Money  /  Discovery

Thomas Cooper: Harbinger of Proslavery Thought and the Coming Civil War

To understand the proslavery defense of the 1850s, one must reckon with the proslavery Malthusianism articulated by Cooper in the 1820s.

Similar to Malthus’s criticism of urban-industrial England, Cooper attacked the North’s industrializing free labor society. He argued that this economic system tended to pay laborers the lowest wage possible. To make matters worse, the free labor mantra that individuals could enjoy socio-economic advancement was a “fallacy.” Northern free labor advocates “distorted the facts to condemn slavery.” A truthful analysis of the matter in relation to Malthus’s theory would force honest men to conclude that “slavery is a better system for the black population in the South, than the falsely and fraudulently called free-labor system … for the wretched pauper population who drag out their miserable existence there.”[6] As such, Cooper predated the 1831 “positive good” thesis of his economic admirer, Thomas R. Dew of Virginia, and instructed his students that slavery was a positive good – a stable social relation between capital and labor. Slavery, he explained in 1826, had proven by observation to “be productive on the whole, of a balance of good.” Southern progress relied on the perpetuation of slavery because he “doubt[ed] if the rich lands could be cultivated without slave labour.” This vision he articulated would do more than simply generate new outlets for Southern wealth; it would also maintain social order by sidestepping a violent and scarcity-driven Malthusian specter.[7]

Cooper thus made the protection of slavery an existential imperative. This life-or-death conception of the institution, according to Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, prompted later proslavery intellectuals to energetically celebrate slavery’s superiority by arguing that the free labor capitalism of the Northern states was heading into “a Malthusian population crisis of fearful proportions.”[8] By the eve of the Civil War, educated Southerners in general had come to accept this rationale and expected free labor societies to face an insurrection of unemployed and exploited free laborers. Anarchy and despotism would then follow. The expansion and continued existence of slavery, on the other hand, prevented this dismal outlook in the South; if the North hoped to circumvent a Malthusian specter, it was necessary that they halt their rejection of slavery and embrace agriculture over industrialization. Ultimately, Cooper declared, politicians in support of the urban industrial system must “declare them [free laborers] unfit to be trusted and thrust them out from any participation of the most essential rights of man.” By the late 1850s, according to Eugene Genovese, this had become “the logical conclusion” of the proslavery argument, as Southern apologists, like George Fitzhugh, came to privately consider the idea of “raceless slavery.” Yet Cooper expressed this perspective thirty years prior. It was thus Cooper who had first articulated the universal need for slavery and “identified the destructive implications of” free labor, and “the great social upheavals in Europe and predicted mounting ferocity.”[9] In doing so, he provided an intellectual foundation for the later free labor critiques espoused by James Henry Hammond, George Fitzhugh, Daniel Hunley, Henry Hughes, and Edmund Ruffin.