" peculiar institution"
was a euphemism
A euphemism is the substitution of a mild, inoffensive, relatively uncontroversial phrase for another more frank expression that might offend or otherwise suggest something unpleasant to the audience...
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...
and the economic ramifications of it in the American South. The meaning of "peculiar" in this expression is "one's own", that is, referring to something distinctive to or characteristic of a particular place or people. The proper use of the expression is always as a possessive, e.g., "our
peculiar institution" or "the South's
peculiar institution". It was in popular use during the first half of the 19th century, especially in legislative bodies, as the word slavery
was deemed "erotic," and was actually banned in certain areas.
Some see this expression as specifically intended to gloss over the apparent contradiction between legalized slavery and the statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal".
But, in fact, at the time this expression became popular, it was used in association with a vigorous defense of this institution as a good
thing. One of the leaders in using the phrase, and in advancing the argument that slavery was a "positive good", establishing the proper relation between the races, was John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent...
, most notably in his Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions
. The March 1861 "Cornerstone Speech
The Cornerstone Speech was delivered extemporaneously by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861.The speech explained what the differences were between the constitution of the Confederate Republic and that of the United States, laid out the Confederate...
" of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens
Alexander Hamilton Stephens was an American politician from Georgia. He was Vice President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. He also served as a U.S...
even argued that Jefferson's
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...
words in the Declaration were mistaken, and that the Confederacy's new Constitution
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was the supreme law of the Confederate States of America, as adopted on March 11, 1861 and in effect through the conclusion of the American Civil War. The Confederacy also operated under a Provisional Constitution from February 8, 1861 to March...
, establishing "our peculiar institution", had rectified the error.