Myths & Misunderstandings

Myths & Misunderstandings: The North and Slavery

Myths and Misunderstandings

Earlier this summer, comments on one of our Facebook posts sparked a larger conversation about recurring debates about the Civil War. We asked our visitors, social media audiences, and staff to generate a list of the questions or topics about the Civil War that they think are the most misunderstood. In providing answers to these, our goal is to do the research for you, consulting with primary sources, leading historians, and the latest scholarship, and distill it into something you can read quickly over a cup of coffee.

“The North did not benefit from slavery. It’s a Southern thing.”

Slavery developed hand-in-hand with the founding of the United States, weaving into the commercial, legal, political, and social fabric of the new nation and thus shaping the way of life of both the North and the South. American attitudes to slavery were complex with much disagreement; however, before emancipation, many northerners felt guilty about slavery and white southerners expected federal protection of the “peculiar institution.” These feelings, which directly influenced many people’s choices leading to secession and Civil War in 1860-1, can only be understood by seeing slavery as a national institution.

There was neither a North nor a South during colonial America when the colonies treated their relationship with Britain as much more important than with each other. Nevertheless, while slavery was legal and present throughout the colonies, it evolved in very different ways. While enslaved people were employed chiefly as household servants further north, in what would become the southern states, plantation slavery developed differently in each colony, determined by the particular staple crop colonists chose to cultivate. Above all, before independence, the imperial system of the triangular trade—the commercial movement of products between the British Isles and Africa, the Caribbean colonies, and the American colonies—relied both on products produced by the labor of enslaved people and the Atlantic Slave Trade. For northern trading hubs like New York (14% enslaved in 1750) and Rhode Island, the institution of slavery directly influenced their economies and the wealth and power of many of their leading residents.

While the United States separated itself from the imperial system by declaring independence in 1776, slavery remained a national institution. Debates over the Constitution were conducted not on sectional lines but between federalists and anti-federalists within the two largest states, Virginia and New York.  Fear of Virginian dominance was as much an issue for people in the Carolinas and Georgia as it was for people north of the Potomac. The Constitution itself reflected a profound ambiguity that supported slavery indirectly, it neither explicitly guaranteed the institution of slavery’s protection nor abolished it. Gradually, slavery did become sectional in a legal sense with northern states abolishing it over time, starting with Vermont in 1777 and Massachusetts in 1781. Yet these dates can be misleading because emancipation did not necessarily mean immediate freedom for formerly enslaved people. States passed legislation that effectively protracted the process of emancipation by means of apprenticeships. For example, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation Act that freed enslaved children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults. As a result of such legislation, slavery lingered up to twenty-five years after it had been formally abolished in some states. For example, in New Jersey there were still eighteen enslaved people in 1860, although officially termed “apprentices for life.”

In the meantime, southerners remained confident nationalists and governed within the same national institutions and voted for the same various national political parties as northerners. Until the Civil War, it was southerners who championed federal institutions, military establishments, an aggressive foreign policy, and expected the federal government to support slavery, especially with the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Finally in 1860, southern politicians demanded a constitutional amendment mandating federal protection of slavery in the western Territories—in their view, the necessary concession from Abraham Lincoln’s incoming Republican Administration if it wished to avoid state secession.

Northerners as different as Harriett Beecher Stowe and William Henry Seward regarded slavery as a national sin rather than a southern fault. For Republican politicians in the late 1850s, the fear that slaveholders stood ready to take over the nation was real. Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech in 1858 argued how “the United States must, sooner or later, become either an entirely slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.” The passage of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 provoked Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. In the novel, she blamed each section equally for slavery, and it was no accident that the cruelest figure, Simon Legree, was northern born. Stowe’s fictional portrayal of northerners heading south to become slaveholders was realistic. Some prominent proslavery southern politicians, such as William L. Yancey of Alabama and John Slidell of Louisiana, were either raised in the North or northerners by birth.

The journeys of Yancey and Slidell show how hard it is to divide the United States simply into North and South, slave and free. By the 1850s, slavery had become important to the whole U.S. economy. An entirely new form of the institution developed in the Mississippi Valley and Texas as the widespread adoption of the Cotton Gin during the 1830s enabled slavery’s rapid expansion within the growing republic. These transformations reflected how slavery was integrated not only into the national economy of the United States, but also with the global economy being powered by the new industrial revolution. While the value of slaves increased and the $3bn total by 1860 exceeded by a wide margin the value of all the manufacturing goods of the North ($1.73bn), the interconnectedness of the northern and southern economies meant that the price of one depended on the value of the other.

The interdependency between North and South was more than the direct connection between mass production of cheap cotton in the South, picked by enslaved people, and the success of northern textile mills.  Recently, historians of American capitalism argued that slavery was even more tightly connected with the modernizing national and global economy. Above all that the U.S. domestic slave trade, worth perhaps $440m in total and moving more enslaved people (about 750,000) since 1790 than the middle passage of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was crucial in the westward movement of investment together with the development of new financial products including securities, bonds, and mortgages. These historians have revealed how deeply committed many nineteenth century banks, especially in New York, were to the continued expansion of slavery.

Looking at the institution of slavery as “just a southern thing” obscures the conscious interdependency connected by slavery between people’s wealth and power in the North and South. Yet, slavery remained very different for the South compared with the North. For the South, slavery was never solely an economic system, but also provided the racial underpinning of southern social structures when, in 1860, 95% of African Americans lived in the South.  This distinction reinforced a perception of difference believed by citizens of one section about the other, despite the many historical, cultural, and economic links of slavery between North and South.