The Slave Society versus Abolitionism
Two worldviews came to exist in the two rival sections of the United States prior to the outbreak of war. Northern reformers pressed the issue of abolition harder and harder as the Age of Jackson unfolded. What began as a minority position rose by 1863, during the Civil War, to be the moral high ground used by the majority of Northerners to look down on their Southern brethren. In response, the Southern justification of slavery always had the upper hand of pointing out the hypocrisy of the Northern (and English) critics whose economic well-being also depended on cotton. The tension between these two viewpoints is why slavery is indeed a major cause of the Civil War.
Building on our analysis of slavery as it was, take note of some important statistics regarding the South’s being a slave society. Eight million whites lived in the south prior to the Civil War. Of these only 10,000 families could be classed as planter aristocrats, and of these upper class families only around 3,000 owned over 100 slaves. In fact, only ¼ of Southern whites belonged to a slave-holding family. Therefore slavery cannot naively be assumed to be the only cause of the Civil War because the vast majority of white people in the South did not own slaves.
Our own East Tennessee, Western Virginia (the future state of West Virginia), and Delaware were slave territory, technically, but virtually devoid of slavery because of geographic and economic reasons (cotton does not grow here, for example). Most whites in the South were simply small farmers who raised corn, not cotton, on their own small land holdings or merely raised livestock by letting their animals range on public land. Very few artisans, factory workers, or professionals existed in the South. The term slave society means that the South was dominated by the few rich planters on top. Other whites helped these people secede because most hoped to one day rise.
This domination was complete. The planter aristocrats ran politics and either held office themselves or chose the people who would stand for election. They wielded control over the economy not only by being the biggest cotton producers but by leasing out their cotton gins and screw presses to those who could not afford them for themselves. The planters were also the only members of the slave society wealthy enough to maintain the horses, dogs, and guns necessary to supply the armed bands of men making up slave “posses,” the only means whereby whites of any class could track and retrieve escaped slaves. By the way, escaped slaves when caught were often drawn and quartered right in front of all the other slaves on a plantation as an example. Drawing and quartering involved pulling a slave in four different directions with chains and horses and then severing all four limbs with four simultaneous axe blows.
The one distinction regarding Northern and Southern racism was thus made evident by the slave society’s values. Southern whites were militant white supremacists. The majority of Americans, from both North and South, believed that blacks made up an inferior race, but Southern whites were willing to kill, torture, or be killed to uphold this notion. Any militant of any cause is such because he or she is willing to go to these extremes. Militant white supremacy was the chief justification for a slave society, and it was, obviously, one of the foundational beliefs of the Confederate States of America.
Southern racism also took the form of discrimination against flee blacks. In 1810 there were 100,000 free blacks and mulattos in the South. As the ante-bellum time period opened they were still allowed to own property (some even owning black slaves), found churches, establish schools, and otherwise assert their independence. Over time, though, laws on manumission were tightened, and slave codes were supplemented by black codes. Black codes were laws that transferred most of the same restrictions on slaves to free blacks. Free blacks, for example, could not own guns or hold meetings after dark. And guess what the main punishment was for violations of the black codes—forced labor! For some newly freed slaves, a sentence of a year’s forced labor led eventually to re-enslavement as papers were “lost” and defenseless blacks were sold into actual slavery.
Early on in the Age of Jackson, a generation of sons of planter aristocrats took a signal from Thomas Jefferson who inspired an air of distaste for slavery. Some abolitionism, therefore, took root in the South even in the upper classes, and men like Hinton R. Helper came from the lower classes and spoke out against the slave society. His book, The Impending Crisis in the South, was an economic analysis that “proved” that slavery was economically unfeasible. Today’s economists agree, but Helper seemed more motivated by envy of the planter class and a personal distaste for blacks. His views and those of other Southern abolitionists were unpopular, of course, and abolitionists were eventually run out of the South.
Some planters’ sons, though, viewed the slave society they were set to inherit as a curse. As late as 1832, a declaration that slavery was “ruinous to whites” was supported in the Virginia legislature, largely by representatives from “West Virginia.” Even critics of slavery, however, said emancipation should be gradual and followed by immediate deportation. Remember, Nat Turner’s rebellion happened in 1831. By the mid-1830s, the voice of Southern abolitionism was silenced.
As the Cotton Kingdom entrenched, the notion that slavery was actually good for blacks arose. This notion is often referred to as the “positive good” theory. The lifestyle of slaves in the South was compared to what was known of tribal life in Africa at the time and deemed a drastic improvement. Other pro-slavery arguments included the understanding from classical scholars (which most educated planter aristocrats were) that the Greeks and the Romans had used slavery benevolently.
Biblical references were cited in defense of the “peculiar institution,” like “Slaves obey your masters,” and ignored the passage in the book of Philemon where Paul hinted that a Christian master should release his runaway slave because the slave had been converted to Christianity by Paul’s ministry. Paul did send the slave back to the owner, however. Planter aristocrats could also not resist seeing themselves as having resurrected the chivalrous days of the feudal system with a deep veneration for family, the land, and a community of laborers guarded by a selfless nobleman. Remember, however, serfdom did not sit well with most Americans even in colonial days.
George Fitzhugh was the most prolific apologist for the slave society. He published books in the 1850s that pointed out the “evils” of a free market where “ignorant” blacks would starve. Fitzhugh said the North possessed “wage slavery,” the circumstance created by low wages in factories. “Free” workers were so poor as to have no options other than continuing to work for factory owners. He also said Southern slaves were better off since they at least got to work outdoors under the sun in the open air. Factory workers in the North arrived before dawn and left after sunset having worked all day in an inhospitable environment.
In the defense of the South, it was a racist slave society, but ideas proposed in 1850 for general re-enslavement of all free blacks and deportation of all free blacks were rejected. Efforts were made to improve slavery’s conditions. There is some evidence for the view that became popular on the eve of the Civil War that emancipation would have been disastrous for both whites and blacks. This idea fueled the notion that slavery was a duty or a burden for whites who were charged with the moral responsibility of controlling blacks’ lives. Some went so far as to label slavery a vast missionary undertaking for the Christian religion.
Abolitionists would hear none of it. The most ardent white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, published a newspaper called The Liberator in which he said, “That no condition of birth, no shade of color, no mere misfortune of circumstances, can annul the birth-right charter, which God has bequeathed to every being upon whom he has stamped his own image, by making him a free moral agent, and that he who robs his fellow man of this tramples upon right, subverts justice, outrages humanity, unsettles the foundations of human safety, and sacrilegiously assumes the prerogatives of God.” Does he sound ardent?
Frederick Douglass was no less articulate and published his own abolitionist newspaper called The North Star, the title of which was a reference to the Underground Railroad. Contrary to what some of my past students have thought, the Underground Railroad was not a subway train running from the South to Canada. Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” on the Underground Railroad memorized a series of safe-houses up out of the South, through the North, and into freedom in Canada. Tubman personally led over 300 escaped slaves along this route to freedom. Sojourner Truth was another black female abolitionist who stood up one night at the back of a Northern women’s rights meeting and said, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass had both escaped from slavery and made compelling orators with first-person accounts in their speeches.
The abolitionist movement also started the “Back-to-Africa” impulse with the American Colonization Society founded in 1830. 259 willing free black Americans emigrated to what became a new country in Liberia, Africa with their capital city, Monrovia, named after then President James Monroe. The stated mission of the Society, however, said, “We must save the Negro, or the Negro will ruin us.” The American Colonization Society never received widespread support. The fact became apparent that blacks themselves preferred to live in the United States of America.
Despite violent suppression and the orders of Andrew Jackson to stop the mail service of abolitionist newspapers, the abolitionist movement prospered as an expression of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Early on it adopted a spirit of non-violence and civil disobedience. Ultimately, abolitionist sentiments culminated in two separate political parties. The Liberty Party was strong enough to run a presidential candidate in 1840, and the Free Soil Party focused on the most contentious of issues, the spreading of slavery into the territories. This last position especially was adopted as a plank in the Republican Party which was founded in 1854 to become the other major party of our two-party system alongside Jackson’s Democratic Party.
The positive force of abolitionist reforms could not prevent anecdotal atrocities. The nefarious exploits of the ship, The Wanderer, have recently come to light. In 1857 Charles Lamar, a cotton trader, purchased this 114-foot ship and converted it to run slaves. Despite federal laws against doing so, he purchased 600 slaves in Africa. Half died on the voyage back to his home state of Georgia. A Federal Marshall investigated reports of a revival of the African slave trade and arrested Lamar. Southern judges, however, stalled. No one showed up to run the trial causing the indictment against Lamar to be rescinded. The Wanderer was put up for auction, but Lamar was the only bidder. He said publicly he had learned a lot from the episode and would do better next time. By then, 200 more of the original 600 slaves had died of disease. It’s shocking to realize that 1857 is only four years away from the opening of the Civil War and that Southern whites were at least passively advocating the revival of the African slave trade.