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‘Women Have Their Wrongs’ – The Wife as a Slave: Rev. Frederick Ross’ Theology on Both

The ties between the rights of women and of slaves were often bound together in the antebellum years. As we’ve seen, many feminists of that era became abolitionists, just as many abolitionists became feminists. But the progressive thinkers were not the only people making this connection. Many Christian people believed that just as the wife was ordered by God to be subservient to the husband, the slave was ordered by God to be subservient to the master.

Harper's Weekly print from June 1859 depicting of  a group of women in a hall listening to a woman speaker who is pointing to the men sitting in an upper gallery.
Harper’s Weekly print from June 1859 depiction of a group of women in a hall listening to a woman speaker who is pointing to the men sitting in an upper gallery.

One of the most outspoken proponents of this philosophy was the Rev. Frederick Ross of Virginia. Ross was born on Christmas Day, 1796, and took his education from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He became a Presbyterian minister and pastored in Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky, finally moving to Huntsville, Alabama. Ross emancipated his slaves and preached that slavery was “the evil, the curse of the South”. 1For more information on the strange and clever way Rev. Ross emancipated his slaves, you can read his words on the matter here. So how then was Rev. Ross one of the most powerful pro-slavery speakers of his time? He was also enthusiastically against the rights of women, and often tied the two subjects together. “We of the South don’t understand your women’s-rights conventions,” he said in a 1853 speech in Buffalo, New York. “Women have their wrongs.”

The God-given Right for Man to Rule Over Man

Ross viewed slavery as sanctioned by The Bible, but he also drew upon the same book for his views on women. Often in his speeches, he attempted to make his case for slavery by using women, especially “bloomers” – feminists – and wives as examples.

During a speech in New York, Ross wished to illustrate “the world-wide law that service shall be rendered by the inferior to the superior.” He gave examples of “parent and child; teacher and scholar; commander and soldier,” but began with “husband and wife,” and ended with “master and slave.” All of these relationships, said Ross, were “ordained of God.” 2Frederick Augustus Ross Slavery Ordained of God (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1857) 20.

Ross best explained his entire philosophy in this same New York speech, calling back once more to the Bible. Adam’s fall, he claimed, was the start of the “control of the superior over the inferior.” The first example of this, according to Ross, was man over woman.

“And, first,” Ross spoke, quoting Genesis 3:16, “God said to the woman, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’

There, in that law, is the beginning of government ordained of God. There is the beginning of the rule of the superior over the inferior, bound to obey. There, in the family of Adam, is the germ of the rule in the tribe, – the state. Adam, in his right, from god, to rule over his wife and his children, had all the authority afterwards expanded in the patriarch and the king. This simple, beautiful fact, there, on the first leave of the Bible, solves the problem, when and how has man right to rule over man.” 3Ibid., 47. Emphasis Ross’

Ross believed that due to climate and the shapes of continents, “the solid, unindented Southern Africa makes the inferior man.” So too was the case with South America and the Pacific Islands. It was only Asia and Europe that escaped this blight. “Africa… save the unintelligible stones of Egypt, has had no history.” 4Ibid., 51.

The Wife is the Slave

But Ross was just getting started. The wife, “except where Christianity has given her elevation, is the slave” [Ross’ emphasis].”

Plate from Arnold Henry Guyot's Earth and Man, referred to by Ross.
Plate from Arnold Henry Guyot’s Earth and Man, referred to by Ross.

“And, sir, I say, without fear of saying too strongly, that for every sigh, every groan, every tear, every agony of stripe or death, which has gone up to God from the relation of master and slave, there have been more sighs, more groans, more tears, and more agony in the rule of the husband over the wife.” 5Ibid., 53.

Ross was speaking directly to a New York audience, one who had read of the brutality depicted in the recently-published book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He admitted that “every fact in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has occurred in the South,” but cautioned the New Yorkers that even in the past few years in their own city there was “more cruelty from husband to wife, parent to child, than in all the South from master to slave in the same time.”

“Do you say, The slave is held to involuntary service? so is the wife. Her relation to her husband, in the immense majority of cases, is made for her, and not by her. And when she makes it for herself, how often, and how soon, does it become involuntary! How often, and how soon, would she throw off the yoke if she could! […]

“Nay, I know you [the wife] may surpass him [the husband] in his own sphere of boasted prudence and worldly wisdom about dollars and cents. Nevertheless, he has authority, from God, to rule over you. You are under service to him. You are bound to obey him in all things. Your service is very, very, very often involuntary from the first, and, if voluntary at first, becomes hopeless necessity afterwards.”

Ross completes this analogy by asking “But the husband may not so love you. He may rule you with the rod of iron. What can you do? Be divorced? God forbids it, save for crime.” In Ross’ mind, and in the minds of many others, being a wife was worse than being a slave. She, like slaves, had no will of her own. If things got bad, what could she do? “Will you run away, with your stick and your bundle? He can advertise you!! What can you do?” 6Ibid., 55-56.

Women: The Fairer Question

He continues to draw sad parallels between a married woman and a slave. “Do you say the slave is sold and bought? So is the wife the world over.” After naming various places around the globe, including the New England states and New York City, he claims that “She is seldom bought in the South, and never among the slaves themselves; for they always marry for love.” 7Ibid., 57.

Illustration of Ross from a column in the Jonesborough Whig that attacked his preaching.
Illustration of Ross from a column in the Jonesborough Whig that attacked his preaching.

It’s incredibly difficult to follow Ross’ line of logic. On one hand he’s saying that slavery is a good thing because it’s better than being a wife, but even then the two weren’t really comparable. He almost seems to be playing into the sexism of the day, saying basically that “you treat your wives worse than we treat our slaves, so how can you be against slavery?” That’s a fair question, really. Though he never seemed to consider the other side of the coin – if brutalizing one’s wife was akin to slavery, why not do away with them both?

The Hypocracy of the Straw Man Abolitionist

He also brings up other hypocrisies such as Northern abolitionists “purchasing cotton, rice, sugar, sprinkled with blood, literally, you say, from the lash of the driver!” He naturally ignores the many who did in fact boycott such products. But he also turns this hypocrisy to the desires of women.

“Your ladies, too,” he continues, “oh, how they shun the slaveowner at a distance, in the abstract. But alas, when they see him in the concrete, – when they see the slave-owner himself, standing before them, – not the brutal driver, but the splendid gentleman, with this unmistakable grace of carriage and ease of manners, -why, lo, behold the lady say, “Oh, fie on your slavery! – what a wretch you are! But, indeed, sir, I love your sugar, – and truly, truly, sir, wretch as you are, I love you too.” 8Ibid, 17-18.

All of his shaky leaps of logic aside, his real point was that God “sanctioned the relation of master and slave as those of husband and wife.” He wasn’t advocating spousal abuse as much as he was simply stating that it existed and was often worse than slavery. That said, no where does Ross condemn it. Rather, he accepts it as part of the God-ordained package, nondifferent from the whips and shackles of slavery. 9Ibid., 60-61.

No Guilt for the Enslaver

Frederick Ross was a strange and complicated man, arguing at times that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a moral wrong because it was not sanctioned by God. 10Ibid., 144 The Biblical system of slavery, he claimed, was “exactly the same in nature with that in the South, – a system ordained of God as really as the other forms of government round about him.” 11Ibid., 153. He did not ignore the fact that the Southern system could not have existed without the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but blamed it upon the North – especially the abolitionists.

Unidentified woman and slave - from New Orleans.
Unidentified woman and slave – from New Orleans.

He once asked an audience to envision a slave ship coming from Africa “hurrying hogshead after hogshead, filled with living slaves, into the deep, and, thus lightened, escape. Sir, what horror to believe that clippership was built by the hands of Northern, noisy Abolition church-members!” 12Ibid., 15-16.

Ultimately, he washed the guilt of slavery – if there was guilt at all – from the Southern slaveowner. “That guilt,” he claimed, “in no sense whatever, rests upon him; for he neither stole the man, nor bought him from the kidnapper nor had any complicity in the traffic.” 13Ibid., 154-155. Still, he condemned the Northern wife for buying cotton and sugar.

Ross could not see the difference between being a slave and being a wife, and he was fine with that. The two institutions were one in the same. Kidnapping either the wife or the slave was wrong, of course, but now that one or the other was around, it was all seemingly part of God’s design.

“I tell the magistrate, husband, father, master, how to rule; I tell the subject, wife, child, servant, how to submit. Hence, I command the slave not to flee from bondage, just as I require the subject, the wife, the child, not to resist or flee from obedience.” 14Ibid., 184.

Rev. Ross’ logic and sense may seem antiquated and foreign to us now. This is a good thing. Certainly, it must have been horrible to the ears of the wives of men in attendance. But in a real sense, Ross was hardly wrong. Many women were bound to their husbands for life, little freer than the slaves of the South. The reverend wasn’t the only one to notice this, of course. Many feminists, like the Grimkë sisters, saw this comparison for what it was, and would fight all their lives to change the living situations of both the wives and the slaves. They would take up the causes of both as they believed that both were causes worthy of their fight.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

One thought on “‘Women Have Their Wrongs’ – The Wife as a Slave: Rev. Frederick Ross’ Theology on Both

  1. Another interesting work along these lines is ‘A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on The Institution of Slavery’ by Rev. Thornton Stringfellow, in which he goes on for 25 pages in small print of Biblical justification for slavery.

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