Proslavery v. Free Labor Ideologies: A Hardening of Views


I. Question of motivation: Why did people go to war?

  • Why did whites in the North and South come to feel strongly enough about the role of slavery in the nation’s future development to take up arms?
    • Most white Northerners had no interest in eradicating slavery
    • Most white Southerners did not own slaves
    • Yet the Civil War was a war fought primarily by volunteers, not conscripts
      • About 80% on both sides
  • To understand why people fought, we must look beyond the question of self-interest, narrowly defined
  • Must focus on the dominant ideologies that took root in the two regions in the 30-40 years preceding the war
    • North: What Eric Foner called “Free Labor Ideology”
    • South: Defense of slavery as a positive good

II. Racism in the North

  • Pervasive racism that was getting worse
    • New “scientific” racism emerged beginning in the 1820s
    • Effects of industrialization and immigration fueled anti-black hostility
      • Decline in white working men’s status; economic competition
        • But racism shared by men and women of all classes
    • Reflected in revisions to state constitutions and new anti-black laws
      • Many Northern states that had allowed black male property-owners to vote and sit on juries disenfranchised blacks in the 1820s and 1830s
      • Increased segregation
      • Some new states actually prohibit backs from entering

III. Hostility toward abolitionists in the North

  • Abolitionists widely viewed as fanatics
  • Probably less than 10% of Northerners were sympathetic toward their cause
  • Violent anti-abolitionist mobs often attacked meetings
  • William Lloyd Garrison nearly lynched
  • Elijah Lovejoy, abolitionist printer murdered — a martyr to the cause
  • Even those hostile to slavery believe the Constitution protects it; can only prevent its expansion (Lincoln)

IV. Slave-ownership and support for secession in the South

  • Only around 1/3 of households held slaves
    • Much more honest way of putting it than saying that 6% of individuals owned slaves (a misleading stat often cited)
  • Slaveholders and those from slaveholding families were somewhat overrepresented in the army
    • Still, majority who fought did not own slaves
  • Certainly areas of the South where Union sentiment was strong, but it was not as pervasive as Lincoln and others had hoped
    • Not accurate to say it’s case of the people being dragged into the war by elite

V. What connected yeoman farmers to planters?

  • Economic dependency
  • “Borrowed” slaves; brought cotton to big plantations to be ginned; etc.
  • Economic interest
    • They also wanted free trade, a low tariff
  • Democratic politics — all white men participated
  • Culture
    • Attended the same churches, etc
  • Ambitions
    • Highest social status in the South is owning slaves; many wanted to become planters themselves
  • Fear of slave uprisings

VI. Fear of slave rebellion

  • Increasing fear of slave revolts
    • Nat Turner’s Rebellion in VA (1831)
      • Largest slave revolt in US; led by a literate lay preacher
      • Turner acknowledged his master had been kind to him
        • Reveals slaves’ desire for freedom and the fact that only force kept slavery in place
    • Frightening not only to slave owners, but to all whites who feared black vengeance and social disorder
    • Results in strengthening of slave codes
      • More restrictions on slave movement, owning weapons, congregating, etc.
      • Militarization of the South
        • All white men in the community called upon to participate

 VII. Reaction to abolitionism — retrenchment mentality

  • 1831 also marks the rise of a new, more radical anti-slavery movement
  • Abolitionism — not the same as anti-slavery
  • William Lloyd Garrison
    • Publisher of The Liberator
    • Advocates immediate emancipation without compensation to owners; denounces colonization schemes; allows women to play a large role
    • Movement floods the South with abolitionist literature
      • South protests US Post Office being used for this purpose
        • Effectively suppression its distribution
    • Gag rule
      • Succeeds in preventing Congress from considering anti-slavery petitions between 1836-44

VIII. Sen. John C. Calhoun (South Carolina)

  • Slavery as “a positive good speech” (1837)
    • Predicts “abolition and Union cannot coexist” (1837)
    • “We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions.”
    • Besides, he says, slavery is good
      • Has uplifted blacks, without leading to the degeneration of whites
      • Rooted in racial difference decreed by nature: “Two races of different origin”
      • In all societies, one portion of the community lives on the labor of another
    •  John C. Calhoun is interesting because his trajectory mirrors that of the nation — reveals the growing polarization between the sections
      • He started out as a nationalist; believed in strong central government; supported protective tariffs
      • Gradually came to understand that the South’s interests were radically different from the North’s; became obsessed with growing population difference between the regions
      • Switches to support states’ rights and free trade
      • Develops a doctrine of nullification
        • States can reject federal laws against their interests
        • 1832: SC issues its Ordinance of Nullification
          • SC ultimately backs down; new tariff law drawn up
        • Calhoun privately acknowledges the real issue is slavery

IX. Free Labor Ideology

  • Republican definition of the nation’s character
  • Republican definition of “labor”
    • More all-encompassing than our own
    • Belief in no fixed classes; in the possibility for social advancement; and in the goal of economic independence
    • Connected to republicanism
    • Expansion of free labor as solution class/poverty
      • West as safety valve
        • American exceptionalism
        • Problem: Southerner legislators keep blocking proposals for a Homestead Act to give away free land

X. Northern critique of South

  • Southern economy was stagnant
  • Class structure was a fixed hierarchy
  • Society was dominated by an aristocracy of slaveholders
  • In other words, southern society was the very antithesis of what Northerners saw as their own economically fluid, socially mobile, democratic society
  • Come to believe slavery negatively affected all workers

Politician Henry Waldron in 1859: “This slave Democracy tramples [the Constitution] under foot. We have sacred guarantees in that instrument in behalf of free speech, free thought, and a free press, and yet today Democratic postmasters rifle mails and violate the sanctity of private correspondence. Today a system of espionage prevails which would disgrace the despotism and darkness of the middle ages. The newspaper which refuses to recount the blessings and sing the praises of slavery is committed to the flames. The press that refuses to vilify the memory of the fathers is taken by a ruthless mob and engulfed beneath the waters. The personal safety of the traveler depends not on his deeds, but upon his opinions…Where slavery is there can be no free speech, no free thought, no free press, no regard for constitutions, no deference to courts.”

Republican Party Handbill from the Presidential Election of 1856 (reflects ideas of George Fitzhugh, a proponent of slavery whose ideas were actually not representative of the South; nearly all others proslavery spokesmen defended slavery as a racial system):

  • The expansion of slavery is a question not only of FREE SOIL but of FREE MEN. Do you doubt it? Read the words of the highest authorities in the south . . .
  • “Slavery is the natural condition of the laboring man, whether white or black. The great evil of Northern free society is that it is burdened with a servile class of mechanics and laborers unfit for self-government and yet clothed with the attributes and powers of citizens”