Black slavery in the South created a bond among white Southerners and cast them in a common mold. Slavery was also the source of the South’s large agricultural wealth, which led to white people controlling a large black minority. Slavery also caused white Southerners to realize what might happen to them should they not protect their own personal liberties, which ironically included the liberty to enslave African Americans. Because slavery was so embedded in Southern life and customs, white leadership reacted to attacks on slavery after 1830 with an ever more defiant defense of the institution, which reinforced a growing sense among white Southerners that their values eventually divided them from their fellow citizens in the Union. The South of 1860 was uniformly committed to a single cash crop, cotton.
During its reign, however, regional differences emerged between the Lower South, where the linkage between cotton and slavery as strong, and the Upper South, where slavery was relatively less important and the economy more diversified. Plantations were the leading economic institution in the Lower South. Planters were the most prestigious social group, and, though less than five percent of white families were in the planter class; they controlled more than forty percent of the slaves, cotton, and total agricultural wealth.
Most had inherited or married into their wealth, but they could stay at the top of the South’s class structure only by continuing to profit from slave labor. Planters had the best land. The ownership of twenty or more slaves enabled planters to use a gang system to do both routine and specialized agricultural work, and also permitted a regimented pace of work that would have been impossible to impose in free agricultural workers. Teams of field hands were supervised by white overseers and black drivers, slaves selected for their management skills and agricultural knowledge.
The profitability of slavery ultimately rested in the enormous demand for cotton outside the South. This demand grew at about five percent a year in the first half of the nineteenth century. As long as slaves employed in growing cash staples returned ten percent a year, slave owners had little economic incentive to shift their capital resources into manufacturing or urban development. The Lower South had the smallest urban population and the fewest factories.
Planters here were not opposed to economic innovations, but they feared social changes that might undermine the stability of slavery. Urbanization and industrialization both entailed such risks. Urban slaves were artisans, semi-skilled laborers and domestics, and unlike their rural counterparts, they usually lived apart from their owners. They had much more freedom than field hands to move around and interact with white people and other black people. If they had a remarkable skill, such as carpentry or tailoring, they could hire out their labor and keep some wages for themselves after reimbursing their owners. In short, the direct authority of the slave owner was less clear-cut in the town than in the country.
The improved economy of the Upper South in the late period increasingly relied in free labor; a development that many cotton planters feared would splinter Southern unity in defense of slavery. The Upper South at mid-century was gradually becoming less tied to plantation agriculture and slave labor. The labor market for railroad construction and manufacturing work was strong enough to attract northern immigrants and help reduce the loss of the native-born population that had migrated to other states. Slavery was clearly growing weaker in the Upper South by the 1850’s. In every decade after 1820, the internal slave trade drained off about ten percent of the slaves in the Upper South, virtually the entire natural increase.
After 1830, there were still plantation districts with large concentrations of slaves, and slave owners retained enough political power to defeat all challenges to their property interests. Planters were not fooled by the public rhetoric of white unity. They knew that slavery was increasingly confined to the Lower South, and that elsewhere in the South white support for it was gradually eroding. They feared the double-edged challenge to their privileged positions from outside interference with slavery and internal white disloyalty. By the 1850’s, many of them were concluding that the only way to resolve their dilemma was to make the South a separate nation.
The South also had a large free society, which consisted of large planters, planters, small slaveholders, non-slaveholding whites, and frees black people. Despite its apparent success in forging white solidarity, the racial argument could be turned on its head and used to weaken slavery. Most white Northerners were about as racist as their Southern counterparts, but they were increasingly willing to improve themselves as free persons. The pro-slavery argument depicted a nearly ideal society blessed by class and racial harmony. In reality, social conditions in the slave South were far more contradictory and conflict ridden. Slaves were not content in their bondage. They dreamed of freedom and sustained that dream through their own forms of Christianity and the support of family kin. Relations between masters and their slaves were antagonistic, not affectionate, and wherever the system of control slackened, slaves resisted their owners.
Abolitionism emerged from the same religious impulse that energized reform throughout the North. What distinguished the abolitionists was their insistence that slavery as the great national sin, mocking American ideals of liberty and Christian morality. In the early nineteenth century, when slavery was expanding westward, almost all white Americans regardless of class or region were convinced that emancipation would lead to a race war or the debasement of their superior status through racial interbreeding.
This paralyzing fear rotted in racism, long shielded slavery from sustained attack. In 1817, antislavery reformers from the North and South founded the American Colonization Society. Slaveholding politicians from the Upper South, notably Henry Clay, James Madison, and President Monroe were its leading organizers. Gradual emancipation followed by the removal of black people from America to Africa was the only solution that white reformers could imagine for ridding the nation of slavery and avoiding a racial bloodbath. Their goal was to make America all free and all white.
The leading figure in early abolitionism was William Lloyd Garrison, a Massachusetts printer, who became coeditor of an antislavery newspaper in Baltimore in 1829. Emerged with an unquenchable hatred for slavery, he was instrumental in founding the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He committed abolitionism to the twin goals of immediatism-an immediate moral commitment to end slavery-and racial equality. Only by striving toward thes4e goals, he insisted, could white America ever hope to end slavery without massive violence. The demand of the abolitionists for the legal equality of black people is as unsetting to public opinion as their call for immediate, uncompensated emancipation.
In the mid-1830’s anti- abolitionist mobs in the North disrupted antislavery meetings, beat and stoned speakers, destroyed printing presses, burned the homes of the wealthy benefactors of the movement, and vandalized free black neighborhoods in a wave of terror that drove black people from several northern cities. In the South, the hostility to abolitionism took the form of burning and censoring antislavery literature, offering rewards for the capture of leading abolitionists to stand trial for inciting slave revolts, and tightening up slave codes and the surveillance of free black people. Garrison’s support for the growing demand of antislavery women to be treated as equals in the movement split the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. In turn, the opposition of most male abolitionists to the public activities of their female counterparts provoked a militant faction of these women into founding their own movement to achieve equality in American society.