Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Slavery: 'the peculiar institution'

Eyre Crowe, Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia in
Illustrated London News, 1856

The paradox

Thomas Jefferson
The great paradox of the newly independent United States was that many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners. Slaves comprised 40 per cent of the population of Virginia, and Jefferson owned about two hundred slaves on his estate in Monticello. It is a near certainty that he was the father of the children of his  slave, Sally Hemmings. New archaeological discoveries are opening up more information about her living quarters.

Jefferson was acutely aware of the incongruity of his position and he looked forward to a time when slavery could be abolished.  However, he was convinced that black people were inferior to whites, and he believed that their lack of intelligence and dark skin rendered them better able than whites to work in the heat of the South. It is not surprising, therefore, that his vision of republican liberty was not realised - it was too full of inconsistencies. In the following generations many of his fellow-southerners came to see slavery not as a necessary evil but as a positive good – so much so that they were prepared to fight a war to preserve what they called their ‘peculiar institution’.

The establishment of slavery

The first Africans arrived in North America in August 1619, when a Dutch trading vessel blown off course landed at Jamestown and sold twenty Africans as indentured labour. These were not slaves, but during the seventeenth century the colonists began to develop laws that established slavery. In 1800 one inhabitant in five was a slave.  By 1860 4.4 million African Americans lived in the United States, nearly 90 per cent of them slaves.  But against these numbers there were nearly 27 million free whites. 

Slavery and the South

In the twenty years following the Revolution, Northerners abandoned slavery. As early as 1784 Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had either outlawed slavery or passed laws for its gradual extinction. The last northern state to abolish slavery was New Jersey in 1804. Slavery, therefore, came to be particularly associated with the South. 

The Mason-Dixon Line: The South had originally been defined by the Mason-Dixon line, drawn in 1767 by two British astronomers, Charles Mason and Jeremy Dixon, who had been commissioned to settle a border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. See this BBC site for a fascinating history of the two creators of the line. This is one of the possible derivations of ‘Dixie’, the common name for the South.

The original Mason-Dixon line had been only twenty-three miles, but it had come to mean the separation between all the states above and below the 39th parallel. Thanks to slavery it now represented a cultural frontier as well.

Cotton: The economy of the South was based on slavery. The dramatic rise in the global demand for cotton caused by the textile industries of England and New England expanded southern markets. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the
the cotton ginwhich permitted the separation of seed from fibre.  In 1808 the United States ended the slave trade.  This made slaves more economically valuable to their masters as they could not be so easily replaced. In the 1830s a male field hand could fetch £500. By the 1850s his market value had almost quadrupled. By the eve of the Civil War the internal slave market sold approximately 80,000 slaves and was worth some $60 million.  

The 'Second Middle Passage': Because slaves could no longer be imported, they were moved to the parts of the United States where their labour was most valuable. One million people were moved from the Upper South (Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky) to the Deep South and the West for the purpose of producing tobacco, sugar, rice, and, above all, cotton. They were frequently separated from their families and sent south either by steamboat or in coffles accompanied by armed guards along routes such as the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. The slaves described this removal as being sold ‘down the river’ –the Mississippi. As a result Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina saw massive increases in their slave population. The expansion of slavery into he Lower South embedded the system into American society. It was impossible to believe now that it would die naturally. By 1860 the black population of the South had risen to 4, 204, 000. 

Auction house, Atlanta, GA

Class divisions: The South has always been associated with the planter class, yet this was only a small part of the population of the slave states. The total white population of these states in 1860 was 8,098,000. 385,000 were slaveholders, of whom only 46,000 owned more than twenty slaves.  The South was therefore an area of sharp class divisions. The only consolation for many of the poor whites was the belief that they were superior to the blacks. They were therefore among the strongest supporters of slavery.

Living conditions

With the ending of the slave trade, the living conditions of the slaves might have improved slightly, but their lives remained grim. They worked long hours, they had to accept poor clothing, and they lived in leaky and unhealthy accommodation. The slave diet was chiefly maize and bacon or pork.

Violence was inherent in the system and many cruel punishments were meted out to slaves. 

A slave with an iron muzzle
The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages,
Mandeville Special Collections Library,
University of California, San Diego

Masters or overseers who whipped their slaves to death usually escaped punishment.  In 1829 Thomas Ruffin, the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and a slave-owner, upheld the actions of a white man who shot an enslaved woman: 
‘The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.’ 

Perhaps the worst aspect of slavery was that husbands could be sold away from their wives and children from their mothers. Marriage was not legally recognised. Even when the master consented to a union, the words ‘till death us to part’ were left out of the marriage service. Slave women belonged to their masters, and ‘yellow’ children were a part of many slave plantations.The former slave William Wells Brown described how one woman threw herself into the Mississippi in despair because she had been taken from her husband and children. 

Brown was one of a number of slave autobiographers. The most famous of these, the abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglass (c.1818-95) described his early life:
‘The opinion was ... whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing.... My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant.... It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age…I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. ... She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.’

Most southern states enacted laws to prohibit teaching enslaved people to read or write. They feared literacy because they saw it as connected to unrest. The North Carolina legislation decreed that teaching slaves to read and write 
‘has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of the state’.  
Legislatures authorised law enforcement officers to break down doors and imprison, whip or fine black people who were learning to read or write, as well as any who taught them. However, some slaves, like Frederick Douglass, braved the risk of punishment and learned to read.  It was through reading a newspaper that he learned for the first time of an abolitionist movement in the North.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
the escaped slave who then
returned to Maryland
to rescue her family

Slave culture

The slaves developed their own culture, some parts of it brought from Africa, others influenced by the Bible, which was understood as a text about liberation. Slaves held secret services in the woods at night or in cabins far from the owner’s house. They composed spirituals such as ‘Go Down Moses’. In their cabins they formed family units even though there was no legally recognised marriage.  Frederick Douglass was raised, not by his mother, who was a slave on a different plantation, but by his grandparents, his aunt and several young cousins.  Such relationships helped make life bearable for the slaves and made them less prone to run away. But this made the grief of being sold away from a family even harder to bear. 

When the Virginia Congressman, John Randolph of Roanokewas asked who was the greatest orator he had ever heard, he replied, 
‘A slave, sir. She was a mother and her rostrum was the auction block.’

Nat Turner’s revolt

The most deadly slave rebellion took place in Virginia on 22 August 1831 when a literate preacher named Nat Turner led an uprising. He and his fellow rebels planned to kill all white people in their path and to capture Jerusalem the county seat of Southampton County. By midday they had killed fifty-five people in eleven homes. Whites in the county formed a militia of some 3,000 armed men to pursue them.  During his flight Turner wrote an autobiography, The Confessions of Nat Turnerwhich was edited by Thomas R. Gray and published in Baltimore. Turner was captured in August and hanged on 11 November.  In the aftermath of the rebellion, the Virginia House of Delegates debated ending slavery but turned this down, and instead passed a law restricting preaching by black people. All meetings of free Negroes for teaching reading and writing were classified as 'unlawful assembly', to be published with up to twenty lashes.

The abolitionist movement

In 1831, the year of the Turner revolt, anti-slavery emerged as a clear movement in the North when William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79) founded his journal, The Liberator, in Boston. Its first edition called for the complete and immediate abolition of all the nation's slaves. Its first edition called for complete and immediate emancipation of all the nation’s slaves. His opening editorial stated: 

‘I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch.’ 
First edition of The Liberator
In the following year he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and for the next thirty years slavery was the major issue in American politics. 

Though women were excluded from the executive committee of the Anti-Slavery Society, they were prominent in the movement from the start. Lucretia Mott formed the Female Anti-Slavery Society to do the same work as the male group. The abolitionists included the sisters, Angelina Grimké (1805-79), and Sarah Moore Grimké, who fled their house in Charleston out of horror of slavery and spoke in public to packed, often hostile audiences. One of the chief male speakers was Wendell Phillips (1811-84), the most brilliant orator of the age. In 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention met in London, attended by American abolitionists.

The abolitionists met with fierce hostility and often violence. The great spokesman for slavery was the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun who was Secretary of War 1817-25 and Vice-President 1825-29. 

John C. Calhoun
champion of slavery

Calhoun was also a strong supporter of states rights. In 1830 President Jackson had proposed a toast at a dinner: 
‘Our Union, it must be preserved.’ 
Calhoun replied: 
‘The Union, next to our liberty the most dear’. 


  1. The issue of slavery was thus bound up with the issue of the rights of the individual states to run their own affairs as they chose.
  2. Calhoun and his followers argued that unless the abolitionists were silenced, it might be necessary, in the defence of its traditions, for the South to secede from the Union.
  3. As new states came into the Union, the gap between the North and the South could only grow wider.

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