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How Science Justified Slavery

Updated on October 6, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.


Before anyone gets all up in arms, let me say that this article is not supporting slavery. This is part of a paper I wrote for a college class where I discussed how the written word was used to support slavery and to fight to bring it down. In this piece, I look at how men used science to argue how slavery was a justified and needed institution. Looking back, we can see how foolish it was, but in the day it was written, many believed such things.

The Fight Over Slavery

Slavery was a very explosive topic. Either you were for or against it. There were very little middle ground. The fight for whichever side a person was on took any platform it could. When it came to the written word, the fight found a loud voice. The writers used any means to justify their stance.

'Science' Joins the Argument For Slavery

Even science chimed in on the topic in various publications including that of Dr. John H. Van Evrie. In "Negroes and Negro Slavery", he examined the "specific character of the Negro" by "stripping off the skin of the negro" and proving him to be a "different and inferior species of man." Yes, some 'intelligent' and well-educated people firmly believed that underneath the color of the skin, there was enough of a difference between the African man and that of the white man to justify the use of slavery.

Before we go on to see what Dr. Van Evrie had to say, let's look at this in a different light. Most people were not aware of the human body as we are today. It can be easy to laugh at such statements, but to those who were not educated or well-informed of the human body, it might be something easy to accept. This is especially true when you have been taught your entire life that the Negro is inferior. You already are predisposed to believe what Dr. Van Evrie says. What to us is common sense just didn't make sense to many people.


Similar But Not Quite the Same

Dr. Van Evrie starts by comparing men and women and how a woman might have many characteristics similar to a man but it does not make her man. Both have two arms and two legs. Both have eyes, nose, ears and mouth though they might be shaped slightly different due to sex. They have heart, lungs, kidneys, and many of the same systems within the body, but...they are different. Women have organs that a man does not. A man has some a woman does not. There are enough differences to say that they are different.

Thus a Negro might have many characteristics to that of the white man but it does not make him the same species. He proceeds to explain the physical differences as well as the mental and social from the size of the Negro's brain to that of how they live in their native lands. Since the size of their brain is supposedly different, they need to be treated differently. He uses how Africans lived to prove that they could not be civilized.

He suggested that slavery was a blessing to the African as it takes a species from its lower level society and moves it where it has advantages it never would be able to achieve on its own. It couldn't be argued that the African had a chance for a better life in the America's since the culture was more advanced. Therefore, it made sense to those who supported it.

This was the stance that many scientists took and printed in order to sway the public to the belief of slavery benefits. And it worked.

More Like a Child

Some did not see the African as born inferior. They him more as one who developed as a race needing guidance. They were more like children than inferior beings. James Hunt stated after his own research that "in the Negro there appears to be an arrested development of the mind exactly harmonizing with the physical formation. Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children; but the older they grow the less intelligent they become." The differences between the African and those of Europe were stressed to be the reasons for their inferiority and position as slave to the white man.

Their development had stopped while the European had continued on and found new levels of advancement. To many, this made sense. They couldn't read. They couldn't understand things that were 'educated'. It never occurred to them that it was because they had never been given the chance.

'Science' was skewed.


We can look back and see how foolish these statements were, but they were made by educated men which meant the words had to be true. That is how many would have looked at it. There was no Internet to research things on. There was not advanced education for the masses. To many, all this made sense so slavery was justified. They just needed to open their minds and learn a little more.



A Texan. The Yankee Slave-Dealer. Nashville,, 1860,

"Arguments and Justifications." The Abolition Project.

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: the first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998.

Brown, William Wells. Clotelle,

Buckingham, Goodsell. “The Bible Vindicated from the Charge of Sustaining Slavery.†Columbus: The Temperance Advocate Office, 1837.

Cobb, Thomas Read Rootes. “An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America.†

Davis, Jefferson. “Speech of Mr. Davis, of Mississippi, on the Subject of Slavery in the Territories,†, 1850.

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, (Boston: Anti-Slave Office, 1848), 2-3.

Elliott, E.N., ed. “Cotton is King.†

Exodus 22: 21-24. King James Bible.,

Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters. 1857.

Genesis 9. King James Bible.,

Helper, Hinton Rowan. “Why the North Has Surpassed the South.â€

The Impending Crises of the South.

“History of Slavery.†History World.

Hunt, James. On the Negro’s Place in Nature. London: Trubner, 1863.

Ingersoll, Charles Jared. “African Slavery in America.†Antislavery Literature., 1856.

Leviticus 25. The King James. Bible

Lewis, Evan. “Address to Christians of All Denominations on the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membershipâ€. Antislavery Literature, 1831,

Liberty Party Platform. 1844.

Ross, Dr. F. A. “Position of the Southern Church in Relation to Slavery.† 1857.

Sawyer, George S. Southern Institutes. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1859.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gutenberg, 1852,

Webster, Daniel. Speech Before the Senate of the United States, 1848. 0div3))

Wilson, William. “The Great American Questionâ€., 1848.


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