When a Dutch frigate brought 20 black Africans to work the tobacco fields of Jamestown in 1619, the planters may have made an unthinking decision with unforeseen consequences, but two centuries later those consequences were coming into focus with disturbing and divisive clarity. In truth, the problem of chattel slavery had never been far from the surface of the national consciousness. “There was never a moment,” wrote John Jay Chapman, “when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.” The Constitution itself embodied the first great compromise with slavery, agreeing that three-fifths of slaves within a given state would be counted for purposes of both taxation and representation in Congress. The language of the Constitution suggests the framers’ ambivalence. It recognized that there were “such Persons” who were not citizens, but nowhere did it use that hard and uncompromising word ‘slaves.’
The sleeping serpent that was chattel slavery would not remain long asleep. It was first stirred by the muscular growth of the United States itself. Throughout the first half of the 19th century America was growing rapidly, but in very different ways and in different sections. In the Northeast, modern finance capitalism was emerging. The factory rather than the farm was becoming the most important source of economic strength, drawing more and more of its people into burgeoning cities. In the old Northwest, a system of diversified agriculture had emerged which depended on internal improvements in transportation to get its goods to markets in a wider world. In the old Southwest, free-labor and slave-labor interests were in uneasy equilibrium. In the same period a simple machine by a Yankee inventor, the cotton gin, was making a Cotton Kingdom of the old South. One crucial consequence of this economic diversity was a new consciousness. As the historian Avery Craven writes, “Economic consciousness” became “the basis of sectional consciousness.”
This consciousness began to generate stresses in the American system as Americans became increasingly convinced that sectional differences were necessarily competing–and perhaps ultimately incompatible–interests. As the North grew in population, industrial strength, and capital, the South grew increasingly anxious about this shift in power. A French observer about mid-century put the case clearly and concisely: the North grew every day “more wealthy and densely populated while the South is stationary or growing poor…. The first result of this growth is a violent change in the equilibrium of power and political influence. Powerful states become weak, territories without a name become states…. Wealth, like population, is displaced. These changes cannot take place without injuring interests, without exciting passions.”
The extent to which passions were excited may be seen in an incendiary little book by one Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis, first published in 1857. Bruce Catton has described Helper as one “of those baffling people whose sole function, historically, is to make people angry.” He was a Southerner whose love of the South was animated by fierce hatreds. He despised the planter aristocrats and held them responsible for the “countless evils which they have inflicted on society” by the perpetuation of slavery. But his hatred of slavery arose from no sympathy with the slaves. He hated black people with a hysterical fury, likening them to “wolves, jackals, hyenas… and other noxious creatures.” He hoped that slavery might be destroyed and the slave exterminated with the system. Slavery debased the South, he believed, and brought Southerners “under the reproach of all civilized and enlightened nations.” It was the reason the South had fallen behind the rest of the country in trade, technology, and education. It was the reason the poor white remained poor. The “first and most sacred duty of every Southerner who has the honor and the interest of his country at heart,” he argued, is the abolition of slavery.
Take from The Impending Crisis its vicious race hatred and Helper was saying more or less what increasingly severe and strident Northern voices had been saying for forty years and more. White reformers like Elijah Lovejoy, Theodore Weld, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison, and free blacks like David Walker and Frederick Douglass maintained a relentless agitation against the peculiar institution. Garrison spoke for the most extreme abolitionist view. It held simply that slavery was a monstrous evil, and the Southern planter’s life was “one of unbridled lust, of filthy amalgamation, of swaggering braggadocio, of haughty domination, of cowardly ruffianism, of boundless dissipation, of matchless insolence, of infinite self-conceit, of unequalled oppression, of more than savage cruelty.” On the floor of the House in April of 1860 Republican Congressman Owen Lovejoy rose in anger and strode to the Democratic side of the aisle. Lovejoy–whose brother Elijah had been murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837–assailed slavery in vehement language, pronouncing it more vicious than robbery, piracy, and polygamy together. Equally incensed, Roger Pryor of Virginia–the man who did not fire the first shot of the Civil War–leapt from his seat swearing that he would not endure Lovejoy “shaking his fist” in the faces of Southern Democrats. More hot language was exchanged. Pryor challenged Lovejoy to a duel, and Lovejoy accepted, specifying bowie knives. The debate over slavery had intensified passions until congressmen were prepared to have at each other at knifepoint. Fortunately for the antagonists, gentlemen could not meet on such terms. That weapon was outside the code duello.
One consequence of the abolitionist assault on slavery was the narrowing and hardening of Southern opinion. In the early Federal Period most Southerners–like most Northerners–had believed slavery to be a national misfortune but not necessarily a permanent feature of the American landscape. Many believed that slavery should and would, in time, pass out of Southern life as it had passed out of Northern life. In fact, prior to 1830 more anti-slavery societies met below the Mason-Dixon line than above it. But a generation later the slave labor that made cotton had become the underpinning not only of the Southern economy but part of the structure of Southern society itself. By 1860 the South was producing nearly 200 million dollars’ worth of cotton alone. The four million slaves, the human capital who produced this wealth, were worth two billion dollars. To free the slave would bring about the wreck of Southern society. Hence, an attack on slavery represented more than an attack on a crucially important element of the Southern livelihood, it was an attack on a way of life itself.
It followed that as the anti-slavery attacks grew more extreme, so too did the pro-slavery justifications. South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun held that, far from evil, slavery was “good–a positive good.” Other Southerners outreached him by arguing that the institution was blessed by divine approbation. A Baptist Convention in South Carolina, for example, held that the legitimacy of slavery “was clearly established in Holy Scripture, both by precept and example.” Others turned to the natural science of the day to argue that the white race and the black had in fact arisen from separate creations. To these ethnologists and natural historians the “evidence” was compelling that the black man was a distinct and inferior creation of nature and his natural condition was bondage. Far from being dehumanizing, they reasoned, the institution of slavery was the surest and fastest way to lead black people to Christianity and civilization. As Northern anti-slavery invective stormed over the sin of slavery, the Southern justification took on at times a strangely rapturous tone. Slavery, one Southerner declared, had done more “to elevate a degraded race… to civilize the barbarous… to enlighten the ignorant, and to spread the blessings of Christianity, than all the missionaries that philanthropy and religion had ever sent forth.” In short, a half-century of economic change had worked to bring about a thorough transformation of the Southern view of the slavery issue. Whatever private reservations individuals held (and there were many), a solid South had closed ranks in defense of slavery such that on the eve of civil war a new slogan emerged, an incongruous variation on Patrick Henry’s revolutionary utterance, “Give us SLAVERY, or give us death!”