Many of us are familiar with the movements for "free-range" or "humane" animal products. I have heard that in the antebellum US there were similar movements for "humane" slave products.

Is this true? While I heard this specifically about the US, I would be interested in similar movements worldwide too.

EDIT: with most ethical movements, there are a range of intensities with which people respond. For example: with environmentalism, some people just advocate switching to CFLs, whereas others advocate not driving, never eating meat, etc. This latter group is analogous to the "abolitionists" of slavery.

However, I'm wondering what the former group is analogous to. There must've been people who said "Sure, slavery is bad, but it's just too big of a change. For now, let's focus on treating slaves better." Were there any such movements?

  • There were some movements for humane treatment of slaves, but there would be little to no way to verify where the major products made by slaves came from, so I'm doubtful.
    – Razie Mah
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 17:53
  • 5
    @Mark: I had thought so too, but I can't find anything. The wikipedia article on this says nothing, nor the one about slave codes, and this question is one of the highest results from a google search. If you can find an answer as a result of trivial research, I would be delighted to hear it.
    – Xodarap
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 22:39
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    That very Wiki page on slave codes has a section on the proper treatment of slaves, enforced by law.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 0:25
  • I think reading the slave codes is helpful here probably. It would have been illegal in most of the US to treat slaves "humanely." The slave codes are so brutal to prevent a slave revolt lead by "maroons" as happened in Haiti. The Wiki page conflates the Code Noir as they had in Haiti and Louisiana with the rest of the US, which is improper, BTW. So, unless this is a small movement in the North to buy slave products made by craftsmen, which is unlikely due to the economic rivalry between whites and blacks, I think this is impossible.
    – Razie Mah
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 6:43
  • I think you're looking for Positive Good Theory. There is also a recent (within the last 10 years) book that overturned a lot of assumptions about the management of slaves; the author argued that most slaveholders wanted optimized production, not brutality, and so managed their slaves like capital. Unfortunately I'm having a senior moment and cannot remember the title or author. If I have time later today, I'll check.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 11:13

3 Answers 3


It seems the key word I should've been looking for is "Christian Slavery". E.g. this NYT article says:

Southern Christians believed that the Bible imposed on masters a host of obligations to their slaves. Most fundamentally, masters were to view slaves as fully members of their own households and as fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. Therefore, as the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared before the war, masters sinned against their slaves by “excessive labor, extreme punishment, withholding necessary food and clothing, neglect in sickness or old age, and the like.”

Moreover, masters were not to let economic considerations govern treatment of their slaves. Religious leaders implored slaveholders to acknowledge that marriage and the family were divinely ordained and that, as a result, they must not separate husbands from wives or parents from children, even when it was financially advantageous to do so. (Almost no legislative action, however, resulted from these pleas; only the force of conscience would determine whether these biblical prescriptions were honored.) Many Southern Protestants advocated the repeal of laws banning slave literacy, so that slaves could read the Bible as a means to securing their eternal salvation.


Starting in 1776 and continuing through the end (!) of the Civil War, there was a gradual evolution in the institution of slavery in the US. Some of the changes could possibly be described as making slavery more "humane," although that's not necessarily the word I'd use.

Slave marriages were not legally recognized, and were initially discouraged. But when the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 it became important to slave owners that their slaves produce enough children to keep up the population. Marriage was also seen as a way to keep the slaves from becoming unhappy enough to revolt. Possibly for reasons of economic organization, northern slaveowners never participated in this (see http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/family/history.html ). People who owned small numbers of slaves often continued to break up families by selling their members, or arranged marriages between men and women who worked in different places, so that the couples could only visit intermittently.

In some ways the institution may have become less humane. In the colonial period, slaves were often allowed to learn to read, and were sometimes even encouraged to do so (so that they could read the Bible), but were usually forbidden to learn to write. However, after Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 there was a wave of legislation imposing more strict limits on the education of slaves.

In some respects, slaveholders in the late antebellum period felt obliged to offer more detailed justifications for slavery, without fundamentally changing the underlying institution. Biblical precedents for slavery were described in greater and greater detail. Tracts defending slavery were eagerly consumed. Economic justifications such as the mudsill theory were offered, as well as rationales involving a system of mutual obligation.

Surprisingly, there was a strong current to reform slavery from within the Confederacy, led by clergymen such as Nathaniel Macon Crawford and Henry Holcombe Tucker. Boles (Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740-1870) argues that they may have acted partly out of a desire to strengthen their social system against attack from the North and partly because the war freed them to argue for reform without being accused of disloyalty:

Beginning late in 1862, reform churchmen launched a determined campaign to rectify slavery's most glaring ethical shortcomings. [...] clergymen urged lawmakers to legalize black education, allow bondsmen to preach the gospel, protect slave marriages, and prohibit separation of black family members.


Plutarch, writing about 100 AD, in his "Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans" has a commentary about the Roman Cato the Elder who recommended working slaves hard and selling them off when they became unable to work. He critiques this as being inhumane and immoral, saying that slaves should be cared for after their life of service.

So humanizing slavery isn't an exclusively Christian development.

  • 2
    This is far from being an isolated example. Seneca and many others have expressed similar sentiments - without questioning the practice of slavery in general/ Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 9:56

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