Authors: Steven Woodworth
The shift from indentured servitude to race-based slavery was gradual. Life spans slowly increased, making lifetime slaves a better investment. The Spanish in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America were already using slavery on a vast scale and had been doing so for over a century. A well-developed transatlantic slave trade, carried in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English ships, served the constant demand of Latin American colonial economies for ever more bondsmen. It was easy enough for Englishmen in the North American colonies of Virginia and its junior partner on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, to begin importing slaves when the stream of indentured servants failed to meet demand or when a longer-term investment seemed appealing. It remains unclear what, if any, additional factors drove the shift toward slavery, and historians have long argued as to whether racism caused slavery or was caused by it. In any case, by the 1660s, the economies of both Virginia and Maryland had shifted overwhelmingly to the use of slaves rather than indentured servants, though a few of the latter continued to be present in the colonies for several decades more. By that time, the law codes of these two colonies fully recognized and protected the institution of slavery.
During that same decade, other Englishmen established the Carolinas as colonies just south of Virginia. South Carolina in particular quickly adopted a slave culture and economy, not, like those of its neighbors to the north, by developing it internally but rather by importing a complete and operating slave economy and culture from the British-owned sugarcane plantation island of Barbados, where indentured servitude had given way to slavery even more quickly than it had in the Chesapeake colonies amid the brutal, killing labor and conditions of sugar cultivation. Barbados planters seeking to expand or younger sons of such planters seeking establishments of their own migrated to the new colony of South Carolina and brought their slaves and the associated culture and laws with them. Though South Carolina planters came to grow rice and indigo rather than tobacco or sugar, their economy, like that of the Chesapeake colonies and Barbados, rested on the foundation of staple-crop agriculture, well suited for cultivation by large gangs of fairly unskilled and unmotivated workers. By about 1715 South Carolina had become the only one of the colonies in which slaves made up a majority of the population. North Carolina, though with a somewhat more diverse economy, followed the cultures of its neighbors to the north and south. Georgia’s founders, James Oglethorpe and his philanthropic fellow proprietors, never intended their experiment in enlightened reform to include slavery, but the colonists eventually managed to introduce the institution there as well.
While slavery thrived and became the mainstay of the economies of the southern colonies, the northern colonies developed along different lines. Slavery existed there as well but in far smaller numbers. Some of the colonies, such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, had originally been born out of religious motivations that were more or less hostile to slavery and at least initially hindered its growth. All the northern colonies developed economies that lent themselves less well to the use of slave labor than did the southern colonies’ virtually uniform dependence on staple-crop agriculture. Mixed small manufacturing, small farming, shipping, and fishing in New England; grain cultivation in Pennsylvania; and commerce in port cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston all presented less temptation for the wholesale exploitation of slaves. Thus, conscience and economics combined to limit the total number of bondsmen in the northern colonies to a tiny fraction of those in the South.
The American Revolution turned the colonists’ attention to issues of liberty and the rights of man. If indeed “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” then it would be impossible to justify slavery, as the Revolutionaries, including the slaveholders among them, were painfully aware. Patrick Henry, who rhetorically asked if even life itself was worth the price of “chains and slavery” and answered his own question in the negative with his famous demand for liberty or death, was nevertheless a slaveholder. “Would any one believe that I am Master of Slaves of my own purchase!” he asked in another, less well known, rhetorical question. Yet though he called slavery “this Abominable Practice,” he could only express the hope that some time, somehow, the opportunity would arrive to abolish it. He was not alone in his conflicted state of mind. The prevailing view in the South was that immediate emancipation would turn loose on society an unrestrained racial underclass and spark the onset of a race war. “We have the wolf by the ears,” Henry’s fellow Virginia slaveholder Thomas Jefferson would later remark, “and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.”
In the northern states during the Revolutionary era, the situation was different. Minute slave populations there aroused little worry about the dangers of emancipation. Many northern slaveholders voluntarily freed their slaves, as did some in Virginia, and each of the northern legislatures adopted laws either abolishing or gradually phasing out slavery within the boundaries of its own state. The southern legislatures did not. In short, the Revolutionary era turned American minds to liberty and thereby etched the line between liberty and slavery deeper into the landscape of American culture. On the map that line now became the border where the southernmost original free state, Pennsylvania, met the northernmost original slave state, Maryland, a boundary that took its name from colonial surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Thus, the intellectual dichotomy over slavery birthed a tangible geographical division. The Mason-Dixon Line would be the demarcation between bondage and freedom.
The ambivalence of the founding generation toward the institution of slavery left its mark on the new republic’s early policies. When in 1787 Jefferson wrote and Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, that act banned slavery in all of what was to become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Ohio River thus became the boundary between slave and free states west of the Appalachians as the Mason-Dixon Line was east of them.
That same year the Philadelphia Convention wrote the new Constitution. The framers carefully avoided using the painful word “slave” in the document, referring instead to “persons bound to servitude.” In concessions to the concerns of the slave states, especially South Carolina, the Constitution provided that when such persons escaped from a slave state to a free state, they were to be returned. Congress would have no power to abolish the slave trade until 1808. When slave state delegates proposed that slaves be counted as part of population for the apportionment of representatives in Congress but not for the purposes of direct taxation, northern members of the convention balked. The two sides finally settled on a compromise stipulating that for both purposes each slave should count as three-fifths of a free inhabitant. This was a clear gain for the South since Congress never levied a direct tax, and the three-fifths clause therefore served only to secure the overrepresentation of southern whites in Congress and the Electoral College. Although the founders recognized the contradiction between republican liberty and slavery, they incorrectly concluded that slavery would eventually wither and die. Unfortunately, slavery was not capable of self-correction. This clouded their policymaking and thrust the slave issue onto future generations.
SLAVERY IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC
What from a modern perspective may seem the founders’ inexplicable complacence about slavery’s existence as a blatant contradiction of their ideals within their system of ordered liberty rested partially on the belief that the institution was in fact in the process of dying out. That belief in turn stemmed in part from wishful thinking and in part from certain economic and agricultural developments of the mid-eighteenth century. As soil in Virginia lost its fertility for further profitable cultivation of tobacco, farmers and planters had shifted increasingly to wheat, a much less labor-intensive crop. A plantation that converted from tobacco to wheat would at once find itself with a large surplus of labor, and slaveholders could readily imagine strong economic motivations for eventual manumission (voluntary freeing) of their slaves, provided that the problem of free blacks within white society could be solved.
All of this changed when in 1793 Connecticut Yankee Eli Whitney, while serving as a tutor on a Georgia plantation, invented a practical cotton gin—a device that would separate the seeds of the cotton plant from its white fibers. The cotton gin revolutionized the southern economy, making possible the profitable cultivation of cotton throughout the Deep South. The favorable treaties made with southern Indian tribes at the close of the War of 1812 opened vast expanses of land that was ideal for cotton farming. Textile mills in Britain, built to process wool, provided a ready market for American cotton, which soon became one of the country’s most valuable exports. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop, requiring many pickers during the harvest season. The plantations and farms of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana became a market for the surplus slaves of Virginia and other Upper South states. The spread of cotton as a cash crop during the generation after the writing of the Constitution meant that whereas economic forces had previously pressured slaveholders to free their bondsmen, those same forces now encouraged the profit-minded planter to hang on to his slaves or sell them to the Deep South for substantial sums. Thus, cotton engrained slavery even more deeply into southern culture and economics.
The new economic conditions slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, fostered new attitudes in the South regarding slavery. With cordial southern support, Congress banned the slave trade in 1808 as soon as constitutionally permitted, but the support of southerners came in part from representatives and senators from the Upper South, a region whose chief crop for export to the other states, surplus slaves, would become much more valuable if the flow of imported slaves were cut off. Indeed, slave prices rose steadily decade after decade. Slaves became one of the favorite and most lucrative investments in the South.
Then in 1819 the Missouri Territory petitioned for admission to the Union as a slave state. This alarmed some northern congressmen. Louisiana, the first state to be formed from the territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, had entered the Union as a slave state in 1812, but geography had assuaged northern concerns about the spread of slavery. Louisiana lay farther south than any other American state at that time, and slavery had existed there under French and Spanish rule before America acquired the territory. It appeared only natural that the Pelican State would bring slavery along with statehood. Missouri was different. It lay directly west of Illinois, where Jefferson’s own Northwest Ordinance had banned slavery. If admitted, it would become the northernmost slave state. Worse, the land that made up the would-be state of Missouri had known no slavery under French or Spanish rule. The implication of admitting Missouri as a slave state was that slavery was the natural and normal arrangement in all future American territories— slavery followed the flag.
This was exactly the reverse of how some northern congressmen wished to view their flag and country, and so one of them, New York Representative James Tallmadge Jr., introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood act, stipulating that slavery was to be phased out in the state over the next generation. Southern representatives and senators reacted with startling ferocity. Despite their vociferous opposition, the amendment passed in the House, where northern representatives outnumbered southern, but the Senate, where slave and free states were evenly balanced, rejected it.
Into this heated impasse stepped Henry Clay, with the first of several compromises he would sponsor during his long congressional career. Under the terms of his proposal, which Congress finally adopted after lengthy wrangling, Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state, and Maine, hitherto part of Massachusetts, would enter as a free state, thus preserving the balance in the Senate. The line that formed most of the southern boundary of Missouri, latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes, would be extended all the way across the remainder of the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. All lands south of the line would be reserved for future slave states, while all lands north of it, with the exception of Missouri itself, would be forever closed to slavery. At the time, southerners thought it no bad bargain, for although the lands north of thirty-six thirty were far more extensive than those south of it, the prevailing belief at the time was that persons of African descent—and therefore the institution of slavery—could not thrive in those northerly regions.
Southern reaction to Tallmadge’s relatively mild proposal provided a stark revelation of the change in attitudes over the preceding generation. Even Jefferson, who had once favored the limitation of slavery’s spread and written that limitation into the Northwest Ordinance, now saw in any attempt to place a boundary on slavery the potential doom of the Union. “This momentous question,” he wrote,
like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.
The Missouri Compromise quieted the clamor over slavery in the national political arena, and it soon came to be viewed with a feeling akin to reverence by the American people. Yet the fundamental contradiction that slavery posed in the midst of a society dedicated to freedom remained a continued source of periodic irritation, much as Jefferson had predicted.