Harriet Jacobs remains one of the most important anti-slavery figures in American history. As a former slave turned author, Jacobs was very influential in shaping public opinion towards an anti-slavery sentiment.
Jacobs was born into slavery in 1813. She would eventually escape into freedom in 1835. Her escape route would eventually lead her to Philadelphia where she would not have to worry about being returned to the south. (Most northern cities were sympathetic to escaped slaves) Upon moving to New York City, Jacobs would develop a personal relationship with a publisher named Nathaniel Parker Willis. Perhaps it was this relationship that inspired her to write her seminal work Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl detailed the horrible conditions that women faced in slavery. The stories were first published in the newspaper the New York Tribune. While the articles were well received at first, the graphic depictions of sexual abuse proved controversial and the serial was discontinued. Eventually, Jacobs work was published in book form. The book became an immediate sensation and significantly shaped an anti-slavery sentiment that surely fueled the abolitionist movement. While the north understood slavery was evil, the pure brutality of it was unknown to most. Jacobs work raised a much needed awareness.
But why did the south embrace slavery in the way it did?
There were a number of reasons why the south was a huge proponent of slavery. The most obvious reason centers on the enormous profits that the southern states were able to amass due to having free labor. In time, the south was eventually overly reliant on slavery since it was a non-industrialized society. Without the presence of factories, modern machinery, and an industrialized production center, the southern states were reliant on human labor more than the north. And as previously mentioned, free labor in the form of slavery provided the mechanism for this backwards infrastructure.
There were many issues that drove the notion of the south succeeding from the union. If there was a “final straw” that drove the southern states to succeed from the union, it was the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had campaigned on an anti-slavery platform. When he was elected, he professed his assertion that no new states entered into the union would be allowed to be slave states. This led to several southern states succeeding from the union and to form the Confederacy.
Obviously, President Lincoln sought to quell this succession as soon as possible. However, the tensions exploded on April 12, 1861 when the Confederacy launched an all out assault on the military base Fort Sumter in South Carolina. More than anything else, this was the inciting incident that led to an all out Civil War. During the initial years of the Civil War, the south was seriously “hammering” the north as the north could not find a proper strategy to win the war. This situation nearly led to Lincoln’s defeat in re-election. However, Lincoln did win re-election and eventually found the right general in Ulysses S. Grant. Under Grant, the south was defeated and the Emancipation Proclamation was upheld. Slavery was no more in the United States.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the reconstruction of the devastated south began. One goal of reconstruction was to integrate the now freed slaves into society. However, Lincoln’s assassination undermined reconstruction and African-Americans would remain disenfranchised in the south for an additional 100 years.
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