Only Victims and Villains? Evolution of Slavery in America, Part I

As I grew up in Upstate New York, on a main line of the Underground Railroad and near the Harriet Tubman Home and Research center, I learned the lessons of slavery from the point of view of the Yankee victors. I spent the first several decades of my life knowing only that all slaveholders were horrible villains  and all slaves were desperate victims. I spent another portion of my life in North Carolina, where I made some of my closest friends and married a North Carolina man. During those years, I  learned to see Southern history from very nearly the opposite side, I learned about the aggression of the North, the heroism of the South, and the treachery of Northerners–however, I learned very little about the plight of slaves. My southern friends seemed nearly silenced by a cloud of guilt–they, as much as my original northern educators, assumed all slaveholders treated slaves badly, and all slaves were  abused victims–and, generally, they just didn’t want to talk about it.


As I began to research 19th Century American History and Literature, and to write about the 19th century in the South, I found myself thinking that it could not be that simple, and I was driven to learn more about the slavery as it really was for the almost 250 years it was an American reality. While there is no saying that slavery was anything but a travesty, and an insupportable institution in all possible ways, I think it is instructive to examine how the institution grew and became more and more entrenched in response to a series of social and economic forces that do explain even as they do not justify. This adds some critical complexity to the picture of both the slave and the slaveholder who normally are  viewed too simplistically to be credible.  It does a disservice to the South to imagine all slaveholders were purely self-interested, dimwitted, and even diabolical Simon Legrees, as it does as well to imagine that all slaves were equally dimwitted passive victims.


Evolution of Slavery

In this post, I propose to examine how slavery became so deeply entrenched in Southern Society from 1600 to 1861 that people were willing to sacrifice all to maintain the system.



Although the number of African-American slaves grew slowly at first, by the 1680s they had become essential to the economy of Virginia. During the 17th and 18th centuries, African-American slaves lived in all of England’s North American colonies. Before Great Britain prohibited its subjects from participating in the slave trade, between 600,000 and 650,000 Africans had been forcibly transported to North America. (“Immigration,” Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation.) In the Americas, there were added dimensions to this resistance, especially reactions to the racial characteristics of chattel slavery. This fundamental difference from the condition of slaves in Africa emerged gradually, although the roots of racial categories were established early. Furthermore, slaves did not consolidate ethnic identifications on the basis of color, but it was widely understood that most blacks were slaves and no slaves were white.

 Some Key Points:

  • Value of Slaves: 1638 The price tag for an African male was around $27 (Equivalent to approximately $5,000 in 2012 dollars), while the salary of a European laborer was about seventy cents per day.
  • First Fugitive Slave Law: Virginia colony enacts law to fine those who harbor or assist runaway slaves. (Underground Railroad Chronology, National Park Service). The Virginia law, penalizes people sheltering runaways 20 pounds worth of tobacco for each night of refuge granted. Slaves are branded after a second escape attempt.
  • Spread of Slavery & Slave Regulations: Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations. Central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life. This premise, combined with the natural population growth among the slaves, meant that slavery could survive and grow…
  • Status of the Mother: Citing 1662 Virginia statute providing that “[c]hildren got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother”. Throughout the late 17th and early 18th century, several colonial legislatures adopted similar rules which reversed the usual common law presumptions that the status of the child was determined by the father. (See id. at 128 (citing 1706 New York statute); id. at 252 (citing a 1755 Georgia Law)). These laws facilitated the breeding of slaves through Black women’s bodies and allowed for slaveholders to reproduce their own labor force.
  •  First Rebellion: 1663/09/13 – First serious recorded slave conspiracy in Colonial America takes place in Virginia. A servant betrayed plot of white servants and Negro slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia.




  • Stono Rebellion 1739 South Carolina – Armed slaves, numbering over 80, attempt to march to Spanish Florida from their home area in South Carolina.  When confronted by a local militia company organizes to suppress the rebellion, twenty-one whites and forty-four slaves die.
  • Slavery Declining as an Institution by 1789 All the signs suggested that slavery was a terminal institution in the nation at the time of the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in 1789.  Tobacco crop was exhausted. A number of northern states, had abolished slavery by 1800, and the federal Congress banned slavery from the vast region of unorganized territory north of the Ohio River with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Dozens of anti-slavery societies sprang up in the northern states and the upper South, and many enslaved African Americans openly challenged the system by suing for their freedom in state courts and by running away. Nevertheless, the ending of slavery did not happen for another 60 years-in fact, it took on new life in the new century, spreading rapidly from Georgia to Texas by 1830.
  • Impact of Canada: 1791 Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario), was created in 1791 to cope with the influx of refugees from the American Revolution, was home to several hundred slaves, many of them brought there by their loyalist owners fleeing the new republics. Upper Canada’s first parliament, under pressure from Governor Simcoe, passed an act to gradually abolish slavery in the colony: No more slaves could be brought into Upper Canada. Those already in the colony prior to the Act were to remain slaves for the rest of their lives. The children of female slaves already in Upper Canada would be free upon reaching their 25th birthday. This Upper Canadian statute did not explicitly deal with the question of the rights of fugitive slaves who had escaped to Upper Canada but as a result of the legal opinion of the colony’s Chief Justice in 1818 no one seen as a slave in another jurisdiction could be returned there simply because he/she had sought freedom in Upper Canada. Whatever their status in the U.S. or elsewhere, in Upper Canada they were free long before the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire in 1833.
  • Impact of Haiti: By this time, however, the concepts of the rights of man had spread to the slave class. In 1791, under the leadership of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the slaves began a long and bloody revolt of their own. Slaves flocked to Toussaint’s support by the thousands until he had an army much larger than any that had fought in the American revolution, This revolt became entangled with the French revolution and the European wars connected with it. Besides fighting the French, Toussaint had to face both British and Spanish armies. None of them was able to suppress the revolt and to overthrow the republic which had been established in Haiti.
    • Jefferson was terrified of what was happening in Saint Domingue. He referred to Toussaint’s army as cannibals. His fear was that black Americans, like Gabriel, would be inspired by what they saw taking place just off the shore of America. And he spent virtually his entire career trying to shut down any contact, and therefore any movement of information, between the American mainland and the Caribbean island. He called upon Congress to abolish trade between the United States and what after 1804 was the independent country of Haiti. And of course, Jefferson then argued this was an example of what happens when Africans are allowed to govern themselves: economic devastation, caused in large part by his own economic policies.
  • Fugitive Slave Act becomes a federal law. Allows slave-owners, their agents or attorneys to seize fugitive slaves in free states and territories.
  • Cotton Changes Everything: Invention of the cotton gin in 1793. This relatively simple machine invented by Eli Whitney removed seeds and trash from the short-staple cotton easily grown in much of the South. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, short-staple cotton had to be combed by hand before it could be spun into thread, a costly labor-intensive process. At the same time, England turned from wool to cotton for its textiles and began consuming with a ravenous appetite American cotton. The surge of cotton production from the U. S. jumped from 3,000 bales in 1790 to nearly 200,000 bales by 1812. It stood at 4,449,000 bales in 1860, with each bale weighing between 300 to 500 pounds. On the eve of the Civil War, the value of cotton exports amounted to over 50 percent of the value of all U.S. exports.




  • 1808 Slave importation outlawed. Some 250,000 slaves were illegally imported from 1808-60. Importation of slaves into the United States is banned as of January 1 by an act of Congress passed last year, but illegal imports continue (see 1814).  Some southerners feared slave revolts if importation continued. Religious societies stressed the moral evil of the trade, and free blacks saw the end of the slave trade as a first step toward general emancipation.
  • American Colonization Society founded. It was considered the ideal solution to the American racial dilemma. Claiming to be interested in the welfare of the African in its midst, the Society advocated colonizing in Africa or wherever else it was expedient. It comforted slave owners by announcing that it was not concerned with either emancipation or amelioration. Both were outside its jurisdiction. It did imply that slaves might eventually be purchased for colonization. Most of its propaganda tried to demonstrate that the freedman lived in a wretched state of poverty, immorality, and ignorance and that he would be better off in Africa. The movement received widespread support from almost all sectors of the white community including presidents Madison and Jackson. Several state legislatures supported the idea, and Congress voted $100,000 to finance the plan which eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Liberia. However, the Afro-American community was not very enthusiastic about the project. In 1817 three thousand blacks crowded into the Bethel Church in Philadelphia and, led by Richard Allen, vehemently criticized colonization.
  • Nat Turner Rebellion 1831, African-American slave and revolutionary; b. Southampton co., Va. Believing himself divinely appointed to lead his fellow slaves to freedom, he commanded about 60 followers in a revolt (1831) that killed 55 whites. Although the so-called Southampton Insurrection was quickly crushed and Turner was caught and hanged six weeks later, it was the most serious uprising in the history of U.S. slavery and virtually ended the organized abolition movement in the South.
  • President Adams on Slavery: At a dinner in Boston, Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French magistrate who would go back home to write his classic book “Democracy in America,” was seated next to former President John Quincy Adams and asked the old man: “Do you look on slavery as a great plague for the United States?” “Yes, certainly,” Adams answered. “That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future.”
  • 1838 “Underground Railway” organized by U.S. abolitionists transports southern slaves to freedom in Canada, but slaving interests at Philadelphia work on the fears of Irish immigrants and other working people who worry that freed slaves may take their jobs. A Philadelphia mob burns down Pennsylvania Hall May 17 in an effort to thwart antislavery meetings. (The People’s Chronology 1995, 1996 by James Trager from MS Bookshelf.)
  • Secret Codes in Quilts: A book, co-authored by a professor at Howard University, pieces together a story of how quilts made by slaves before and during the Civil War were stitched with patterns that formed a secret code, part of a network of communication that helped slaves escape to freedom.
  • The Compromise of 1850was worked out by Henry Clay to settle the dispute between North and South. On January 29, 1850, it was introduced to the Senate as follows:
    • California should be admitted immediately as a free state;
    • Utah should be separated from New Mexico, and the two territories should be allowed to decide for them selves whether they wanted slavery or not;
    • The land disputed between Texas and New Mexico should be assigned to New Mexico;
    • In return, the United States should pay the debts which Texas had contracted before annexation;
    • Slavery should not be abolished in the District of Columbia without the consent of its residents and the surrounding state of Maryland, and then only if the owners were paid for their slaves.
    • Slave-trading (but not slavery) should be banned in the District of Columbia;
    • A stricter fugitive slave law should be adopted

Where Things Were by 1861

By 1861, Slavery was deeply entrenched, mostly in support of the cotton trade. Cotton can be likened to the oil trade in the 20th and 21st centuries–it was what created a hugely wealthy society, and this wealth was entirely dependent on cotton and the slaves who produced it.  While all realized this was not an ideal situation, all also saw no way out. So, Southerners did their best to validate the life they were leading, and slaves did their best to survive. The North also can be seen to be motivated to get a hold of this wealth as much as by any efforts to improve life for slaves.

In the next post, I will address the Southern Arguments for Slavery, and it the following one, I will discuss Surviving Slavery  as I examine slave strategies to develop their own power as they survived.

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Dressing for 1861 – Wearing a Corset

When I was preparing for my full-costume author visit to Manassas in honor of the sesquicentennial last year, I wanted to be as authentic as possible.  I have described in a previous post how the hoop crinoline was actually surprisingly comfortable and freeing to wear (, and I have promised for some time to share more about what it was like to wear the corset.

This type of “wasp waist” was generally only required for fancy dress occasions (and expected only of younger women!), and could be very harmful if done often.

While I had no aspirations to achieve the sort of glamour Scarlet O’Hara achieved with a (God-forbid), 14-inch waist, I did want to experience what the corset would have been like for an ordinary woman to wear.  Note that most of the horror stories about corset wearing refer to the more extreme fashions portrayed above. To achieve effects like that, women would often have to eat nothing all day and have themselves laced as tightly as possible.  Women who did this often damaged internal organs, and it interfered with breathing, digestion, and overall health.  It was also a reason women were seen as having “fainting spells” in those days. Their blood pressure and oxygen intake were compromised by a tight corset.

However, for the ordinary woman who did not “tight-lace” for everyday wear, the effects were nowhere near as extreme. And women did indeed wear them every day.  Most “proper” women would have felt as undressed without a corset on as similar “proper” women would feel today if they were not wearing a bra!

This is the profile most women aimed to achieve for every day wear.

Note, in the picture above that rather than a tiny waist, the look is compact and somewhat high-waisted.  One reason for this profile is that women who were pregnant–which many were much of the time than–could wear conventional clothing for the first months and just loosen the corset bit-by-bit to remain “presentable” until the last couple of months.

You can see also that the look also is rather flat-chested. The goal of the corset–again except for fancy dress–was to minimize the bust rather than highlight it.  Reasonable compression of the entire upper-torso was the goal. Usually proper everyday dresses were high necked and long sleeved (even in warm weather) as exposure of the upper-chest and arms was considered risque in anything but fancy dress.

Anyway, as I outlined in my previous post outlining my plan to dress in full period costume for the Manassas event (, I obtained an authentic reproduction corset to wear.

A genuine reproduction corset as one would have looked in 1861.

When I got the corset, it came with elaborate instructions about how to put it on and wear it. As you look at the picture of the front to the left, you cannot exactly see that the front side fastenings are entirely hook-and-eye. There are several dozen of them.  The goal with a corset, I learned, is to adjust it properly one time using the lacings (at the back) and then use the hook-and-eyes to take it on and off every day.

Note that the corset is worn over a camisole. It would be very uncomfortable to wear directly against the skin.

Back view with lacing. You would not adjust the lacing often in general.

The back view (below)  shows the lacings.  To adjust the lacing, you do need the help of another person. Note that most middle-class women then did not dress every day with the help of servants, so it was important that the corset be something they could manage on their own.

The instructions that came with the corset said to lace it so that it felt close to the body, but did not impede your breathing. It also said you should start adjustments at the bottom and work up.  Note that there are separate lacings for top and bottom adjustments. It is much easier to get the lower half “right” and tie it off and then  adjust the upper half separately to tie it off as well. Once it is adjusted as you want it, double-knot the ties.  As I said, your aim is to not have to adjust it any more than necessary.  Most women only adjusted their corsets for pregnancy or weight loss or gain.  I would imagine, much like jeans can be for modern women, the fit of the corset every day would be a good indicator of how one’s figure is changing or remaining the same!

Taking all of this into account, I asked a friend to come over to help me adjust the corset. I donned my camisole, made sure all the corsets lacings were quite loose,wrapped it around me (sort of like a vest) and then made sure the hooks-and-eyes were all firmly closed (and lined up properly)–they are actually a bit of a chore to close! Then, joking about needing a bed post to hold onto, I asked my friend to tighten it firmly but not too tight.

As she pulled the laces tighter, I was surprised that it really didn’t feel that uncomfortable, but was, in fact rather reassuring in a way. It made me think of jeans again and I venture that somewhat-tight but well-fitting jeans are the modern equivalent of the corset.  We all can remember (especially when young), fitting ourselves into tight jeans for the sake of fashion–and also that it was indeed something one sort of got used to.

In any case, when I was all laced up, I put on my hoop and my dress and got the full effect. I walked around a bit and kind of liked the whole feeling.  With the legs completely free, under the hoop, and the firm posture support of the corset, I didn’t feel as immobilized as I had imagined 19th century women might have.  This remained true when I wore the whole costume for the actual event. Even the over about 8 hours of standing, sitting, and walking for the event was not really that uncomfortable.

However, at this point, I was just trying it on and testing it.  I didn’t wear it that long and then wanted to get back into my ”regular” clothes (jeans and a shirt), so I threw off the dress and quickly unhooked the corset–then nearly collapsed before I could completely remove it!

I had forgotten a warning I had gotten from another woman who dresses in authentic costume. She had told me to unhook the corset slowly  from top to bottom, and now I knew why! I guess, when you unhook it quickly, all the blood rushes back to where you have been constricted, and you can feel very lightheaded.  That is true.  If my friend hadn’t been with me to catch my arm, I probably would have hit the floor.  I did remember, then, after the Manassas event, to undo it slowly, taking a breath or two between every several hooks, and then it was OK.  This is a critical point

Anyway, I didn’t get a picture of myself in the whole outfit that shows things as clearly as the one below does (and the several I did get were lost when I had a very 21st C computer mishap . . .). This dress however is similar to the one I wore, and the woman even looks a tiny bit like me, so this is a good one to use to show what the full effect can be.  Somewhat surprisingly, I’m sort of looking forward to doing it again–and I’ll make sure to get some good pictures!

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Southern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I

Introduction – Moving from North to South

For my past three posts, I have been discussing Northern views  of potential causes of the war and and have covered how impacts of Cultural & Economic Pressures, the rise of the Abolitionist Movement,  and disputes about Federal vs. States Rights shaped Northern opinions and made it seem imperative we go to war.  At the outset of that series, I asked readers what they thought the causes of the war, from the Northern point of view, might be.  These are the results.   As you can see, the consensus is that Economic and Cultural Differences were the primary driving force.  I think we can agree with that in that it set the foundation for the patterns that would lead to war. Nevertheless, it was the growth of the Abolition movement and conflicts over States Rights that lit the fire.  Since the North was victorious, the story of Northern views and attitudes towards the war is fairly well known and is taught in all American schools. The victor gets to tell the story.  As a result, the Southern perspective on the war is much less often studied. In the this and the next two blog posts, I will examine how the war looked from the Southern point of view as it began. The perceived causes can often seem surprising to those who have long been coached in the Northern perspective.

It’s All in a Name

First Flag of the Confederate States of America 1861

The vast differences between Northern and Southern views of the war starts with the simple question of what to call it.  Some of the prime contenders:

  • War for Southern Independence : Often used in the South in the early years of the war to reinforce one of the original conceptions of the cause of the war. This label understandably became less popular after the war and after the South’s failure to achieve their independence.
  • War of Northern Aggression: Used in the South in the early years also – and persistently throughout and after – to emphasize the view of Northern imperialism and invasion.
  • War of the Rebellion: Frequently used in the North, particularly in the early years, to emphasize that it was an illegitimate rebellion against a legitimate state.
  • Second American Revolution: Also used, mostly in the South, to emphasize that this was also a revolution against an oppressive domineering and uncongenial government.  This one also could be used by Northerners to emphasize the purpose of the war to maintain democracy and the original purpose of the nation.
  • War Between the States: This was not used that often during the war, but became the most usual way to refer to the war in the South after it was over. This emphasized the belief that defending states rights was a justifiable root cause. It is still used in the South with some frequency.
  • American Civil War: Used most frequently by the North as the war began, to emphasize that it is also a war of civil insurrection that must be suppressed. It is still the most frequently used label for the war. Some might say that is because the victors write and pass on the story of any war. Note: This is not fully resolved.  Congress has never agreed on one common official name for the war.

Most Often Cited Caused of the War from a Southern Point of View

  • Tariffs and Economic Pressures
  • States Rights and Abolitionists
  • Defending Southern Honor

For this first post from a Southern point of view, I will discuss Tariffs and Economic pressures–in subsequent ones, I’ll discuss States Rights and Abolitionists, and Southern Honor.

Tariffs and Economic Pressures

This is a very important factor that doesn’t often feature in the “official story,” perhaps because it does paint the North in a somewhat unfavorable light.

Protective Tariffs. From the time of the first Congress in 1789 to the outbreak of the Civil War there was continued disagreement between the northern and the southern states over the matter of protective tariffs, or import duties on manufactured goods. Northern industries wanted high tariffs in order to protect their factories and laborers from cheaper European products. Demanding that “American laborers shall be protected against the pauper labor of Europe,” tariff proponents argued that the taxes gave “employment to thousands of American mechanics, artisans, and laborers.

Rising Industrial Interests at the North

Different Impacts on North and South. The vast majority of American industry was located in the northern states, whereas the economies of the agricultural southern states were based on the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods. The South held few manufacturing concerns, and a strong impact of the tariffs was that southerners had to pay higher prices for goods in order to subsidize northern profits.

Agriculture Continues as Dominant Economy of the South

Uses for Tariffs. The collected tariffs were used to fund public projects in the North such as improvements to roads, harbors and rivers. From 1789 to 1845, the North received five times the amount of money that was spent on southern projects. More than twice as many lighthouses were built in the North as in the South, and northern states received twice the southern appropriations for coastal defense.

Tariff Nullification Crisis & Talk of Secession Begins (1832). The sectional friction caused by the tariffs bills eventually led the country to the nullification controversy of 1832, during which South Carolina declared the tariff laws null and void. John C. Calhoun, the father of nullification, developed the theory of secession and detailed the steps by which a state could sever its relationship with the Union and remove itself from the unfair power of the central government. Federal authority prevailed in the nullification crisis of 1832, but the theories developed by Calhoun would be invoked again when the country split apart in 1861.

Lincoln Elected as a Strong “Tariff Man”

Tariffs, Lincoln & Ft. Sumter. It is very important to note that Lincoln was seen as a strong supporter of Tariffs—much more clearly than he was seen as an opponent of slavery. It also is a notable fact that Fort Sumter was actually a Customs House, where tariffs on imported goods were enforced and collected.

Fort Sumter – Also a Customs House where Tariffs Collected

Death of Free Trade. Tariffs were seen to represent the death of free trade. The South also saw itself as being looted to pay for the North’s industrial development. The battle over the tariff began in 1828, with the “tariff of abomination.” Thirty year later, with the South paying 87 percent of federal tariff revenue while having their livelihoods threatened by protectionist legislation, it became impossible for the two regions to be governed under the same regime. The South believed itself a region that was being reduced to a slave status, with the federal government as its master. This was exacerbated by the rise of Cotton prices to astronomical levels and desires to control the flow and profits from this commodity.  More on that in the next blog about the impact of King Cotton on trade and tariff disputes.

Death of Free Trade


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Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part III

American Flag 1861

Most often Cited Causes of the War

  • Economic and Cultural Differences
  • Federal vs. States Rights-Secession
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement

Growth of the Abolition Movement

  • Fugitive Slave Act and Law
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Underground Railroad
  • Abolitionists

Classic Abolitionist Image

It is important to remember that slavery, in and of itself, was not a cause of the war but, rather, that it was people’s response to slavery.  Slavery had been a part of the United States from its earliest colonial days. While many deplored it and talked of it as an evil, few became truly galvanized to fight it until the Abolition moment emerged to give a compelling voice to protests against slavery. It is also important to remember that the huge  growth of the cotton trade had increased the numbers of slaves astronomically over the previous several decades. I’ll talk more of this in my next blog about causes of the war from the Southern point of view. For the present discussion, however, the rapid growth in numbers of slaves in the South dramatically increased the significance and visibility of the ‘slave problem’ to the anti-slavery elements of the North.

Fugitive Slave Act and Law: Abolitionists began to emerge in greater and greater numbers in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of  1793, which got the idea going—but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave the movement teeth. With this law, people could be convicted and heavily fined if they were found to be aiding and abetting slaves—this alone radicalized many moderate abolitionists. While people were, of course influenced by the many stories of the misuse of this law, and the abuses of slavery in general, there was another often more personally felt concern. Northerners were feeling a threat of the balance of power shifting, and the Fugitive Slave law inflamed Northern fears of a “Slave Power conspiracy.” Again, we must realize how much of the Civil War was rooted in a very profound and deeply rooted struggle for the supremacy of Northern or Southern ways of living.  Abolitionists did feel for the plight of the slaves, but they also feared a larger spread of southern slave-holding ways.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Uncle Tom’s Cabin published as a 40-week serial in the National Era from 1851-1852.  This novel became the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, and the second best-selling 19th century book, overall, second only to the Bible. It also created much more popular feeling against slavery that helped to inspire people who had not yet considered themselves to be abolitionists. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he famously said as he shook her hand, “So this is the Little lady who started this great war!”

Routes of the Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad: Also, at around this same time, the Underground Railroad to Canada was growing. It had been growing from 1830 to 1860 with a peak after 1850. One estimate is that over 100,000 slaves escaped via the Underground Railway by 1850  Thirty thousand were estimated to have gone to Canada. The fact of the existence of the Underground Railway was one of the things that inspired the desire to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Southerners believed the escape of slaves to be, legally and rightly, a the theft of property.  They could not understand why there was so much resistance to what they saw was a just law that only involved property concerns. The fact that Abolitionists made it into a moral imperative only inflamed passions further. Safe houses emerged, secret operatives north and south helped slaves, and Harriet Tubman was a critical force in organizing the passage of many many slaves.

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionists: Leading Abolitionists gave voice to the cause and continued to speak of the plight of the slaves using emotional and Christian language. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave himself and a brilliant orator, often spoke of the realities of slavery as personified in himself. The fact of his eloquence and his passion helped to show many people prepared to think of slaves as entirely ‘the other,’ that the gulf between people of different racial backgrounds was not as large as they had thought.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison– founded “The Liberator” in 1831.  The following quote is from his famous opening editorial: “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

Language such as this further drew a line between the North and South which, as I have illustrated in the previous two blog entries, was already deeply etched by cultural and economic differences.  In the next blogs, I will look at these same and other issues from the Southern point of view to show how very deeply they also felt their concerns to be worth waging war to vindicate.

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Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part II

American Flag 1861

Most often Cited Causes of the War

  • Economic and Cultural Differences
  • Federal vs. States Rights–Secession
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement

Federal vs. States Rights – Secession

Cartoon mocking the “Secession Movement” in the Northern Press

  • Preserving the Union
  • Federal Rights
  • State Rights

Secession was based on the idea of state rights (or “states rights,” a variant that came into use after the Civil War). This exalted the powers of the individual states as opposed to those of the Federal government. It generally rested on the theory of state sovereignty– that in the United States the ultimate source of political authority lay in the separate states. Associated with the principle of state rights was a sense of state loyalty that could prevail over a feeling of national patriotism. Before the war, the principle found expression in different ways at different times, in the North as well as in the South. During the war it became a key motivator of the secession of the  Confederacy.

Hamilton vs. Jefferson – Another potent root source of Disunion

These issues are rooted in disputes beginning with Hamiltonian Federalists  and Jeffersonian  Democratic Republicans (no, it wasn’t an oxymoron then). The Constitution could be interpreted in opposite ways. In its clause giving Congress all powers “necessary and proper” for carrying the specified powers into effect, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury found ample authorization for his financial program, including a national bank. In the Tenth Amendment, however, Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state discovered a bar to congressional legislation of that kind: no power to establish a bank having been delegated to Congress, that power must have been reserved to the states. As president, George Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the bills that Congress passed to enact Hamilton’s plan. Eventually Jefferson withdrew from the Washington administration and, with Madison, organized an opposition to it. Thus, in the 1790s,  the two parties, Federalist and Republican began, the one willing to exploit the “implied powers” of the Constitution, the other demanding a “strict construction” of the document. This split was another one of the fundamental differences that set the scene for the war to emerge. The state rights Jeffersonians were more prevalent in the South while the Federalist Hamiltonians met with more favor and support at the North.

Post Civil War Northern View “Washington Made the Union and Lincoln Saved it.”

These are patterns that remain today and are the foundation of many of the differences between today’s Republican and Democratic parties. Similar ideas about limitations of federal vs. state or limited powers remain.

In his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, Lincoln proclaimed that it was his duty to maintain the Union. He also declared that he had no intention of ending slavery where it existed, or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. This was a  position that horrified African Americans and their white allies, but it made all sense in terms of the goals for his presidency.

Contemporary Image of “The Rail Splitter” rebuilding the Union

It really was about Republican principles in their earliest sense—preserving the Republic and Hamiltonian beliefs in the necessary power of the Federal Government—no longer a ‘union of states,’ but a true “union.” Federalists believed in preserving Federal Government.  They also allied themselves with business interests and businessmen of the north. This was Lincoln’s first aim–when it became clear that abolitionist principals helped with this aim, he embraced them. While he saw the moral outrages of slavery, it was the preservation of the union that was his first goal.

When I address the causes of the war from the Southern point of view, I will discuss more what state rights really meant to the South.

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Northern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I

Before you read this blog, see what you think the strongest answer is.  After you finish this first series of blog posts on the Northern Views, you’ll have a chance to try again!

American Flag 1861

Most often Cited Causes of the War

  • Economic and Cultural Differences
  • Federal vs. States Rights–Secession
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement

Economic and Cultural Differences

  • English Roots-Calvinist vs. Cavalier

Cavalier Gentleman

A reality of the United States of America as it grew to prominence is that it did possess two very distinct cultures roughly defined by the Mason-Dixon line. Much of this began at the very beginning.  In many ways, the  North was more formed by Calvinist leanings and the South more by Cavalier.

Roots in the English Civil War, Puritan Revolution, 1642—some  have even gone so far as to say that war traveled over to America to plant the first seeds of what would become the American Civil War.

Cavaliers were often second or third sons of aristocrats looking for their own estates and a  new nobility—with slaves not that different from serfs and vassals—landed gentry was their model. When the Anglicans, or Cavaliers, came from England to settle the southern colonies of North America, they brought with them many of the same customs that they had formerly used. Their ways, unlike those of the Puritans and Protestants settling the northern colonies, were very feudalistic because of the essentially feudal society of the 1600s that they had left in England. The Anglicans’ feudalistic customs instituted in the New World affected every aspect of the society, including the economy, politics, and social system. The economy of the South was based on ways that already had become antiquated in England.

John Calvin

Puritans meanwhile were embracing the Industrial Revolution and the notion that all men were valued by their material achievements which showed the light of God shining on them—building factories and seeing the US as an emerging industrial world power—but needing cotton for their mills.  This created a Northern society much more geared toward self-made man and equality (within reason) and much less belief in deference and honor as things to live for.  This began to emerge into Capitalism in its purest most Darwinian form.

  • Democracy & Capitalism  vs. Deference, Honor, & Feudalism (Land)

Industrial Revolution Beginning Up North

The Puritans also had fought for a more limited or constitutional monarchy, which led directly toward democratic ideals.   Democracy and Capitalism driven by individual initiative.

In the South, only a small number of people owned all the land, and the rest of the population lived on it. Land meant money which meant power, and the individuals who had had land and power in England also had land in America. An internalized class system and a society of Deference and Honor driven by land ownership.

  • King Cotton

Antebellum Cotton Field

On the eve of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s cotton was America’s leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe. The cotton industry was one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world supply of cotton came from the American South. This industry, fueled by the labor of slaves on plantations, generated huge sums of money for the United States and influenced the nation’s ability to borrow money in a global market. In many respects, cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century.  I’ll say more about this in my postings on “What Really Started the American Civil War? Southern Views” which will come up in a few weeks, after I have finished the Northern Views.

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Blog Series on “Social Realities of the American Civil War” Kick Off

I am currently providing a series of lectures on “Social Realities of the Civil War” and realize this is great content to apply to a parallel series of blogs. The first three are, “What Really Started the Civil War: Northern Views,” “What Really Started the Civil War: Southern Views,” and “Soldiers, Saints, Sinners, & Spies: Women’s Roles in the American Civil War.” There will be seven more lectures for a series of ten in all. I have collected many great facts, figures, and illustrations that I plan to share in this blog series. I probably will break it down into a series of sub-topics that I will present over the next several months. Stay tuned!

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