Why was abolition of slavery so hard to achieve?
The institution of slavery, deeply embedded within the fabric of the United States since its inception, casts a long and complex shadow on the nation’s history. From the early colonial era through the end of the Civil War, slavery was more than just an economic system; it was a foundational pillar of American society, politics, and even identity. To appreciate the magnitude of the task of abolition, it’s essential to understand the intricate tapestry of interests, ideologies, and fears that upheld the institution for centuries.
One of the primary reasons for the enduring nature of slavery was its deep-rooted connection with the economy, particularly in the South. Plantation-based agriculture, especially the cultivation and export of cotton, was the lifeblood of the Southern economy.
The advent of the cotton gin in the late 18th century revolutionized cotton production, leading to an exponential increase in demand for slave labor. By the mid-19th century, the American South was supplying the majority of the world’s cotton, fueling not only the American but also the European industrial revolutions.
This massive economic dependency meant that any threat to the institution of slavery was perceived as a direct threat to the livelihood of the Southern elites and the broader Southern economy. Slaveholders and their political allies argued that the abolition of slavery would lead to economic collapse, a belief widely held by many white Southerners, irrespective of whether they owned slaves. This economic argument became a powerful tool in the arsenal of pro-slavery advocates, reinforcing resistance to abolition at every turn.
Social and Cultural Factors
While the economic dimensions of slavery are often at the forefront of historical examinations, the institution was deeply intertwined with American social and cultural structures. To many, especially in the Southern states, slavery was seen as a ‘natural’ and ‘ordained’ order of things.
Racial prejudices, underpinned by pseudoscientific theories of the era, propagated the belief that African Americans were inherently inferior. This alleged inferiority was used as a justification for their enslavement, positioning it as a ‘civilizing’ institution that purportedly benefited both the enslaved and their enslavers.
The social hierarchy was another factor. A society without slavery would demand a reconfiguration of social order. For many white Southerners, the idea of living alongside free African Americans as equals posed a significant challenge to their deeply ingrained worldview.
Religion, too, played its part. While many abolitionists used faith to condemn slavery, pro-slavery advocates frequently cited religious texts to justify the institution. Interpretations of scriptures that seemed to endorse slavery or the subjugation of one group by another were often highlighted in religious discourses of the South.
The political arena in the pre-Civil War United States was rife with tension over the issue of slavery. Slavery wasn’t just a Southern concern; it influenced national politics and policy decisions at every level.
Representation was a key issue. The three-fifths compromise, enshrined in the Constitution, allowed states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation. This effectively gave slaveholding states disproportionate power in the U.S. Congress, enabling them to push for laws and regulations that protected and expanded the institution of slavery.
As the nation expanded westward, the question of whether new states would be admitted as free or slaveholding became a constant source of tension. Battles over territories like Kansas and Nebraska underscored the deep divisions and the lengths to which both sides were willing to go to protect their interests.
Legal decisions further entrenched the institution. The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, could not be American citizens and thus had no standing to sue in federal court, was a major blow to anti-slavery sentiments. The ruling also declared that the federal government couldn’t prohibit slavery in the territories, sparking outrage among abolitionists and further polarizing the nation.
Fear of Reprisals and Unrest
One of the deeply-rooted anxieties among white Southerners was the fear of retaliation from the enslaved population. Stories of slave revolts from other parts of the world, such as the successful Haitian Revolution, fueled these fears and created a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.
Even minor acts of defiance by the enslaved were sometimes met with disproportionate violence as a means of deterrence. The mere whisper of rebellion could lead to brutal crackdowns, serving as a grim reminder of the balance of power. These fears were not entirely unfounded. There were several attempts at rebellion within the U.S., such as the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, which only reinforced the belief that abolition could lead to widespread violence and chaos.
Furthermore, there were concerns about how to integrate a large number of freed individuals into society. The challenge of transitioning from a system of complete subjugation to one where former slaves had rights and agency was a daunting prospect for many, especially those who believed in the false notion of racial superiority.
Resistance from the Enslaved and Abolitionists
Despite the immense challenges, resistance against the institution of slavery was persistent and multifaceted. From acts of daily resistance, such as slowing down work or practicing covert cultural traditions, to more overt actions like escape attempts, the enslaved constantly sought ways to challenge their bondage.
The Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, facilitated the escape of thousands of slaves to the North and to Canada. Figures like Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave, became symbols of hope and resistance, guiding many to freedom despite immense personal risk.
Alongside the efforts of the enslaved, a growing movement of abolitionists emerged, advocating for the immediate and complete end of slavery. Comprising both Black and white individuals, organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society used literature, speeches, and direct action to challenge the institution. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned prominent orator, used their personal experiences to provide a powerful counter-narrative to pro-slavery arguments.
However, the efforts of abolitionists and the enslaved were not without consequences. They were frequently met with violence and legislative pushback. Laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were enacted to curtail resistance, mandating the return of escaped slaves to their owners and punishing those who aided them. Despite these challenges, the resistance played a crucial role in highlighting the atrocities of slavery and mobilizing support for its eventual abolition.
The abolition of slavery in the United States was not the result of a singular effort, but rather the culmination of various forces, struggles, and events that spanned decades. The intertwined economic, social, cultural, and political factors that propped up the institution of slavery created an intricate web of vested interests and deeply-held beliefs that resisted change at every turn.
Yet, the persistent efforts of the enslaved, alongside the tireless advocacy of abolitionists, managed to challenge and eventually topple this behemoth. The journey towards abolition would ultimately lead the nation into its most devastating conflict, the Civil War, underscoring the lengths to which defenders of slavery would go to preserve their way of life.
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the eventual ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 marked the formal end of slavery. However, the legacies of this institution, the struggles to abolish it, and the subsequent fight for true equality continue to shape the American socio-political landscape. Understanding the complexities behind the abolition of slavery is crucial, not just as a historical reflection, but as a reminder of the continuous journey towards justice and equality.
Class Notes and Outline – Why was abolition of slavery so hard to achieve?
1. The North didn’t care as much as you think they did.
Northern citizens who were actually abolitionists were few and far between. In fact, even after the publishing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin less than 1% of Northerners would have considered themselves actual abolitionists. The sad reality was that the only reason there were few slaves in the North was because there was not a need for them and there was little economic advantage to owning them.
It should also be noted that many in the North made a profit as a result of slavery. It was Northern ships that carried the cotton grown by slaves and it was Northern ships that brought the slaves to America in the first place.
2. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws
In order to avoid a possible Civil War, the Northern states agreed to pass a national Fugitive Slave law. This made it illegal to help or shelter a runaway slave. While many in the North ignored the law, it shows that the North was not really serious about abolition.
3. Passage of Slave Codes
Laws like the Slave Codes which forbade the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. This prevented slaves from organizing and protesting.
4. Slaves were protected by the 5th Amendment
To take away the slave meant to take away the private property of southerners. Private property is protected by the 5th Amendment of the Constitution and this was a law most were unwilling to break. No matter how absurd that seems to you today, it was true in 1850.
4. The north was unwilling to fight
There was little desire to push the issue as it seemed it might lead to war.