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Inspired by History

Appendix III: Slavery and Emancipation in American History

Since the early 1600s, slavery provided Americans with a wide range of labor and built fortunes from New England to Georgia. However, Christian ideals, Enlightenment philosophies, and Revolutionary rhetoric forced many Americans (and Europeans) to grapple with the idea of ending the institution. Where bondage had become less conspicuous, antislavery sentiment was able to take a firmer hold. Northern states began abolishing slavery in the late 1700s and continued through the early 1800s, and Southern critics of the institution, including slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson, arose in the Chesapeake, Tidewater Virginia, and the Carolina Low Country.

While some founders believed that slavery would last forever, most expected its demise. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, slavery was declining in the Northern states, and Virginia and Maryland were also becoming 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 banned the importation of slaves after 1808 – although the document’s framers were careful to do so without ever using the words “slave” or “slavery.”

A technological innovation, coupled with westward expansion, reinvigorated the institution and fueled the nation’s economy and politics for seventy years. In 1793, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a device that separated cotton fiber from seeds, and short-staple cotton quickly became a highly-profitable crop across the South. “King Cotton” also enriched Northern mill owners and financiers. An increased internal slave trade offset the Constitutional ban on importation (which continued despite its illegality), and slave labor became further entrenched in the Southern economy, culture, and politics. No longer considered a “necessary evil,” as envisioned by some of the Founders, Southerners articulated a new philosophy that defended slavery as a “positive good” for both slaves and society, portraying slave masters as kindly patriarchs.

Economic and social forces were two major barriers to emancipation. Ending slavery threatened the cheap labor supply, as well as one of America’s leading industries. White Americans—from working-class farmers and laborers to leaders such as Jefferson and Lincoln—had difficulty envisioning a society that included blacks on an equal standing, even though free blacks had lived in both the North and the South since before the Revolution. Indeed, 5,000 black soldiers fought 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, only to be repeatedly submerged time and again in the name of sectional unity. Each time the country expanded westward, Northerners and Southerners fought over slavery’s status in the new territories. A parade of political compromises consumed the national attention:

·   The “three-fifths compromise” of 1787, which helped enable passage of the U.S. Constitution, effectively supplemented the Congressional representation of slaveholding states. Northerners did not want slave populations to count towards representation at all, fearing that southern states would gain disproportionate power in Congress. Naturally, the Southern states wanted their slave populations to be considered in full. The compromise established that proportional representation would be “determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons...[and] three fifths of all other Persons ” counted by the census.  The combined number was used to calculate Congressional representation, and this Northern concession augmented Southern political power substantially: in 1790, for example, 26% of North Carolina’s population and 43% of South Carolina’s were slaves. The compromise helped protect and prolong slaveholders’ interests 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 and renewing the debate.

·   The Missouri Compromise of 1820 added a slave state, which was balanced by a new free state (Maine). The act also 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, and threatened 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. Ominously, members of the House and Senate voted along sectional instead of party lines for the first time. The Senate, where Southerners were more powerful, rejected the proposal.

·   The Mexican War added huge new territories to 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. In fact, with the nation so divided over slavery and no clear majority supporting entire bill, the compromise had to be split into separate sections to ensure its passage.

·   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 provided a de facto repeal of the Missouri Compromise when Senator Stephen A. Douglas offered the concept of  “popular sovereignty,” whereby residents of territories seeking statehood would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.

·   Hoping to settle the issue once and for all, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) declaring the Missouri Compromise void and deciding that African Americans could not be citizens under the Constitution. The decision only fanned the flames of the argument.

·   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.

Decades of federal compromises dispelled 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, 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, beginning with the South’s secession and attack on Fort Sumter.

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