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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART V. SECTIONAL CONFLICT AND RECONSTRUCTION
» CHAPTER XIV

«·THE PLANTING SYSTEM AND NATIONAL POLITICS · Slavery in National Politics·»


Slavery—North and South

The Decline of Slavery in the North.—At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, slavery was lawful in all the Northern states except Massachusetts. There were almost as many bondmen in New York as in Georgia. New Jersey had more than Delaware or Tennessee, indeed nearly as many as both combined. All told, however, there were only about forty thousand in the North as against nearly seven hundred thousand in the South. Moreover, most of the Northern slaves were domestic servants, not laborers necessary to keep mills going or fields under cultivation.

There was, in the North, a steadily growing moral sentiment against the system. Massachusetts abandoned it in 1780. In the same year, Pennsylvania provided for gradual emancipation. New Hampshire, where there had been only a handful, Connecticut with a few thousand domestics, and New Jersey early followed these examples. New York, in 1799, declared that all children born of slaves after July 4 of that year should be free, though held for a term as apprentices; and in 1827 it swept away the last vestiges of slavery. So with the passing of the generation that had framed the Constitution, chattel servitude disappeared in the commercial states, leaving behind only such discriminations as disfranchisement or high property qualifications on colored voters.

The Growth of Northern Sentiment against Slavery.—In both sections of the country there early existed, among those more or less philosophically inclined, a strong opposition to slavery on moral as well as economic grounds. In the constitutional convention of 1787, Gouverneur Morris had vigorously condemned it and proposed that the whole country should bear the cost of abolishing it. About the same time a society for promoting the abolition of slavery, under the presidency of Benjamin Franklin, laid before Congress a petition that serious attention be given to the emancipation of “those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.” When Congress, acting on the recommendations of President Jefferson, provided for the abolition of the foreign slave trade on January 1, 1808, several Northern members joined with Southern members in condemning the system as well as the trade. Later, colonization societies were formed to encourage the emancipation of slaves and their return to Africa. James Madison was president and Henry Clay vice president of such an organization.

The anti-slavery sentiment of which these were the signs was nevertheless confined to narrow circles and bore no trace of bitterness. “We consider slavery your calamity, not your crime,” wrote a distinguished Boston clergyman to his Southern brethren, “and we will share with you the burden of putting an end to it. We will consent that the public lands shall be appropriated to this object.... I deprecate everything which sows discord and exasperating sectional animosities.”

Uncompromising Abolition.—In a little while the spirit of generosity was gone. Just as Jacksonian Democracy rose to power there appeared a new kind of anti-slavery doctrine—the dogmatism of the abolition agitator. For mild speculation on the evils of the system was substituted an imperious and belligerent demand for instant emancipation. If a date must be fixed for its appearance, the year 1831 may be taken when William Lloyd Garrison founded in Boston his anti-slavery paper, The Liberator. With singleness of purpose and utter contempt for all opposing opinions and arguments, he pursued his course of passionate denunciation. He apologized for having ever “assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition.” He chose for his motto: “Immediate and unconditional emancipation!” He promised his readers that he would be “harsh as truth and uncompromising as justice”; that he would not “think or speak or write with moderation.” Then he flung out his defiant call: “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard....

’Such is the vow I take, so help me God.'”

Though Garrison complained that “the apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal,” he soon learned how alive the masses were to the meaning of his propaganda. Abolition orators were stoned in the street and hissed from the platform. Their meeting places were often attacked and sometimes burned to the ground. Garrison himself was assaulted in the streets of Boston, finding refuge from the angry mob behind prison bars. Lovejoy, a publisher in Alton, Illinois, for his willingness to give abolition a fair hearing, was brutally murdered; his printing press was broken to pieces as a warning to all those who disturbed the nation’s peace of mind. The South, doubly frightened by a slave revolt in 1831 which ended in the murder of a number of men, women, and children, closed all discussion of slavery in that section. “Now,” exclaimed Calhoun, “it is a question which admits of neither concession nor compromise.”

As the opposition hardened, the anti-slavery agitation gathered in force and intensity. Whittier blew his blast from the New England hills:

“No slave-hunt in our borders—no pirate on our strand;
No fetters in the Bay State—no slave upon our land.”

Lowell, looking upon the espousal of a great cause as the noblest aim of his art, ridiculed and excoriated bondage in the South. Those abolitionists, not gifted as speakers or writers, signed petitions against slavery and poured them in upon Congress. The flood of them was so continuous that the House of Representatives, forgetting its traditions, adopted in 1836 a “gag rule” which prevented the reading of appeals and consigned them to the waste basket. Not until the Whigs were in power nearly ten years later was John Quincy Adams able, after a relentless campaign, to carry a motion rescinding the rule.

How deep was the impression made upon the country by this agitation for immediate and unconditional emancipation cannot be measured. If the popular vote for those candidates who opposed not slavery, but its extension to the territories, be taken as a standard, it was slight indeed. In 1844, the Free Soil candidate, Birney, polled 62,000 votes out of over a million and a half; the Free Soil vote of the next campaign went beyond a quarter of a million, but the increase was due to the strength of the leader, Martin Van Buren; four years afterward it receded to 156,000, affording all the outward signs for the belief that the pleas of the abolitionist found no widespread response among the people. Yet the agitation undoubtedly ran deeper than the ballot box. Young statesmen of the North, in whose hands the destiny of frightful years was to lie, found their indifference to slavery broken and their consciences stirred by the unending appeal and the tireless reiteration. Charles Sumner afterward boasted that he read the Liberator two years before Wendell Phillips, the young Boston lawyer who cast aside his profession to take up the dangerous cause.

Early Southern Opposition to Slavery.—In the South, the sentiment against slavery was strong; it led some to believe that it would also come to an end there in due time. Washington disliked it and directed in his will that his own slaves should be set free after the death of his wife. Jefferson, looking into the future, condemned the system by which he also lived, saying: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are the gift of God? Are they not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Nor did Southern men confine their sentiments to expressions of academic opinion. They accepted in 1787 the Ordinance which excluded slavery from the Northwest territory forever and also the Missouri Compromise, which shut it out of a vast section of the Louisiana territory.

The Revolution in the Slave System.—Among the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia, however, the anti-slavery views of Washington and Jefferson were by no means approved; and the drift of Southern economy was decidedly in favor of extending and perpetuating, rather than abolishing, the system of chattel servitude. The invention of the cotton gin and textile machinery created a market for cotton which the planters, with all their skill and energy, could hardly supply. Almost every available acre was brought under cotton culture as the small farmers were driven steadily from the seaboard into the uplands or to the Northwest.

The demand for slaves to till the swiftly expanding fields was enormous. The number of bondmen rose from 700,000 in Washington’s day to more than three millions in 1850. At the same time slavery itself was transformed. Instead of the homestead where the same family of masters kept the same families of slaves from generation to generation, came the plantation system of the Far South and Southwest where masters were ever moving and ever extending their holdings of lands and slaves. This in turn reacted on the older South where the raising of slaves for the market became a regular and highly profitable business.

John C. Calhoun
From an old print
John C. Calhoun

Slavery Defended as a Positive Good.—As the abolition agitation increased and the planting system expanded, apologies for slavery became fainter and fainter in the South. Then apologies were superseded by claims that slavery was a beneficial scheme of labor control. Calhoun, in a famous speech in the Senate in 1837, sounded the new note by declaring slavery “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” His reasoning was as follows: in every civilized society one portion of the community must live on the labor of another; learning, science, and the arts are built upon leisure; the African slave, kindly treated by his master and mistress and looked after in his old age, is better off than the free laborers of Europe; and under the slave system conflicts between capital and labor are avoided. The advantages of slavery in this respect, he concluded, “will become more and more manifest, if left undisturbed by interference from without, as the country advances in wealth and numbers.”

Slave Owners Dominate Politics.—The new doctrine of Calhoun was eagerly seized by the planters as they came more and more to overshadow the small farmers of the South and as they beheld the menace of abolition growing upon the horizon. It formed, as they viewed matters, a moral defense for their labor system—sound, logical, invincible. It warranted them in drawing together for the protection of an institution so necessary, so inevitable, so beneficent.

Though in 1850 the slave owners were only about three hundred and fifty thousand in a national population of nearly twenty million whites, they had an influence all out of proportion to their numbers. They were knit together by the bonds of a common interest. They had leisure and wealth. They could travel and attend conferences and conventions. Throughout the South and largely in the North, they had the press, the schools, and the pulpits on their side. They formed, as it were, a mighty union for the protection and advancement of their common cause. Aided by those mechanics and farmers of the North who stuck by Jacksonian Democracy through thick and thin, the planters became a power in the federal government. “We nominate Presidents,” exultantly boasted a Richmond newspaper; “the North elects them.”

This jubilant Southern claim was conceded by William H. Seward, a Republican Senator from New York, in a speech describing the power of slavery in the national government. “A party,” he said, “is in one sense a joint stock association, in which those who contribute most direct the action and management of the concern.... The slaveholders, contributing in an overwhelming proportion to the strength of the Democratic party, necessarily dictate and prescribe its policy.” He went on: “The slaveholding class has become the governing power in each of the slaveholding states and it practically chooses thirty of the sixty-two members of the Senate, ninety of the two hundred and thirty-three members of the House of Representatives, and one hundred and five of the two hundred and ninety-five electors of President and Vice-President of the United States.” Then he considered the slave power in the Supreme Court. “That tribunal,” he exclaimed, “consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices. Of these, five were called from slave states and four from free states. The opinions and bias of each of them were carefully considered by the President and Senate when he was appointed. Not one of them was found wanting in soundness of politics, according to the slaveholder’s exposition of the Constitution.” Such was the Northern view of the planting interest that, from the arena of national politics, challenged the whole country in 1860.

Distribution of Slaves in the Southern States

«·THE PLANTING SYSTEM AND NATIONAL POLITICS · Slavery in National Politics·»