Pro-slavery and the Classics in Antebellum America, 1840 – 1860: Thomas Cobb, Louisa McCord, George Frederick Holmes, George Fitzhugh, and James Henry Hammond under scrutiny
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In their important contributions to the study of American history, Eugene Genovese and Michael O’Brien noted the significant intellectual culture that existed in the South prior to the Civil War. Scholars such as Caroline Winterer, Michael O’Brien, Eugene Genovese, and others have already offered important contributions which bridge the gap between the ancient world and antebellum America. My research addresses this particular gap because it examines both American (specifically Southern) pro-slavery in the two decades leading up to the Civil War through the lens of pro-slavery intellectual culture and classicism. By directly exploring individuals associated with this period, and their literary output, this study deepens this connection further. Caroline Winterer’s 2002 work constituted a major contribution to the study of the Classics in American intellectual life between 1780 and 1910 more broadly. By addressing how five white Southerners used classicism to develop sophisticated arguments to defend black slavery, my thesis constitutes a fresh contribution to this aspect of the study of American history. The chapters in this thesis will examine pro-slavery literature produced by Thomas Cobb, Louisa McCord, George Frederick Holmes, George Fitzhugh, and James Henry Hammond. This thesis will show that the ancient societies of Greece and Rome emerged as an essential support base for the development of pro-slavery arguments. Cobb, McCord, Holmes, Fitzhugh, and Hammond utilised classicism to overall strengthen their pro-slavery literature. In my view, the utilisation of the Greco-Roman world by these authors makes “historical” sense, because classicism partially bridges the gap between a time when societies widely accepted servile labour and a period when it underwent heavy scrutiny. My thesis will argue that had they not utilised classicism, their literature would look significantly different. Essentially classicism permeated the antebellum South, and this provided white Southern authors of pro-slavery with a strong source of inspiration. Each of the five authors examined in this thesis used classicism in significant ways. My aim will show that this group of antebellum intellectuals provides modern historians with a new platform to discuss classicism in relation to American pro-slavery. Cobb, McCord, Holmes, Fitzhugh, and Hammond believed in their utilisation of classicism, and from an intellectual viewpoint, thought their arguments would foster the growth of Southern pro-slavery. My research demonstrates a varied and crafty use of classical sources, ranging from philosophical treatises to agricultural manuals, to the Roman legal sources and more. Studying these individuals separately would provide little weight to the modern debate on pro-slavery, but when examined together, the work of the five individuals examined in this work helps us to see that the Classics did significantly influence their pro-slavery arguments. This remains important for many reasons, but for the purposes of this study, it sheds new light on pro-slavery during the antebellum period and its relationship with classicism in Southern intellectual life. Moreover, my thesis shows that by utilising the Classics, the pro-slavery argument can be shown to have a strong basis in critical thinking. In sum, this thesis will demonstrate that the Classics, in relation to the American South, historically has been used to support a form of “white supremacy”. Very few works have endeavoured to provide analysis of this particular aspect of American classicism; by situating my own work at this crossroad, the thesis will start bridging the gap more broadly between the study of pro-slavery, the Classics, and American intellectual culture.