Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What was the debate surrounding abolition vs. equality and how did it lead to the Civil War? Why were there significant fears about the impact of freed slaves in the North? Who had the most to win/lose?

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The debate around slavery versus equality increasingly polarized in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Those in favor of abolition saw slavery as a moral wrong that was completely unjustifiable: it simply was not right for one human to own another and slavery had to end immediately. Those...

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The debate around slavery versus equality increasingly polarized in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Those in favor of abolition saw slavery as a moral wrong that was completely unjustifiable: it simply was not right for one human to own another and slavery had to end immediately. Those in favor of slavery often argued that slaves were "better off" under slavery: they were fed, housed and Christianized. Abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin, argued otherwise, painting a convincing portrait of blacks even in "good" households at the mercy of a cruel system: children as young as four, for example, could be separated from their mothers and sold to settle debts or a "good" owner could die, leaving slaves at the mercy of someone cruel. As opinions hardened and polarized, any conversation or common ground became impossible to establish, leading to war. 

Pro-slavery proponents argued that slavery was economically necessary to the South and that without it the agrarian economy would collapse, leaving blacks and whites alike in a terrible situation. Some also argued that the slaves were not ready for freedom and used racist arguments about alleged inferiority to justify slavery.

Abolitionists countered that it was only social conditions that kept blacks down. However, even abolitionists often could be racist in the sense of not wanting to actually mingle with blacks. Some in the North feared that a huge influx of former slaves would depress wages and put strains on social services, as most blacks were kept illiterate and ignorant by design. This led to movements such as one to return former slaves to Liberia, a plan not much favored by blacks themselves.

As the end of the Civil War demonstrated, the South had the most to lose by the abolition of slavery. Slavery, terribly cruel as it was, was an economic engine bringing wealth to a least a small sliver of the society. When it was abolished, some states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, fell into an economic decline that they never quite recovered from. 

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Abolitionists, or people who supported the emancipation of slaves, were divided into different camps, from radicals or "immediatists" who espoused immediate abolition in the years before the Civil War to "gradualists," who supported the gradual emancipation of the slaves. Some gradualists belonged to the Free Soil party, which only wanted to stop the spread of slavery but did not want its immediate end in the areas where it already existed. The Free Soil adherents believed that slavery would end if its spread were stopped. In addition, some abolitionists supported full social and political equality for former slaves, while other abolitionists did not. These forces were able to join forces in the years before the Civil War. Agreements such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave the people in those territories the right to decide if they wanted slavery or not, made the Free Soil party join forces with more radical abolitionists, as the Free Soil people feared that slavery was spreading.

However, many people in the north feared the abolition of the slaves. Many people who worked in factories in industrial cities such as New York and Boston were members of the Democratic party, not the Republicans (which was then the party of Lincoln). These working people, many of them union members, feared that freed slaves would threaten their livelihoods if freed slaves went north after the Civil War. Working people felt as though they had a great deal to lose. In general, wealthy northerners supported abolitionism, in part because of civic and religious convictions that convinced them that slavery was wrong but also because the freed slaves would not threaten their position or livelihoods. 

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