UNITED STATES HISTORY
Abolitionists and Fire-Eaters
*Slavery had existed in the English colonies that became the
United States since 1619, and became important after Bacon's
Rebellion in Virginia and the colonisation of Carolina by
Caribbean planters in the late 1600s.
*In different regions, slaves worked in different ways. Most
were employed in agriculture, whether growing food on the estates
of the patroons of New York, tobacco in the Chesapeake, or rice in
the Deep South. Others, however, were craftsmen or house
*On tobacco plantations, slaves typically worked in the 'gang
system' in which gangs of slaves worked specified shifts under the
control of an overseer or driver. Their shifts were as long
as they could bear (with gangs being composed of slaves of similar
strength, so a gang of strong workers could all work together
longer than a gang of weaker ones), and they had little free time
of their own. It was viewed as a particularly harsh
system. As tobacco plantations declined in profitability,
extra slaves were often sold, even if that meant breaking up
*On the rice plantations of the Deep South, slaves worked
according to a task system, in which different slaves or groups of
slaves would be assigned a particular task and they would work
until it was finished. Sometimes this did make for very
punishing hours, but at other times, it allowed for quite a bit of
free time in the evening, and at all times it allowed at least
some (and occasionally quite a bit) of flexibility in how a task
was completed. Because the task system could allow more free
time than that gang system, slaves employed in this way often grew
their own gardens and often sold or traded some produce and in
general enjoyed stronger communities and families, although slave
marriages were generally not recognised and family connexions
counted for little if the master decided to sell a slave.
*There were laws, however, forbidding masters from freeing the
old, the ill, and the infirm so that they would have to feed and
house slaves who could not take care of themselves. Such
laws were mostly followed, but certainly not always.
*Slaves could also look forward to a few holidays, although only a
few. At Christmas, for example, slaves were given at least
the day off, as well as a new suit of clothes and a gift of liquor
to let them celebrate. Such holidays were rare, however,
particularly for field hands.
*Some slaves did work as house servants, either in the homes of
plantation owners who had many slaves or in some cases as the only
slaves a family might own. In general, this was viewed as a
higher status among slaves, and house servants' treatment, food,
clothing, and shelter were generally better, although this was not
guaranteed. Female house servants (like all female slaves)
also had to worry about the attention of male members of their
owners' family, as it was pretty much impossible to refuse their
advances. Mixed-race children remained slaves, thanks to the
'one drop rule' that declared that even one drop of Black blood
left someone black, and thus bound as a slave.
*Other slaves were craftsmen, working on a plantation or in a shop
in town. Those who worked in town made a profit for their
masters' businesses, and even some plantation owners rented their
skilled slaves out on short- or long-term contracts.
Craftsmen and house servants, were the main types of slaves found
in the North before slavery was abolished there.
*In some cases, skilled craftsmen or even other slaves could earn
some wages or keep a share of the value of what they sold
(especially if they worked extra in their spare time, as some
craftsmen and some slaves working on the task system did), and by
saving up this money, some could purchase their freedom.
*By the time the Constitution was written, slavery seemed to be in
decline. Ideological opposition to it existed in all
thirteen states that had declared their belief that all men are
created equal, and a number of Northern states had already begun
schemes of gradual emancipation, while slavery had been excluded
from any new states created from the Northwest Territory.
The importation of slaves to the United States was outlawed in
1808. The Royal Navy also tried to stop the trans-Atlantic
slave trade, which the British Empire had declared illegal in
*Economically, slavery seemed less important, too, particularly in
tobacco-growing areas, where tobacco was exhausting the land and
tobacco planters were looking for new crops to grow--George
Washington and a few other Virginians began to switch to growing
wheat, or at least to consider doing so (later, the McCormick
Reaper would be invented in Virginia, even if the McCormick
Company soon relocated to Chicago). As wheat production was
less labour-intensive than tobacco cultivation, Virginia even
considered abolishing slavery in the late 18th Century.
*Slavery was also a potential threat to American virtue.
Owning slaves was not just bad for slaves, but also for their
owners, at least according to some writers. Thomas Jefferson
said that because slavery required slave-owners to exercise
brutality over their slaves, it tended to make them brutal.
The former slave Frederick Douglass later described how he was
bought by a man whose wife had never owned a slave, and who
treated him very kindly at first, until the inherent tyranny of
slavery transformed her into a harsh mistress. Booker T.
Washington, a former slave, later said that Whites could not hold
Blacks in a ditch without getting down there with them.
*Furthermore, a large, servile underclass was not conducive
republican virtue, as only independent citizens could be counted
on to vote in a disinterested way.
*Slavery was even a threat to security, as the danger of a slave
uprising was always in the back of the minds of slave owners
(especially after the Haitian Revolution), even though actual
slave revolts were very rare in America. Thomas Jefferson
compared having a large population of slaves to holding a wolf by
the ears: you don't like it, but you don't dare let it go.
*In 1793, however, the invention of the cotton gin changed
everything for slavery. With the processing of cotton now
possible on a large scale, thousands of acres of land were devoted
to growing cotton, an unpleasant and labour-intensive practise
that was best suited for slaves (at least in the minds of free
men). These slaves worked in a gang system, and work on a
big cotton plantation was considered to be the worst type of work
a slave could do.
*Slaves on small farms in the Upper South were often seen as
having it as good as a field hand could have it except that small
farms might not need many slaves or might not be able to afford to
keep many of them, and the Upper South often sold its surplus
slaves 'down the river.' This internal slave trade more than
made up for the end of the international slave trade.
*After the invention of the cotton gin, Southern states would
cling to slavery for both economic and social reasons.
*As the Industrial Revolution began, the mills' need for cotton
matched the South's ability to produce it and ship it both to the
North and to Britain. Both its use in the North and its sale
to Britain led to America's great economic boom in the
mid-1800s. After 1840, cotton accounted for over half the
value of all American exports, and 75% of British cotton came from
America. Southerners were so confident in the importance of
cotton that some described it as 'white gold' while in 1858,
Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina would say that
'Cotton is king' believing that cotton gave the South so much
political and economic power that the United States and even
British governments would ultimately have to give in to Southern
*The wealth that slavery brought to the South created an
aristocracy of sorts, as only a few Southerners had the wealth to
invest in the land and slaves required to operate a large
plantation. In 1850, only 1,733 families owned more than one
hundred slaves each, and they formed the basis of the political,
economic, and cultural leadership of the South.
*Some Southerners pointed to the Roman Republic and its slaves as
evidence that slavery and republicanism could go together, and
even free the slave-owning class from manual labour so that they
could devote their time to culture, philosophy, and
*Other Southerners saw themselves as preserving a mediæval society
of gallantry and honour, one reason that duelling remained
prevalent in the South much longer than it did in the North.
Mark Twain went so far as to blame the Civil War on the historical
fiction of Sir Walter Scott, believing that reading too much of
his romanticised tales of the Middle Ages convinced Southerners of
the 19th Century that they were a new generation of knights.
*Even these lords of the manor had problems, however, as they were
often in debt to bankers who helped them buy the land and gins for
their plantations and to the agents who traded the cotton.
*While plantation owners were away at New Orleans or Memphis or
another major cotton trading centre, their wives often ran their
plantations, supervising everything from the kitchen and gardens
to the account books and the overseers who managed the slaves.
*If there were fewer than 2,000 families that owned one hundred
slaves, there were many more Whites who supported the system of
slavery. Among these were owners of a small or moderate
number of slaves. Before they were removed, some Cherokee
Indians had owned slaves, and in some places free Blacks even
owned slaves. At any given point, at least one fourth
of Southerners owned at least one slave, although not all
Southerners who owned a slave always did so--it was a status that
one might lose, or gain, as one's fortunes changed, so that
perhaps as many as half of all Southerners owned a slave at some
point. Therefore, because slave ownership was within the
reach of almost anyone, even people who did not own a
slave—yet—often supported the system in hopes that one day they
could be a part of it.
*Furthermore, for even the poorest Whites, having a lower class to
look down on gave them some sense of value, and even a sort of
equality with the plantation aristocracy. This was sometimes
called the 'mudsill theory' of society, that there always has to
be someone at the bottom to do the worst work, and for everyone
else to look down upon. Whatever else could be said of poor
Whites, at least they were not Black (although some were so poor
that even slaves looked down on them, such as the 'clay-eaters'
along the Mississippi who were so poor they actually ate
*The poor mountain Whites of Southern Appalachia also rarely owned
slaves, and none owned a large number of them, so many of these
'hillbillies' resented the 'slavocracy' that seemed to rule the
South without concern for them, although they generally did not
like the slaves, either.
*Of course, for many people, having someone even worse off to be
superior to was not enough. Many poor southerners left for
the West or the Midwest, so that by 1860 for every white
Southerner (about 5.5 million) there were four (22 million) Whites
in other parts of the country.
*Likewise, there was not much incentive for immigrants to come to
the South when there was more available land and more factory jobs
in the North, and when Southern planters would only hire an
Irishman for a job too dangerous for a slave or a mule to
do. This also kept the South's population fairly stagnant.
*With relatively few people available to work in factories and
little interest by the wealthy to invest in them, the South never
developed much industry. There were a few exceptions,
particularly in Middle Tennessee, but even there, the largest
ironworks employed primarily slave labour. This may (or may
not) disprove an historical theory that slavery is only good for
agricultural work, and that moving into an industrial age
naturally brings about an end to slavery.
*Enslaving such a large number of people--by 1860 about one third
of Southerners were slaves--required harsh treatment, as few
people would willingly do the work that most slaves had to do, so
whipping was common and other forms of mutilation were possible,
although a slave was such a valuable investment that most
slave-owners did not beat their slaves casually.
*Furthermore, laws in each Southern state known as slave codes
limited the rights of slaves. In most places they could not
own firearms, travel off their owners' land without permission,
meet in large numbers after dark, or in some cases even be taught
to read. Slave marriages had no legal force, and did not
prevent the separation of families or the violation of slave women
by their owners. Slaves could not typically testify in court
or serve on a jury, and while they had some legal protections
against violence from whites who were not their owners, this was
mainly to protect their owners' investment in them.
*Slaves sometimes tried to escape, although the penalties for
doing so could be harsh. There were professional
slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and their bloodhounds might
maul them when they caught them, or they might be badly injured or
even killed in being retaken. Even escaping across state
lines was no guarantee of safety, as the Constitution included
requirements that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters
(although many Northern states did not always enforce these
rules). Recaptured runaways might be chained up for a long
period once back home, or made to work in heavy chains, or might
have a collar with bells or even a cage with bells or spikes put
over their heads.
*Some slaves, former slaves (often escaped slaves), and
anti-slavery whites did help runaways to escape. Eventually
this become somewhat formalised as the 'Underground Railroad' with
guides known as 'conductors' and safe places to hide known as
'stations.' One of the most famous conductors was the
escaped slave Harriet Tubman, known as the Black Moses, who helped
lead escaped slaves out of eastern Maryland to freedom in
*Another escaped slave who gained national fame was Henry Brown
who mailed himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a crate in
1849, earning the nickname Henry 'Box' Brown.
*Other forms of resistance were more subtle. Slaves might
work as slowly or sloppily as they could get away with as a form
of passive resistance. Many of them found solace in
religion, as the Great Awakening and especially the Second Great
Awakening had affected Black Southerners as well as Whites.
*African-American religion tended to focus on the aspects of the
Bible that spoke of liberation, particularly the story of Moses
leading the Israelites to freedom out of slavery in Egypt.
Of course, this made many slave-owners suspicious of Black
religious leaders, and sometimes they tried to prevent
African-Americans from preaching, preferring white ministers to
remind slaves of the passages in the Bible that tell slaves to
obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5 for example).
*This particularly was true after a Black preacher named Nat
Turner organised the deadliest slave rebellion in American
*In August, 1831, he led Turner’s Rebellion. 70 slaves
attacked white families and killed over 50 white men, women, and
children in Southeastern Virginia. Eventually the local
militia captured and hanged Turner and about 20 of his
followers. Other angry whites rioted, and killed about an
hundred more Blacks, none of whom had (probably) had anything to
do with the rebellion.
*As a result of these rebellions, Southerners grew increasingly
afraid of their own slaves. Although Virginia again briefly
considered ending slavery, she decided not to, and all Southern
states made laws about slaves much tougher. It became much
harder to free a slave so there would not be so many free blacks
to serve as a dangerous example to slaves. It became illegal
to send anti-slavery literature through the mail in much of the
South (as a major campaign by Northern anti-slavery activists
tried to do in 1835) and it became illegal to teach slaves to read
in some states. Tennessee wrote a new constitution in 1835
that, among other things, took the right to vote away from even
*This harshness in turn encouraged the growing anti-slavery
movement (of which John Quincy Adams was an eloquent advocate in
Congress) to push harder for the end of slavery. The South
responded to this attack on its peculiar institution with
increasing hostility of its own.
*Some Americans had opposed slavery since the colonial period,
primarily the Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and by 1804
every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line had passed laws bringing
an end to slavery, although on a gradual basis.
*The religious revivals of the early 1800s, including the Second
Great Awakening, led to an increased moral opposition to slavery
as well. The great preacher of the Burned-Over District,
Charles Grandison Finney, became an early leader of the
anti-slavery movement and helped train later leaders.
*Many opponents of slavery in the early 1800s felt that some form
of compensated emancipation or moral pressure on slave owners to
voluntarily manumit their slaves was the most appropriate way to
bring slavery to an end. Furthermore, many of them felt that
it would be best for the freed slaves to then leave the United
States, probably for Africa but possibly for Haiti or Central
America. This would avoid racial conflict and remove a large
supply of unskilled workers who might be an economic problem.
*The first prominent anti-slavery group of this type was the
American Colonization Society, formed in 1816. Its
membership included many Quakers and other religiously motivated
people, as well as a number of members from the upper South,
including slave-owners such as Henry Clay and James Monroe, who
saw slavery as economically unfeasible in the long run, at least
in areas like their home states where cotton was not grown.
*Their hope was to purchase slaves from their owners and transport
them to Africa, where the American Colonization Society helped
create Liberia (the 'Land of the Free') with its capital at
Monrovia, a currency called the dollar, and a flag with red and
white stripes and a single white star on a blue field (and the
True Whig Party the main political party from 1878 to 1980).
At least 15,000 freed slaves settled in Liberia in the mid-1800s
(where they subjugated the native tribes), but that still left
millions of slaves in America, depending on other anti-slavery
movements to gain them their freedom.
*In 1819, a Quaker in Jonesborough, Elihu Embree, began publishing
the nation’s first anti-slavery newspaper, the Manumission
Intelligencer, which he later renamed the Emancipator.
Another Quaker, Benjamin Lundy, began publishing the Genius of
Universal Emancipation in Greeneville in 1822.
*The early anti-slavery Tennesseans such as Embry, Lundy, and
their friends, were fairly moderate. They wanted a
state-legislated gradual emancipation plan combined with moral
suasion to convince slave-owners that slavery was un-Christian and
un-American, and ought to be ended voluntarily. Believing
that many whites and blacks would not want to live together after
emancipation, most of Tennessee’s anti-slavery movement hoped to
colonise freed slaves to Haiti or Liberia. In the end, none
of these activists accomplished much in the way of legal or social
change in Tennessee, although East Tennessee did have many
supporters of the Underground Railroad.
*Furthermore, after Turner's rebellion, anti-slavery movements in
the South were weakened by the growing fear of slave rebellions
and by increasing resentment of Northern opposition to slavery
which was seen as intrusive and likely to incite further
*On New Year's Day, 1831, a few months before Turner's Rebellion,
William Lloyd Garrison of Boston published the first issue of The
Liberator, an uncompromising anti-slavery newspaper.
When Turner's Rebellion broke out later that year, some
Southerners blamed Garrison for provoking it, and the state of
Georgia offered a $5,000 reward for his arrest and conviction for
inciting murder. He was attacked many times over the course
of his career, sometimes barely escaping with his life.
*Over the coming decades he would print some of the most stunning
attacks on slavery, as well as some of the most controversial,
going so far as to call the U.S. Constitution itself a 'covenant
with death and an agreement with hell' because it protected
slavery. He would later suggest that the North secede from
the South to create a virtuous nation free from the bonds of
*In 1833, Garrison helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society
along with Wendell Phillips of Boston, a man known as 'abolition's
golden trumpet' who was so adamant in his opposition to slavery
that he refused to eat cane sugar or wear cotton cloth because
both were the products of slave labour.
*In 1835, Garrison published a letter by Angelina Grimké, a South
Carolina Quaker who opposed slavery in private, but was forced to
publicly oppose it after Garrison identified her against her
wishes. She and her sister Sarah Grimké became prominent
members of the anti-slavery moment (and of the early women's
movement), writing articles and giving speeches across the
North. Sarah later married Theodore Weld and, along with her
sister, helped him publish American Slavery As It Is:
Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, a collection of
first-hand accounts of slavery, in 1839.
*Former slaves were among the most powerful spokesmen (and
spokeswomen) for the anti-slavery cause, because their eloquence
demonstrated that Black people could be the intellectual equals of
Whites, despite what many people contended at the time.
*One of these former slaves was Sojourner Truth, who was born a
slave in New York two years before that state's gradual
emancipation began. She escaped from slavery in 1826 along
with her infant daughter, and later sued to free her son, the
first time a Black woman successfully sued a White man in
America. She had a powerful voice and a powerful argument
against slavery, in part from a woman's point of view, pointing
out that half of all slaves were women, many of whom did hard
physical work and many of whom suffered degradation of many types
in a society that claimed to protect women in their separate
sphere. Where was the gallantry that so many honourable
American men claimed to have when slave women were mistreated and
forced to labour as hard as any man? Instead, she claimed a
woman's role as a reformer, just as many White women did after the
Great Awakening. Her most famous speech was known as 'Ain't
I a Woman?' although the poor grammar and Southern dialect used in
the most famous printed versions of the speech were
inaccurate--her English was good, despite Dutch being her first
language, and she certainly did not have a Southern accent.
*The most famous former slave of all was Frederick Douglass. He
had escaped from Maryland in 1838 and began a public speaking
career in 1841 that expanded into a writing career, starting with
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in
1845. He eventually bought his freedom and that of his
family with the proceeds from his writing. This career was
built on a life-long love of learning, as he had been taught to
read some by a former owner and had even traded food to White
children if they would teach him to read (in contravention of the
law). Such a devotion to education and his eloquent speaking
and writing were further proof that a Black man could be the
equal--at least--of a White man.
*Although some anti-slavery activists hoped that slave-owners
could eventually be persuaded by moral arguments to free their
slaves, over time more and more of them began to feel that they
would have to seek a political solution to slavery.
Dedicated anti-slavery parties were founded (and failed) in the
1840s and 1850s such as the Liberty Party (founded in 1840) and
the Free Soil Party (founded in the 1848).
*This growing anti-slavery movement was repeatedly thwarted by an
increasingly active pro-slavery movement in the South, where John
C. Calhoun, and later other Southerners, began to argue
that slavery was not just a necessary evil but actually a positive
good for both slaves and slave-owners.
*Slavery was to be admired because it offered the benefits of
civilisation and the Christian religion to the African savages
brought to America and provided more security to slaves in the
South than factory work did for 'wage slaves' in the North.
Slavery might be hard, but slave-owners loved their slaves and
took care of them, while Northern capitalists just sought to
exploit their workers and cast them aside when they no longer
*Furthermore, slavery was sanctioned in the Bible through many
passages describing slaves obeying their masters and through the
so-called 'curse of Ham' placed by Noah on the descendents of his
grandson Canaan who were condemned to be servants of Noah's other
*In fact, the debate over slavery began to split many churches, as
many Northerners had come to feel during the Second Great
Awakening that slavery was a moral sin, while many Southerners
used the Bible to justify slavery. The Methodists (whose
founder had been anti-slavery from the start), Baptists, and
Presbyterians all split over the issue of slavery (and sometimes
other debates, too).
*The most outspoken supporters of slavery came to be known as
fire-eaters, and they described slavery as the South's 'peculiar
institution,' unique to their region and culture, something that
was necessary and for the best.
*In 1836, Southerners in the House of Representatives managed to
pass the Gag Resolution, banning discussion of any anti-slavery
topics until Representative John Quincy Adams managed to have it
repealed in 1844. John C. Calhoun attempted to create a
similar rule in the Senate, but without success.
*An increasing number of anti-slavery activists even became
outright abolitionists, demanding that slavery be outlawed across
the country, not gradually wished away through moral argument,
gradual emancipation, or colonization of some remote part of the
Earth. Most people, though, even many people generally
opposed to slavery, saw outright abolitionists as too
radical. Anti-slavery literature in the South was burnt, and
even in the North, the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah P.
Lovejoy had his printing press destroyed four times and he was
eventually killed in 1837 in a gun battle in Illinois.
Radicalism like that, people thought, could endanger the Union by
driving the South away (or perhaps by pulling the North out of the
Union, as Garrison proposed). Most opponents of slavery preferred,
even into the 1850s, to support the Free Soil movement, which
accepted slavery's legality where it currently existed, but
opposed its expansion into any new territories, especially those
gained from Mexico in 1848.
This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day, 2020.