Attitudes towards slavery in America

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ORIGINAL CAPTION READS: Slave family picking cotton in the fields near Savannah, 186-? Stereograph, Havens, Savannah.

By Natasha Mwandiyambira

SLAVERY developed hand-in-hand with the founding of the United States, weaving into the commercial, legal, political and social fabric of the new nation and thus shaping the way of life of both the North and the South. 

American attitudes to slavery were complex, with much disagreement. 

However, before emancipation, many northerners felt ‘guilty’ about slavery while white southerners expected federal protection of the ‘peculiar institution’. 

These feelings, which directly influenced many people’s choices, leading to secession and Civil War in 1860-1, can only be understood by seeing slavery as a national institution. 

Prior to the Civil War, the economies of the North and the South developed differently in the early 1800s. Although both economies were mostly agricultural, the North began to develop more industry and commerce. 

By contrast, the Southern economy relied on plantation farming. The growth of industry in the North helped lead to the rapid growth of Northern cities. 

Much of this population growth came from immigration. In addition, immigrants and Easterners moved west and built farms in the new states formed from the north-west territory. Most canals and railroads ran east and west, helping the eastern and mid-western states develop strong ties with each other.

The Southerners may have realised that their defence of the institution of slavery was due to economic necessity, but they justified it with all sorts of additional explanations and exonerations; thus one Southerner was speaking for many others when he declared that: “The institution of slavery was morally right since it had been authorised by God, permitted by Jesus Christ, sanctioned by the Apostles and maintained by good men of all ages.” 

The Southerners’ defence of their system was all the more passionate because of the resentment they felt at their economic backwardness which contrasted sharply with the bustling activity north of Ohio River. 

They had been left behind by the march of progress, and had tried to live as they had always done at a time the rest of America was changing radically.  

These people living in the slave states had become prisoners of their own system and could only find comfort by dreaming about secession from the North so they could work out their own destiny and perhaps create an opulent slave republic which would include vast regions of central America.

Many factors, economic as well as moral, had made the northern states of America turn away from slavery even before the War of Independence in 1776.

One was the early trend, in New England, towards family farming of diversified sustenance crops which did not require the large labour forces of the southern plantations.

Fanny Kemble predicted that: “Instead  of being savage, brutish, filthy, idle, hopeless and incapable, the negroes, once freed from the evil influences which surrounded them at home, would become industrious, thrifty, willing to learn, able to improve and forming in the course of generations, a most  valuable accession to your labouring classes,” but the Southerners frankly did not believe it and, in any case, they regarded all, abolitionist sentiment as an open invitation to violence whose results would eclipse the horrors of Haiti.  

The African-Americans who lived in the Southern states could not be free, were treated as property and had no rights. 

If a black person was caught after escaping an owner, he/she faced serious punishments. 

These slaves also had no rights. 

They could not have spouses, children, country, land, a home or any of the basic things that free white men took for granted. Slaves in the South could be bought, sold, traded or even given away to settle a bet.

The Northern states were more industrialised and had little need for slave work. 

Railroads were one of their biggest assets that actually helped them win the Civil war. 

Even though the African-Americans were free, they had trouble finding good jobs to support their families and, if they did, they were still paid way less than the average working whiteman. 

They were allowed to live free lives and were no longer whipped, but they were separated from the rest of the community in many ways. 

The African-Americans were not allowed in public places for whites while black children were denied entry into public schools.

These states were full of racism and discrimination. 

Blacks would work for little compared to the average working white man.

William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist, published the Liberator (1831) which asked for immediate and unconditional emancipation.

William Lloyd Garrison, three-quarter-length, seated

The Liberty party was a group of Northerners against slavery who felt that political action was more practical than Garrison’s moral crusade. 

They pledged to bring about the end of slavery by political and legal means.

However, black abolitionists were the most outspoken against slavery. 

Freddy D, a follower of Garrison, advocated both a political and direct action to end slavery. 

Many other black abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, David Ruggles and William Still helped slaves escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

Violent abolitionism became a growing problem. 

David walker and Henry Highland Garnet were Northern blacks who advocated slaves to take action and rise up against their masters. 

Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, led a revolt where 55 whites were killed. 

Even when whites killed hundreds of blacks in retaliation, it did not stop the efforts for emancipation.

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