In the United States slavery is understandably associated with the South since it was the Southern states that so vigorously defended the practice during the nineteenth century. However, to understand how slavery first took hold in the South, historians look much farther back in time, to ancient Greece and Rome and the civilizations that preceded them. In many of these societies, it was common practice to enslave peoples who had been defeated in war. Even through the Middle Ages, Moors and Christians enslaved each other and justified it on religious grounds. Difficult as it is for us to understand today, slavery was a simple fact of life throughout much of human history.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this unquestioning acceptance of slavery combined with two other factors— Europeans’ belief in the inferiority of other races and cultures, and European settlement of the New World—to give rise to the Atlantic slave trade. According to historian James L. Stokesbury,
When Europeans first made their way down the coast of Africa towards the east, and discovered the New World to the west, they still believed in slavery as an institution. Some men were free, some were slaves; God had made it that way. When the Spanish therefore enslaved the Indians, it was not to them a reprehensible act; the Church put limitations on what could be done, and attempted to prevent abuses in a social situation that was not itself regarded as an abuse. The first Negro slaves were actually imported for humanitarian reasons. Bishop Las Casas in the West Indies realized that the Indians made poor slaves and soon died off, so he recommended they be replaced by Negroes, who seemed more adaptable. His suggestion was taken up with such alacrity that he was soon appalled by it. . . . Within the first generation of settlement of the New World, the slave trade was a going thing, and there was no stopping it.
In the early seventeenth century, the British colonists in North America joined the Spanish in importing African slaves to the New World. The slave trade eventually became more profitable in the New World than in Europe, in part because Europe already had a large supply of indigenous white labor. Historian David Brion Davis notes that “in the 320 years from 1500 to 1820, every European immigrant who arrived in the New World was matched by at least two African slaves.” Economic realities further made slavery more important to the southern colonies of North America since they grew crops that required more hand cultivation and cheap labor.
At the time of the American Revolution, the split between North and South over the issue of slavery was apparent but not great enough to prevent the states from uniting as one nation. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 forged a compromise on the issue of slavery: Among other constitutional provisions, a slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. The Constitution’s ambiguous position on slavery became a topic of considerable controversy during the nineteenth century, and modern historians still hold different views on the compromise the founding fathers forged. In 1975 historian John Hope Franklin charged that,
having created a tragically flawed revolutionary doctrine and a Constitution that did not bestow the blessings of liberty on its posterity, the Founding Fathers set the stage for every succeeding generation to apologize, compromise, and temporize on the principles of liberty that were supposed to be the very foundation of our system of government and way of life.
Other historians contend that it would have been politically impossible for the framers of the Constitution both to make an unequivocal stand against slavery and unite the states into one nation, and so they chose the latter option. As University of Chicago professor Herbert J. Storing writes,
The Founders did acknowledge slavery; they compromised with it. The effect was in the short run probably to strengthen it. . . . [But] in their accommodation to slavery, the Founders limited and confined it, and carefully withheld any indication of moral approval, while they built a Union that they thought was the greatest instrument of human liberty ever made, that they thought would and indeed did lead to the extinction of Negro slavery.
Whatever the founding fathers’ intentions, the compromise they forged staved off a national debate for only a few more decades. Meanwhile, economic realities continued to shape the slavery debate. With the beginning of the American industrial revolution in 1790, the Northern states’ economies became more rooted in industry and commerce, making them less dependent on slave labor. By 1804 all of the Northern states had implemented plans to abolish slavery. But in the South the invention of laborsaving devices such as the water frame and the cotton gin made the plantation system more profitable and increased the demand for slaves.
There was a flurry of controversy in 1819, when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. But the problem was solved with the Missouri Compromise, through which Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state. The issue of slavery was still largely a political rather than a moral one. According to slavery historian James Brewer Stewart, “Few Americans in the 1820s openly objected to slavery.” But, he explains,
on a much deeper level, a complex set of forces was at work during the 1820s which soon led, among white New Englanders, to an abolitionist movement of unparalleled scope and intensity. Inspired by Christian egalitarianism and a profound sense of personal guilt, young men and women were soon to take up the immense task of convincing their countrymen that slavery was a terrible sin, and that race prejudice was at war with the teachings of Jesus.
While antislavery societies had existed before the 1820s, during this decade the abolitionist movement began to take on a more vocal, fervent, and confrontational character.
Many historians recognize 1831 as the year that the national debate over slavery entered its most contentious phase. It was in this year that lay preacher and former slave Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, that killed approximately sixty whites. The Southampton revolt was quickly put down, and more than one hundred blacks were hanged for it, but the rebellion profoundly affected the South. It raised fears throughout the South that a larger general slave uprising was imminent. Many Southerners blamed Northern abolitionists for encouraging slave rebellion, but abolitionists noted that the uprising belied slaveholders’ traditional claim that blacks were happy and content in bondage.
In the same year, radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison broke with moderate abolitionists and began denouncing slavery as a national sin in his publication the Liberator. In the newspaper’s opening manifesto Garrison proclaimed, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. . . . On this subject [abolition] I do not wish to think or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.” According to Garrison biographer Henry Mayer,
No editor has ever produced a newspaper of agitation for longer than Garrison sustained The Liberator, which appeared weekly without interruption for thirty-five years and did not cease publication until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. . . . With ferocious determination, Garrison broke the silence and made the public listen in a way his predecessors had not. . . . He made the moral issue of slavery so palpable it could not be evaded.
Initially, Garrison’s fellow Bostonians disliked his provocative stance almost as much as Southerners did. In October 1835 Garrison narrowly escaped a proslavery mob intent on lynching him. Slowly but surely, however, abolitionist sentiment grew. “By the 1850s,” writes historian Robert Elliott MacDougall, “new mobs were forming in the city, this time to protest the capture of runaway slaves.”
Southerners defended their “peculiar institution” just as vehemently as the radical abolitionists condemned it. Some, such as Virginia reverend Thornton Stringfellow, cited biblical passages to justify slavery in order to refute the religious arguments of the abolitionists. “In Genesis xvii,” Stringfellow wrote, “we are informed of a covenant God entered into with Abraham. . . . He expressly stipulates, that Abraham shall put the token of this covenant upon every servant born in his house, and upon every servant bought with his money.” Furthermore, according to Stringfellow, “Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command.”
Other defenders of slavery used more secular reasoning to argue that slavery was a positive social good. South Carolina statesman James Henry Hammond, in his famous 1858 “Mud-Sill” speech, claimed that white racial superiority justified slavery:
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill [foundation] of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.
In 1854 proslavery writer George Fitzhugh claimed that slaves were treated better in the South than were white workers in Northern factories: “There is no rivalry, no competition to get employment among slaves, as among free laborers. . . . The slaves are well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy.”
Throughout the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, abolitionists and slavery’s defenders each refined and reiterated their arguments. North and South became increasingly alienated and, as the radical abolitionists had envisioned, less willing to compromise over the issue of slavery. Finally, when antislavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, Southern secession and the Civil War followed. America’s long debate over slavery was finally settled by violence and bloodshed.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865; each generation since then has had to grapple with the legacy of slavery, which includes racism, economic inequality between blacks and whites, and sectional tension between North and South. Moreover, America’s history as a slaveholding nation continues to challenge the ideals that most Americans have about themselves and their nation. As David Brion Davis explains,
It was African slaves and their descendants who furnished the basic labor power that created dynamic New World economies and the first international mass markets for such consumer goods as sugar, rice, tobacco, dyestuffs, and cotton. Yet, from the outset, the New World was seen by many, like the biblical Promised Land, as a space for new beginnings, for possibilities that would break free from the coercive bondage of the past. Paradoxically, the debasement of millions of workers . . . appeared to liberate other human beings to take control of their destiny. . . . This profound contradiction lay close to the core of the self-presentation of the new United States, which was “conceived in liberty” but based on slave labor, dedicated to certain “propositions” or principles, such as “all men are created equal,” but no less committed to compromises that protected the autonomy and political power of men who owned human property.
The failure of the founding fathers to recognize slavery as antithetical to their ideals; the economics of Southern agriculture; the threat of slave rebellion; the zeal of abolitionists; the determination of slaveholders to defend their way of life; the compromises between North and South; and ultimately the reality of secession and war—the issue of slavery encompasses all of these topics and more. The selections in Opposing Viewpoints in World History: Slavery explore these issues, offering a variety of perspectives from slaves, slaveholders, abolitionists, and modern scholars.