Antebellum Slavery/Paternalism

Paternalism Section Review 3

Carolina Galindo

Paternalism and Its Five Models


A paternalistic explanation of slavery is one that claims that slave holders held slaves because they believed it was in the slaves best interest or an explanation that claims that slaves viewed their masters in a manner similar to the way children see their guardians.

When we say that slavery was paternalistic, that could mean several things. It could mean that all or most slave holders thought that slavery was a good thing for the slaves. Their motives for owning slaves were to promote and protect the slaves' best intertests. On the other hand, one could interpret paternalism in such a way that the motives of slaveholders were not the key issue, but rather that slavery was a state of dependency where the slaves were dependent upon slaveholders for their survival and that slaves were not capable of being responsible for their own fates.

A typical slaveholder was ignorant, but not evil. Slaves typically described slavery and their slaveholder in ways that called paternalism into question. Paternalistic accounts of slavery support the view that slavery was unjust, but that it was not as bad as some people have thought.

After the abolishment of the slave trade in 1808, slave holders had good self interested reason for looking out for the welfare of their slaves. Peter Parish, in Slavery: History and Historians, notes that a number of historians who defend paternalistic accounts of slavery, make use of this fact.

Eugene Genovese, a noted historian of slavery, claims that paternalism is incompatible with bourgeois social relations. By this he means that the idea of individual freedom is inconsistent with paternalism.


To understand the models of paternalism you must understand the slaveholder/slave model. Under this model, the slaves were dependent upon slaveholders because slaveholders could not be responsible for defining and promoting their own goods. This argument does not rest on the motives of the slaveholders. The argument is that it could be true even if all slaveholders were motivated to hold slaves because they felt it would promote their own good rather than the good of the slaves. Many of the early supporters of this model assumed the natural inferiority of slaves. Slaves were thought to be subhuman creatures that could not survive in civilized societies.

There are several models that have been used to explain paternalistic behavior. These include the parent/child model, the mentally competent/incompetent model, the doctor/patient model, and the teacher/student model. The slave holder/slave model is relevant to the paternalistic models stated above.

The parent/child model is the most common model, which represents a clear example of paternalistic interference. Many paternalistic accounts of slavery draw upon this model. In this model, the slaveholder is viewed as the parent and the slave as the child or childlike.  Historian Kenneth Stampp draws the analogy in the following manner:

The most generous master, so long as he was determined to be a master, could be paternal only toward a fawning dependent; for slavery, by its nature, could never be a relationship between equals, Ideally it was the relationship of parent and child. The slave who had nearly lost his manhood, who lost confidence in himself, who stood to receive the favors and the affection of a patriarch.

The system was in its essence a process of infantilization and the master used the amiable, irresponsible sambos of tradition, who were the most perfect products of the system, to prove that negroes were a childlike race, needing guidance and protection but inviting paternal love as well"(McGray 197).

The comparison between the parent/child and slaveholder/slave breaks down because the slaves were not all children, but they were childlike in many aspects. The slave as child model keeps the slave as everlasting children. The slaves never mature and never appreciate the reasonableness of the slaveholders' interferences. This leads to the next model, the competent/incompetent model. In this model, slaves are thought to be incapable of determining their own good and choosing the means to achieve it. This model includes slaves into the moral community and as Genovese writes, it insists "upon mutual obligations-duties, responsibilities, and ultimately rights"(McGary 198). However, by including slaves into the moral community, this model assigns them a moral status, due to the practice of slavery. Slaves were not genetically or naturally incompetent. They were made to appear to be incompetent because of the laws, practices, and public opinion in the antebellum South.

The next model is the teacher/student model. The student is thought to be uneducated, not incompetent. However, some slaveholders did argue that it was their duty to educate them in Christian ways, and that slavery was necessary In order to do this. In the doctor/patient model, the slaveholder claims that if he didn't care for the slaves by substituting his judgement for theirs, the slaves would experience death or great misfortune.

In essence to paternalism and its models, paternalism has been and still continues to be an acceptable and even introduced practice in liberal or bourgeois societies.

Work Cited

Lott, Tommy L. Subjugation and Bondage. Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy. Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1998. 187-206.