Yesterday I promised that I would qualify the anti-slavery movement.
In my very broad overview of slavery in America I mentioned that the North was largely against slavery and the South was largely for it. Well, the white South, that is. But of course things were never quite that black and white, pardon the pun.
I won’t bother myself or you with all the names and acronyms for all the different groups, or even with putting them in chronological order. Over time groups overlapped, merged, fought, split and changed their focus, names and minds so often it’s positively dizzying. My more dauntless readers can find a detailed account here.
This is simply my attempt to briefly organize the different standpoints in a spectrum that ranges from completely unapologetic slavery on one end to immediate abolition and complete equal rights on the other.
So here goes.
Southern plantation owners had the most to lose if slavery was abolished, so naturally most of them were for slavery with no interference. Abolitionists had to be very careful when traveling in the South. There were also militant pro-slavery groups in the North who attacked abolitionists and sabotaged their efforts in various violent ways.
It was convenient for slaveholders to believe that slavery was the black man’s natural state, and that they were actually doing disobedient slaves a favor when they whipped them back into submission. This logic was taken to some bizarre extremes.
The logic of viewing people as property was evident in the severe punishments for running away. When a slave ran away, it was considered theft of valuable property; he was actually stealing himself from his master.
A long (1791-1804) and bloody slave rebellion took place in Saint Domingue which led to abolition of slavery there and the founding of Haiti. This scared lots of Americans to death.
Plenty of Southerners worried that the American slaves would sooner or later revolt en masse and kill all the whites they could lay their hands on or that freed slaves would turn around en masse and kill all the whites they could lay their hands on. If anything, it made slaveholders even more brutal. It was also why slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write; it would make organizing them easier.
Many Northerners also worried that the slaves in the South would revolt and kill all the whites or kill all the whites the moment they were freed, and that they would then found their own country in the South like the Haitians did, thus weakening a suddenly much smaller United States.
A movement to free slaves and
send them to Africa got underway at some point. Liberia was founded for this purpose. However, many abolitionists saw this as a ruse by pro-slavery folks to get rid of the rabble rousers so they could keep slavery going.
Then you had the compromisers: let the South keep their slaves but have the newer territories in the West be free of slavery.
Gradual abolitionists wanted to abolish slavery, but they wanted to do it … well … gradually. Many of these folks were worried that immediate mass abolition of slavery would result in chaos since most slaves were illiterate and had very few skills that could be applied outside the plantations.
A few anti-slavery groups included women, some of whom began to realize that they could fight for women’s rights while they were at it, which was seen by others as a distraction that would only delay the abolition of slavery.
There were the abolitionists who were against violence in any form who believed they could persuade the Southern slaveholders via legislation and the churches and by inundating the South with abolitionist pamphlets.
Others just wanted immediate abolition of slavery. No ifs, ands or buts, no excuses, no procrastinating. They felt that slavery was illegal and should stop now, pure and simple.
Churches were beginning to (re)focus very strongly on moral obligations and they believed that slavery was an abomination, claiming that it should be abolished or the country would feel God’s wrath.
Some of above-mentioned moralists arrived at the conclusion that both church and state were too corrupt to even try to deal with, while others felt that these were exactly the institutions that could change things if only moral abolitionists were voted into political office and appointed in the churches.
Militant abolitionists organized revolts, with pretty limited success as far as actually freeing large numbers of slaves was concerned, but their actions did get attention across the spectrum: increased sympathy on the one end and increased fear of blacks on the other.
All of these groups included varying numbers of free blacks. Yes, all of them, because there were black slaveholders in the South, something many white Southerners are still very quick to point out, even though black slaveholders were a small minority. By 1860 there were roughly four million slaves. In 1830 about twelve thousand were owned by free people of color (I didn’t find any data about black slaveholders for 1860 or thereabouts). It’s not clear how many black slaveholders only acquired relatives as slaves in order to protect them from real slavery.
Sort of separate from this spectrum were the poor whites in both the North and the South. Most weren’t educated or informed enough to care; they were too busy keeping their own heads above water. Let’s not forget that the plantation owners were at the top of the economic ladder in the South. Poor white Southerners didn’t have slaves. Lots of folks simply didn’t have a dog in this fight.
Ironically, these poor men on both sides were the ones doing most of the dying in the Civil War. Both sides had a draft but in the South slave owners were exempt and in the North wealthy men could pay $300 to have someone else fight in their place.
Workers’ unions were being formed around this time, and they also disagreed on the subject of slavery. Some felt that sudden mass freedom of slaves would swamp the job market with labor so cheap that whites couldn’t compete; others felt that keeping blacks in slavery kept the whole working class down.
Finally, let me point out that being anti-slavery at the time did not mean not being racist to modern standards. For the vast majority of whites it was still a pretty big leap from disapproving of slavery to viewing people with different a skin color as completely equal on all levels. Even 140 years after abolition, that’s still a work in progress.
The next post in this series is about the Reconstruction Era, and blacks’ brief taste of freedom.