AN EXPERIMENT IN SELF-GOVERNMENT – Part VI The Implications of Slavery

The Constitution was written for the nation it was expected to become.  The Constitution stopped the slave trade as of 1808 in expectation that slavery would slowly disappear.  It seemed a reasonable calculation at the time.  In 1790 the census revealed there were 682,000 slaves in the nation; 49,000 in the North and 633,000 in the South.  By 1860 there were 1,020 slaves in the North (587 slaveholders in Delaware) and 3,950,500 Slaves in the South.  The expectation did not turn out.  The reason was England’s newly developed highly efficient textile industry.  Beginning in the early 1820s cotton became in such great demand that it outran India’s ability to supply England’s needs.  Thereafter, American cotton became the dominant agricultural product, not only in the original Southern states, but westward in new territory.  By 1850, two-thirds of the value of all exports was cotton.  Mass cultivation was commercially profitable in large scale with chattel slavery.  

The South’s culture was more self-contained and self-conscious of its differences from the North.  The South experienced very little immigration compared to the North.  Europeans tended to avoid the South because of slavery, and there was much less nonagricultural work available than in the North.  Other distinctions did not appeal to immigrants too. Religion in the South was predominantly low-church Protestant Christian in the lower classes.  Then too, the South was developing a mythology among the slaves and non-slaveholding lower-class whites that their region was distinctive and separate.  The myth developed into fact, which is borne out by the interchange among this class of Southern population have predominantly the same speech patterns, foods, music, worship, folklore and literary expression to an enormous extent. 

The planter-class of the South doubled-down so to speak on its Cotton Kingdom.  The original Southern states were running out of plantation land which the Northern states were attempting to prohibit to slavery.  Among the planter class, there was also a growing mythology about the future of cotton.  It was widely believed cotton was destiny and that a single agricultural crop could assure Southern economic success.  The belief extended to affect England; this mighty empire would topple without Southern cotton, and would carry the rest of the world with her.  “You best not make war on cotton” boasted a South Carolina planter.  “No power is capable of making war on cotton; it is king!”  The planter-class had become a feudal society.  

How did the South justify slavery in light of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787?  There was a time when “the people” were capable of addressing the issue, as in Virginia in the 1831-32 session of the Virginia General Assembly.  It was a far-reaching debate in which not a single participant upheld slavery. It was agreed it was evil, but should wait for more development of public opinion before seeking resolution.  Thus, even in 1831-32, the South was too invested in slavery to back out of it some three decades before the Civil War.  In the final years opinions progressively hardened. Eventually the Methodist and Baptist churches divided into northern and southern denominations – but the Southern denominations didn’t lose members to the North.  In the end, there was no justification, only enmity between the slaveholders and the abolitionists. During the Civil War, Confederate leaders were envisioning expanding their empire to the southern hemisphere.  An expansion, not relocation!  It was a virulent form of hatred that progresses to such far-fetched ambitions.  The hatred extended in time far beyond the settlement of the Civil War.  It would be another century and six successive Civil Rights Acts before making an impact.                                                                         October 22, 2019