a way of procuring labor at the cheapest price possible. Southerners understood this fact in the early years of the American nation, claiming only that slavery was an economic necessity. Many Southerners, in fact, were deeply disturbed by the institution, arguing that it was neither moral nor economic. However, as the calls for the abolition of slavery became world-wide, eventually just about all Southerners would come to believe they not only had a right to own slaves, but were serving a God-given duty in owning slaves in order to improve them.

   Most of the conflict between the abolitionists and the Southerners centered around the Bible. The Southerners turned to the Old Testament and found in the story of Ham, the son cursed by Noah to be a "servant of servants" (the Hebrew word is ebed and doesn't necessarily mean "slave"), and in the Mosaic-Sinaitic laws a divine sanction for slavery while arguing that slavery is not prohibited in the New Testament (which it isn't). In fact, in the epistle to Philemon, Paul of Tarsus returns a slave to his master. The abolitionists appealed the the "spirit" of the New Testament, invoking as an interpretive method the Pauline notion of the Spirit and the Letter, arguing that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. They focussed their interpretive energies on the general meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, finding in that text principles which contradicted the institution and practice of slavery. The Southern Protestants (and Catholics, too) accused the abolitionists of reading their own ideas into the Bible, and over the next three decades developed two very prominent characteristics in their use of the Bible. First, as the years passed between 1830 and 1860, Southerners gradually began to read the Bible more and more literally, upholding the "literal truth" of the Bible, which in the Mosaic-Sinaitic laws sanctions slavery, over the "human reason" that abolitionists imposed on the Bible. This literal reading of the Bible ruthlessly focussed on the Old Testament (since there is almost nothing on slavery in the New Testament); only where the New Testament explicitly revised the Old Testament was the Old Testament to be subject to the New. This tendency to focus on the "literal truth" of the scriptures was during this period entirely centered around the slavery question. Secondly, Southerners began to see the Bible as a "universal constitution," a set of laws by which every nation should be established and governed. In this light, the southern United States was the most perfect society on earth (see the section on millenarianism) since it based its laws on the literal interpretation of the Old Testament, whereas others, such as the northern United States, depended on human reason and the human, rather than literal, interpretation of the Bible. By refusing to institute slavery, the Southerners argued, the North was explicitly refusing to govern its commonwealth according to biblical principles. Both of these ideas—the literal reading of the Bible and the idea of the Bible as "universal constitution"—are, one hundred and thirty years after the demise of slavery, still the defining characteristics of Southern Protestantism.

   However, the most interesting aspect about the Southern justification of slavery was the use of Enlightenment ideas. What Englightenment ideas does Holcombe employ? Are they effective? How would you compare Holcombe's concentration on "ideas" to Equiano's concentration on the harsh realities of slavery? Here's the big question: Do you still see, in contemporary political rhetoric, similar arguments being made about race relations? Let me know what you think about that last question by writing to me.

   Your text is taken from W. H. Holcombe, The Alternative: A Separate Nationality, or the Africanization of the South (New Orleans: Delta Mamoth Job Office, 1860), pages 6-8.



The Alternative, or the Africanization of the South   Certain physical and spiritual peculiarities of the Negro necessitate his subjection to the white man. It is for his own good tat he is subjected. As long as this was doubtful or not clearly seen, the South itself was opposed to slavery. It remonstrated with England for imposing the institution upon it, and with Massachusetts for insisting upon a continuance of the slave-trade for twenty years after the adoption of the federal compact. The South is now fully convinced of the benefits and blessings it is conferring upon the Negro race. It is beginning to catch a glimpse of the true nature and extent of its mission in relation to this vast and growing institution. The government of the South is to protect it [the African slave]; the Church of the South is to christianize it; the people of the South are to love it, and improve it, and perfect it. God has lightened our task and secured its execution by making our interests happily coincide with our duty.

   We anticipate no terminus to the institution of slavery. It is the means whereby the white man is to subdue the tropics all aroun the globe to order and beauty, and to the wants and interests of an ever-expanding civilization. What may happen afar off in the periods of a milliennial Christianity we cannot foresee. No doubt the Almighty in his wisdom and mercy has blessings in store for the poor Negro, so that he will no longer envy the earlier and more imposing development and fortunes of his brethren. Some shining Utopia will beckon him also with beautiful illusion into the shadowy future. But with those remote possibilities we need not trouble ourselves. His present duty is evidently "to labor and to wait."

   The southern view of the matter, destined to revolutionize opinion throughout the civilized world, is briefly this: African slavery is no retrograde movement, no discord in the harmony of nature, no violation of elemental justice, no infraction of imutable laws, human or divine—but an integral link in the grand progressive evolution of human society as an indissoluble whole.

   The doctrine that there exists an "irrepresible conflict" between free labor and slave labor is as false as it is mischievous. Their true relation is one of beautiful interchange and eternal harmony. When each is restricted to the sphere for which God and nature designed it, they both contribute their full quotas to the physical happiness, material interest, and socail and spiritual progress of the race. They will prove to be not antagonistic but complementary to each other in the great work of human civilization. From this time forth, the subjugation of tropical nature to man; the elevation and christianization of the dark races, the feeding and clothing of the world, the diminuition of toil and the amelioration of all asperities of life, the industrial prosperity and the peace of nations, and the further glorious evolutions of Art, Science, Literature and Religion, will depend upon the amicable adjustment, the co-ordination, the indissoluble compact between these two social systems, now apparaently rearing their hostile fronts in the norther and southern sections of this country.



World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1994, Richard Hooker
Updated 4-14-97