Slavery back then, was it good? How was it defended?Jesus Medina
Imagine living a life where you were forced out of your country and sold off to white people. All the terrors, trauma, fights, deaths, and anything else imaginable. To anyone, this is cruel and inhumane., but to colonists in the 1800s, this was nothing but the way life works. Colonists in the south relied on slavery for basically everything, but was slavery a good thing?
Edmund Morgan, a historian, once argued that American slavery made American freedom possible, partly by giving white people more cultural value than black people. Building on his argument, other historians have shown how race-based slavery turned freedom into its own form of income. Any defense of slavery usually relied on the most pointed argument that slaves were property and thus subject to protection under the United States Constitution. That was not the biggest reason though.
By the 1830s, abolitionists were trying to convince whites of all types to put aside the cultural income of white people. To silence their efforts, the interests of money in both regions, insisted that abolition would destroy the economic order. By spreading this fear throughout the states, those who profited from slavery very well managed to convince a lot white people in the US go against the abolition movement. Even though there were people going against abolitionists, the abolitionists in Philadelphia raised about 40,000 dollars and built the Pennsylvania Hall.
By the late 1830s, however, pro-slavery interests were beginning to really abuse slavery and their income. Through a slow process that took decades to build, abolitionists were then able to reframe the value of freedom. Whereas pro-slavery elements had highlighted the non- pecuniary benefits of white skin, abolitionists shifted the emphasis to the value of US citizenship.
The more anti-slavery reformers made this point, the harder pro-slavery forces worked to quiet them. This created a cycle in which abolitionist efforts fueled anti-abolitionist aggression, leading increasing numbers of whites to consider the implications of their silence as they became more aware of the pro-slavery fight to deny dissenters their right to even discuss the matter.
One of the most famous instances of pro-slavery forces using violence to silence abolitionists occurred in 1838, when a mob destroyed Pennsylvania Hall, a convention center built by Philadelphia abolitionists and advertised throughout the northern US as a ”temple of liberty.” The attack on the hall, along with violent pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist behavior throughout the US, allowed anti-slavery forces to reframe the debate and turn freedom itself into a valuable commodity that whites had to defend, whether or not they cared much for the fate of enslaved workers.
Planters also convinced whites throughout the US that prosperity depended upon the spread of slavery into the West and that the moneyed interests of both the North and South would benefit as slavery spread. Not only would northern factories have a reliable supply of cotton and southern plantation owners have a steady income, but speculators and brokers in human flesh from all sections of the country would gain untold riches from the internal slave trade as planters who profited off of the American westward expansion bought people to work in their ever-expanding fields. In a world dictated by the needs of the rich—whether on the plantation or in the factory—freedom was a valuable commodity.
Shared economic interests kept planters and industrialists in alliance, and they realized that the growing abolition movement posed a threat to their power. They agreed that they needed to keep the white masses from listening to anti-slavery arguments.
The increasing aggressiveness of anti-slavery leaders in the North and the success of abolition in the British Empire led to a rise in pro-slavery rhetoric and action in the mid-1830s as planters worked to remind northerners of cotton’s, and thus slavery’s, centrality to the global market and to continued prosperity in the US. According to Schoen, ”as national politicians hurriedly erected levies to block the supposed tide of abolition within the nation, Lower South writers furthered new arguments to foster regional unity and convince outsiders that slavery remained not only morally and theologically sound but necessary for the advancement of commerce and western civilization.” To support these claims, they also relied upon negative racial theories to argue in favor of slavery, but ultimately, Schoen contends, what mattered most was the ability of planters to convince moderates in the North that ”it remained in their interest to protect slavery and that, by consequence, abolition threatened national economic prosperity and political security” (164). As both Schoen and Baptist have demonstrated, it was easy to make such a case into the early 1830s, as whites in both regions agreed that cotton exports drove the national economy.
In 1838, abolitionists across the northern portion of the US found themselves under attack by their neighbors, who feared that agitation against slavery would alienate the South and endanger the Union. The nation was in the midst of one of the worst economic depressions in US history, and merchants and manufacturers worried about the loss of southern markets and raw materials. As a result, churches and other public venues began to refuse to share their facilities with abolitionists for fear that their property would be destroyed. In Philadelphia, abolitionists responded by creating Pennsylvania Hall as a space of their own—a unique space, just a few blocks away from the Liberty Bell, where they hoped all reformers would come together. Reformers from many states joined their friends to christen this ”temple of liberty” on 14 May 1838. On the night of 17 May, reformers watched in horror as an angry mob burned the hall down. There were many people in the city who would have participated in this mobbing. One particular group had a strong motive for destroying the building—a group called Friends of the Integrity of the Union, which consisted of local businessmen. This group had vowed to zealously oppose abolitionist efforts, promising their southern business associates that they would do their part to defend the South’s ”peculiar institution,” even if it meant stamping out their northern neighbors’ rights of free speech. Whether they meant to or not, they commoditized freedom, concluding that the value of southern trade exceeded the value of liberty, whether it be freedom for the enslaved or free speech for any Americans who opposed human bondage.
Three years before the Pennsylvania Hall incident, abolitionists undertook an offensive move against slavery when they sent anti- slavery newspapers and pamphlets South in an effort to awaken latent anti-slavery sentiments in the region, a move that enraged white southerners. In some ways, this move backfired by placing southern whites on the defensive side of this ideological war and allowing them to call upon non-abolitionist northerners to defend southern property rights by silencing their radical neighbors. Planters argued that a threat to slave property could open the door to an endangering of property rights in general, including northern property rights. They also claimed that abolition literature encouraged their slaves to rise up against them and fight for their freedom or to run away and seek refuge in the North, where they would cause social disruption, fill relief rolls, and intermarry with whites. At the same time, they warned working-class whites of flooded job markets. Finally, they pointed out that abolitionist interference with slavery threatened the entire nation’s economic prosperity.
Even while they tried to fill the southbound mail with pamphlets and newspapers, abolitionists were busy bombarding Congress with petitions to end slavery in the District of Columbia, stop the spread of slavery into the territories and end the domestic slave trade. This angered southern congressmen, who fought to silence the anti-slavery voice in the halls of government by pushing Congress to institute a series of gag rules against the petitions. The loudest representative of slave-owner interests, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, tried to spread the repression even further with a bill to punish federal postmasters who delivered materials deemed incendiary. With his insistence that Congress help him silence the abolitionists, Calhoun pushed Ohio Congressman Thomas Morris and Massachusetts Congressman and former US President John Quincy Adams too far. Morris grew furious at the idea that slave-owners had become drunk with power and were seeking to bully their fellow legislators, just as they did their slaves. Thus, he laid the groundwork for the Slave Power argument. Adams gained a reputation for fighting tirelessly to defeat the gag rules in the legislative battle that ensued. Through these efforts, Adams and Morris became the darlings of many abolitionists. The spectacle that ensued generated more anti-slavery support, but many who defended the abolitionists’ right to free speech still rejected immediate abolition, calling instead for the colonization of American blacks to Africa and the containment of slavery in the South. To check slave-holder power in the federal government, more and more northern whites began to argue against allowing slavery to spread into the new Western territories.
Revue canadienne d’e ?tudes ame ?ricaines 47 (2017)