Browse Exhibits (1 total)

A House Divided: Slave Experiences v. Proslavery Defenses

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During the Jacksonian Era, abolitionists were voicing moral objections to slavery; why, then, was the practice permitted for decades? Even as slaves faced brutal conditions, some white Americans justified maintaining the institution for economic and religious reasons. Many ignored the objective wrongs inflicted on those in bondage. These conflicting, but parallel, processes resulted in a stark contrast between what slaves were experiencing on plantations and how the institution was being defended in national discourse by politicians, ministers, and others. Economic and religious justifications of slavery provided a rationale for continuing the practice, resulting in increased proslavery sentiment and suffering for the slaves themselves.

By analyzing the national debate around slavery, this exhibit will offer an in-depth dissection of political and social life during the Jacksonian Era, as the practice was the defining source of political division at the time. Africans were forced down to the lowest rung in society, especially female slaves, while white business leaders and plantation owners profited off their labor as the fledgling American economy soared into a global superpower. Politicians used these economic benefits to espouse proslavery rhetoric. Even preachers published writings in defense of the institution. These concurrent processes represented a foreshadowing foundation of our American social, racial, and economic hierarchy that would continue throughout history, well past 1850. 

This exhibit begins with a harrowing look at the daily lives of slaves on plantations, independent from any outside defenses. First-hand accounts from Solomon Northup show the realities of their suffering, along with some secondary analysis from Deborah White and Darlene Hine. Then the economic results of slavery--and resulting justifications from white slaveowners, businessmen, and politicians--will be shown through archived newspaper lecture reviews like in the Richmond Whig, political speeches like James Henry Hammond's "Cotton is King," and U.S. Census data. These primary writings will be supplemented by secondary articles concerning the slavery economy from Jeanne Lesinski, Jonathan Andreas, and Vox. Next, the exhibit will discuss the religious mandates spewed by public figures like Dr. Ichabod Spencer and Thornton Stringfellow. Subsequent analysis by J.P. Daly examines this rhetoric with broader historical context to show how some white people maintained slavery and quelled slave unrest, like in the case of Nat Turner.

Previous scholars have proven the undeniable brutalities of slavery, often referenced in political speeches, from Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama. Economists have shown the impact of slave labor on exports, cash crops, production, and effiency, which expanded America's capacity significantly. Newspapers, such as the aforementioned Richmond Whig, have since analyzed speeches justifying bondages on religious grounds. The exhibit interpretes these three elements in tandem, with slavery examined in the context of its wider justifications and the justifications examined in the context of human tragedy. By combining known historical facts to form a comprehensive, multifaceted narrative surrounding slavery, this exhibit shows how such an inhumane practice could exist in human society for so long.

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