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A Self-Evident Lie

Southern Slavery and the Threat to American Freedom

Jeremy J. Tewell

Publication Year: 2012

Why many northerners believed that slavery endangered the liberty of white Americans

A Self-Evident Lie explores and underscores the fear and complex meaning of “slavery” to northerners before the Civil War. Many northerners asked: If slavery was the beneficent and paternalistic institution that southerners claimed, could it not be applied with equal morality to whites as well as blacks? Republicans repeatedly expressed concern that proslavery arguments were not inherently racial. Irrespective of race, anyone could fall victim to the argument that they were “inferior,” that they would be better off enslaved, that their enslavement served the interests of society, or that their subjugation was justified by history and religion.

In trenchant and graceful prose, Jeremy J. Tewell argues that some Republicans, most notably Abraham Lincoln, held that the only effective safeguard of individual liberty was universal liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. As long as Americans believed that “all men” were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, everyone’s liberty would be self-evident, regardless of circumstance.

Conversely, the justifications meant to exclude a segment of society from the rights of man worked to destroy the self-evidence of those very rights. Therefore, by failing to repudiate slavery—thus rejecting the universality of human liberty—northerners made themselves vulnerable to proslavery rationales, especially when they happened to occupy a position of political, social, or economic weakness. Black skin had been stigmatized as a badge of servitude, but there was nothing to guarantee that white skin would always serve as an unimpeachable badge of freedom.

This was a major theme in Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen A. Douglas and was a key argument against the use of popular sovereignty as the method for determining slavery’s status in the territories. According to Tewell, Lincoln’s greatest challenge was to convince northern audiences that simple indifference to slavery was itself inim ical to the liberty of whites. The question, as Lincoln saw it, was whether liberty would be universal (at least in theory) or whether the justifications for black slavery would survive to threaten the liberty of all—a danger he pointed to repeatedly, as when he criticized Douglas for convincing the public not to care about slavery and for qualifying the Declaration of Independence, which he viewed as the only sure defense against circumstance and the self-interest of the powerful.

A Self-Evident Lie will intrigue anyone interested in issues related to Lincoln, slavery and antislavery, the Civil War, and American intellectual history.

Published by: The Kent State University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-v

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pp. vii-vii

Nearly fourteen years have passed since the subject of this book began to develop in my mind. In that time, many gracious and thoughtful individuals have helped to improve the ideas contained in these pages. The encouragement I received at Pittsburg State University was more than a young historian could hope for. More recently, the outstanding doctoral ...

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pp. 1-15

Three months before his death, Benjamin Franklin stepped into the public spotlight for the final time. Although he had once published ads for slave sales, and had even owned a slave couple himself, beginning in the 1750s Franklin had gradually turned against the institution. As president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, Franklin ...

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1. The Myth of the Free-State Democrat

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pp. 16-35

“I am not in the habit of looking upon this struggle as a local one, and confined to Kansas,” wrote the soon-to-be free-state governor, Charles Robinson, in 1855. “I regard it as one in which the whole nation is involved.” In the age of Manifest Destiny, the West represented the nation’s future, politically, economically, and symbolically. However, Manifest Destiny ...

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2. Inferiority

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pp. 36-49

The primary rationalization for slavery was the alleged inferiority of those enslaved. Yet despite the inveterate racism of white Americans and the determination of antislavery leaders to maintain white supremacy, some did recognize that inferiority, as a justification for slavery, was a nebulous standard, and ultimately a subjective one. In 1849 Henry Clay wrote a ...

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3. The Good of the Slave

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pp. 50-69

“It is of no use to write on this subject,” Thomas R. Bayne replied to a query from the Kansas State Historical Society in 1895. “The Northern people don’t now understand what slavery was and never will.” Bayne had been one of the slaveholding settlers of Kansas Territory. Like many Southerners, he felt frustrated by the determination of abolitionists and antislavery politicians ...

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4. The Good of Society

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pp. 70-86

The belief that individual liberty depended on universal liberty can be seen as a counterpoint to the southern argument that black slavery provided a safeguard for the freedom of white Americans. For many Northerners, the rationales for African bondage were not strictly racial, and could therefore be applied to anyone, regardless of race. In addition to the South’s ...

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5.The Slaveocracy

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pp. 87-99

Given most Southerners’ apparent embrace of an Old World social order, some Northerners feared the rise of an aristocracy in the United States. This fear was implicit in northern denunciations of the Slave Power, the slaveocracy, and the southern oligarchy, as it was in their comparisons of southern slavery with medieval serfdom and divine-right monarchy. All ...

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6. Southerners and the Principle of Universal Liberty

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pp. 100-119

Because the rationales for human servitude were not inherently racial, the acceptance of black slavery rendered the liberty of all Americans contingent on circumstance. Having come to this understanding, some Northerners insisted that the only guarantee of individual liberty was universal liberty. Only by accepting the universal equality of natural rights could Americans ...

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7. Republicans, Northern Democrats, andthe Principle of Universal Liberty

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pp. 120-139

Shortly before the inauguration of James Buchanan, Joshua R. Giddings captured Northerners’ attention when he challenged his Democratic colleagues in the House to uphold the principles of the Declaration of Independence: “I ask any member of the Democratic party, North or South, whether that party is ready to stand by those principles? I pause ...


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pp. 140-155


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pp. 156-164


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pp. 165-168

Back Cover

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pp. 178-178

E-ISBN-13: 9781612776378
E-ISBN-10: 161277637X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606351451

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 867740167
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Self-Evident Lie

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Psychological aspects -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1845-1861.
  • Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Liberty -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Liberty -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Political culture -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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