The Role of Slavery in Splitting America

The Underground Railroad. By: Charles T. Webber.

Since the outbreak of the Civil War and continuing to the present day, the role of slavery in splitting America has been hotly debated. One may wonder whether there was merely a correlation between slavery and the Civil War or whether slavery was the cause. Investigating the nuances of the issue of slavery reveals that the Civil War resulted from sectionalism and slavery, which were practically synonymous.

To understand the context of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, exploration of race relations is necessary. Broadly speaking, the treatment of blacks throughout America varied, but there was a common thread of brutality and injustice.

In the North, blacks were deprived of many of the rights that white men enjoyed. Disenfranchisement was widespread with blacks being “disenfranchised in all of the free states except the four of upper New England,” as of 1848. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 35. In both the North and South, blacks could not serve on juries until 1860, they were segregated “in separate public schools or excluded from public schools altogether, except in parts of Massachusetts after 1845,” and they were confined to jobs that ensured a low income. See id. Four state legislatures in the North (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Oregon) “adopted laws to prohibit or discourage” blacks from coming into their respective states. Id. citing Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961); Howard C. Perkins, “The Defense of Slavery in the Northern Press on the Eve of the Civil War,” JSH, IX (1943), 501-03.

Even one of the most celebrated movements, the abolitionists, were not inherently friendly toward blacks. Many abolitionists hoped that freeing the slaves would be followed by colonization. For the decades leading up to the mid-1800s, the colonization movement had effectively sought the freedom of blacks by way of effectively deporting them to Africa. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 36. Colonization was not simply a farfetched idea propounded in backrooms or extremist circles. Prominent historical figures, and presidents, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were supporters of colonization, believing that it was the best result for avoiding racial tension. See id. Lincoln even once stated to a black audience: “it is better for us to be separated,” and advocated for emigration of blacks to Africa as a necessity. Id. citing P.J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865 (New York, 1961); Frederic Bancroft, “The Colonization of American Negroes, 1801-1865,” in Jacob E. Cooke, Frederick Bancroft, Historian (Norman, Okla., 1957), 145-258; Brainerd Dyer, “The Persistence of the Idea of Negro Colonization,” Pacific Historical Review, XII (1943), 53-65; see also J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President (4 vols.; New York, 1945-55), II, 137-48; Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York, 1962), 108-23; Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols.; New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), V, 370-75.

An Etching of Cape Palmas, an African Colony Created by the Maryland State Legislature.

Some historians have taken the position that slavery was not the centerpiece of sectionalism but rather an ancillary issue. Those historians look to the so-called “free-soil movement” in support of their argument, as the free-soilers prevented the spread of slavery to new territories that America acquired. The free-soilers did not aim to abolish slavery in the South. Those historians hypothesize that if slavery was central to sectional conflict, those who were antislavery would have lobbied for abolition of slavery in the South, not simply sought to prevent the spread of slavery to new territories. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 36. Some free-soilers fought against the expansion of slavery not to free the slaves or to improve the lives Southern blacks but to preserve the interests of white laborers in the North, who directly competed with the labor interests of the South. See id. at 37. David Wilmot, in 1847, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, made clear that this was his intent in preventing the spread of slavery. Id. citing Congressional Globe, 29 Cong., 2 sess., appendix, 315-17. In 1860, Jefferson Davis, then-Senator from Mississippi and future President of the Confederate States, spoke on the floor of the Senate directly to the free-soil movement:

“What do you propose gentlemen of the Free-Soil party? Do you propose to better the condition of the slave? Not at all. What then do you propose? You say that you are opposed to the expansion of slavery. . . . Is the slave to be benefited by it? Not at all. It is not humanity that influences you . . . it is that you may have an opportunity of cheating us that you want influences you . . . It is that you may have a majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the Government into an engine of Northern aggrandizement . . . you want by an unjust system of legislation to promote the industry of the New England states at the expense of the people of the South and their industry.” Quoted in Charles Austin Beard, Rise of American Civilization, II, 5-6.

The free-soil movement illustrates the complexity and variety of public opinion on the issue of slavery during the 1840s and 1850s. Notably, by this time, all of the “states north of Maryland and Delaware had abolished slavery, either by immediate or by gradual steps.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 39. There was a visible abolitionist movement separate from the free-soilers, and those abolitionists became prominent throughout the 1830s and 1840s, changing public sentiment about the morality of slavery. Id. Through the innovative and persistent efforts of individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf, Frederick Douglass, and even President John Quincy Adams, the antislavery movement became more mainstream by the 1840s than it had ever been. See id. at 40 citing Louis Filler, The Crusade Against Slavery, (New York, 1963). By this time, it was becoming more difficult for ordinary Americans to square slavery with the equality and freedom that so many Americans enjoyed as well as the emerging Christian values, which had become prevalent in many communitiesSee David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 41.

Painting of Frederick Douglass. By: Sarah J. Eddy.

Slavery’s tendency to create sectional friction is due in part to its wide-ranging effects. Slavery touched on the cultural, economic, and value-based aspects of ordinary Americans’ lives and led to different lifestyles and perspectives in the North and the South. See id. at 43. Those differences had the effect of isolating the two regions, despite the growing nationalism during the preceding decades. Id. Isolation fostered a distrust and began to warp perspectives and arguments for each side. See id. Rather than strive to understand each other’s concerns, both sides dug their heels in and only fortified their positions, virtually ensuring a productive, cooperative solution would not be achieved. The sense of unity that had pervaded the country since the end of the War of 1812 was eroding as tensions built and began to boil over. Just a matter of years later, that unity would no longer exist with the secession of the Southern states.

The language of the Constitution exacerbated the tension between the North and the South and even led many Americans to hold conflicting views. Southerners, and many Americans generally, came to cherish the Constitution’s protection of slavery, as it was a linchpin to their local economy, but they also wished to preserve the Union. See id. at 44-45. Given the North’s opposition to slavery, Southerners could not achieve both objectives. Instead, it became a question of degree: How could slavery and preservation of the Union be balanced so as to come closest to achieving both objectives? Northerners had differing views, being split between “antislavery men” and “conciliationists.” Id. at 45. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire captured a view of many when he stated: “If this Union, with all its advantages, has no other cement than the blood of human slavery, let it perish.” Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., p. 805 (Hale, May 31, 1848). Others, like U.S. Congressman John Chipman of Michigan, believed that the Union must be preserved at all costs. Congressman Chipman stated: “When gentlemen pretending to love their country would place the consideration of the nominal liberation of a handful of degraded Africans in the one scale, and this Union in the other, and make the latter kick the beam, he would not give a fig for their patriotism.” Congressional Globe, 29 Cong., 2 sess., appendix, p. 322 (Chipman, Feb. 8, 1847).

These contentious circumstances did not prevent states in the North from taking action, as states were viewed in both the North and South as highly autonomous. Northern states, as each saw fit, abolished slavery, embracing their ability to do so and feeling marginally comforted knowing that they were relieving themselves from the responsibility of perpetuating slavery as an institution. Labeling slavery an institution is not hyperbole. By the 1840s and 1850s, the vast majority of Americans had lived their entire lives in a country where slavery flourished and had come to know that the South’s economy was dependent on slavery. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 46. To maintain a sense of tranquility, Americans in the North resigned themselves to continuing the status quo in denouncing slavery but leaving resolution of the issue for a future generation. See id. at 47. Lincoln embodied this approach, saying “if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong” but agreeing emancipation could wait. See id.

Slaves Waiting for Sale. By: Eyre Crowe.

Congress became the arena for arguing the issue of slavery. Argument surrounding slavery was ubiquitous. In fact, “[n]o other issue in American history has so monopolized the political scene.” Id. at 49. Certainly, no issue has divided the country so deeply as slavery. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri summarized the ubiquity of slavery as “this black question, forever on the table, on the nuptial couch, everywhere!” Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., appendix, p. 686. Once slavery entered into the political arena, it only elevated the issue, raising the stakes with each political victory and defeat. Politicians from the North and the South offered solutions, but neither side could compromise. It was destined to be absolutes on both sides of the debate.

During this time, slavery and sectionalism had effectively become one issue. It was an issue that the Founding Fathers foresaw and decided to allow it to fester. Then, subsequent generations allowed the issue to fester. As the divide grew deeper and slavery became more entrenched in the South than ever, a solution became more difficult to imagine. Then, the political escalation of the issue all but ensured that from 1846, when the expansion of slavery was halted, to the dawn of April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor came under fire, slavery would create an ever-widening rift between the North and the South. That yawning chasm endangered the future of the country like no other issue before or since. It would lead to what some have called the Second American Revolution.


  1. V

    I am just excited of thinking how many books you’ve read and how much time you’ve spent on learning to be capable of providing such an in-depth and all-round analysis. I guess, a lot)

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