ADVANCED PLACEMENT 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 servants.

*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 families.

*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 1807.

*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 demands.

*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 politics. 

*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 clay). 

*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 Pennsylvania.

*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 history. 

*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 free Blacks. 

*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 rebellions.

*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 slavery.

*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 needed them. 

*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 sons.

*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.
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