by Bjørn F. Stillion Southard (University of Mississippi Press, 2019)
Review Essay by Keith Watkins / December 2019
How do you describe a social practice that is legal, practiced widely, and defined as ethically appropriate even though it clearly conflicts with the basic standards of a society’s religious, ethical, and constitutional principles? This is the challenge faced by Americans beginning four centuries ago with the transporting of Africans to this country against their will and classifying them as slaves, totally subject to the will of their masters, with virtually no human rights, powers of self-determination, or means of escape.
And this in a nation established on the principle that “all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” During the 1830s, southern political leader John C. Calhoun introduced the term “peculiar institution.” This phrase acknowledged that the position of enslaved Africans differed from that of white citizens but it supported the practice as being suitable and for the benefit of all concerned.
Although white society defended the legitimacy of this system, allowing it to continue until the Civil War rejected its basic forms, black people objected with increasing clarity and power during the same years that white people were supporting it. From constant experience, they knew that slavery was a terrible way of life and was in sharp conflict with the principles that white society used to describe and support their own place in the social order.
In his book Peculiar Rhetoric: Slavery, Freedom, and the African Colonization Movement, Southard focuses attention upon three inter-connected aspects of the nineteenth century context for this rhetorical and political struggle: (1) growing unrest across the country because of slavery; (2) the emergence of debate about the peculiar institution aimed by some to support its continuing legitimacy and by others to do away with it; and (3) the emergence of organizations and processes, especially the American Colonization Society, intent upon overcoming this institution in ways that could be affirmed by white societies in the north and south. Southard is interested in the rhetoric that was in the middle, existing between competing traditions in white society, drawing ideas from each side without uniting them. Although this rhetoric may have reduced conflicts between opposing sides, it did not resolve these differences and thus found it difficult to motivate people on either side to act. Read more. . . . Peculiar Rhetoric