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Slave Wars

Dred ScottThe "Peculiar Institution" of slavery was the defining issue of American territorial expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most American wars after the War of 1812, leading up to the Civil War, were fought for the extension of slavery. Emancipation did not bring freedom, and another century of political struggle was required to lift former slaves from serfdom. Popular historical understanding of the centrality of slavery is rather limited, as too many accounts tend to retroactively air-brush out this inconvenient fact. Most Americans are surprised to learn that the defenders of the Alamo were fighting Santa Anna because he had freed the slaves of Texas.

Some five hundred years ago, ships began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This massive population movement helped create the African Diaspora in the New World. Many did not survive the horrible ocean journey. Enslaved Africans represented many different peoples, each with distinct cultures, religions, and languages. Most originated from the coast or the interior of West Africa, between present-day Senegal and Angola. Other enslaved peoples originally came from Madagascar and Tanzania in East Africa.

About twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere in the 400 years from 1450 to 1850. Of this number, only about five per cent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States from Africa, most of them arriving between 1680 and 1808. Varied forms of bonded labor had existed in Europe and Africa, but as the need for labor grew in the New World's plantations and mines, the importation of unwilling Africans also grew. In early North America, the system of lifetime servitude, or slavery, was supported by an elaborate and severe legal code based on race.

The demands of European consumers for New World crops and goods helped fuel the slave trade. Following a triangular route between Africa, the Caribbean and North America, and Europe, slave traders from Holland, Portugal, France, and England delivered Africans in exchange for products such as colonial rum, sugar, and tobacco. Eventually the trading route also distributed Virginia tobacco, New England rum, and indigo and rice crops from South Carolina and Georgia.

The US Constitution was adopted on 17 September 1787. It declared that an enslaved person equaled three-fifths of a white person. Article IV provides that people held in slavery in one state who escape into another cannot be released from slavery because of a law in the state to which they escape. People who were captured must be delivered to the person claiming their service or labor. Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution clearly spelled out that the international slave trade could not be banned before 1808.

The Slave Trade Act of 1808, passed by Congress in March of 1807, became effective January 1, 1808. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill approved by the Congress An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States (hereinafter in this Act referred to as the 1808 Transatlantic Slave Trade Act) and made it unlawful ''to import or bring into the United States or territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such. . .as a slave, or to be held to service or labour''.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was prominent in the antislavery societies which sprang up after the Revolution, and, for a while, the Baptists and Methodists were antislavery. The early antislavery societies promoted gradual emancipation and they faded from the national scene by the War of 1812. As the free black population grew, their concern for the status of the African American became the center of the antislavery movement.

Even though slavery existed throughout the original thirteen colonies, nearly all the northern states, inspired by American independence, abolished slavery by 1804. As a matter of conscience some southern slaveholders also freed their slaves or permitted them to purchase their freedom. Until the early 1800s, many southern states allowed these manumissions to legally take place. Although the Federal Government outlawed the overseas slave trade in 1808, the southern enslaved African-American population continued to grow.

In an effort to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states, the Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Furthermore, with the exception of Missouri, this law prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36 30 latitude line. In a letter to William Short from April 13, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the "Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm... I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it much." In a letter to John Holms dated April 22, 1820. Jefferson wrote that the Missouri question, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union."

For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

In 1834 Great Britain abolished slavery and provided for the emancipation of enslaved people in the British West Indies, to take effect in August 1834. The Abolition of Slavery Act declares that the former enslaved people must serve a period of apprenticeship before receiving full emancipation and compensates "the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves."

One of most the perplexing question abut American slavery, which has never been altogether explained, and which indeed most Americans hardly know exists, has been stated by Nathan Glazer [Nathan Glazer, "Introduction," Slavery, Stanley M. Elkins, (New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1963)] as follows: "Why was American slavery the most awful the world has ever known?" The only thing that can be said with certainty is that this is true: it was.

American slavery was profoundly different from, and in its lasting effects on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than, any recorded servitude, ancient or modern. The peculiar nature of American slavery was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and others, but it was not until 1948 that Frank Tannenbaum, a South American specialist, pointed to the striking differences between Brazilian and American slavery. The feudal, Catholic society of Brazil had a legal and religious tradition which accorded the slave a place as a human being in the hierarchy of society - a luckless, miserable place, to be sure, but a place withal. In contrast, there was nothing in the tradition of English law or Protestant theology which could accommodate to the fact of human bondage - the slaves were therefore reduced to the status of chattels - often, no doubt, well cared for, even privileged chattels, but chattels nevertheless.

A strong family and community life helped sustain African Americans in slavery. People often chose their own partners, lived under the same roof, raised children together, and protected each other. Brutal treatment at the hands of slaveholders, however, threatened black family life. Enslaved women experienced sexual exploitation at the hands of slaveholders and overseers. Bondspeople lived with the constant fear of being sold away from their loved ones, with no chance of reunion. Historians estimate that most bondspeople were sold at least once in their lives. No event was more traumatic in the lives of enslaved individuals than that of forcible separation from their families. People sometimes fled when they heard of an impending sale.

To meet the growing demands of sugar and cotton, slaveholders developed an active domestic slave trade to move surplus workers to the Deep South. New Orleans, Louisiana, became the largest slave mart, followed by Richmond, Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina. Between 1820 and 1860 more than 60 percent of the Upper South's enslaved population was "sold South." Covering 25 to 30 miles a day on foot, men, women, and children marched south in large groups called coffles. Former bondsman Charles Ball remembered that slave traders bound the women together with rope. They fastened the men first with chains around their necks and then handcuffed them in pairs. The traders removed the restraints when the coffle neared the market.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enslaved African Americans in the Upper South mostly raised tobacco. In coastal South Carolina and Georgia, they harvested indigo for dye and grew rice, using agricultural expertise brought with them from Africa. By the 1800s rice, sugar, and cotton became the South's leading cash crops. The patenting of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 made it possible for workers to gin-separate the seeds from the fiber-some 600 to 700 pounds daily, or ten times more cotton than permitted by hand. The Industrial Revolution, centered in Great Britain, quadrupled the demand for cotton, which soon became America's leading export. Planters' acute need for more cotton workers helped expand southern slavery.

This small plant made slavery economically viable in the American South. Ginned cotton, shipped to the textile mills of the North and Great Britain was turned into millions of yards of cloth that, at an extremely cheap price, clothed the rapidly growing populations of Europe and North America.

By the Civil War the South exported more than a million tons of cotton annually to textile manufactories in Great Britain and the North. Short-staple, or upland cotton, dominated the market. An area still called the Black Belt, which stretched across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, grew some 80 percent of the nation's crop. Simultaneously cotton expanded into the new states of Arkansas and Texas. In parts of the Black Belt enslaved African Americans made up more than three-fourths of the total population. By 1861 only about one third of southern families in the 11 seceding states held slaves, and the non-slaveholders were the clear majority of free whites.

By 1860 some 4 million enslaved African Americans lived throughout the South. Whether on a small farm or a large plantation, most enslaved people were agricultural laborers. They toiled literally from sunrise to sunset in the fields or at other jobs, such as refining sugar. Some bondspeople held specialized jobs as artisans, skilled laborers, or factory workers. A smaller number worked as cooks, butlers, or maids.

Most African Americans resisted enslavement. They used techniques such as work slow-downs, sabotage, sickness, self-mutilation, or the destruction of property. Whenever possible, individuals attempted to liberate themselves by running away. Some runaways-called maroons-created free communities, such as those that existed in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp or in the Florida Everglades among the Seminole Indians.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, African Americans repeatedly banded together in attempts to overthrow the institution of slavery. Large-scale uprisings included Gabriel's Rebellion, which occurred near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. The revolt's leader, Gabriel Prosser, reportedly drew inspiration from the Haitian Revolution. The best-known rebellion occurred in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Led by enslaved preacher Nat Turner, some seventy followers destroyed property and murdered more than fifty white men, women, and children within a twenty-four hour period. Following Turner's rebellion many Virginia slaveholders reported insubordinate behavior by their slaves. In retaliation vigilantes murdered innocent blacks. The uprising succeeded in terrorizing white southerners, and as a direct result, southern lawmakers enacted stricter regulations designed to tightly control the activities of enslaved and free African Americans.

By 1850 sectional disagreements centering on slavery were straining the bonds of union between the North and South. These tensions became especially acute when Congress began to consider whether western lands acquired after the Mexican War would permit slavery. In 1849 California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state. Adding more free state senators to Congress would destroy the balance between slave and free states that had existed since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed a series of resolutions designed to "Adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy ... arising out of the institution of slavery." Clay attempted to frame his compromise so that nationally minded senators would vote for legislation in the interest of the Union. The Compromise of 1850 is composed of five statues enacted in September of 1850. The acts called for the admission of California as a "free state," provided for a territorial government for Utah and New Mexico, established a boundary between Texas and the United States, called for the abolition of slave trade in Washington, DC, and amended the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted the recapture and extradition of escaped slaves with the assistance of federal marshals. To combat the perceived success of the Underground Railroad, one of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 levied fines and prison sentences on individuals who helped runaways. The spectacle of African Americans reenslaved on the slightest pretext brought the reality of slavery forcibly into northern life. Unscrupulous traders also kidnapped free African Americans during this period and sold them south into slavery. The Fugitive Slave Law forced runaways to flee to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and even Europe.

Politically, the 1850s can be characterized as a decade of failure in which the nation's leaders were unable to resolve, or even contain, the divisive issue of slavery. In 1854, the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery above the 36 30' latitude in the Louisiana territories, was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In January 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas introduced a bill that divided the land west of Missouri into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. He argued for popular sovereignty, which would allow the settlers of the new territories to decide if slavery would be legal there. Antislavery supporters were outraged because, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery would have been outlawed in both territories. After months of debate, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed on May 30, 1854. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to Kansas, each side hoping to determine the results of the first election held after the law went into effect. The conflict turned violent, aggravating the split between North and South until reconciliation was virtually impossible. Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act helped found the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery into the territories. As a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the United States moved closer to Civil War.

Three years later the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. Dred Scott, who had been born to slaves, was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, and accompanied him to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. For almost nine years, Scott lived in free territories, yet made no attempt to end his servitude. On April 6th, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit against Irene Emerson, John Emerson's widow, for their freedom.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. Seven of the nine justices agreed that Dred Scott should remain a slave, but Taney did not stop there. He also ruled that as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. In addition, he declared that Scott had never been free, due to the fact that slaves were personal property; thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and the Federal Government had no right to prohibit slavery in the new territories. The court appeared to be sanctioning slavery under the terms of the Constitution itself, and saying that slavery could not be outlawed or restricted within the United States.

The American public reacted very strongly to the Dred Scott Decision. Antislavery groups feared that slavery would spread unchecked. The new Republican Party, founded in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, renewed their fight to gain control of Congress and the courts. Their well-planned political campaign of 1860, coupled with divisive issues that split the Democratic Party, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States and South Carolina's secession from the Union.

On March 21, 1861, newly elected Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander H. Stephens gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia in which he stated: "[T]he new [Confederate] Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions - African slavery as it exists among us - the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. .... Those ideas [of the United States Constitution], however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it - when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell." Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

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Page last modified: 03-12-2017 19:13:17 ZULU