Freedom and slavery grew up in tandem with each other in England’s North American colonies. At the very moment Europeans were striking out on their own in the hope of achieving economic, political, or religious autonomy, they were imposing their will on others, near and far. Slavery had been introduced into the western hemisphere by the Portuguese and the Spanish when it became clear that the indigenous people of the Americas were not going to meet their insatiable demand for labor (in large measure because they were dying off so rapidly). So they introduced Africans to the western hemisphere. Virginia was founded in 1607, and also soon had a labor problem in terms of Englishmen being unable or unwilling to work. So in 1619 – which is to say a year before Plymouth laid the foundations for New England – slaves were imported into Virginia for the first time. By the time of the American Revolution, the institution was established in all thirteen colonies. To be sure, it was more central to the rice plantations of South Carolina than it was small households of New Hampshire. On the other hand, the slave trade was important to places like Newport, Rhode Island, even if there weren’t all that many slaves there. Financing slaves, advertising slaves, insuring slaves, transporting slaves, feeding slaves, clothing slaves: slavery was big business. A global business. Slavery and capitalism went hand in hand.
That said, the morality of slavery was not exactly a topic of frequent discussion. It was a fact of life, and not something anyone expected to go away. (Sort of like poverty.) Virtually everybody lamented it. But there was little effort to do away with it.
I do need to emphasize that from the start there were people who thought slavery was wrong, said so in no uncertain terms, and did what they could to limit or even eliminate it from their day-to-day-lives. Most of these voices were religious, and would emphasize that all human beings were God’s children. Many (though not all) of the Quakers were opposed to slavery, making large swaths of Pennsylvania a relative haven of personal liberty. The most famous work advocating the abolition of slavery in the colonial era came from judge Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts, who had been one on of the magistrates in the Salem witch trials of 1692 (the only one to subsequently apologize for his role in the affair). Sewall protested the sale of slave who had been promised his freedom in The Selling of Joseph (1701), a three-page missive that mixed biblical injunction with language we would find racist (“there is such a disparity in their Conditions, Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families,” a sentiment Abraham Lincoln would repeat a century and a half later in those Lincoln-Douglas debates: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality”). But the heart of Sewall’s argument, that slavery rends husband and wife, parent and child, that God has joined together, and that the barbarity of the slave trade made European accusations of African savagery seem hypocritical at best, was a common view over the course of the next century.
Even among slaveholders. As a whole, they regarded what they called “the peculiar institution” as a necessary evil. It was one they would fight hard for – the Revolution was touch-and-go in South Carolina and Georgia because of slaveholder fears of losing their property, something they fought hard to maintain in the debates over the Constitution – but not one they typically argued was a positive good. This was particularly true of the Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God is just. “Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!” Patrick Henry – he of “give me liberty or give me death!” fame – wrote in 1773. “I am drawn by the general inconvenience of living here [in Virginia] without them. I will not, I can not, justify it.” (Henry, unlike Jefferson, freed his slaves at the time of his death.)
Actually, there was a widespread belief among many national leaders in the United States at the time of the Constitution that slavery was a dying institution, because the number of black persons in the United States appeared to be declining. The Constitutional provision for the closing of the African slave trade in 1808 appeared to be another nail in slavery’s coffin. The first national abolition organization, the American Colonization Society, was founded in 1816 to purchase freedom for slaves and resettle them in Africa with land the society purchased (Liberia, with it capital, Monrovia, named after the current president.) The ACS boasted high-profile charter members like Jefferson and Henry Clay.
By that point, however, the tide had already begun going the other way. In the 1790s, a Connecticut Yankee named Eli Whitney introduced a new engine, the cotton gin, which made this highly labor-intensive crop fabulously profitable. New slave states – Kentucky (1791), Tennessee (1796), Louisiana (1812) Mississippi (1817), among others, entered the Union. By the time of the struggle over the fate of Missouri in 1820, which resulted in the famous Compromise of 1820 brokered by Henry Clay, it was evident that far from declining, slavery was an entrenched force in U.S. national life.
The argument for it remained largely pragmatic (mostly economic). Yes, racism was rampant, and took a variety of forms that ran the gamut from paternalism (slaves as children) to brute supremacy (slaves as animals). But most of this logic was informal, even off-hand.
As has been well documented, this all began to change in the 1830s, when a series of developments really changed the discourse on slavery. The first was a sharp new note of urgency among abolitionists, typified by the militant tone of New Englander William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator, drew national attention – and hostility, and not only in the South. Abolition was part of a larger conversation about social reform that swept the Northern states in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but this sectional accent proved uniquely threatening in terms of intensifying social conflict. The second event was a major slave insurrection, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, which terrified the slaveholding states. (Slave revolts had been occurring for centuries by that point, but were typically small, sporadic, and covered up; this one took place in the glare of a growing national media culture.) In the aftermath of the Turner rebellion, the Virginia legislature actually debated a proposal to emancipate slaves in the state. But the bill was defeated, and after that slavery ceased to be a topic of public discussion in Southern life. In fact, southern postmasters refused to deliver materials it considered incendiary, a rather striking rejection of the First Amendment in the name of the freedom to own slaves.
From this point on, those with the deepest investment in slavery, broadly understood, cast the institution not a necessary evil, but a positive good. I could give you lots of quotes to this effect, but the most succinct formulation comes from Alexander Stephens, a Georgia planter who became vice-president of the Confederate States of America. In his famous 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Stephens explained that his new government, the culmination of decades of growing sectional agitation, “rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” (Note how closely slavery is bound up with inequality here.) In the vehemence with which people like Stephens made his case, I’m reminded of our contemporary discourse on guns, where efforts at gun control have led to ever-more insistent claims that we need more guns, the right to carry concealed guns, and fewer regulations for those who own them.
There is of course a vast amount to be said on the subject of slavery in American life, and only a very small amount I can even begin to hope you might retain in anything I can tell you today. The main point I want to emphasize is that strictly speaking, the Civil War was not really about slavery, per se. Instead, the fight was about the increasingly insistent assertion that slavery was good and right and as such should not only be protected, but expanded. It was this idea, rather than the existence of slavery itself, that so upset Abraham Lincoln and the growing number of people attracted to the way he framed the issue. Lincoln was also upset over the widely held opinion, associated with his great rival Stephen Douglas, who asserted that he didn’t care one way or the other about the fate of slavery. Lincoln was willing to live with slavery (which is why many abolitionists considered him politically lame). What he couldn’t stand, and what he consistently fought his whole adult life, was the idea that it was anything but an unavoidable compromise for the establishment and a survival of a government he loved deeply, a love rooted in his belief that it afforded great opportunities for people like him to advance in the world. Over the course of his life Lincoln repeatedly compared slavery to a tumor in the body politic that could not be cut out without endangering the life of nation. It was one thing to accept this condition; it was another to actively champion its spread. And so he drew the line.
Next: Freedom and Equality since the Civil War.