America in 1815: Slavery

Execrable Slave Trade. By: George Morland.

By 1815, America was already split between those states that were taking steps to eliminate slavery and those states who were fortifying their support of slavery. As the Founding Fathers had predicted, a chasm was beginning to open in the United States.

Some states, like New York, had taken steps to eliminate slavery. New York adopted gradual emancipation, “decreeing that slaves born after the Fourth of July 1799 should become free at age twenty-eight (for males) or twenty-five (for females). Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America 1815-1848, 51. Then, in 1817, New York’s legislature “decreed that on July 4, 1827, all remaining slaves, whenever born, should become free.” Id. citing Jim Crow New York, ed. David Gellman and David Quigley (New York, 2003), 52-55, 67-72.

One may wonder, given the brutal nature of slavery, how it was able to last well into the 1800s. The short answer is that it was profitable, particularly after 1815, when short-staple cotton became highly sought after. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America 1815-1848, 56. The value of a slave rose, creating a market for slave trading, displacing other forms of investment. Id. From 1790-1860, “some 3 million slaves changed ownership by sale, many of them several times.” Id. citing Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade (Oxford, 2005), 4-7.

Slavery created a wealthy upper class of slaveholders, who became “the great consumers of the American economy,” given their “big houses, their lavish hospitality, their horse races, and hordes of domestic servants.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America 1815-1848, 60 quoting Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 59. More than that, the slaveholders had become “the most politically powerful social group in the United States.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America 1815-1848, 61.

While much of this was due to the three-fifths rule, which counted every five slaves as three free individuals, for purposes of representation in the United States House of Representatives, there was also an undeniable truth: slaveholders had held the presidency of the United States for 22 of the previous 26 years. Id. While some in 1815 may have doubted slavery and its prolonged existence, slaveholders would continue to dominate the presidency for all but eight of the following 34 years. Id.see also Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006).

These circumstances surrounding slavery reinforced the notion that while America was an example of what liberty could achieve, “the experiment had not yet unfolded very far.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America 1815-1848, 61.

At this time, Americans had numerous reasons to be optimistic, as they were inheriting a government and a society that the Founding Fathers had worked so hard to achieve. On the other hand, slavery was a significant issue and one that must have been dealt with to bring the union of states closer.

Slavery’s success in early America, up to 1815, was predicated on people tolerating it, allowing it, and even preserving it. As modern Americans know in retrospect, those actions would have massive reverberations in American history, costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

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