R.Dabney's Defense of Virginia

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Puritan Board Freshman
R.Dabney\'s Defense of Virginia

I'm starting to write out my 3 classes on the American Civil War, and am beginning with a review of Dabney's Defense of Virginia.

here it is so far. looking for help on the main ideas which will be expanded into the classes.

I first read this probably 25 years ago, and i haven't ceased to be challenged by it ever since. I am in the middle of writing 3 essays on the Civil War and American slavery. This was a reread where i took my time and paused and gazed off into space continually. such a book. a day painfully and thoughtfully spent. I am presbyterian, Dabney is one of my heroes, perhaps after Calvin my favorite theologian, his writing is persuasive, passionate, thoughtful, painful, challenging, etc etc. Leave a whole day for this small book, you will need the time to ruminate under the nearest tree and image yourself in the antebellum South, first as a white man, then as a black slave, then again as a Christian of each race. How do you reconcile the contradictions between "love your neighbor as yourself" and the black backs broken by years of whips and forced labor, where the whips were in the hands oftentimes of people in the pews of the same churches we sit in today? How can a Christian let alone a competent and serious theologian defend slavery after the Civil War?

The possibilities are pretty well defined:
1)he was so effected by his culture, economic needs and socio-political environment that his religion was simply trumped.
2)the Scriptures support something called slavery which is not the same thing as the South called slavery. a confusion of terms.
3)he was sincerely wrong, confusing the packaging of the ideas in the Bible with the inspired ideas themselves. dwelling on the text and missing the real principles.
4)the Bible really does support slavery and for that reason alone is to be discarded as a barbaric relic of long gone days, we have progressed past that.
5)all of the above (in different amounts, with different accents) plus Christianity over time frees slaves as a matter of being consistent with higher level principles. amelioration.

1 is the basic Marxist analysis... 2 is the common way Scripture is defended today, online, OT and Roman slavery was not heritarily nor was it race based... 3 is the classic liberal explanation that was the North's stock answer... 4 is the Garrison emancipator answer... 5 is mine.

this is a site i found and even wrote to the author, his equalitarian essay is extraordinary, not that it is fundamentally right, but that he is a direct intellectual descendent of Dabney and Thornwell.
i'm glad to have refound the site.

http://www.utpjournals.com/product/cras/323/sebesta.html introduction to League of the South and the theological interpretation of the Civil War

capture bookmarked quotes, library book, mine is buried in the library.

Our best hope is in the fact that the cause of our defence is the cause of Gods' Word, and of its supreme authority over the human conscience. For, as we shall evince, that Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text. It will in the end become apparent to the world, not only that the conviction of the wickedness of slaveholding was drawn wholly from sources foreign to the Bible, but that it is a legitimate corollary from that fantastic, atheistic and radical theory of human rights, which made the Reign of terror in France, which has threatened that country, and which now threatens the Untited States, with the horrors of Red-Republicanism. Because we believe that God intends to vindicate His Divine Word, and to make all nations honour it; because we confidently rely on the force of truth to explode all dangerous error; therefore we confidently expect that the world will yet do justice to Southern slaveholders. The anti-scriptural, infidel, and radical grounds upon which our assailants have placed themselves, make out cause practically the cause of truth and order. pg 21-22

In addition to defending the institution of Southern slavery, Dabney's second big point is just this, abolitionism is Jacobin, in fact he uses the term consistently for the anti-slavery northern parties. As such Dabney is an excellent place to start a study of the various pieces of the Enlightenment: Scottish, English, French and how they crossed the Atlantic and took root here very differently than in their homelands. Scottish common sense appears to be a philosophic rebuttal to the Humean skepticism and French radical anti-revealed religion ideals. But for Dabney this quote sums up much of how he preceives and deals with his Northern opponents-they are radical Red Republicans bent on bringing the French terror on his beloved South. Remember the book is written several years after the defeat of the South, Dabney knows painfully how the story ends, at least so far.

DofV is at:
quoting for the online pdf files from now on, capture pen is too slow with too many errors with the small text size.

This abolition is purely the result of a supposed military necessity, because the North believed that otherwise she could not overthrow the South in an unjust. war. But for this single fact, the Africans would still be in bondage, so far as the Yankee was concerned. The proof is, that the Chicago platform of the Black Republican party in 1860, expressly repudiated the purpose ever to meddle with slavery in the States. Mr. Lincoln, the chosen man of the North, solemnly asserted the same thing in his letter to A. IH. Stephens of Georgia, in his publick inaugural, and in his messages. The Congress, after.the beginning of the war, solemnly declared to the world by a joint resolution, that the purpose of the war was only to restore the Union, and not to restrict or change State institutions. Mr. Lincoln constantly declared to the Abolitionists, that if the perpetuation of slavery tended to restore the Union, it should be perpetuated. His standing invitation to the States in arms against him was: "If you wish to keep your slaves, come back into the Union." Can the North be believed in her own declarations? Then, the charge made is true-that abolition in the South was prompted by ambition and hatred, not by philanthropy. Nor has this act been less wicked in its effects than in its motive. To the white race it was the most violent, convulsive, reckless and mischievous act ever perpetrated by a civilized government.
pg 88
The issue is that no one really cared about black people, certainly in the light of subsequent history true on the whole, racism was firmly established North and South. but the minor issue is that the South treated black people better than the North treated their white laborers, this is an open issue for me.

It does in the first place, what all secular history and speculations fail to do: it gives us the origin of domestic slavery. And we find that it was appointed by God as the punishment of, and remedy for (nearly all God's providential chastisements are also remedial) the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race. God here ordains that this depravity shall find its necessary restraints, and the welfare of the more virtuous its safeguard against the depraved, by the bondage of the latter. He introduces that feature of political society, for the justice of which we shall have occasion to contend; that although men have all this trait of natural equality that they are children of a common father, and sharers of a common humanity, and subjects of the same law of love; yet, in practice, they shall be subject to social inequalities determined by their own characters, and their fitness or unfitness to use privileges for their own and their neighbours' good. But second: this narrative gives us more than a pre diction. The words of Noah are not a mere prophecy; they are a verdict, a moral sentence pronounced upon conduct, by competent authority; that verdict sanc tioned by God. Now if the verdict is righteous, and the execution blessed by God, it can hardly be, that the executioners of it are guilty for putting it in effect
pg 103,
this is both the Hametic verses defense and a defense that slavery is the result of moral or economic failure. this argument also appears in Rushdoony and much of the Christian reconstructionist defense of slavery. The problem: unlike prisoners on a southern prison farm, black slaves where not there because of something they did. The defense that this kind of punishment and retribution slavery is Biblical misses the point that no black slave was made a slave because of his/her economic or moral failure, but most were there because they were born black. This is the big question of if OT slavery=Southern slavery and the answer is a firm no. OT and Roman slavery was not genetic, was not racist and was not for life, let alone the children of slaves.

They were to be bought and sold. They were heritable property: (Mr. Sumner would prove hence, "mere chattels.") iHere is involuntary slavery for life, expressly authorized to God's own peculiar and holy people, in the strongest and most careful terms. The relation, then, must be innocent in itself. With what show of candour can men say, in the face of a sanction so full, so emphatic, so hearty, that Moses, finding the hoary institution of domestic slavery so deeply rooted that it would be impossible then to abolish it, tolerated it, and limited it by all the restrictions which he could apply, calculated to cut off its worst horrors? We ask, was Moses the author of these laws, or God? Does the Almighty, the Unchangeable, the Holy, connive at moral abuses, like a puny human magistrate, and content himself, where he dare not denounce a sin, with pruning its growth a little? We ask again: Is this gloss borne out by the facts? Was Moses, in fact, timid in assailing old and deeply-rooted vices, and in demanding that they-should be eradicated wholly? Let his uncompromising legislation against Idolatry and Adultery answer.. The truth is, such writers as use the above language know nothing about the true nature of domestic slavery, and draw their inferences only from their prejudices. God and Moses knew it well. They knew that it was an institution which, when not abused, was suitable to the character of the. depraved persons for whom it was designed, and wholesome and benign. HIence, they prohibit all inhuman abuses of it; and then they do not tolerate it merely as an unavoidable wrong; but they expressly legalize it, as
pg 118,
this is as close as Dabney gets to answering the question that the South merely baptised a pagan institution that was essential for their economic and political society. This does not fend off the usual Marxist analysis that theology is nothing more than the rationalization of economic interests.

But we do not admit that Moses' was an incomplete revelation in the sense of the Abolitionists. They are fond of representing the New Testament revelation as completing, amending, and correcting that of the Old. Its details the New Testament does complete; but if it were amended or corrected by any subsequent standard of infallible truth, this would prove it not truly inspired. Indeed, the history of theological opinion shows plainly enough that this anti-slavery view of Old Tesfment revelation is Socinian and Rationalistic. Modern Abolitionism in America had, in fact, a Socinian birth, in the great apostasy of the Puritans of News England to that benumbing heresy, and in the pharisaism, shallow scholarship, affectation, conceit and infidelity of the Unitarian clique in the self-styled American Athens, Boston. It is lamentable to see how men professing to be evangelical are driven by blind prejudices against Southern men and things, to adopt this skeptical tone towards God's own word. The ruinous issue has been seen in the case of a minister of the Gospel, who, after floundering through a volume of confused and impotent sophisms, roundlydeclares that if compelled to admit that the Bible treated slavery as not a sin in itself, he would repudiate the Bible rather than his opinions. But we point these objectors to that Saviour who said, in the full meridian of revealed light of this Old
pg 131
this is as close as Dabney gets to answering the big question of progressive revelation. He unfortunately is blinded and restores to name calling rather than engaging with the issue. This is a big issue and is probably the best angle to take to criticize Dabney. The point is that the Scriptures are not flat, but rather the OT must be seen in the Light of the Cross, the Resurrection and Pentecost. His failure to use Resurrection colored glasses while reading the Pentateuch makes his reading of the slavery supporting passages to cross transferable to his own society. Essentially he draws lines straight from OT society to his society without passing through higher order principles. this is a common conservative practice and is my major point of criticism of Dabney. The minor is manstealing as the origin of slaves.

We have now reviewed, perhaps at too much length, the various impotent attempts made to escape from the meshes of our inexorable Old Testament argument. It is an argument short, plain, convincing. Although every thing enjoined on the Hebrews is not necessarily enjoined on us, (because it may have been of temporary obligation,) yet every such thing must be innocent in its nature, because a holy God would not sanction sin to his holy people, in the very act of separating them to holiness. But slaveholding was expressly sanctioned as a permanent institution; the duties of masters and slaves are defined; the rights of masters protected, not only in the civic but the eternal moral law of God; and He himself became a slave-owner, by claiming an oblation of slaves for his sanctuary and. priests. Hence, while we do not say that modern Christian nations are bound to hold slaves, we do assert that no people sin by merely holding slaves, unless the place can be shown where God has uttered a subsequent prohibition. But there is no such place, as the next chapter will show. While we well know that to secret infidels and rationalists, as all Abolitionists are, this has no weight, to every mind which reverences the inspiration of the Old Testament it is conclusive. And let every Christian note, that with the inspiration of the Old Testament stands or falls that of Christ and the apostles, because they commit themselves irretrievably to the support of the former.
pg 145
this is his summary of the OT argument and presents all the major issues.

But the propriety of slavery, like that of the restraints and punishments of civil government, rests on the fact that man is depraved and fallen. Such is his character, that the rights of the whole, and the greatest welfare of the whole, may, in many cases, demand the subjection of one part of society to another, even as man's sinfulness demands the subjection of all to civil government. Slavery is, indeed, but one form of the institution, government. Government is controul. Some controul over all is necessary, righteous, and beneficent: the degree of it depends on the character of those to be controuled. As that character rises in the scale of true virtue, and selfcommand, the degree of outward controul may be properly made lighter. If the lack of those properties in any class is so great as to demand, for the good and safety of the whole, that extensive controul which amounts to slavery, then slavery is righteous, righteous by precisely the same reason that other government is righteous And this is the Scriptural account of the origin of slavery, as justly incurred by the sin and depravity of man.
pg 208
again he conflates slavery as justified punishment for secular crimes and race based heritiarily slavery. comparing apples and oranges with justifying one in terms of the other and pronouncing all as Godly. big cultural blindness.

It is a plausible ground of opposition to slavery, to charge it with the guilt of the slave trade. It is argued that unless we are willing to justify the capture of free and-innocent men, on their own soil, and their reduction from freedom to slavery, with all the enormous injustice and cruelty of the African slave trade, we must acknowledge that the title of the Southern master to his slave at this day is unrighteous; that a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time. It need hardly be said that we abhor the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade. It is justly condemned by the public law of Christendom -a law which not Wilberforce, nor the British Parliament, nor British, nor Yankee Abolitionists, have the honour of originating, but the slaveholding Commonwealth of Virginia. It is condemned by the law of God. Moses placed this among the judicial statutes of the Jews: "And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.' We fully admit, then, that the title of the original slave catcher to the captured African was most unrghteous. But few can be ignorant of -the principle, that a title, originally bad, may be replaced by a good one, by transmission from hand to hand, and by lapse of time. When the property has been acquired, by the latest holder, fairly and honestly; when, in the later
pg 288
This is as close as he comes to meeting with the manstealers argument, he is wrong, clear title is never transferred within a functional society by theft. Only in the extreme where societies are conquerored is title transferred by theft. He is comparing the extreme exception- Normans conqueroring England to the average title transfer within an ongoing society. Refer to the paintings stolen during WW2 by the Nazis and the USSR and how no one argues that the provence is clear title due to time passed..... This issue of man stealling ought to have been the church's since it was first written up in the 1810's trial of Barnes.

the difficulty of either entrusting the full franchises of the ruling caste to, or refusing them to, the moneyless class. The Word of God tells us that the poor shall always be with us. Natural differences of capacity, energy, and thrift, will always cause one part to distance the other part of the society, in the race of acquisition; and the older and denser any population becomes, the larger will be the penniless class, and the more complete their destitution as compared with the moneyed class. Shall they be refused all participation in the suffrage and powers of government? Then, by what means shall the constitution make them secure against the iniquities of class-legislation, which wickedly and selfishly sacrifices their i]terests and rights to the ruling class? And yet more: by what argument can they be rendered content in their political disfranchisement, when they are of the same race, colour, arid class, with their unauthorized oppressors, save as money makes an artificial distinction? The perpetual throes and reluctations of the oppressed class against the oppressors, will agitate and endanger any free government; as witness the strifes of the conservative and radical parties in England, and the slumbering eruptions which the ideas of the democrats of 1848 have kindled under every throne in Western Europe. But on the other hand, if the full franchises of the ruling class be conceded to the moneyless citizens, they seize the balance of power, and virtually hold the reins over the rights, property, and lives of the moneyed
pg 298
this is an interesting argument and i believe is part of Rushdoony's as well. The destitution of the working class through America and Europe for several generations following the American Civil War points to this as a potential safety value and training procedure. interesting in need of followup....

a biography at: http://www.pointsouth.com/csanet/greatmen/dabney/dab-bio.htm


[Edited on 5/10/2005 by fredtgreco]


Puritanboard Clerk
I don't have the time or energy to give a thorough detailed response. Here goes:

1) The South was chastened God via the North for failing to reform slavery on biblical guidelines.* This is the position of Eugene Genovese.

2) Such a reformation of slavery would have ended it as we know it on this continent. The South (Dabney) was correct to affirm that the Bible sanctioned slavery. They failed in applying all the relevant parts of the Bible to it (The Year of Jubilee, for one. I think that in itself would have ended slavery).

Both sides bring certain assumptions to the text when they look at the slavery passages. In Ephesians/Philemon the question exists to the nature of Roman slavery: Was it more brutal than Southern Slavery? If yes, then one must ask why Paul counseled the slave to be obedient to the master in the Lord. However, the asking of such a question--and this is a tangent--brings to mind the limits of civil disobedience when an earthly authority commands what Christ has forbidden.

If Roman slavery was less brutal than southern slavery, then the Southrons have--well, not anymore because they are all dead--to shoulder an extra burden of proof for their case. They can no longer appeal to New Testament examples because the slave system was different. If this is the case then appeals to the NT are fallacies of equivocation.

We must condemn chattel slavery. At the same time it helps to keep in mind that the Constitution today does not categorically condemn every form of slavery. Consider Article 1 of the 13 Amendment:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction

We must condemn man-stealing.
We must also recognize that many of the Abolitionists were driven by the French Revolution and had eventually equated the abolition of slavery with the destruction of the South.

Several questions will probably remain unanswered:
How could an otherwise Christian people tolerate slavery in that form?
Why didn't Lincoln make it clear that he wanted to end slavery when his speeches suggested otherwise? This isn't addressed by scholars today.

these are just my thouhts at the moment. Could add more later, probably.


Puritanboard Clerk
In regard to my first point I must add that God judged the North in the aftermath of the war as we now have Big Government, the loss of the Union (how many people speak of that today?), the loss of republic and the rise of Empire.


Puritan Board Freshman


Some good responses. Another point to consider is that the Law does not countenance slavery based on 'race.'


Puritan Board Senior

Jacob, you condemn (rightly) all of the basic practices of slavery in the US. But you never condemn US slavery outright, only specific practices. But the sum of the practices equal the whole, from my observation. And the socioeconomic and cultural shockwaves of it still rattle through African-American communities today.

Why not condemn the whole thing outright ?


Puritan Board Doctor
Off topic:

In point 1 you have the wrong word. It should read 'affected' not 'effected'. A very common and growing mistake; much like the misuse of reflexive pronouns.


Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by OS_X

Jacob, you condemn (rightly) all of the basic practices of slavery in the US. But you never condemn US slavery outright, only specific practices. But the sum of the practices equal the whole, from my observation. And the socioeconomic and cultural shockwaves of it still rattle through African-American communities today.

Why not condemn the whole thing outright ?

One question is if the shockwaves are truly from Southern slavery or from Reconstruction?



Puritan Board Senior
Originally posted by WrittenFromUtopia
Why not condemn the whole thing? Because slavery, as a punishment to criminals, is a dang good idea, in my opinion.

But we're not talking about criminals, are we Gabriel ?



Puritanboard Clerk
I am always hesitant to debate this subject. I will stand second to no man in the South's constitutionality of seceeding. At the same time, I hope that I can say evil is evil, even when it pertains to my homeland.
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