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Friday, July 29, 2011

Historical Reflection--
R. L. Dabney, John Brown, and the Proslavery Apologetic

R. L. Dabney: On the Wrong
Side of Heaven and History
One of the most revered Southern theologians of the antebellum era was also one of the chief propagandists and apologists of the Confederacy and antebellum slavery.  Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-98) is known among theologians as conservative Reformed Presbyterian theologian, and is especially loved by contemporary Southern Presbyterians with a right-wing or neo-Confederate orientation.  While Dabney represents conservative theology, it is his role as passionate supporter of Confederate secession and chattel slavery that most unfortunately distinguishes him on the landscape of U.S. religious history.  In fact, Dabney's first significant contribution as a scholar and author was a biography of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a work published one year after the Civil War ended.1  It was in recounting Jackson's career that Dabney discussed the theme of John Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid.  Clearly, Dabney was not particularly interested in Brown except as a foil to the heroic image story he crafted in his authorized biography of Jackson.2 

"The First Angry Drops. . .of Blood"?

Dabney thus writes that “the first angry drops of the deluge of blood which was approaching, fell upon the soil of Virginia” in the raid on Harper’s Ferry (p. 143).  Interestingly, this notion is often reiterated in popular and scholarly narratives, although in many respects it is proslavery propaganda.  Quite to the contrary of Dabney's premise, the Harper’s Ferry raid was the last bloody antebellum episode leading up to the war.  In actuality, the “first angry drops” of blood were really shed at the hands of proslavery thugs in the Kansas territory, in five separate homicides, along with many other cases of brutality and violence, not to mention the caning of Senator Sumner in Washington, D.C. (May 1856).  

It was not “northern aggression,” but the radical, violent, and malicious pro-slavery power that cultivated war by bullying the North for years, by demanding the right to expand and increase its empire into the west and southwest, and using the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to run roughshod over the entire nation.  How can anyone claim that Brown was one of the initiators of civil conflict when the North had been kowtowed by the South for years, and even the Republican Party had approached the South in a spirit of compromise in 1860?  How dare neo-Confederates today refer to the Civil War as "the war of Northern aggression," when it is clear that the powerful influence of slavery had made the South into the most militant and dangerous of bullies, and that the terrorism and violence that was unleashed in the Kansas territory clearly defined the South as the instigator and aggressor long before John Brown's raid in 1859.

As to Brown, Dabney recounts the incident by referring to him as “that Border assassin,” undoubtedly alluding to the Pottawatomie killings that took place in an attempt to thwart a murderous proslavery conspiracy.  Of course, Dabney knew nothing of the real circumstances of this case, nor that John Brown, his sons, and associates were targeted by the actual “border assassins” of Kansas,  invading "Border Ruffians" and their allies among the pro-slavery settlers in the territory. 

Dabney on Brown: "That
Border Assassin"

It is no surprise that Dabney would describe Brown’s efforts as endeavoring “to excite a servile insurrection and civil war.” Once more, insurrection being the intentional overthrow and killing of slave masters, Brown had no such intentions and Dabney is only repeating the official Southern version, which had almost immediately become the official state version. Dabney goes onto say that because of threats that Brown would be liberated, a large militia was stationed in Charlestown [Dabney incorrectly writes “Charleston”] where Jackson himself became “a spectator of the stoical death of Brown.”

Dabney then writes:
This mad attempt of a handful of vulgar cut-throats, and its condign punishment, would have been a very trivial affair to the Southern people, but for the manner in which it was regarded by the people of the North. Their presses, pulpits, public meetings and conversations, disclosed such a hatred to the South and its institutions, as to lead them to justify the crime, involving though it did the most aggravated robbery, treason, and murder. . . and to exalt the blood-thirsty fanatic who led the party, to a public apotheosis. The pretext for this astounding outrage upon public opinion was, that it was the right of masters to property in the labor of their slaves, which John Brown sought to assail through this career of rapine and blood. . . .”

Early Life

Dabney was born in 1820, and is descended from French Protestants. A brilliant student, he entered Hampden-Sidney College at sixteen years and was converted to Christianity during his later teenage years. He did graduate studies at the University of Virginia, then entered Virginia Union Seminary for his doctorate.  After which he served as a Presbyterian minister.

Fanatical Devotion

Dabney’s love of the South was so extreme that he rejected opportunities to pastor in New York City and teach at Princeton Theological Seminary.  When the South seceded from the Union, Dabney sold his own property for four thousand dollars and loaned it to the Confederacy--a loan that would come to about $300,000 by today's standards.  As a fanatical devotee to the cause of the South and slavery, he happily accepted this loss.

Rebel Chaplain, Soldier, and Propagandist

During the Civil War, Dabney became a military chaplain to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and later became the general’s chief of staff.  Dabney was such an extremist that he believed that the South should have armed much earlier in preparing for war.  After falling sick, Dabney was constrained to resign his military role.  However, he used his time of recuperation to become a Confederate propagandist—an aspect of his work that continued beyond the war years.  With the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, Dabney fled into hiding. He was an opponent of Reconstruction and blamed it for inciting “friction between the races."  Dabney not only defended the "right" of the former slave master to own the labor of his slaves, but also he was fixated on the “atrocities” allegedly perpetrated on the white South when blacks were protected by federal law and steel.

Post-War Theologian and Apologist for Chattel Slavery

In the post-war period, Dabney produced a memorable work of systematic theology (1871, revised 1878) that is still popular among Calvinist theologians of the South.  However, Dabney's work as an apologist for the South and slavery continued following the Jackson biography.  In 1867, his Confederate magnum opus was published,  A Defence [sic] of Virginia: (and through her, of the South), in recent and pending contests against the sectional party (New York: E. J. Hale & Son).

In his Defence of Virginia, Dabney made it clear that he was defending only “the obligations of the slave to labour for life, without his own consent, for the master.” In other words, slavery was only about one man owning another man’s “involuntary labor”—not his personality or his soul. “A certain right of control over the person of the slave is incidentally given to the master by his property in the bondsman’s labour,” Dabney wrote, “that is, so much control as is necessary to enable him to secure the labour which belongs to him.” He underscored that in defending slavery he was fundamentally defending slave labor as “the master’s property” (p. 58).

Dabney presumed that if he could find justification for slavery in the Mosaic Law and the New Testament, then chattel slavery in the South was biblically justified too.  Although it is possible to argue for slavery in the historical context of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, it was hardly sound to assume that chattel slavery in the U.S. was therefore justified.  Dabney completely overlooked the illicit racial and racist nature of chattel slavery, just as he fairly well denied the normative nature of chattel slavery's horrors and evils.

Dabney on slavery's abuses: "if they ever exist in fact"
For instance, he had the audacity to write: “We begin by asserting that these things [i.e., slavery's horrors], if they ever exist in fact, are not domestic slavery, but the abuses of it” (p. 60). For a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to question whether the myriad abuses and brutalities of chattel slavery “ever exist in fact” suggests either that Dabney was supremely ignorant of realities in the South in his own era, or that he was something of a liar. It may be that since he spent most of his days in academia, he really was naïve about the daily workings of slavery. But I doubt it.

The foundation of Dabney’s proslavery apologetic is that slavery as an institution is not evil, but in fact is sanctioned by God and the Scriptures.  Dabney did not use the problematic “curse of Ham” myth that was often used to defend slavery (see Gen. 9: 20-27).  Yet he seems to have believed it might be justifiable.  However, he argued that the abused "Ham" text provided the biblical "origin of domestic slavery," even if it “may be that we should find little difficulty in tracing the lineage of the present Africans to Ham.”

The Orthodox South?

Contemporary neo-Confederate Calvinists like to portray the Civil War as a struggle between the orthodox South and the heterodox and heretical liberal North.  This notion was devised by Dabney in his Defence, where he repeatedly characterizes abolitionism as if it were exclusively the product of ultra liberal theologies, like the New England Unitarians (for instance, see p. 82).  While a great deal of abolitionism was indeed reflective of liberal theology, there were many theologically conservative Protestant abolitionists. The epitome of this is John Brown himself, a very conservative evangelical Calvinist whose theology—apart from the slavery issue—was closer to Dabney’s understanding than it was to that of Theodore Parker. There were also other anti-slavery evangelicals whose views were not the product of liberalism, including the very conservative Covenanter Presbyterians who hated slavery with a passion.  So Dabney was generalizing to the point of misrepresentation.

Pro-Slavery Eccentricities

Dabney argues with great energy to defend the rights of slave holders over slaves and resented the use of Christ's "Golden Rule" to justify liberating the enslaved.  “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” concluded Dabney, was but a “practical application of the Mosaic precept.” So, reasoned Dabney, “Christ’s giving the law of love cannot be inconsistent with his authorizing slaveholding; because Moses gave the same law of love, and yet indisputably authorized slaveholding.” (p. 123).  In fact, Dabney went so far as to argue that since the "Golden Rule" obligated both parties, then the slave should remain in bondage out of regard for his master.

Even more audacious was his argument that slaves actually were paid.   “Southern slaves received,” Dabney writes, “on the average, better and more certain compensation than any labouring people of their capacity in the world. It came to them in the form of that maintenance, which the master was bound by the laws, as well as his own interests, to bestow upon them.” Maintenance?  He argued further that the slave master paid all the expenses in rearing slaves, nursing them in sickness, caring for the slave’s family, caring for their orphans, and providing them “supplies and comforts” in their old age.

This is an incredibly fraudulent claim, although it was true that some enslaved people actually were cared for by their masters (perhaps certain domestic slaves), Dabney is carrying a lie too great for his puny frame to support. The sad fact is that most enslaved people were minimally supported at best in their prime and often dumped when and if they survived to old age. Slaves were not reasonably fed and clothed, nor were their children sufficiently cared for. Chattel slavery was not a welfare state; it was an extreme form of capitalism that made profit the bottom line and reduced human beings to property to be used and used up. “But this is just what our laws and customs gave to our slaves, as wages of their easy labour” (p. 175).

Lastly, Dabney also denied the charge that slavery itself created circumstances where sexual immorality and sexual abuse thrived.  He concluded that the enslavement of blacks lessened temptation since “the differences of colour, race, and personal attractions” discouraged sexual indiscretions. After all, Dabney wrote, “the very sentiment of superior caste would render the intercourse more repulsive and unnatural” (pp. 180-81).

Dabney may be correct that any place where a man exercises authority over workers could result in sexual abuses. But Dabney's argument, that white Southerners held the “sentiment of superior caste” and viewed sexual relations with enslaved black women as “repulsive and unnatural,” is racist nonsense.   Either Dabney was the most naïve, sheltered simpleton in the history of the South, or he was a liar.  Not all slave masters were rapists, but it is no exaggeration to say that an overwhelming number of slave masters sexually abused female slaves, or permitted members of their families or employees to do so. The idea that “race” served as an impediment to sexual abuse in slavery is a self-serving fantasy.

Even a cursory reading of Dabney’s Defence of Virginia is somewhat stunning. It is hard to believe that a brilliant man could be so stolid and obtuse, or that an exemplary Christian leader could be such a hypocrite and a liar. Far from justifying Virginia and Dabney, the Defence of Virginia heaps condemnation and disgrace upon them.

In Conclusion

It nearly goes without saying that R. L. Dabney drank too deeply from the cup of the Great Harlot to see matters clearly, even writing after the fact of slavery's abolition.  If he represents the highest standard of morality and theological genius offered by the South in the 19th century, then it is no surprise that succeeding generations of Southerners turned to lynching, legalized segregation, and terrorism in order to reassert political and economic control. If “godly” men like Dabney would cling to such lies and prejudice, then we should not be surprised that so many lesser men stooped to the depths of racism, violence, and inhumane behavior in their hard-hearted efforts to reverse the impact of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

The history of Southern secession entails no small number of otherwise excellent, admirable, and brilliant people, not the least of which was Robert Lewis Dabney. However, one cannot help but wonder whether men like Dabney will be adjudged with greater severity when standing before God's throne of judgment, especially since the degree of privilege, understanding, and sacred wisdom they claimed renders them far more accountable.

“Jesus said to [the Pharisees,] ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains’” (John 9:41).

     1 Robert Lewis Dabney, Life and Commands of Lieutenand- General Thomas J. Jackson (Richmond, Va., Philadelphia, Pa., National Publishing Co., 1866).

      2 The basic biographical information for this sketch was distilled from a romantic, admiring biographical article on a Southern history website. See "Biographies of Famous Southerners; Robert Lewis Dabney 1820-1898,” KnowSouthernHistory.net (no publication information provided); also see “Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898),” in Encylopedia Virginia (Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities). 

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