By the middle of the nineteenth century, many residents of the free states who were avid proponents of free labor became increasingly critical of the institution of slavery and wished to forbid its expansion. At the same time many Southern slave owners began defending slavery as a positive institution that civilized and Christianized the enslaved people and enriched the nation as a whole. White Virginians often stated that most enslaved African Americans were contented, but the growing anxiety that some white Virginians expressed about the security of their human property revealed their understanding that enslaved people yearned for liberty. That realization convinced most white men and women, including many who owned no slaves, that outside interference with local control over slavery could undermine the system and pose a threat to their way of life and to their physical safety.
The presence in Virginia of one of the South's largest populations of free blacks heightened anxieties that can be seen in state laws that regulated their behavior and limited their rights. The national political debates about the future of slavery and whether slavery should be permitted in the western territories acquired from Mexico in the 1840s also worried many white Southerners.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, vividly dramatized an interpretation of Southern slavery that appealed to Northerners who disapproved of slavery. During the decade antislavery sentiment in the Northern states increased, and abolitionists grew in numbers as well as in the intensity of their objections to slavery. In response, many white Southerners preached sermons, made speeches, wrote newspaper articles and pamphlets, and published books to attack abolitionists, to defend slavery, and to discredit Uncle Tom's Cabin Martha Haines Butt, a young Norfolk writer, published Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South in 1853, a novel that presented Southerners as kindly guardians of people who were unfortunately enslaved. With the widespread outrage generated by Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin , white Virginians became increasingly concerned about the future of their society and its economy.