Seth Kaller, Inc.

Inspired by History

Historical Background: Slavery and Emancipation in American History

From the 1600s on, slavery provided Americans with a wide range of labor, and built fortunes from New England to Georgia.  But ideals from Christianity, the Enlightenment, and the Revolution forced many to grapple with the idea of ending it.  Where bondage became less profitable, antislavery sentiment was able to take a firmer hold.  Northern states abolished slavery in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  And Southern critics, including slave-owners such as Thomas Jefferson, arose in the Upper South.

While some founders believed that slavery would last forever, most foresaw its demise.  At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, slavery was declining in the Northern states, and Virginia and Maryland also became less dependent on slave labor.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 kept slavery out of territories North of the Ohio River, and the U.S. Constitution allowed for an end to the importation of slaves in 1808 – though the framers were careful to do so without using the word “slave.”

But a technological innovation reinvigorated slavery and set it at the center of the nation’s economy and politics for seventy years: the cotton gin.  In 1793, when Eli Whitney patented the device that separated cotton fiber from seeds, short-staple cotton instantly became a highly profitable crop across the South.  “King Cotton” also enriched Northern mill owners and financiers.  The increased domestic slave trade offset the Constitutional ban on importation (which continued despite its illegality), and slave labor became even more deeply entrenched in the Southern economy, culture, and politics.  Southerners articulated a new philosophy, defending slavery as a “positive good” for slaves and society and portraying the slave master as a kindly patriarch.

The two major barriers to emancipation were economic and social forces.  Ending slavery threatened a cheap labor supply and one of America’s leading industries.  And white Americans, from commoners to Jefferson and Lincoln, had difficulty envisioning a society that would include blacks on an equal standing, even though free blacks had existed successfully in America since before the Revolution, with 5,000 fighting in George Washington’s army.  Proposed solutions such as colonization, which would “repatriate” freed blacks outside the U.S., and compensation, which would pay slaveholders to emancipate voluntarily, met with little success.

From the colonial period to the Civil War, the problem of slavery stubbornly resurfaced.  Each time the country expanded westward, Northerners and Southerners fought over whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories.  A parade of political compromises consumed the national attention for seventy years:

·   The “Three-fifths compromise” of 1787, which helped enable passage of the U.S. Constitution, supplemented representation by calculating a slave as three-fifths of a person in allotting congressional representatives.  This was a significant concession to Southern interests: in 1790, for example, 26% of North Carolina’s population and 43% of South Carolina’s were slaves.  This compromise helped protect and prolong slaveholders’ power in the national government, from the presidency (nine of the fifteen presidents before Lincoln were Southern slaveholders) to the Supreme Court (twenty of the thirty-five justices up to 1861 were from Southern states).

·   The Northwest Ordinance, also in 1787, barred slavery in America’s first territory.

·   Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the nation’s size, opening up immense new territories for the expansion of slavery.

·   The Missouri Compromise of 1820 added a slave state and a free state and prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase above the 36°30’ latitude.

·   Debate over the annexation of Texas, which became a slave state in 1845, intensified dissension between North and South, threatening to divide the Democratic Party along sectional lines.  Many Northerners balked at provoking a war with Mexico that would produce new slave states, although Americans North and South generally favored expansion.

·   The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 sought to bar slavery in any lands taken from Mexico.  For the first time, the House and Senate voted along sectional instead of party lines.  The Senate, where Southerners were more powerful, rejected the proposal.

·   The Mexican War added huge new territories in the West in 1848, leading almost immediately to the Compromise of 1850.  That compromise admitted California as a free state and outlawed the slave trade in Washington, D.C., in exchange for federal assistance in enforcing fugitive slave laws and no prohibition on slavery in the New Mexico and Utah territories.

·   The Gadsden Purchase added Mexican lands in 1853, though Northern Senators limited the amount of land acquired because they feared the territory would be turned into new slave states.

·   The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise.  Senator Stephen A. Douglas sought a new compromise with the concept of “popular sovereignty,” whereby residents of territories seeking statehood would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.

·   The last-ditch Crittenden Compromise of 1861 proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean and amending the Constitution to protect slavery wherever it existed.  The plan failed to keep Southern states from seceding.

Seventy years of federal compromises refuted the belief of many in the Revolutionary generation (found chiefly in states of the North and upper South) that slavery would eventually die out.  John Adams, for example, had declared in 1801 that “the practice of slavery is fast diminishing” and, though an evil that would otherwise “threaten to bring punishment on our land,” it could be dealt with in a “gradual” manner (Davis, 296).

Antebellum Northerners did not want slavery to spread westward for a variety of additional reasons. McPherson summarizes their objections:

“Although many northern readers shed tears at [Uncle] Tom’s fate, the political and economic manifestations of slavery generated more contention than moral and humanitarian indictments.  Bondage seemed an increasingly peculiar institution in a democratic republic experiencing a rapid transition to free-labor industrial capitalism.  In the eyes of a growing number of Yankees, slavery degraded labor, inhibited economic development, discouraged education, and engendered a domineering master class determined to rule the country in the interests of its backward institution” (McPherson, 39).

These antislavery sentiments helped Lincoln’s Republican Party rise to prominence in the 1850s.  Although the party attracted abolitionists, it mostly championed the “free soil” argument that slavery limited opportunity for the common white man.  National tensions came to a head when Lincoln was elected president in 1860 without the support of a single Southern state.  Southerners believed he and his party were bent on ending slavery.  Historians will never cease to debate exactly what Lincoln wanted to do about slavery and when he wanted to do it, but several points are clear: he was morally opposed to the institution; he resolutely opposed its expansion into the West; he believed it would die out if confined to its current borders; he believed Congress, not the president, had the constitutional right to end it; and he entered the war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.

Ironically, Southern fears that Lincoln would abolish slavery proved true, but only after a combination of developments, starting with the South’s secession and attack on Fort Sumter.  Slaves themselves forced the Union’s hand when they fled to Federal lines at every opportunity, hoping for freedom.  The Union’s response ranged from returning them to their masters to on-the-spot emancipation.  Generals John C. Frémont (August 1861) and David Hunter (May 1862) independently declared emancipation in areas of the South under their respective commands.  Lincoln is still criticized for reversing their orders, but his reasons were clear.  He believed that such decisions at the time hurt the overall war effort: Northerners were not ready for emancipation, and the loyalty of the crucial border states, including Kentucky, was not yet assured.  Further, he thought that such decisions belonged to the commander-in-chief.  Over the course of the war, Lincoln saw the practical benefits of emancipation: employing black laborers and soldiers, harming the Confederate war effort, and appealing to antislavery European governments that otherwise would have supported the Confederacy for economic reasons.

The question of slavery’s role in bringing on the Civil War has provoked one of the most vehement debates in American history.  Many Southerners then and now argue that Confederates went to war not to defend slavery but to protect states’ rights, which they saw as being threatened by the federal government.  This is a specious argument.  From the founding of the nation through the outbreak of war, recurrent clashes over states’ rights mainly concerned the protection of slavery, and the framers of secession understood this.  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called slavery the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy.  The Confederate Constitution’s only major revision of the U.S. Constitution concerned slavery: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed” (Article I, Section 9).  In all new territory, “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the territorial government” (Article IV, Section 3).

The “peculiar institution” dominated Southern politics and the Southern economy.  Wealthy slaveholders formed the majority of state and national legislators, and slaves were crucial to both the agricultural and industrial labor forces.  In addition to the slaveholding class, many white Southerners whose names were never entered in the census as slave-owners regularly depended on hiring or borrowing slaves. Moreover, most white Southerners feared the potential social consequences of emancipation, predicting everything from crime waves to the loss of their cheap labor force to black demands for citizenship.  The threat of ending slavery therefore poseda significant threat to the wealthy and commoners alike, a total reordering of Southern society.  Southerners of the time might well have been surprised by modern descendants who dismiss that fact.

In a telling measure of slavery’s importance to both sides during the war, the Confederacy debated emancipation as well.  Slavery caused class tensions even within the Southern union, notably when a law exempted owners of twenty or more slaves from the draft.  But the major issue forcing the South to consider freeing slaves was the need for soldiers. As the Confederacy’s fortunes grew more desperate in the second half of the war, Southerners debated arming slaves, with emancipation and land as potential rewards.  The proposal even attracted Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  However, the concept of arming black men, and rewarding them with freedom for themselves and their families, was too fundamental a challenge to Southern ideas of manhood, citizenship, and race.

Global Context

In ending slavery, America took its place in a worldwide movement that began in the late eighteenth century.  Western European nations first abolished the slave trade – though enforcement was usually weak – and then slavery itself, out of a combination of economic inducements (such as the Industrial Revolution, which created a market for wage labor) and ideological arguments.  As early as 1794, during the French Revolution, France abolished slavery in its American colonies. Britain ended the slave trade in 1807, and abolished slavery in all of its colonies in 1833. In 1861, Russia emancipation its serfs, and in 1863, the Netherlands abolished slavery in its colonies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, industrializing nations formed a consensus that slavery had no economic or social place in their future.

In antebellum America, many Northerners reached the same conclusion, but focused their efforts on keeping slavery out of new territories in the West, believing that slavery would eventually die out if confined to its current borders.  The Civil War was the necessary catalyst for more direct action.