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The United States of America: A History
Book 3: Chapter II - Slavery


WHEN America gained her independence slavery existed in all the colonies. No State was free from the taint. Even the New England Puritans held slaves. At an early period they had learned to enslave their Indian neighbours. The children of the Pilgrims owned Indians, and in due time owned Africans, without remorse. But the number of slaves in the North was always small. At first it was not to the higher principle or clearer intelligence of the Northern men that this limited prevalence of slavery was due. The North was not a region where slave labour could ever be profitable. The climate was harsh, the soil rocky and Weak. Labour required to he directed by intelligence. In that comparatively unproductive land the mindless and heartless toil of the slave would scarcely defray the cost of his support. At the Revolution there were half a million of slaves in the colonies, and of these only thirty to forty thousand were in the North.

It was otherwise in the sunny and luxuriant South. The African was at home there, for the climate was like his own. The rich soil yielded its wealth to labour in the slightest and least intelligent form. The culture of rice, and tobacco, and cotton supplied the very kind of work which a slave was fitted to perform. The South found profitable employment for as many Africans as the slave-traders were able to steal.

And yet at the Revolution slavery enjoyed no great degree of favour. The free spirit enkindled by the war was in violent opposition to the existence of a system of bondage. The presence of the slaves had disabled the South from taking the part she ought in the War of Independence. The white men had to stay at home to watch the black. Virginia, Washington's State, furnished a reasonable proportion of troops; but the other Southern States were almost worthless. Every-where in the North slavery was regarded as an objectionable and decaying institution. The leaders of the Revolution, themselves mainly slave-owners, were eagerly desirous that slavery should be abolished. Washington was utterly opposed to the system, and provided in his will for the emancipation of his own slaves. Hamilton was a member of an association for the gradual abolition of slavery. John Adams would never own a slave. Franklin, Patrick Henry, Madison, Munroe, were united in their reprobation of slavery. Jefferson, a Virginian, who prepared the Declaration of Independence, said that in view of slavery "he trembled for his country, when he reflected that God was just."

In the convention which met to frame a Constitution for America the feeling of antagonism to slavery was supreme. Had the majority followed their own course, provision would have been made then for the gradual extinction of slavery. But there arose here a necessity for one of those compromises by which the history of America has been so sadly marked. When it was proposed to prohibit the importation of slaves, all the Northern and most of the Southern States favoured the proposal. But South Carolina and Georgia were insatiable in their thirst for African labour. They decisively refused to become parties to a union in which there was to be no importation of slaves. The other States yielded. Instead of an immediate abolition of this hateful traffic, it was agreed merely that after twenty years Congress would be at liberty to abolish the slave-trade if it chose. By the same threat of disunion the Slave States of the extreme South gained other advantages. It was fixed by the Constitution that a slave who fled to a Free State was not therefore to become a free man. He must be given back to his owner. It was yet further conceded that the Slave States should have increased political power in proportion to the number of their slaves. A black man did not count for so much as a white. Every State was to send members to the House of Representatives according to its population, and in reckoning that population five negroes were to be counted as three.

And yet at that time, and for years after, the opinion of the South itself regarded slavery as an evil—thrust upon them by England—difficult to be got rid of—profitable, it might be, but lamentable and temporary. No slave-holder refused to discuss the subject or admit the evils of the system. No violence was offered to those who denounced it. The clergy might venture to preach against it. Hopeful persons might foretell the approach of liberty to those unhappy captives. Even the lowest of the slave-holding class did not yet resent the expression of such hopes.

But a mighty change was destined to pass upon the tone of Southern opinion. The purchase of Louisiana opened a vast tract of the most fertile land in the world to the growth of cotton. Whitney's invention made the growth of cotton profitable. Slave-holding became lucrative. It was wealth to own a little plantation and a. few negroes. There was an eager race for the possession of slaves. Importation alone could not supply the demand. Some of the more northerly of the Southern States turned their attention to the breeding of slaves for the Southern markets. Kentucky and Virginia became rich and infamous by this awful commerce. [During the ten years, from 1840 to 1850, the annual export of slaves from the Border States to the South averaged 23,500. These, at an average value of 150, amounted to three millions and a quarter sterling.] While iniquity was not specially profitable, the Southern States were not very reluctant to be virtuous. When the gains of wickedness became, as they now did, enormous, virtue ceased to have a footing in the South.

During many years the leader of the slave-owners was John C. Calhoun. He was a native of South Carolina—a tall, slender, gipsy-looking man, with an eye whose wondrous depth and lower impressed all who came into his presence. Calhoun taught the people of the South that slavery was good for the slave. It was a beniga, civilizing agency. The African attained to a measure of intelligence in slavery greatly in advance of that which he had over reached as a free man. To him, visibly, it was a blessing to be enslaved. From all this it was easy to infer that Providence had appointed slavery for the advantage of both races; that opposition to this Heaven-ordained institution was profane; that abolition was merely an aspect of infidelity. So Calhoun taught. So the South learned to believe. Calhoun's last speech in Congress warned the North that opposition to slavery would destroy the Union. His latest conversation was on this absorbing theme. A few hours after, he had passed to where all dimness of vision is removed, and errors of judgment become impossible!

1850 A.D.

It was very pleasant for the slave-owners to be taught that slavery enjoyed divine sanction. The doctrine had other apostles tli;iii Mr. Calhoun. Unhappily it came to form part of the regular pulpit teaching of the Southern churches. It was gravely argued out from the Old Testament that slavery was the proper condition of the negro. Ham was to he the servant of his brethren. Hence all the descendants of Ham were the rightful property of white men. The slave who fled from his master was guilty of the crime of theft in one of its most heinous forms. So taught the Southern pulpit. Many books, written by grave divines for the enforcement of these doctrines, remain to awaken the amazement of posterity.

The slave-owners inclined a willing ear to these pleasing assurances. They knew slavery to be profitable. Their leaders in Church and State told them it was right. It was little wonder that a fanatical love to slavery possessed their hearts. In the passionate, ill-regulated minds of the slave-owning class it became in course of years almost a madness, which was shared, unhappily, by the great mass of the white population. Discussion could no longer be permitted. It became a fearful risk to express in the South an opinion hostile to slavery. It was a familiar boast that no man who opposed slavery would be suffered to live in a Slave State. And the slave-owners made their word good. Many suspected of hostile opinions were tarred and feathered and turned out of the State. Many were shot; many were hanged; some were burned. The Southern mobs were singularly brutal, and the slave-owners found willing hands to do their fiendish work. The law did not interfere to prevent or punish such atrocities. The churches looked on and held their peace.

As slave property increased in value, a strangely horrible system of laws gathered around it. The slave was regarded, not as a person, but as a thing. He had no civil rights; nay, it was declared by the highest legal authority that a slave had no rights at all which a white man was bound to respect. The most sacred laws of nature were defied. Marriage was a tie which bound the slave only during the master's pleasure. A slave had no more legal authority over his child "than a cow has over her calf." It was a grave offence to teach a slave to read. A white man might expiate that offence by fine or imprisonment; to a black man it involved flogging. The owner might not without challenge murder an unoffending slave; but a slave resisting his master's will might lawfully be slain. A slave who would not stand to be flogged, might be shot as he ran off. The master was blameless if his slave died under the administration of reasonable correction; in other words, if he flogged a slave to death. A fugitive slave might be killed by any means which his owner chose to employ. On the other hand, there was a slender pretext of laws for the protection of the slave. Any master, for instance, who wantonly cut out the tongue or put out the eyes of his slave, was liable to a small fine. But as no slave could give evidence affecting a white man in a court of law, the law had no terrors for the slave-owner.

The practice of the South in regard to her slaves was not unworthy of her laws. Children were habitually torn away from their mothers. Husbands and wives were habitually separated and forced to contract new marriages. Public whipping-houses became an institution. The hunting of escaped slaves became a regular profession. Dogs were bred and trained for that special work. Slaves who were suspected of an intention to escape were branded with red-hot irons. When the Northern armies forced their way- into the South, many of the slaves who fled to them were found to be scarred or mutilated. The burning of a negro who was accused of crime was a familiar occurrence. It was a debated question whether it was more profitable to work the slaves moderately, and so make them last, or to take the greatest possible amount of work from them, even although that would quickly destroy them. Some favoured the plan of overworking, and acted upon it without scruple.

These things were done, and the Christian churches of the South were not ashamed to say that the system out of which they flowed enjoyed the sanction of God! It appeared that men who had spent their lives in the South were themselves so brutalized by their familiarity with the atrocities of slavery, that the standard by which they judged it was no higher than that of the lowest savages.


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