Conclusion: The State of Slavery before the War

Conclusion: The State of Slavery before the War

Slavery was a form of forced labor supported by many in the South as economically positive, but opposed by many in the North as morally reprehensible.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the general circumstances of slavery before the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Slavery was a form of forced labor that existed as a legal institution in the United States from the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Many proponents of slavery argued that the system protected slaves, their masters, and society as a whole.
  • “Plain Folk of the Old South” were subsistence farmers, commonly referred to as yeomen, who owned land but few or no slaves. Though the Plain Folk did not rely upon slavery as an institution in the same way upper-class planters did, they tended to share in a distinctive Southern political ideology that blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism.
  • A growing demographic of free people of color, whether recently freed or born into freedom, found their civil and political rights routinely restricted based upon the color of their skin.
  • The way in which slaves were treated in the South often depended on their skin color or their relationships to the individuals for whom they worked. In general, however, slaves were treated inhumanely, with whippings, execution, and rape being commonplace.
  • Abolition movements grew in opposition to what was seen by many as an evil institution. Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers who favored gradual abolition as a means of stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists whose demands for unconditional emancipation merged with a concern for African-American civil rights.

Slavery

Slavery was a form of forced labor that existed as a legal institution in the United States from the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century. It was most prevalent in the antebellum South where it was seen as an integral component of the booming agricultural economy, and by extension, central to the health of the U.S. economy overall. Many proponents of slavery argued that the system protected slaves, their masters, and society as a whole.

Apologists and Proslavery Theorists

Henry James Hammond’s “mudsill theory” argued that upper classes required a lower class to rest upon in order to enable the higher classes to move civilization forward. Other “positive good” theorists such as John C. Calhoun believed that slavery was a more stable system than those found in free states, where the full involvement of lower classes in politics and civic society was viewed as chaotic and destabilizing. Still other theorists, in particular William Joseph Harper, argued that slavery was a positive social good rather than a necessary evil.

The Plain Folk

Historians have long debated the impact of the middling class of white farmers (sometimes referred to as the “Plain Folk of the Old South”) on the political/ideological conflict over slavery. The Plain Folk were subsistence farmers, commonly referred to as “yeomen,” who owned land but few or no slaves. Though the Plain Folk did not rely upon slavery as an institution in the same way upper-class planters did, they tended to share in a distinctive Southern political ideology that blended localism, white supremacy, and Jeffersonian ideas of agrarian republicanism. As a result, many supported secession from the Union as a means to defend their families, homes, notions of liberty, and beliefs in racial hierarchy.

Free People of Color

By 1776, approximately eight percent of African Americans were free. By 1810, 4 percent of African Americans in the South and 75 percent in the North were free. This growing demographic of free people of color, whether recently freed or born into freedom, found their civil and political rights routinely restricted based upon the color of their skin. For instance, blackface minstrelsy, which portrayed African Americans in stereotyped, troubling ways, is considered by many to be the first distinctly American theatrical art form. White actors often performed minstrel shows while wearing “blackface,” or exaggerated black makeup. The shows portrayed black men as stupid and lazy and black women as rotund and genial. For several decades, and despite their strong racist overtones, these shows provided the lens through which white Americans viewed black Americans. Nonetheless, many families of free blacks achieved measures of wealth and societal participation, owning property, paying taxes, publishing newspapers, and in some Northern states, voting. Some free blacks chose to work within the institution of slavery: Many were hired by rural governments as police forces tasked with maintaining order among slave populations and chasing runaway slaves. After the Civil War, the distinction between people of color who had always been free and recently freed slaves persisted.

Treatment of Slaves

The way in which slaves were treated in the South often depended on their skin color or their relationships to the individuals for whom they worked. Darker-skinned slaves tended to engage in manual labor in the fields, whereas lighter-skinned slaves tended to work in the house on less labor-intensive jobs. Plantation owners sometimes arranged for the education and skilled training of their mixed-race children. Some mixed-race children also were given their freedom, and even became recipients of transfers of property and social capital. In general, however, slaves were treated inhumanely, with whippings, execution, and rape being commonplace. Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was carried out simply to reassert the dominance of the abuser. The laws in slaveholding states, including slaves codes that were established for the purpose of defining the status of slaves and the rights of their owners, left slaves who were treated unfairly without defense or recourse. Nonetheless, many slaves resisted via peaceful methods, such as through their use of African music, dance, language, religious practices, noncompliance, and familial support. Some resisted by inciting rebellions or plotting escape. The Underground Railroad, formed in the early nineteenth century as a network of abolitionists and sympathizers who provided safe passage to escaping slaves, is one such example of resistance. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the Railroad.

Abolition and Resistance

Abolition movements grew in opposition to what was seen by many as an evil institution. By 1805, most Northern states had abolished slavery, and slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers who favored gradual abolition as a means of stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists whose demands for unconditional emancipation merged with a concern for African-American civil rights. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1780 was the first government in the Western Hemisphere to pass an act to begin the process of abolition. An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery prohibited further importation of slaves into the state, required slaveholders to register their slaves, and provided that all children born in Pennsylvania were free regardless of the condition or race of their parents. Pennsylvania’s act provided a model for other states, but many such gradual emancipation acts failed to change the status of adults enslaved prior to legislation coming into effect.