Slavery: Notes from Scientific American's Archives on the "Peculiar Institution"

News and opinion on the institution of slavery made a few rare appearances in our pages before, during, and after the U.S. Civil War

Scientific American

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order freed only a few of the millions of slaves living in the United States. But it was a big step toward ending slavery in the United States. For the 150th anniversary of this important event, here's a look back at how Scientific American, now 167 years old, treated the subject of slavery in its pages.

Many of our readers have wondered whether it is (and was) appropriate for Scientific American to cover slavery. We asked this question ourselves in April 2002:

Does the discussion of it [slavery] belong in a science magazine?...Ultimately the answer is yes.

[SA Perspectives: “The Peculiar Institution," by the Editors; Scientific American, April 2002]


The slavery that existed in the United States until 1865 was perfectly legal in some states and illegal in others. Almost all slaves were Africans or of African descent. The slaves were largely used to provide labor: domestic labor and farm labor, especially for growing, picking and processing tobacco and cotton. (Remember, farm machinery and domestic appliances were either horse-powered or steam-powered and were not as advanced as they are now.)


In March 1846 we said:

We do deprecate slavery in all its forms.

Bravo! Here's a simple, direct statement against slavery by our editors of the mid-19th century. Unfortunately we didn't really mean it. The article continues:

If any of our Southern friends should become alarmed by this caption, and commencement of an essay on the subject, they may learn in the sequel, that their system is not particularly alluded to, but that the evil of slavery prevails more extensively than people generally are aware of.

Our puritanical Yankee forebears were really concerned with other sinful behaviors. Here they are, from the same article:

Vain and foolish conformance to the various needless and useless fashions, in furniture, dress, and style of living; fashion and style which, so far from being requisite or conducive to either health, intelligence, or happiness, often ruin the naturally healthy constitution, producing dyspepsia and consumption and substitute nonsensical etiquette, vitiated theatrical taste, and pernicious romantic sentiment in place of rational intelligence; and continual chagrin and anxious embarrassment in place of happiness and contentment. This is a species of slavery, exceedingly prevalent, and none the less evil on account of its being voluntary.

One sentence even implies that if slave-holders were good and decent, the system of slavery itself might be good and decent:

It is admitted by all, that the extent of the evil accompanying slavery in any form, depends much on the character of the master or slave-holder.

[Scientific American, March 19, 1846]


One problem with ending slavery was the widespread prejudice against free African-Americans. Even some people who wanted to free the slaves did not want freed slaves living among them. This short article from December 1846 seems a little smug at the discomfiture of the abolitionists:

The Randolph Slaves.

We mentioned some months since that a large number of colored people, formerly the slaves of John Randolph, had passed through Cincinnati, on their way to Mercer County, Ohio, where land, provisions, and farming utensils had been prepared for them. But we did not mention that on their arrival on their own land, the people of Mercer Co., even those who had sold them the land etc., raised a mob and drove them off, and they were constrained to seek unconditional service among the more friendly white families in different parts of the state. The abolition papers are now comforting themselves by turning the apparently adverse circumstances to good fortune, on the ground that the negroes are acquiring a course of useful instruction in agricultural pursuits of which they were entirely ignorant (having been accustomed to raising tobacco) and which is indispensable to their success in farming for themselves.

[Scientific American, December 26, 1846]


There was no doubt that the editors were appalled at the violence inherent in the system of slavery. This short note from Scientific American in March 1846 reports an excerpt from a Southern paper, and is accompanied by a commentary from our editors:

A Dignified Calling.--There are several branches of business practiced in the Eastern States, which, though truly honest, and as such, honorable, but which are nevertheless esteemed rather low business such, for instance, as clam-digging, dog-killing, hog-skinning, etc., but the business advertised by William Cambrel, in a Southern paper, is in comparison excessively contemptible; and, without doubt, this advertiser is most heartily despised even by those who occasionally employ him:

"Negro Dogs.--The undersigned having bought the entire pack of Negro Dogs (of the Hay's & Allen stock), he now purposes to catch runaway negroes. His charges will be three dollars per day for hunting, and fifteen dollars for catching a runaway. He resides 3 1/2 miles north of Livingston, near the lower Jones' Bluff road, Wm. Cambrel."

[Scientific American, March 5, 1846]


This article is a travelogue by "Our Special Correspondent," someone loosely affiliated with the magazine. It breezily talks about how people farm in the South and in the North. It also includes this surprising observation on African-Americans:

In Tennessee we saw the first slaves at work, in gangs of from two or three up to twenty. Men and women were both plowing and hoeing together, all dressed in coarse, white cotton, or that which was once white. Their movements were decidedly sluggish. There is no doubt that the negro is adapted to a hot climate. I have been told (and the assertion has been repeated to me during this ride) that sometimes, in the middle of August, when the negroes stop at noon, instead of going into the shade, they build a fire right in the open field, in order to enjoy its heat in addition to that of the sun! The negro is a child of the tropics.

[Scientific American, June 23, 1860]

This nugget of anthropological drivel appears to have been a faithful report of the ignorant beliefs of the time. After all, the Mississippi declaration of secession from 1861 stated that African-Americans were needed to work in the fields in the South because "none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun."

[A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union, 1861, at]


The census of 1860 was published in an issue of April 1861. It showed a population in the United States of 20 million people in the North, and 13 million in the South. The figure for the south includes 4 million people who were enslaved.

[Scientific American, April 6, 1861]


Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in November 1860. Yet before he was inaugurated as president in March 1861, seven states declared they were leaving the United States. The seceded states objected mostly to the efforts of Northern states to curtail slavery where it existed and prevent its spread to new territories where slavery did not exist. Before war broke out, there were several months of frantic attempts at compromise. Scientific American did its very best to stay away from the argument about slavery and the right of the South to have its "peculiar institution" (as slavery has sometimes been called). Our article from April 1861, says:

Our Secession Troubles

The troubles to which we allude have had their origin in partisan questions, and it is almost impossible to discuss, or even allude to them, without hitting some sore sport or treading on somebody's corns.

When we commenced this journal sixteen years ago, we determined unflinchingly to devote our time, talent and energies to the progress of the arts and sciences, eschewing religious and political controversies altogether.

In reference to the peculiar institution [the term sometimes used for slavery in the South], about which there is so much strife, the public mind seems to have become so very touchy, that to state even ordinary scientific or mechanical facts bearing upon it, or to make an innocent indirect allusion to it or is champions, pro. or con. is sure to get somebody by the ears.

[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]

Rights & Permissions
or subscribe to access other articles from the January 2013 publication.
Digital Issue $5.99
Digital Issue + Subscription $39.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article