So in delving more deeply into Charles Irons’s argument, I think I may have found an important element that bears on my research project here. In discussing Thornton Stringfellow’s Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, he notes that part of Stringfellow’s argument is that enslavement is necessary for the conversion of blacks to Christianity.
Irons states that Stringfellow “was not content, as some in the early national period had been, to argue that evangelicals could make the most of a flawed institution by trying to proselytize slaves. Instead, he assumed that slavery in the Bible corresponded to American slavery. Moreover, he asserted that the status of black Americans as slaves was a necessary link in the chain that led to their conversion. Breaking that link, as abolitionists threatened to do, would disrupt the mission and probably result in catastrophic loss of life.” (my bold, obviously)
If slavery is a necessary pre-condition for black conversion to Christianity, this puts self-enslavement laws in a different light. One could view them as a necessary legal maneuver to allow for making free blacks into good Christians. I’m not sure this is the whole impetus behind passing them, but some of the language in Texas newspapers discussing how they are not reluctant supporters of slavery gives credence to that conclusion I think. For instance, on February 10, 1858—just 2 weeks after the final passage of the self-enslavement law—the Houston Weekly Telegraph argued that “[s]lavery is right in itself,” and more importantly that “slaves are far better as such, than wild negroes in Africa….As slaves, they are humanized and Christianized to a degree entirely unattainable by them as a race in any other condition. Slaves are better off as such than in a state of freedom in America.”
The key phrase, it seems, is that the “humanization” and “Christianization” offered by slavery is “entirely unattainable,” in the mind of the author, by free blacks in America.
Edit: Stringfellow’s pamphlet/book is published in 1856, as is William A. Smith’s Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery that takes a view similar to that of Stringfellow. In the same year, Virginia’s state legislature passes their self-enslavement law. Just a thought.