Why did slavery decline earlier in the North than in the South of the United States?

by Tim Harding

There were enormous differences in the timing of slavery abolition in the North of the United States compared to the South.  The gradual state by state emancipation of slaves began in the North soon after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Yet there was no legislated emancipation of any slaves in the South until 1865, after a bloody and destructive Civil War against the North.  Why was this so?  Was it simply due to geographic differences in the levels of racial prejudice against black Africans?  Or were there, as I intend to examine in this essay, more complex and relevant cultural, political, economic or religious differences between the North and the South?

In terms of the abolition of slavery, the dividing line between the North and the South was the Mason – Dixon Line, which separated free Pennsylvania from slave Maryland, Delaware, and what is now West Virginia.  This essay focusses on the internal North/South differences during the emancipation of slaves, rather than the abolition of the importation of slaves to America via the Atlantic slave trade, which affected both the North and the South.

During the British colonial period, African slaves were imported and distributed to all colonies to replace the dwindling supply of white indentured labour,[1] who were not arriving in sufficient quantities to replace those who had served their limited term.[2]  On the plantations, escape was easy for the white indentured labourer who could blend into the free population, but less easy for black Africans.[3]  In the North, slaves typically worked as house servants and labourers, including on farms and on maritime docks in loading and unloading ships.  Some slaves worked in various skilled trades, such as bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and so on.[4]

Williams argues that the decisive factor was that the African slave was cheaper than indentured white servants.  The money that procured a white servant for ten years could buy an African slave for life.  He concludes that the primary reason for the use of African slaves was economic rather than racial; and that racial prejudice was a later rationalisation to justify economic facts.  Sugar, tobacco and cotton required large plantations and hordes of cheap labour.[5]  In America, these commodity crops were all grown in the South, as a result of climatic and topological differences from the North, where there were no such large plantations.

The first American plantation commodity crop was tobacco in the Chesapeake region, dating from the early 17th century.  Production of food crops – primarily maize – was usually limited to the requirements of self-sufficiency.  The switch from indentured labour to slave labour did raise productivity on the majority of plantations, just as the slave buyers had hoped.  Most of these efficient workers were Africans rather than Creoles, with slave women performing the same work as slave men.[6]

The American Revolution brought severe economic depression and social disruption to the Chesapeake region.  There were shortages of salt, medicine, shoes and cloth and slaves naturally suffered more than slave-owners.  Some slaves got to travel with their owners, where they learned what the Revolution was about, stimulating slave demands for consequential freedoms.[7]

Slaves picking cotton

Later on, after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the South and Deep South reshaped American slave life.  The slave population in Alabama and Mississippi grew sixfold, mainly as a result of a substantial relocation of 700,000 slaves from the Southern border states.[8]   Strong world demand for cotton kept prices generally high, enabling the purchase and relocation of slaves from higher latitudes.[9]  Slaves were even bought from Northern slave-owners in anticipation of the abolition of slavery in those states;[10] although there was a market preference for experienced Southern slaves who were more efficient in the ‘sleight of picking cotton’.[11]  This evidence helps to show that slavery was clearly the cheapest and most productive source of labour in the South.[12]

African slaves were also of economic importance to the North.  Whilst there were no large agricultural plantations like those in the South, slaves performed menial tasks that whites would otherwise have had to do.  For this very reason, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1828 objected to the colonisation of American slaves in Africa (which had been proposed as a solution to the perceived social problems that would arise from abolition).  The Senate Committee argued that colonisation would create a labor vacuum in the Eastern seaboard cities, increase the price of labor, and attract rural Africans and fugitive slaves to the urban centres.[13]

After the American War of Independence, there were several petitions by slaves to state legislatures begging for the abolition of slavery.[14][15]  These petitions largely fell on deaf ears at the time, although Vermont and Pennsylvania had already passed Acts for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1777 and 1780 respectively.[16]  All the other Northern states followed over the next decade or so, except for New Jersey in 1804.[17]  This gradualist approach is illustrated by the words of the key ‘Founding Father’ George Washington who in 1786 wrote:

‘I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by, which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.’[18]

George Washington, as a farmer with his slaves

The gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern states at first freed children born to slave mothers, but required them to serve lengthy indentures to their mother’s masters.  As a result of this gradualist approach, New York did not fully free its last ex-slaves until 1827, Rhode Island in 1840, Pennsylvania in 1847, Connecticut in 1848, and New Hampshire and New Jersey in 1865.[19]

In stark contrast, none of the Southern states abolished slavery until after the American Civil War, when in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in all states, except as punishment for a crime.

The original Constitution of the United States included several provisions regarding slavery.  Section 9 of Article I forbade the Federal government from completely banning the importation of slaves before January 1, 1808; although some states individually passed laws against importing slaves.  Section 2 of Article IV prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.[20]

In 1789, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, amongst other things, stated that no person (that is, a free citizen) shall be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation’.  Because slaves were property at this time, the Fifth Amendment was interpreted to mean that slavery could not be abolished without just compensation.[21]  The need to avoid expensive compensation payments may well have been the main reason why Northern governments opted for gradual abolition on an intergenerational basis.

Whilst racism was an obvious factor in the Atlantic slave trade,[22] there appears to be little evidence that racist attitudes towards Africans were more prevalent in the South than the North prior to the Civil War.  For instance, the minstrel shows in which white performers in black face disparaged and ridiculed Africans originated in New York.[23]  Most of these white minstrel performers were either born in New York or had lived in the city for long periods of their lives.[24]  Minstrel skits exaggerated racially distinctive features and behaviours to grotesque proportions.[25]  Together with newspaper cartoons and posters, Northerners were constantly reminding Africans of their alleged inferiority.  These racial stereotypes ‘hardly induced Northerners to accord this clownish race equal political and social rights’.[26]

Northern white workers protested often and bitterly against unfair competition from the far cheaper African slaves.  Founding Father John Adams observed that had slavery not been abolished in the North, the white labourers would have removed the African slaves by force.  In any case, white worker hostility towards the slaves had already rendered slavery unprofitable by lowering slave motivation and productivity.[27]

An alternative view is that the views of white workers held back emancipation in the North, through fears of labor competition from freed slaves.  White trade unions reinforced antipathy towards African labor competition.  They rejected racial unity as a way of achieving higher wages and vigorously opposed abolitionism.  To the trade unions, emancipation posed a serious threat of thousands of former slaves pouring into the North to undermine wages and working conditions.[28]  Although there were obviously conflicting views of white workers towards African slaves, they underscore the central importance of economics to the debate.

On the other hand, Litwick suggests the need to balance economic arguments for the North/South differences with consideration of cultural and ideological influences.  He suggests that political leadership was a factor in drawing attention to inconsistencies between the Enlightenment principles used to justify the American Revolution and the continuation of slavery.[29]  For instance, the Northern Founding Father John Jay (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) wrote:

‘To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused.  Until America ridded herself of human bondage her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious’.[30]

John Jay (1745 – 1829)

Another cultural difference was that the leading antislavery religious movement, the Quakers, were much more active in the North than in the South.  Abolitionist sentiment in Pennsylvania, for example, resulted largely from early and persistent Quaker opposition to slavery as inconsistent with ‘the true spirit of Christianity’.  Following the lead of Pennsylvania, annual Quaker meetings in other Northern colonies adopted similar condemnations of slaveholding.[31]

In 1785, the New York Manumission Society, with John Jay as its president was also politically influential.  In 1799, John Jay as Governor of New York signed a bill providing for the gradual emancipation of New York State’s 21,000 slaves.[32]

As a counterbalance to these explanations, Davis argues that the Southern states also had antislavery political leadership from the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, St. George Tucker, Patrick Henry, Arthur Lee and John Laurens.[33]  Yet there were no legislated moves towards the emancipation of Southern slaves, gradual or otherwise.  For example, the Virginian judge St. George Tucker despairingly wrote in 1795:

‘If, in Massachusetts, where the numbers are comparatively very small, this prejudice be discernable, how much stronger may it be imagined in this country, where every white man felt himself born to tyrannize, where the blacks were regarded as of no more importance than the brute cattle, where the laws rendered even venial offences criminal in them, where every species of degradation towards them was exercised on all occasions, and where even their lives were exposed to the ferocity of their masters;’[34]

This is not to say that there were no slavery abolition movements in the South – there were many, but they had little influence compared to those in the North.  According to Davis, in 1827 the number of antislavery organisations in the South outnumbered those in the North by at least four to one.[35]  Since 1794, Southern and Northern antislavery societies had met periodically as the ‘American Convention of Delegates from Abolition Societies’.  The number of states represented varied from year to year, but the consistent presence of the Pennsylvania and New York societies gave them a dominant voice.[36]

Slaves celebrating emancipation

The abolitionist sentiments in the South were vastly outweighed by the huge economic incentives to grow commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton at minimal labor costs.  Whilst there was some difference in the antislavery religious leadership of the Quakers in the North, there were insufficient differences in political leadership to account for the eighty year delay in Southern slave emancipation.  Nor is there sufficient evidence of differences in racial prejudice between the North and the South, at least until after the Civil War.

So we are left with a conclusion that the dominant differences between the North and South in terms of slavery abolition were economic ones.  On large Southern plantations where labor costs were crucial, African slaves were much cheaper than indentured white servants, not to mention free white workers.  There were no such plantations in the North, where white workers resented and agitated against unfair competition from African slave labour.  The emancipation of Northern slaves was most likely done gradually on an intergenerational basis to avoid governments having to pay compensation for the loss of slaves as property.

Bibliography

Primary sources

Constitution of the United States, 1787. (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html) Viewed 14 September 2016.

‘Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780,’at Lillian Goldman Law Library (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/023.html)

St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Letter_from_St_George_Tucker_to_Jeremy_Belknap_June_29_1795) Viewed 15 September 2016.

George Washington to John Francis Mercer. Letter dated 9 September 1786.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. (http://www.gilderlehrman.org/collections/af0e9ed4-60d0-474e-8c7d-860434909242) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Secondary sources

Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005).

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968).

Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’ in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History, Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), 61-63.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961).

Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984).

Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95. (http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/stable/30041672).  Viewed 14 September 2016.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944) in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), pp. 56-60.

Endnotes:

[1] Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993), p.170.

[2] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944), p.57.

[3] Eric Williams, p.57.

[4] Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961), p.4.

[5] Eric Williams, p.57.

[6] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.170-177.

[7] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.187-189.

[8] Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968)’, p.236.

[9] Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993)’’ p.155-156.

[10] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.16.

[11] Steven F. Miller, p.165.

[12] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[13] Leon F. Litwack, p.156.

[14] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.76.

[15] Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven.

[16] Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780.

[17] Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

[18] George Washington to John Francis Mercer, 1786.

[19] Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

[20] Constitution of the United States, 1787.

[21] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.117.

[22] Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’.

[23] William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984), pp.39-49.

[24] Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95.

[25] Van Deburg, p.42.

[26] Leon F. Litwack, p.99.

[27] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[28] Leon F. Litwack, pp.159-160.

[29] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[30] Leon F. Litwack, p.7.

[31] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[32] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[33] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

[34] St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.

[35] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.165.

[36] Leon F. Litwack, p.18.

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