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The Future of the Peculiar Institution

It happened that the division between slave and free states was sufficiently even, so that for some years the balance could be deliberately preserved by the admission of an equal number of fiee and slave states from the Western territories. So long as slavery was not regarded too seriously little friction arose in carrying out this policy. But in 1820, in connection with the admission of the state of Missouri, it was proposed that throughout the whole of the territory west of the Mississippi (the Louisiana territory acquired in 1803 from France) slavery should forever be prohibited north of the line of 36 30' north latitude.

This would have excluded slavery from the proposed new state of Missouri, and as the Northern free state of Illinois had been admitted in 1819, and the Northern territory of Maine was petitioning for admission, this would make three new free states without any new slave state, and so give to the North a great advantage in the federal Senate. The question aroused wide-spread discussion, and was at last settled by the "Missouri Compromise," which established the dividing line at 36 30', but provided that Missouri should be allowed to come in as a slave state.

The "Missouri Compromise" was accepted as a permanent settlement, and for some years the slavery question was in abeyance. But the aged Jefferson, noting the sudden flaring up of angry controversy, likened the episode to a "fire-bell in the night." It was indeed the first clear warning of the corning danger.

The economic dilemma which slavery created was the same as that which is created by any system of slavery, including wage slavery - it was profitable to the individual slave-owner, but disastrous to the community. Hence the ruling class in the South, a relatively small part of the population, held on desperately to the institution which with every decade became a heavier handicap upon the Southern States in the competition with the North for economic and political power. It was primarily due to slavery that the South remained an agricultural community. Slaves were unsuited to manufactures. Cotton plantations and slaves, constantly increasing in value, absorbed Southern capital, and as manual labor was a disgrace where slavery existed, the poor whites preferred to vegetate on their small farms rather than work for wages, while the steady stream of foreign immigration flowed almost wholly into the North. Both in wealth and in population the free states, therefore, rapidly outstripped the slave states, and such wealth as existed in the South was largely confined to the relatively small class of great planters and slave-owners.

These economic disadvantages were increased by the steady rise in the price of slaves, due in part to the prohibition, after 1808, of the foreign slave trade. Since the price of cotton did not advance in proportion, the continued profit of cotton-raising depended upon cheap land and large-scale production. Cheap land was to be had in the Western territories, but in this respect the South was at a singular disadvantage also, for the division of the Western territory by the "Missouri Compromise" gave to the North the greater part of the Louisiana Purchase, while the population and wealth of the North enabled it to settle and exploit its share much more rapidly than the South could hope to exploit its share. By 1850 it was clear that if slavery were confined to the region south of 36 30', the North, which already overbalanced the South in the federal House of Representatives, must eventually gain a great ascendancy in the Senate also.

This prospect would not have given the South so great concern if it could have been assured that the North would never use its political advantage to discriminate against Southern interests. The South came, therefore, to regard the union with the North as tolerable on the condition that the "peculiar institution," as it was called, should not be molested where it already existed. From the legal and constitutional point of view, the position of the South was a strong one, for the Constitution conferred upon the federal government no power of interfering with slavery in the states.

In a 4th of July (1859) address at Augusta, Georgia, Alexander H. Stephens, who had always been regarded at the North as a moderate and conservative Whig not disposed to make extreme demands, boasted of the great progress already made by the slave power in the sixteen preceding years and advocated the acquisition by purchase or conquest of Cuba, Chihuahua, Sonora, and other Central American countries. Among the gains for slavery he mentioned the annexation of Texas which, he said, could be divided so as to make five slave States; the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the defeat of the Wilmot Proviso, and the decision of the United States Supreme Court which made it possible for Southern men to settle in all the Territories with their slave property and be protected by the Constitution against interference by the Courts or Legislatures; and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, of 1850, which facilitated the reclamation of runaway slaves. He had been asked what were the prospects for the future. He would repeat what he had said in 1850, that there was very little prospect of the South settling any Territory outside of Texas, "unless we increase our African stock. * * * You cannot make States without people; rivers and mountains do not make them and Slave States cannot be made without Africans. Every restriction has been taken off of slavery, a fugitive slave law has been granted. There are more men at the North, today, who believe in the sound and moral condition of slavery than when he went into Congress." [sixteen years before.]

But in spite of legal protection, the South felt that with every decade the safety of the "peculiar institution" was becoming more precarious. This was indeed true. It was true because the slavery question was not one which could be settled by compromise or confined within the limits of legal categories. Slavery was a moral question as well as an economic and constitutional one. It was the moral issue that came to enforce the economic differences between the sections and ultimately made these differences irreconcilable by any half-way measures. As an economic institution the slavery question might have been settled by compromise; as a moral question it could not be settled until the Union was destroyed or until it became all slave or all free.




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Page last modified: 29-11-2017 19:30:22 ZULU