America’s Original Sin

The institution of slavery has had a profound and lasting effect on American history. Virtually all historians now agree that sectional differences on the slavery issue caused the Civil War. Until the eve of that conflict the slaveholding interest was so economically and politically powerful as to appear virtually impregnable. No one could reasonably have predicted in 1860 that the emancipation of more than four million African-American slaves would come within five years. Nothing short of the needs and emotions aroused by the vast bloodletting required to preserve the Union could, in so short a time, have abolished an institution that had sunk such deep roots in America. Before the war, lawyers, politicians, clergymen, even physical anthropologists had defended it against a Northern abolitionist movement that had never gained much popular support. In Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, his brief but incisive reflections on slavery in American and world history, David Brion Davis sums up the economic basis for the slaveholders’ power in antebellum America:

There were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton was by far the nation’s leading export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and England, and it paid for American imports of everything from steel to investment capital. Moreover, since the price of slaves continued to soar through the antebellum decades, American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation, with the exception of land. In 1860 the value of Southern slaves was about three times the value of the capital stock in manufacturing and railroads nationwide.

Ira Berlin, in his Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, shows that the Northern states, despite having gradually emancipated their own slaves between the Revolution and the 1830s, were deeply implicated in the protection and preservation of slavery in the South. Northern free blacks agitated vigorously for the freedom of their brethren in bondage, but the discrimination and violence to which they were exposed in the North left them for the most part disfranchised, impoverished, and (especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) unsure whether they could maintain their own freedom against slave catchers and kidnappers. Berlin goes so far as to characterize the free African-Americans of the antebellum North as living in what amounted to “maroon colonies” (analogous to the independent communities that escaped slaves were able to establish in remote regions of Jamaica, Guyana, and Brazil). Like maroons they were isolated from whites and only precariously free. There were sympathetic white abolitionists, but they were an unpopular minority, without political power and unable to develop a plausible strategy to end slavery (at least not until the attempted secession of Southern states in 1861 made it possible to advocate emancipation as a means to preserve the Union).

The Slaveholding Republic—a work left unfinished by Don E. Fehrenbacher when he died in 1997 and ably completed and edited by his one-time student Ward M. McAfee—reveals for the first time the full extent…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.