Contents: Building a Slave Society

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5. The South and Slavery
If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own.



  1. Building a Slave Society

  2. Plantation Slavery

  3. Slavery and the Sectional Balance

  4. Abolitionism

1. Building a Slave Society

Questions: As you read, note items in bold.

  1. Why, contrary to predictions, did slavery not die out but become stronger in 19th century America? To what extend was slavery an institution that benefited North and South and why did the South feel that it could depend on Britain to protect southern slavery?

  2. Describe the social and cultural patterns of the planter aristocracy—to what extent did it create a “sham civilization?”

  3. What were some of the negative economic effects of overdependence on slave labor and a single cash crop?

  4. What was the reality of the South’s socio-economic profile—how typical was the planter class? Why did most white Southerners defend slavery?

  5. What was the status of free blacks in the South and the North?

At the dawn of the Republic, slavery faced an uncertain future. Touched by Revolutionary idealism, some southern leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, were talking openly of freeing their slaves. Others predicted that the iron logic of economics would eventually expose slavery’s unprofitability, speeding its demise.

But the introduction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793 scrambled all those predictions. Whitney’s invention made possible the wide-scale cultivation of short-staple cotton. The white fiber rapidly became the dominant southern crop, eclipsing tobacco, rice, and sugar. The explosion of cotton cultivation created an insatiable demand for labor, chaining the slave to the gin, and the planter to the slave. As the nineteenth century opened, the reinvigoration of southern slavery carried fateful implications for blacks and whites alike—and threatened the survival of the nation itself.
Cotton Is King!’’

As time passed, the Cotton Kingdom developed into a huge agricultural factory. Caught up in an economic spiral, the planters bought more slaves and land to grow more cotton, so as to buy still more slaves and land.

Northern shippers reaped a large part of the profits from the cotton trade. They would load bulging bales of cotton at southern ports, transport them to England, sell their fleecy cargo, and buy needed manufactured goods for sale in the United States. To a large degree, the prosperity of both North and South rested on the bent backs of southern slaves.
Cotton accounted for half the value of all American exports after 1840. The South produced more than half of the entire world’s supply of cotton. Britain was then the leading industrial power. Its most important single manufacture in the 1800s was cotton cloth, from which about one-fifth of its population, directly or indirectly, drew its livelihood. About 75 percent of this precious supply of fiber came from the American South.
Southern leaders were fully aware that Britain was tied to them by cotton threads, and this dependence gave them a heady sense of power. In their eyes “Cotton was King,’’ the gin was his throne, and the black slaves were his henchmen. If war should ever break out between North and South, northern warships would presumably cut off the outflow of cotton. British factories would then close their gates, starving mobs would force the London government to break the blockade, and the South would triumph. Cotton was a

powerful monarch indeed.

The Planter “Aristocracy’’

Before the Civil War, the South was in some respects not so much a democracy as an oligarchy—or a government by the few, in this case heavily influenced by a planter aristocracy. In 1850 only about 1,700 families owned more than 100 slaves each, and this select group provided the cream of the political and social leadership of the section and nation.

The planter aristocrats enjoyed a lion’s share of southern wealth. They could educate their children in the finest schools, often in the North or abroad. Their money provided the leisure for study, reflection, and statecraft—so many leaders of the Revolutionary and early Republic era—Washington, Jefferson, Madison— were men of the South.
Yet, dominance by a favored aristocracy was basically undemocratic. It widened the gap between rich and poor. It hampered tax-supported public education, because the rich planters could and did send their children to private institutions. A favorite author of elite southerners was Sir Walter Scott, whose manors and castles helped them idealize a feudal society. (Mark Twain later accused Sir Walter Scott of having had a hand in starting the Civil War. The British novelist, Twain said, aroused the southerners to fight for a decaying social structure—“ a sham civilization.”)
The Slave Economy

Unhappily, the “moonlight-and-magnolia” tradition concealed much that was irrational and sordid. Plantation agriculture was wasteful, largely because King Cotton despoiled the good earth. Quick profits led to excessive cultivation, or “land butchery,’’ which in turn caused a heavy leakage of population to the West and Northwest.

The economic structure of the South became increasingly monopolistic. As the land wore thin, many small farmers sold their holdings to more prosperous neighbors and went north or west. The big got bigger and the small smaller. When the Civil War finally erupted, a large percentage of southern farms had passed from the hands of the families that had originally cleared them.
Another problem of the cotton economy was the financial instability of the plantation system. The temptation to over-speculate in land and slaves caused many planters, including Andrew Jackson in his later years, to plunge in beyond their depth.

Slaves represented a heavy investment of capital, perhaps $1,200 each in the case of prime field hands, and they might deliberately injure themselves or run away. An entire slave quarter might be wiped out by disease.

Dominance by King Cotton likewise led to a dangerous dependence on a one-crop economy, whose price level was at the mercy of world conditions. The whole system discouraged a healthy diversification of agriculture and particularly of manufacturing. Southern planters resented watching the North grow fat at their expense. They were pained by the heavy outward flow of commissions and interest to northern middlemen, bankers, agents, and shippers.
The Cotton Kingdom also repelled large-scale European immigration, which added so richly to the manpower and wealth of the North. In 1860 only about four percent of the southern population were foreign-born, as compared with close to twenty percent for the North. German and Irish immigration to the South (the European groups coming to American in large number in the mid 19th century) was generally discouraged by the competition of slave labor, by the high cost of fertile land, and by European ignorance of cotton growing. The diverting of non-British immigration to the North caused the white South to become the most Anglo-Saxon section of the nation.
The White Majority

In truth, only a handful of southern whites lived in Greek- pillared mansions. Below those 1,700 families in 1850 who owned a hundred or more slaves were the less wealthy slave owners. All told, only about one-fourth of white southerners owned slaves or belonged to a slave-owning family. The smaller slave owners did not own a majority of the slaves, but they made up a majority of the masters. These lesser masters were typically small farmer. With the striking exception that their household contained a slave or two, the style of their lives probably resembled that of small farmers in the North more than it did that of the southern planter aristocracy. They lived in modest farmhouses and sweated beside their slaves in the cotton fields.

Beneath the slave owners on the population pyramid was the great body of whites who owned no slaves at all. By 1860 they represented three-quarters of all southern whites.

To them, the riches of the Cotton Kingdom were a distant dream. These red-necked

farmers participated in the market economy scarcely at all. As subsistence farmers, they raised corn and hogs, not cotton, and often lived isolated lives, punctuated periodically by extended socializing and sermonizing at religious camp meetings.
All these whites without slaves had no direct stake in the preservation of slavery, yet they were among the stoutest defenders of the slave system. Why? The answer is not far to seek. The carrot on the stick ever dangling before their eyes was the hope of buying a slave or two and of parlaying their paltry holdings into riches—all in accord with the “American dream’’ of upward social mobility. They also took fierce pride in their presumed racial superiority, which would be watered down if the slaves were freed. Many of the poorer whites were hardly better off economically than the slaves; some, indeed, were not so well-off. But even the most wretched whites could take perverse comfort from the knowledge that they outranked someone in status: the still more wretched African- American slave. Thus did the logic of economics join with the illogic of racism in buttressing the slave system.

In a special category among white southerners were the mountain whites, more or less marooned in the valleys of the Appalachian range that stretched from western Virginia to northern Georgia and Alabama. As independent small farmers, hundreds of miles distant from the heart of the Cotton Kingdom and rarely if ever in sight of a slave, these mountain whites had little in common with the whites of the east. Many of them, looked upon the impending strife between North and South as “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.’’ When the war came, the mountain whites constituted a vitally important pro-Northern peninsula jutting down into the secessionist Southern sea. They ultimately played a significant role in crippling the Confederacy.
Free Blacks: Slaves without Masters

In the upper South, the free black population traced its origins to a wavelet of emancipation inspired by the idealism of Revolutionary days. In the deeper South, many free blacks were mulattoes, usually the emancipated children of a white planter and his black mistress. Throughout the South were some free blacks who had purchased their freedom with earnings from labor after hours. Many free blacks owned property, especially in New Orleans, where a sizable mulatto community prospered. Some even owned slaves.

The free blacks in the South were a kind of “third race.’’ These people were prohibited from working in certain occupations and forbidden from testifying against whites in court. They were always vulnerable to being highjacked back into slavery by unscrupulous slave traders. As free men and women, they were walking examples of what might be achieved by emancipation and hence were resented and detested by defenders of the slave system.
Free blacks were also unpopular in the North, where about another 250,000 of them lived. Several states forbade their entrance, most denied them the right to vote, and some barred blacks from public schools. Northern blacks were especially hated by Irish immigrants, with whom they competed for menial jobs. Much of the agitation in the North against the spread of slavery into the new territories in the 1840s and 1850s grew out of race prejudice, not humanitarianism.

2. Plantation Slavery

Questions: As you read, note items in bold.

  1. Describe the economic stake that Southern slave holders had in the system.

  2. What are some of the factors that varied the experiences of slaves within the slave system?

  3. What factors promoted the emergence of a distinctive African-American culture?

  4. Despite some variation in treatment, what were some of the fundamental elements that typified the degrading treatment experienced by most slaves? What ways did slaves find to resist and undermine the system of their captivity?

By 1860, the number of slave had quadrupled since 1800 as the booming cotton economy created a seemingly unquenchable demand for slave labor. Legal importation of African slaves into America ended in 1808, when Congress outlawed slave imports. But the price of slaves was so high in the years before the Civil War that uncounted thousands of blacks were smuggled into the South, despite the death penalty for slavers. Although several were captured, southern juries repeatedly acquitted them. Only one slave trader was ever executed and this took place in New York in 1862, the second year of the Civil War.

Yet the huge bulk of the increase in the slave population came not from imports but instead from natural reproduction—a fact that distinguished slavery in America from other New World societies and that implied much about the tenor of the slave regime and the conditions of family life under slavery.
Above all, the planters regarded the slaves as investments, into which they had sunk nearly $2 billion of their capital by 1860. Slaves were the primary form of wealth in the South. A “prime field hand”—a healthy, young male— was worth $1,800 by 1860 (a price that had quintupled since 1800).
Slavery was profitable for the great planters, though it hobbled the economic development of the region as a whole. The profits from the cotton boom sucked ever more slaves from the upper to the lower South, so that by 1860 the Deep South states of

South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana each had a majority or near-majority of blacks and accounted for about half of all slaves in the South.

The South in 1860
Breeding slaves in the way that cattle are bred was done especially soil-exhausted slave states of the Old South, especially tobacco-depleted Virginia and Maryland. Women who bore large number of children were prized and white masters all too frequently would force their attentions on female slaves, fathering a sizable mulatto population, most of which remained enchained.

Slave auctions were brutal sights. The open selling of human flesh under the hammer, sometimes with cattle and horses, was among the most revolting aspects of slavery. On the auction block, families were separated with distressing frequency, usually for economic reasons such as bankruptcy or the division of “property’’ among heirs. The sundering of families in this fashion was perhaps slavery’s greatest psychological horror. Abolitionists decried the practice, and Harriet Beecher Stowe seized on the emotional power of this theme by putting it at the heart of the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Life Under the Lash

White southerners often romanticized about the happy life of their singing, dancing, banjo-strumming, joyful “darkies.’’ But how did the slaves actually live? There is no simple answer to this question. Conditions varied greatly from region to region, from large plantation to small farm, and from master to master. Everywhere, of course, slavery meant hard work, ignorance, and oppression.

The slaves—both men and women—usually toiled from dawn to dusk in the fields, under the watchful eyes and ready whip-hand of a white overseer or black “driver.’’ They had no civil or political rights, other than minimal protection from arbitrary murder or unusually cruel punishment. Slaves were forbidden to testify in court or even to have their marriages legally recognized. Floggings were common, for the whip was the

substitute for the wage-incentive system and the most visible symbol of the planter’s mastery. Strong-willed slaves were sometimes sent to “breakers,’’ whose technique consisted mostly in lavish laying on of the lash. As an abolitionist song of the 1850s


To-night the bond man, Lord

Is bleeding in his chains;

And loud the falling lash is heard

On Carolina’s plains!
But savage beatings made sullen laborers, and lash marks hurt resale values. There are, to be sure, sadistic monsters in any population, and the planter class contained its share. But the typical planter had too much of his own prosperity riding on the backs of his slaves to beat them bloody on a regular basis.
By 1860 most slaves were concentrated in the “black belt’’ of the Deep South that stretched from South Carolina and Georgia into the new southwest states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This was the region of the southern frontier, into which

the explosively growing Cotton Kingdom had burst in a few short decades. As on all frontiers, life was often rough and raw, and in general the lot of the slave was harder here than in the more settled areas of the Old South.

A majority of blacks lived on larger plantations that harbored communities of twenty or more slaves. In some counties of the Deep South, especially along the lower Mississippi River, blacks accounted for more than 75 percent of the population. There the family life of slaves tended to be relatively stable, and a distinctive African-American slave culture developed. Forced separations of spouses, parents, and children were evidently more

common on smaller plantations and in the Upper South. With impressive resilience, blacks managed to sustain family life in slavery. Continuity of family identity across generations was evidenced in the widespread practice of naming children for grandparents or adopting the surname not of a current master, but of a forebear’s master.

African roots were also visible in the slaves’ religious practices. Though heavily Christianized by the itinerant evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, blacks in slavery molded their own distinctive religious forms from a mixture of Christian and African elements. They emphasized those aspects of the Christian heritage that seemed most pertinent to their own situation—especially the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt. One of their most haunting spirituals implored,

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go.’’

And another lamented,

Nobody knows de trouble I’ve had

Nobody knows but Jesus
African practices also persisted in the “responsorial’’ style of preaching, in which the congregation frequently punctuates the minister’s remarks with assents and amens—an adaptation of the give-and-take between caller and dancers in the African ringshout dance.
The Burdens of Bondage

Slavery was intolerably degrading to the victims. They were deprived of the dignity and sense of responsibility that come from independence and the right to make choices. They were denied an education, because reading brought ideas, and ideas brought discontent. Many states passed laws forbidding their instruction, and perhaps nine-tenths of adult slaves at the beginning of the Civil War were totally illiterate. For all slaves—indeed for virtually all blacks, slave or free—the “American dream’’ of bettering one’s lot through study and hard work was a cruel and empty mockery.

Not surprisingly, victims of the “peculiar institution’’ devised countless ways to throw sand in its gears. When workers are not voluntarily hired and adequately compensated, they can hardly be expected to work with alacrity. Accordingly, slaves often slowed the pace of their labor to the barest minimum that would spare them the lash. They sabotaged expensive equipment, stopping the work routine altogether until repairs were accomplished. Occasionally they even poisoned their master’s food.
The slaves also universally pined for freedom. Many took to their heels as runaways, frequently in search of a separated family member. Others rebelled, though never successfully. Denmark Vesey, a free black, led an ill-fated rebellion in Charleston in 1822. Betrayed by informers, Vesey and more than thirty followers were publicly strung from the gallows. In 1831 the semiliterate Nat Turner, a visionary black preacher, led an uprising that slaughtered about sixty Virginians, mostly women and children.
Reprisals were swift and bloody. The dark taint of slavery also left its mark on the whites. It fostered the brutality of the whip, the bloodhound, and the branding iron. White southerners increasingly lived in a state of imagined siege, surrounded by potentially rebellious blacks inflamed by abolitionist propaganda from the North. Their fears bolstered an intoxicating theory of biological racial superiority and turned the South into a reactionary backwater in an era of progress— one of the last bastions of slavery in the Western world. The defenders of slavery were forced to degrade themselves, along with their victims. As Booker T. Washington, a distinguished black leader and former slave, later observed, whites could not hold blacks in a ditch without getting down there with them.

Wood cut illustration of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, 1831.

3. Slavery and the Sectional Balance

Questions: As you read, note items in bold.

  1. How did Missouri territory and the Tallmadge Amendment ignite tensions between North and South over slavery?

  2. How did a balance of power between North and South seem to be shifting by the early 19th century?

  3. Why is a balance of influence in the Senate so important to the South?

  4. How did the Missouri Compromise resolve the deadlock over Missouri?

Sectional tensions, involving rivalry between the slave South and the free North over control of the West, were stunningly revealed in 1819. In that year the territory of Missouri asked Congress for admission as a slave state.

This fertile and well-watered area contained sufficient population to warrant statehood. But the House of Representatives stymied the plans of the Missourians by passing the incendiary Tallmadge Amendment. It stipulated that no more slaves should be brought into Missouri and also provided for the gradual emancipation of children born to slave parents already there. A roar of anger burst from slave-holding southerners. They were joined by many pioneers who favored unhampered expansion of the West.
Southerners saw in the Tallmadge amendment, which they eventually managed to defeat in the Senate, an ominous threat to sectional balance. When the Constitution was adopted in 1788, the North and South were running neck and neck in wealth and population. But with every passing decade, the North was becoming wealthier and also more thickly settled—an advantage reflected in an increasing northern majority in the House of Representatives. Yet in the Senate, each state had two votes, regardless of size. With eleven states free and eleven slave, the southerners had maintained equality. They were therefore in a good position to thwart any northern effort to interfere with the expansion of slavery, and they did not want to lose this veto.
The future of the slave system caused southerners profound concern. Missouri was the first state entirely west of the Mississippi River to be carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, and the Missouri emancipation amendment might set a damaging precedent for all the rest of the area. Even more disquieting was another possibility. If Congress could abolish the “peculiar institution” in Missouri, could it do the same in the older states of the South? The wounds of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were once more ripped open.
Burning moral questions also arose, even though the main issue was political and economic balance. A small but growing group of antislavery agitators in the North seized the occasion to raise an outcry against the evils of slavery. They were determined that the plague of human bondage should not spread further into the new territories.

One of the most significant acquisitions of land came during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in 1803 when France sold nearly 1 million square miles west of the Mississippi River for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the young nation.

The Uneasy Missouri Compromise
Deadlock in Washington was at length broken in 1820 by the time-honored American solution of compromise—actually a bundle of three compromises. Henry Clay of Kentucky, gifted conciliator, played a leading role. Congress, despite abolitionist pleas, agreed to 1) admit Missouri as a slave state. But at the same time, 2) free-soil Maine, which until then had been a part of Massachusetts, was admitted as a separate state. The balance between North and South was thus kept at twelve states each and remained there for fifteen years.
Although Missouri was permitted to retain slaves, 3) all future bondage was prohibited in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase north of the line of 36° 30'—the southern boundary of Missouri. This horse-trading adjustment was politically evenhanded, though denounced by extremists on each side as a “dirty bargain.’’ Both North and South yielded something; both gained something. The South won the prize of Missouri as an unrestricted slave state. The North won the concession that Congress could forbid slavery in the remaining territories. More gratifying to many northerners was the fact that the immense area north of 36° 30', except Missouri, was forever closed to the blight of slavery.
Yet the restriction on future slavery in the territories was not unduly offensive to the slave owners, partly because the northern prairie land did not seem suited to slave labor. Even so, a majority of southern congressmen still voted against the compromise. Neither North nor South was acutely displeased, although neither was completely happy.

The Missouri Compromise lasted thirty-four years—a vital formative period in the life of the young Republic—and during that time it preserved the shaky compact of the states. Yet the embittered dispute over slavery heralded the future breakup of the Union. Ever after, the morality of the South’s “peculiar institution” was an issue that could not be swept under the rug. The Missouri Compromise only ducked the question—it did not resolve it. Sooner or later, Thomas Jefferson predicted, it will “burst on us as a tornado.”

In the 1780s Thomas Jefferson had written of slavery in America,

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that . . . the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” Now, at the time of the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson feared that his worst forebodings were coming to pass. “I considered it at once,” he said of the Missouri question, “as the knell of the Union.”

While the debate over Missouri was raging, Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826) wrote to a


“The Missouri question . . . is the most portentous one which ever yet threatened our Union. In the gloomiest moment of the revolutionary war I never had any apprehensions equal to what I feel from this source. . . . [The] question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. . . . [With slavery] we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.”

John Quincy Adams confided to his diary,

“I take it for granted that the present question is a mere preamble—a title-page to a great, tragic volume.”

4. Abolitionism

Questions: As you read, note items in bold.

  1. What factors influenced the emergence of early abolitionist movements?

  2. Describe the emergence of “radical abolitionism,” the role of William Lloyd Garrison in the movement, and the important role played by black abolitionists.

  3. How did the South respond to the abolitionist threat?

  4. What arguments were put forward in defense of slavery as an institution?

  5. Give examples of the growing intolerance for open debate over the issue of slavery.

  6. What was the reaction in the North to radical abolitionism?

  7. In Varying Viewpoints, identify scholarly debates over the issues of the economics of slavery, the treatment of slaves, slave behavior, and gender issues.

The inhumanity of the “peculiar institution’’ gradually caused antislavery societies to sprout forth. Abolitionist sentiment first stirred at the time of the Revolution, especially among Quakers. Because of the widespread loathing of blacks, some of the earliest abolitionist efforts focused on transporting the blacks bodily back to Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded for this purpose in 1817, and in 1822 the

Republic of Liberia, on the fever-stricken West African coast, was established for former slaves. Its capital, Monrovia, was named after President Monroe. Some fifteen thousand freed blacks were transported there over the next four decades. But most blacks had no wish to be transplanted into a strange civilization after having become partially Americanized. By 1860 virtually all southern slaves were no longer Africans, but native-born African-Americans, with their own distinctive history and culture. Yet the colonization idea appealed to some antislaveryites, including Abraham Lincoln, until the time of the Civil War.
In the 1830s the abolitionist movement took on new energy and momentum, mounting to the proportions of a crusade. American abolitionists took heart in 1833 when their British counterparts unchained the slaves in the West Indies. Most important, the religious spirit of the Second Great Awakening now inflamed the hearts of many abolitionists against the sin of slavery. Prominent among them was Theodore Dwight Weld. Selfeducated

and simple in manner and speech, Weld appealed with special power and directness to his rural audiences of untutored farmers. Weld was materially aided by two wealthy and devout New York merchants, the brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan. In 1832 they paid his way to Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was presided over

by the formidable Lyman Beecher, father of a remarkable brood, including novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, reformer Catharine Beecher, and preacher-abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher.
Expelled along with several other students in 1834 for organizing an eighteen-day debate on slavery, Weld and his fellow “Lane Rebels’’—full of the energy and idealism of youth—fanned out across the Old Northwest preaching the antislavery gospel. Humorless and deadly earnest, Weld also assembled a potent propaganda pamphlet, American Slavery As It Is (1839). Its compelling arguments made it among the most effective abolitionist tracts and greatly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Radical Abolitionism

On New Year’s Day, 1831, a shattering abolitionist blast came from the bugle of William Lloyd Garrison when Garrison published in Boston the first issue of his militantly antislavery newspaper The Liberator. With this mighty paper broadside, Garrison triggered a thirty-year war of words and in a sense fired one of the opening barrages of the Civil War. Stern and uncompromising, Garrison nailed his colors to the masthead of his weekly. He proclaimed in strident tones,

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. . . . I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I WILL BE HEARD!

Other dedicated abolitionists rallied to Garrison’s standard, and in 1833 they founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Prominent among them was Wendell Phillips, a Boston patrician known as “abolition’s golden trumpet.’’ A man of strict principle, he would eat no cane sugar and wear no cotton cloth, since both were produced by southern slaves.

Black abolitionists distinguished themselves as living monuments to the cause of African-American freedom. Their ranks included David Walker, whose incendiary Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) advocated a bloody end to white supremacy. Also noteworthy were Sojourner Truth, a freed black woman in New York who fought tirelessly for black emancipation and women’s rights. The greatest of the black abolitionists was Frederick Douglass. Escaping from bondage in 1838 at the age of twenty-one, he was “discovered’’ by the abolitionists in 1841 when he gave a stunning impromptu speech at an antislavery meeting in Massachusetts. Thereafter he lectured widely for the cause, despite frequent beatings and threats against his life. In 1845 he published his classic autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It depicted his remarkable origins as the son of a black slave woman and a

white father, his struggle to learn to read and write, and his eventual escape to the North.

Douglass was as flexibly practical as Garrison was stubbornly principled. He repeatedly demanded that the “virtuous’’ North secede from the “wicked’’ South. Yet he did not explain how the creation of an independent slave republic would bring an end to the “damning crime’’ of slavery. Renouncing politics, on the Fourth of July, 1854, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Douglass along with other abolitionists, increasingly looked to politics to end the blight of slavery. These political abolitionists backed the Liberty party in 1840, the Free Soil party in 1848, and eventually the Republican party in the 1850s. High-minded and courageous, the abolitionists were men and women of goodwill and various colors who faced the cruel choice that people in many ages have had thrust upon them: when is evil so enormous that it must be denounced, even at the risk of precipitating bloodshed and butchery?

Sojourner Truth William Lloyd Garrison Frederick Douglass

The South Lashes Back

Antislavery sentiment was not unknown in the South, but after about 1830, the voice of white southern abolitionism was silenced. In a last gasp of southern questioning of slavery, the Virginia legislature debated and eventually defeated various emancipation proposals in 1831–1832. That debate marked a turning point. Thereafter all the slave states tightened their slave codes and moved to prohibit emancipation of any kind, voluntary or compensated.

Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 sent a wave of hysteria sweeping over the snowy cotton fields, and planters in growing numbers slept with pistols by their pillows. Although Garrison had no demonstrable connection with the Turner conspiracy, his Liberator appeared at about the same time, and he was bitterly condemned as a terrorist and an inciter of murder. The state of Georgia offered $5,000 for his arrest and conviction.. Jailings, whippings, and lynchings now greeted rational efforts to discuss the slavery

problem in the South.

Proslavery whites responded by launching a massive defense of slavery as a positive good. In doing so, they forgot their own section’s previous doubts about the morality of the “peculiar institution.’’ Slavery, they claimed, was supported by the authority of the Bible and the wisdom of Aristotle. It was good for the Africans, who were lifted from the barbarism of the jungle and clothed with the blessings of Christian civilization.
Slave masters did indeed encourage religion in the slave quarters. A catechism for blacks contained such passages as,

Q. Who gave you a master and a mistress?

A. God gave them to me.

Q. Who says that you must obey them?

A. God says that I must.
White apologists also pointed out that master-slave relationships really resembled those of a family. Southern whites were quick to contrast the “happy” lot of their “servants” with that of the overworked northern wage slaves, including sweating women and stunted children. Blacks, they argued, mostly toiled in the fresh air and sunlight, not in dark and stuffy factories. They did not have to worry about slack times or unemployment, as did the “hired hands” of the North. They were cared for in sickness and old age, unlike northern workers, who were set adrift when they had outlived their usefulness.
These curious proslavery arguments only widened the chasm between a backward-looking South and a forward-looking North—and indeed much of the rest of the Western world. The southerners reacted defensively to the pressure of their own fears and bristled before the relentless criticisms northern abolitionists. Increasingly the white South turned in upon itself and grew hotly intolerant of any embarrassing questions about the status of slavery.
Regrettably, also, the controversy over free people endangered free speech in the entire country. Piles of petitions poured in upon Congress from the antislavery reformers, and in 1836 southerners drove through the House the so-called Gag Resolution. It required all such antislavery appeals to be tabled without debate. This attack on the right of petition aroused the sleeping lion in the aged ex-president, Representative John Quincy Adams, and he waged a successful eight-year fight for its repeal.
Southern whites likewise resented the flooding of their mails with incendiary abolitionist literature. Even if blacks could not read, they could interpret the inflammatory drawings, such as those that showed masters knocking out slaves’ teeth with clubs. In 1835 a mob in Charleston, South Carolina, looted the post office and burned a pile of abolitionist propaganda. Capitulating to southern pressures, the Washington government in 1835 ordered southern postmasters to destroy abolitionist material and called on southern state officials to arrest federal postmasters who did not comply. Such was “freedom

of the press’’ as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Abolitionist Impact in the North

Abolitionists—especially the extreme Garrisonians— were for a long time unpopular in many parts of the North. Northerners had been brought up to revere the Constitution and to regard the clauses on slavery as a lasting bargain. The ideal of Union, hammered home by the thundering eloquence of Daniel Webster and others, had taken deep root, and Garrison’s wild talk of secession grated harshly on northern ears.

The North also had a heavy economic stake in the South. By the late 1850s, the southern planters owed northern bankers and other creditors about $300 million, and much of this immense sum would be lost—as, in fact, it later was—should the Union dissolve. New England textile mills were fed with cotton raised by the slaves, and a disrupted labor system might cut off this vital supply and bring unemployment. The Union during these critical years was partly bound together with cotton threads, tied by lords of the loom in collaboration with the so-called lords of the lash. It was not surprising that strong hostility developed in the North against the boat-rocking tactics of the radical abolitionists.
Yet by the 1850s the abolitionist outcry had made a deep dent in the northern mind. Many citizens had come to see the South as the land of the unfree and the home of a hateful institution. Few northerners were prepared to abolish slavery outright, but a growing number, including Abraham Lincoln, opposed extending it to the western territories. People of this stamp, commonly called “free-soilers,’’ swelled their ranks as the Civil War approached.
VARYING VIEWPOINTS: What Was the True Nature of Slavery?
By the early twentieth century, the predictable accounts of slavery written by partisans of the North or South had receded in favor of a romantic vision of the Old South conveyed through popular literature, myth, and, increasingly, scholarship. That vision was persuasively validated by the publication of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’s landmark study, American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips made three key arguments. First, he claimed that slavery was a dying economic institution, unprofitable to the slaveowner and an obstacle to the economic development of the South as a whole. Second, he contended that slavery was a rather benign institution and that the planters, contrary to abolitionist charges of ruthless exploitation, treated their chattels with kindly paternalism. Third, he reflected the dominant racial attitudes of his time in his belief that blacks were inferior and submissive by nature and did not abhor the institution that enslaved them.
For nearly a century, historians have debated these assertions, sometimes heatedly. More sophisticated economic analysis has refuted Phillips’s claim that slavery would have withered away without a war. Economic historians have demonstrated that slavery was a viable, profitable, expanding economic system and that slaves constituted a worthwhile investment for their owners. The price of a prime field hand rose dramatically, even in the 1850s. No such definitive conclusion has yet been reached in the disputes over slave treatment. Beginning in the late 1950s, historians came increasingly to emphasize the harshness of the slave system. One study, Stanley Elkins’s Slavery (1959), went so far as

to compare the “peculiar institution” to the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Both were “total institutions,” Elkins contended, which “infantilized” their victims.

More recently, scholars such as Eugene Genovese have moved beyond debating whether slavery was kind or cruel. Without diminishing the deprivations and pains of slavery, Genovese has conceded that slavery embraced a strange form of paternalism, a system that reflected not the benevolence of southern slaveholders, but their need to control and coax work out of their reluctant and often recalcitrant “investments.” Furthermore, within this paternalist system, black slaves were able to make reciprocal demands of their white owners and to protect a “cultural space” of their own in which family and religion particularly could flourish. The crowning paradox of slaveholder paternalism was that in treating their property more humanely, slaveowners implicitly recognized the humanity of their slaves and thereby subverted the racist underpinnings upon which their slave society existed.
The revised conceptions of the master-slave relationship also spilled over into the debate about slave personality. Elkins accepted Phillips’s portrait of the slave as a childlike “Sambo” but saw it as a consequence of slavery rather than a congenital attribute of African-Americans. Kenneth Stampp, rejecting the Sambo stereotype, stressed the frequency and variety of slave resistance, both mild and militant. A third view, imaginatively documented in the work of Lawrence Levine, argues that the Sambo character was an act, an image that slaves used to confound their masters without incurring punishment. Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977) shares with books by John Blassingame and Herbert Gutman an emphasis on the tenacity with which slaves maintained their own culture and kin relations, despite the hardships of bondage.
Most recently, historians have attempted to avoid the polarity of repression versus autonomy. They assert the debasing oppression of slavery, while also acknowledging slaves’ ability to resist the dehumanizing effects of enslavement. The challenge before historians today is to capture the vibrancy of slave culture and its legacy for African-American society after emancipation, without diminishing the brutality of life under the southern slave regime.
A new sensitivity to gender, spurred by the growing field of women’s history, has also expanded the horizons of slavery studies. Historians such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Jacqueline Jones, and Catherine Clinton have focused on the ways in which slavery differed for men and women, both slaves and slaveholders. Enslaved black women, for

example, had the unique task of negotiating an identity out of their dual responsibilities as plantation laborer, even sometimes caretaker of white women and children, and anchor of the black family. By tracing the interconnectedness of race and gender in the American South, these historians have also shown how slavery shaped conceptions of masculinity and femininity within southern society, further distinguishing its culture from that of the North.

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