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Modern Voices
Douglas Egerton on the "positive good" theory of slavery
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Q: What were some events of the 1820s and 1830s that affected how white Americans viewed black slavery and freedom?
Douglas Egerton

A: The Missouri debates forced the South to explain and articulate reasons why slavery was a good thing, in part because of the growth of the cotton economy. The white South, especially the lower South -- South Carolina, Georgia -- began to articulate a fairly new idea, which was that slavery was not a bad thing in any way, but that it was a positive good for all concerned; that it allowed for white American civilization to advance by taking whites out of menial labor. It allowed for Africans to be civilized by bringing them into contact with allegedly superior white culture and the Christian faith. And that was a new idea. Men of Jefferson's generation never tried to pretend that slavery was a good thing for white or black. And certainly, Jefferson never had any interest in arguments that there was something civilizing about slavery, when it came to Africans.
Douglas A. Egerton
Professor of History
Le Moyne College

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