“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Before these words were written, there were already millions of slaves in what would become the United States of America. Our founding fathers were quick to notice the dichotomy between the institution of slavery and the words, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
President Abraham Lincoln, in his eulogy on Henry Clay, a politician who was Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829, stated, “We were proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world, by thus fostering Human Slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of Human Freedom.”
The original draft of the Declaration of Independence included a paragraph on slavery. Jefferson blamed King George, III for transporting slaves from Africa to the British colonies. He blamed King George for the deaths that occurred during the transport of these slaves. He also blamed King George for inciting those slaves to rise up and murder the citizens of their new country.
So, from the beginning, our founding fathers had two concerns: slave uprisings and how to end slavery.
In a 1786 letter written by George Washington, he stated, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” President Washington found that there were several problems in freeing the slaves at his plantation, Mount Vernon. Some of the slaves living on his plantation were dower slaves that were left to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington for her use during her lifetime by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. These slaves belonged to the Custis estate and would return to the Custis estate upon the death of Martha. The dower slaves had married some of Washington’s own slaves, so to free his own slaves would mean that families would be broken and he didn’t want to do that. Some of the slaves at Mount Vernon were rented from a neighbor.
Washington thought that slavery was an inefficient labor system and was ill-suited for diversified farming. Mount Vernon was not showing a profit and slavery was part of the problem. He accepted that Mount Vernon would never show a profit because some of his slaves were too old to work and others were too young to work, but still he had a moral obligation to provide for their care. Much of what he grew never reached the marketplace, but was consumed by the slave labor. He made the maintenance of the slaves and their families a higher priority than profit.
Upon Washington’s death he freed all the slaves he owned, set up an old age fund for the elderly slaves, and taught the young slaves a useful skill. However, during his presidency, he opposed federal manumission of slaves because he thought the issue was so emotionally charged that it would split the country.
Another impediment to the end of slavery was the Fugitive Slave Laws which started with the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution. Slaves traveling by themselves were required to show proof that they were free. Often, even those who could show proof had their papers torn up and were sold into slavery.
Solomon Northup was born a free man in 1808. His father was a former slave that was freed when his master died. His mother was of mixed descent. In 1841, Northup was drugged, kidnapped, transported south and sold into slavery in New Orleans. He was a slave for 12 years. After he obtained his freedom, he wrote his memoirs, 12 Years a Slave, with the help of a local journalist David Wilson. The book became a best seller. A movie was made from the book in 2013.
In 1780 Thomas Jefferson proposed a program of gradual abolition that would end the slave trade, prohibit slavery in the western territories and establish a date (his suggestion was 1800) when all newly born children of slaves would be emancipated.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 formed a committee to discuss the slave trade. The committee compromised by giving Congress the power to ban the slave trade as of 1808. Participation in the slave trade was forbidden to the citizens of the United States by the Slave Trade Act of 1794. The Slave Trade Act of 1807, which went into effect on January 1, 1808, offered stiff penalities for anyone participating in the slave trade. Other Slave Trade Acts came in 1818, 1819, and 1820.
Several plans were put forth as a means of ending slavery. In 1789 Thomas Jefferson thought that the emancipated slaves should be intermingled with imported German peasants on 50 acre farms where they could learn proper work habits. He did not believe that whites and blacks could live together in America in harmony.
In February 1790 two Quaker petitions caused a bitter debate in the House of Representatives. The first petition called for the immediate end of the slave trade. The other advocated the gradual abolition of slavery. Benjamin Franklin had signed the second petition.
In 1819, Virginia congressman, Charles F. Mercer, sponsored a bill that appropriated $100,000 to found an agency to provide for the return of Africans removed from captured slave traders. The American Colonization Society had been formed in 1816 with the plan of colonizing free Africans. Free Africans were taken to Liberia. The capital city of Monrovia is named after President James Monroe who supported the American Colonization Society.
Free blacks were suspicious of the American Colonization Society. Three thousand blacks met at Philadelphia’s Bethel Church in 1817 to denounce the colonization plan. They claimed that their military service in the Revolution and the War of 1812 gave them rights as Americans.
In 1824, Thomas Jefferson compiled a full analysis of the demographic and economic facts and calculated that it would take nine hundred million dollars to free and deport the 1.5 million slaves in the USA over a 25 year period. The 1.5 million slaves would have doubled in number during the time the plans were being implemented, and many of the freed slaves, when offered passage to Africa or the West Indies, would say, “We will not go.” Africans born in the United States considered themselves to be American.
President James Madison saw three ways out of slavery. First, slavery could be weakened by spreading it more widely. Diffusion would “better the condition of the slaves by lessening the number belonging to individual masters, and intermixing both with greater masses of free people.” The second way out of slavery would be colonization. He estimated that it would take $600 million to colonize 1.5 million slaves. To him, it was important to separate whites and blacks because he believed they would never overcome their prejudices towards one another. The third method of getting out of slavery would be to just set the slaves free.
Talk of a secession was brought up again in 1814 when the embargo act devastated the economies of New York and New England to the point that the people of Nantucket Island almost starved to death causing state leaders to threaten secession. Massachusetts Senator, Timothy Pickering, tried to unite New England states with New York and perhaps Nova Scotia in a Northern Confederacy that would secede from the union.
The first peacetime depression in the United States started in 1819 and lasted until 1821. Government revenue, especially custom duties, were dramatically decreased. Income from the sale of public lands was decreased due to many purchasers defaulting on their loans.
In April 1820, Representative Henry Baldwin (R-Pennsylvania) introduced a bill increasing duties on cotton and a few other items. The Southern states objected on the grounds that agriculture was being taxed for the benefit of manufacturers.
In the mid 1820’s, cotton prices plummeted, banks were making harsh demands on borrowers, and banks refused to redeem paper notes with gold and silver.
Prior to the ratification of the 16th amendment in 1913 which gave Congress the power to tax income, tariffs were the main source of income for the Federal government. Factories and their workers in the United States wanted higher tariffs on goods coming into the country from Great Britian so that the cheaper British goods would be sold at a more competitive price. High tariffs were good for the manufacturers in the Northern states but were bad for the agricultural economy of the south. The south sold the cotton it produced to Great Britain’s manufacturers. The finished goods were then imported back to the United States. If the British had to pay higher tariffs, then they didn’t buy as much cotton from the Southern states. This put a real economic burden on the South since they did little manufacturing and had to buy the goods they didn’t produce on the farm from manufacturers in the northern states or Great Britain. Simultaneously, they got paid less for the goods they produced and had to pay more for those they did not produce.
The Tariff of 1828 was called the tariff of abominations in the South and this tariff was the genesis of the Nullification Crisis of 1832. The Tariff of 1832 was meant to settle the conflict caused by The Tarriff of 1828 but still Southerners were not satisfied. President Andrew Jackson told South Carolina “on your unhappy heads will inevitably fall all raw evils of the conflict you force upon the government of your country.”
On November 24, 1832 a South Carolina convention nullified the Federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. December 28, 1832, Vice-President John Calhoun resigned in support of South Carolina.
January 16, 1833 President Andrew Jackson asked Congress for authority to use military force if necessary to “crush nullifiers and enforce revenue and tariff collection laws.” On March 2, 1833 President Jackson signed the Force Bill into law. March 15, 1832 South Carolina rescinded it’s Nullification Act. Three days later, South Carolina nullified the Force Bill.
In the winter of 1832-33, radicals in South Carolina were raising an army to defend their right to nullify federal laws. President Jackson proclaimed that nullification was tantamount to treason. In the South nullification fervour continued to spread. The North stepped up demands for abolition. Abolitionist and slavery proponents were prepared to dissolve the Union to further their cause. Their was open talk of secession when the 31st congress met on December 3, 1849.
The Panic of 1837, which lasted until the early 1840’s, saw unemployment rise while profits, prices and wages dropped. The Panic of 1857 was a world wide financial crisis. Due to the discovery of gold in California business was booming. The railroad business was doing quite well because people were moving west. In 1857, the railroads suffered a financial decline and workers were laid off. Those who kept their railroad jobs took a 10% cut in pay. By 1858, commercial credit had dried up. Everybody saw a decrease in profits. The South faired better in this panic than did the North.
Poor whites had their own slavery issues. In the 1830’s a new term came into use, “wage slavery.” Today we refer to these people as “the working poor.” It was said that the New Hampshire mill workers worked longer hours each day than did the slaves in the South. Poor whites feared emancipation because the sudden flood of workers into the work force would mean too much competition for the jobs available and would result in high unemployment.
A coffin handbill distributed after the 1836 strike of New York journeymen read: “Mechanics and workingmen! A deadly blow has been struck at your liberty! The prize for which your fathers fought has been robbed from you! The freemen of the North are now on level with the slaves of the South!”
James P. Doyle had moved his family from Tennessee to Kansas in order to “get to a free state where there would be no slave labor to hinder white men from making a fair day’s wage.” James and two of his sons were killed on May 24, 1856 by some of John Brown’s men.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress January 31, 1865 and ratified December 6, 1865 ended slavery for African Americans in the United States.
For Further Reading
Slavery by another name – Part 5
Mississippi flag; photo by Richard Threlkeld on Flickr (noncommercial use permitted with attribution / share alike).
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