Slavery in America

Negro slavery in America was introduced in the 17th century. The number of black slaves in America did not immediately expand after the Dutch Mann o Warre brought the first boatload to Jamestown in 1619. But by 1800, there were about 900,000 slaves in the United States; fewer than 40,000 of them lived in the northern states.

In the last month of his life, Benjamin Franklin wrote a parody of a speech by Senator James Jackson of Georgia, in which Jackson defended the institution of slavery. Franklin pretended to recall the address made by a North African potentate a century earlier:

If we cease our Cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the Commodities their Countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make Slaves of their People, who in this hot Climate are to cultivate our Lands? Who are to perform the common Labours of our City, and in our Families? Must we not then be our own Slaves? And is there not more Compassion and more Favour due to us as Mussulmen, than to these Christian Dogs?

Slavery was addressed by the United States Constitution when it calculated each slave as being equal to 3/5 of a free person for calculating representation in the House of Representatives. While there was no effort to abolish slavery itself at that time, some delegates to the constitutional conference wanted to abolish at least the slave trade. Instead, a moratorium of twenty years was agreed to.

As the twenty-year period drew to a close, President Thomas Jefferson pushed for Congressional legislation to end the practice. On March 2, 1807, Congress passed the act that made the importation of slaves into America illegal effective January 1, 1808. The slave trade didn't vanish, but it became secretive.

Religious groups both supported and opposed slavery. The Presbyterian Church opposed slavery as early as 1787 and its General Assembly pronounced itself deeply opposed in 1817. On the other hand, Baptists in the South found support for slavery in the Bible, both directly in the Old Testament and less clearly in the New Testament. Richard Furman, in a missive to the governor of South Carolina, wrote in 1823, which summarized the southern justification of slavery:

In the Old Testament, the Isrealites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations; except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their "bond-men forever;" and an "inheritance for them and their children." They were not to go out free in the year of jubilee, as the Hebrews, who had been purchased, were: the line being clearly drawn between them.

In the eyes of some, the Mexican-American War was brought about for the purpose of advancing slavery. Charles Sumner wrote a critique of the war that was adopted by the Massachusetts legislature in 1847. He stated:

A war of conquest is bad; but the present war has darker shadows. It is a war for the extension of slavery over a territory which has already been purged by Mexican authorities from this stain and curse.

This seems doubtful. The greatest support for the Mexican war came from the West. In the South, among Whigs as well as Democrats, the war was generally opposed. One of the opponents was John C. Calhoun, who worried that acquiring too much additional land would reopen the question of slavery in the territories.

Many have questioned whether the economics of slavery would have kept it as an important practice in the South without the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. The cotton gin made the growing of cotton vastly more profitable and slavery came to be regarded as a permanent necessity.

In 1855, David Christy wrote "Cotton is King," a book that was hailed by pro-slavery advocates. Although maintaining a degree of neutrality with regard to the morality of slavery, Christy demonstrated that the production of cotton was an integral part of the world economy and argued that the widespread benefits outweighed the defects of slavery:

He who looks for any other result, must expect that nations, which, for centuries, have waged war to extend their commerce, will now abandon their means of aggrandizement, and bankrupt themselves, to force the abolition of American Slavery!

While the planters might feel that slavery was the underpinning of King Cotton, others viewed it as the cause of the South's relative underdevelopment in the realm of commerce. Hinton R. Helper, one of the few Southern abolitionists, tried to persuade the small nonslaveholding farmers to overturn the policies of the plantation aristocracy. His book, "The Impending Crisis," was widely praised in the North. In it, he exhorted them:

Nonslaveholders of the South! Recollect that slavery is the only impediment to your progress and prosperity, that it stands diametrically opposed to all needful reforms, that it seeks to sacrifice you entirely for the benefit of others, and that it is the one great and only cause of dishonor to your country. Will you not abolish it? May Heaven help you to do your duty!

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Slavery in America.

By George Washington
I never mean, unless some particular circumstance 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 law.
Letter to J.F. Mercer, 1786
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own.
Essays, First Series
By Abraham Lincoln
Southern men declare that their slaves are better off than hired laborers amongst us. How little they know, whereof they speak! There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us… Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope.
Speech in 1859
By Abraham Lincoln
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Describing his motives in the Civil War, letter to Horace Greeley, 1862
By Abraham Lincoln
I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly, those who desire it for others. When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
By Abraham Lincoln
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
First of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
By Robert E. Lee
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
Statement in 1870
By Benjamin Rush
I need say hardly anything in favor of the Intellects of the Negroes, or of their capacities for virtue and happiness, although these have been supposed by some to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe. The accounts which travelers give of their ingenuity, humanity and strong attachments to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans.… All the vices which are charged upon the Negroes in the southern colonies, and the West Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove, that they were not intended, by Providence, for it.
On Slavekeeping, 1773
By Booker T. Washington: Up from Slavery
We went into slavery a piece of property; we came out American citizens. We went into slavery pagans; we came out Christians. We went into slavery without a language; we came out speaking the proud Anglo-Saxon tongue. We went into slavery with slave chains clanking about our wrists; we came out with the American ballot in our hands.
Address to Hamilton Club, Chicago, 1895
By George Mason
As much as I value an union of all the states, I would not admit the southern states into the union, unless they agreed to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade, because it would bring weakness and not strength to the union.
Debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, 1788
By James Buchanan
All agree that under the Constitution slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human power except that of the respective States themselves wherein it exists. May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end, and that the geographical parties to which it has given birth, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, will speedily become extinct? Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance.
Inaugural Address, 1857
By Jefferson Davis
There is a relation belonging to this species of property, unlike that of the apprentice or the hired man, which awakens whatever there is of kindness or of nobility of soul in the heart of him who owns it; this can only be alienated, obscured, or destroyed, by collecting this species of property into such masses that the owner is not personally acquainted with the individuals who compose it.
Senate speech, 1860

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