Toward A New Narrative

Slavocracy and the ‘Irrepressible Conflict’


Boston Abolitionist Poster

The pressures leading up to the Civil War were building up for decades–beginning with ongoing slave rebellions and enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railroad, most leading Northward, but some also leading to Mexico. The Northern states, one by one, outlawed slavery within their borders. Naturally, Abolitionism among the slaves and free Blacks had always existed, from their capture in Africa to David Walker’s 1829 Appeal and beyond. Among European-Americans, abolitionism emerged before Independence as a moral and religious movement, beginning with Quakers in 1688 and again peaking in the 1730s through the efforts of Benjamin Lay, who as a seaman, also gave a proletarian caste to his Quaker religious arguments.

It wasn’t until 1776 that the Quakers entirely forbade holding or selling slaves by anyone in the Society of Friends, the Quaker’s actual name. The colony of Rhode Island was the first to abolish slavery in 1652. The colony of Georgia, designed for European ex-convicts, initially banned slavery in 1733 but reversed itself in 1751. Vermont rejected slavery in 1777, when it was still an independent polity, and remained so after joining the U.S.

The question of slavery was debated at the Continental Congress in 1775. Anti-slavery provisions appeared in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, probably due to Jefferson or perhaps Thomas Paine, who wrote powerfully against it in 1775. Here’s the extracted passage:

“He [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

The passage was removed at the insistence of Southern delegates. Pennsylvania soon saw the first anti-slavery society, followed by gradual, then complete abolition in the commonwealth. Other Northern states followed suit. Beginning in 1790 through 1830, the ‘Second Great Awakening,’ a religious revival and mass upheaval largely involving women of all classes, spread throughout the North and often included the abolition of slavery as a key tenet.

It can be noted here that the masses of women, in their own way, should also be considered as part of ‘the Expropriated.’ Not only was this due to their wageless service to men in patriarchal families—many women among still matriarchal Native peoples were not—but also due to the growing practice of sending young unmarried women into textile mills by their fathers. The fathers then collected their daughter’s wages, leaving the young women only a tiny allowance. In brief, European-American women had reasons of their own for their pro-abolitionist rising in solidarity with the enslaved.

William Lloyd Garrison is credited with being the first ‘white’ national voice for abolition through his newspaper, The Liberator (1831-1865). By its first publication date, a majority in the North opposed slavery in one form or another. However, Garrison and his newspaper were noted for clarity on the call for immediate abolition everywhere, on the one hand, and the call for ‘moral suasion,’ nonviolence, and the avoidance of electoral politics as the means to do so, on the other hand. Garrison also opposed the U.S. Constitution as a ‘pact with the Devil’ and deemed it impossible to reform. His gatherings were soon joined by Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, a writer, and an eloquent speaker with direct experience with slavery, and very successful at growing the impact of The Liberator.


Frederick Douglass and John Brown

Douglass gradually differed from Garrison on the Constitution, on arms use for self-defense, and on electoral politics. In 1847, he published his own newspaper, The North Star. He collaborated closely with Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Gerrit Smith, Martin Delany, and Henry Garnet—all leaders in what might be called a multiracial left-wing of abolitionism. Douglass also took part in the women’s rights campaign launched in 1848 at Seneca Falls, N.Y., and did much to encourage early feminism.

However, the state laws at the time could not do away with the fugitive slave provisions within the U.S. Constitution. Southern slave catchers were ‘within their rights’ to apprehend escaped slaves in the North and return them to their masters. With the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Northern citizens were also required to assist in these captures or face heavy fines and prison sentences. This measure served to spur the growth of the abolitionist movement.

The division between the abolitionists and much of the rest of the relatively new nation was very deep. Again, one divides into two. For the abolitionists, Blacks were ‘brothers’ in common humanity, regardless of any degraded status. For the rest of ‘White America,’ citizens were overwhelmed by various ‘scientific race theories,’ rooted in flawed studies of cranial size, shapes of skulls, and other pseudo-science hypotheses and data. Continually created and revised to justify Black slavery, these widely publicized views had become hegemonic in universities and civil society. Many argued for ‘plural genesis,’ meaning there was no common root ancestor of whites and Blacks. One theory argued that Blacks stood at the pinnacle of the Ape family, while whites were a separate creation by God in Adam and Eve. Noah, then, acted properly in herding Blacks onto the Ark with other animals to serve him and his offspring as they saw fit.

Charles Darwin’s concurrent discoveries opposed all this. But his revolutionary work was nonetheless soon distorted and undermined by a different reactionary theory of ‘Social Darwinism,’ which argued for white supremacy as a product of ‘survival of the fittest.’ The abolitionists, then, faced not only economic, military, and political battles but deep ideological and cultural battles as well.

If abolitionism was the political left in the late 1850s, the center was composed of the Whigs, including politicians and lawyers like Abraham Lincoln. Their politics was to oppose the further spread of slavery outside the South and some designated territories in the Southwest. Lincoln himself held complicated views on slavery. He often asserted his personal opposition to slavery but had conflicted political views. On the one hand, he held to what he saw as ‘natural law’ in the Declaration of Independence and thus held that all Blacks were entitled to ‘Life, Liberty, and Property.’ On the other hand, Lincoln held to the ‘positive law’ of The Constitution, which allowed for slavery, unless amended or restricted, as in the Northwest Ordinance. As for civil rights generally, he initially opposed them but later came to support them. After conversations with Douglass and other free Blacks, he grudgingly gave up his ‘colonization’ views, the idea of removing all Blacks to Africa or Latin America.

But the critical question of the day was opposition to slavery’s expansion. Its implications especially led to sharp divisions between Northern and Southern Whigs, leading to the party’s implosion and collapse in the late 1850s. Lincoln’s Whigs had to regroup with the Greenbacks, Free Soilers, the small abolitionist Liberty Party, and others to form a new party, the Republicans. With Lincoln’s nomination, a mass youth movement of workers and farmers, the Wide Awakes, emerged from Massachusetts to Illinois to support his campaign. They organized colossal nighttime torchlit marches in cities and towns across the region. The combination of all these groups and clusters meant the GOP stood at the center of a new rising counter-hegemonic bloc to the slavocracy.

While some in the North may have believed containment would allow Southern slavery to endure indefinitely, the enslavers held no such illusion. They knew slavery had to expand or die. The world market constantly demanded more cotton; other places, such as Egypt and India, were rising as competitors. Slavery’s cotton-growing methods also had a hard impact on the soil, always requiring new acreage to come under cultivation. Some Southern enslavers even argued for expanding into the North, bringing white wage labor in the textile and other mills into chattel bondage. Thus within months of Lincoln’s election, the Southern states were seceding, and South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumpter. Next Page