“It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures
[enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing
them to be men, a suspicion would follow that
we ourselves are not Christians.”
Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, 1748
Speaking in 1848, Senator John C. Calhoun saw slavery as the explicit foundation for a democratic union among whites, working and not: "With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals."
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming as a universal truth that "all men are created equal," negro slavery was a legalized institution throughout the thirteen states. The contrast between the actual fact and the proclaimed truth was flagrant and irreconcilable. Jefferson and his associates were entirely aware of the fact. It was commonly believed at the time that slavery was a moral as well as an economic evil, but the leading men of the day looked forward to the early disappearance of the evil.
Slavery as it existed in America was not a general system such as might be applied equally to all persons standing in like conditions, but was what might be called a personal system, being a relation between the white man and a particular race of people, namely, those of African descent. Jefferson and Washington and many others, although themselves the owners of slaves, were sincerely interested in the movement for gradual emancipation; and they hoped and expected that the institution would not outlast the century of which the dominant spirit was a passionate concern for human freedom. They would have been amazed and disheartened could they have known that within fifty years negro slavery would be the foundation of the economic and social life of the Southern States, that it would threaten the very existence of the federal Union, compromise the future of free government, and end at last in a desperate and sanguinary civil war.
Many looked forward to the time when slavery would die out of its own accord, the theory being that slavery was profitable only in the exploitation of new regions. As soon as the native fertility of the soil was once exhausted and more intensive methods of agriculture were required, slavery would gradually disappear from that region. The gradual recession of slavery from New England and Middle States lent color to this theory.
From being a convenience the slave became a necessity, in a semitropical region, especially as connected with the rice-culture, that was fatal to the white laborer. By the time that the convention of 1787 was held to frame the Constitution of the United States the sentiment as to the status of the slave had changed somewhat. Where he was not a necessity of industry the old humane feeling prevailed, as evidenced in the debates in that convention, but where climatic causes made him a necessity the humane sentiment had been largely displaced by economic ideas. This consequence follows wherever thrift and humanity are combined motives to action, the dominant force remaining invariably in the hands of the former. These two motives, the one derived from the force of humane ideas, and the other from economic promptings, were destined to be arrayed against each other in a prolonged struggle in which the higher principle would ultimately prevail.
The system was even declining in Virginia before the advent of cotton made slave breeding profitable for the southwestern market. After the slave trade officially ended, many slave owners tried to ensure that sufficient numbers of slaves were available to work their plantations. Slave women of childbearing age became more valuable. The extinction of slavery in the New England and Middle States was not so much due to the freeing of the slaves as it was to their transference to regions where they were more profitable.
The theory came up in a different form at the time when the prohibition of slavery in the territories became an issue. The Southern leaders then argued that the extension of slavery into the new regions was necessary to diminish the evil of it in the old slave districts. When the system began to die out, the enormous amount of capital invested in slaves would be a dead loss to the last owners who could not dispose of them to the planters in the newer regions. While there was some truth in the theory that slavery would gradually have become extinct for economic reasons, yet its disappearance from the Middle States should hot mislead us. It was never profitable in that region, while it was decidedly so in the swampy rice and indigo lands of the South. There was every reason to believe that it would have maintained itself there for a long time to come.
By 1820 far-sighted men could see that slavery, whether right or wrong, would prove a serious problem because it threatened to divide the Union into two parts-North and South-with very different economic interests and institutions and with antagonistic moral and social ideas. As these differences became more pronounced, the divergence would perhaps create two nations instead of one, and in that case each group or nation would think that its own interests could not be adequately guaranteed unless it had at least an equal power in the common federal government. And in fact for many years it was the tacit understanding that the equal influence of the two sections should be preserved in that branch of the federal government - the Senate - in which every state had the same number of representatives.
The North and the South had for years held antagonistic views on two vital questions - the tariff and slavery. The North, being largely engaged in manufacturing, desired a high tariff; while the South, whose wealth consisted of cotton, sugar, and slaves, desired free trade. The question as to the boundary of slave territory was supposed to be finally settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but when Kansas and Nebraska were established as Territories the compromise was repealed, and the question as to whether they should be free or slave States was left to tne people of each Territory to decide for themselves. Then the trouble began. Both parties, the proslavery and the antislavery, set to work to get a majority of the votes in their favor, but the settlers from the New England States poured into the new Territory so much more rapidly than those from the Southern States that when Kansas voted on the proposition she decided against slavery by an overwhelming majority.
It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.
The prosperity of the South depended very largely upon the labor which constituted a great part of its wealth, most of which had been imported from Africa in New England ships and sold by New Englanders to people of the South. The Constitution of the United States guaranteed that all the power of the government should be exercised to protect and secure the people in the use and enjoyment of this property, but for more than a third of a century this valued constitutional right had been assailed by a party in the North that had gradually gathered to itself strength and power, one encroachment and violation of law following another.
Probably the great majority of lesser men, North as well as South, regarded slavery as no sin. It was not until a great psychological wave of religious and altruistic enthusiasm swept over the North shortly after the Missouri contest that deprecation of slavery took a concrete form which made its destruction but a question of time. And this would have spread southward but for the simultaneous development of an immense and overpowering interest through the demand for cotton, the invention of the cotton-gin, and the consequent expansion on a gigantic scale of cotton production.
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