While many Black people regarded slavery as a form of social death, some nineteenth-century white policy-makers extolled the virtues of slavery as a tool to uplift the characters of Africans in America: "[Slavery in America] has been the lever by which five million human beings have been elevated from the degraded and benighted condition of savage life ... to a knowledge of their responsibilities to God and their relations to society," observed a Kentucky Congressman in 1860. These sentiments were echoed by abolitionist northern officers not three years later when the institution of marriage was lauded for its civilizing effect on the newly freed men and women: "[Marriage] is the great lever by which [the freed men and women] are to be lifted up and prepared for a state of civilization."

With an increasingly heterogeneous population in the United States, nineteenth-century social reformers considered it their project to lift uncivilized people up from a natural savage state and mold them into proper citizens. Institutions such as slavery and marriage provided these reformers with a domesticating technology or lever that could pry the uncivilized apart from their savage ways.