Browsing "Antebellum Realities"

From Eli Whitney to Southern Nationalism

Prior to Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney’s gin of the mid-1790s, cotton cultivation was a labor-intensive and unprofitable operation. The gin led to New England’s cotton mills which needed slave-produced cotton and Manhattan banks offering low-interest loans to planters for expansion into the new territories. This perpetuated slavery in the South, and kept employed the African brought to America in the holds of New England slavers.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

From Eli Whitney to Southern Nationalism

“Except in the rice districts, Southern opinion by 1795 was turning very definitely against slavery and the antagonism was based, not on humanitarian, but on economic grounds. The overwhelming majority of the 2,000,000 Southern people [were] agricultural, and Charleston and Baltimore were the only towns of more than 10,000 population.

But slave labor could be profitably employed only in the production of staples, and of the two staples in the South, rice was restricted to a very narrow area. Tobacco could be grown as far south as the Piedmont of Georgia and South Carolina, but by 1795 its cultivation was unprofitable in the tidewater on account of soil exhaustion and in the back county because of lack of transportation facilities.

Unless the South could find a new staple slavery would be doomed, or else the South would be forced into an extensive program of soil fertilization and internal improvements to aid the tobacco grower.

What happened was that the South obtained a new staple through the invention of the cotton gin. Cotton quickly took its place as a staple complementary to tobacco, not competitive, for the two crops were radically different in their soil and climatic requirements.

The first conquests of “King Cotton” were the upland regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the inhabitants of which had hitherto eked out an unsatisfactory existence by cattle-raising, by a production of food crops, and by a desultory cultivation of tobacco. This was followed by a demand for new lands which resulted in cotton extending its area of cultivation to the Mississippi as tobacco had already done.

It is evident from the number of slaves that Mississippi Territory was a planting community from the beginning. Cotton, in fact, had been cultivated by the Indians even before the Revolution, and the United States had in 1801 established a gin for them on the upper Tombigee at a place which thereafter was called Cotton Gin Port.

Two new States of the cotton kingdom adopted constitutions differing in many respects from those of the eastern States from which their people were drawn. Neither Alabama or Mississippi had a property qualification for voting, both elected their governors as well as their legislatures by popular vote, and both apportioned their legislatures on the basis of free white inhabitants. In all, the cotton kingdom had a population of 1,000,000 of which nearly one-half was slave.

Prior to 1820 South was an indefinite term which could only be defined, if defined at all, as the region inhabited by Southerners. Southerner could only be defined as meaning one descended from the colonial settlers below [Mason and Dixon’s] line. But the controversy over the admission of Missouri gave new meaning to these terms. It reduced the South to the limits of slavery and intensified within those limits the sentiment of unity among the people.

This new intensified feeling of unity deserves to be called [Southern] nationalism rather than sectionalism inasmuch as it was based on sentiment rather than interest. After 1820 there existed among the people of the South a “consciousness of kind” and a feeling of aloofness from the people of the North. They felt, and continue to feel, themselves a separate people: the other people of the United States they consider as aliens.

That the Missouri controversy resulted in the creation of Southern nationalism is clear . . . If northern unanimity [against slavery then] was due to a devotion to principle, it must be conceded that the devotion was of sudden growth for there is no indication of any deep-seated anti-slavery feeling in the North prior to this time.

The Northern States, to be sure, had either outlawed slavery or “put it in the course of ultimate extinction,” but their action had been the result of economic realism rather than of moral indignation. The attack on slavery was perhaps designed for the purpose of forcing Southern congressmen to give up Texas. The northeast wished to surrender Texas, not because Texas was Southern, but because it was Western; the jealousy of the East toward the West was the result of conflicting interests and had often been displayed in our early history.

(The Old South, R.S. Cotterill, Arthur H. Clark Company, 1939, pp. 108-109; 117; 125-126; 142-145)

"Ever-Present, Ever-Crushing Negro Hate" Up North

The underground railroad myth claims that the North was the land of freedom and equality for the black man who would run away from his home in the South, despite the reality of the former slaveholding North not wanting the black man in their midst. The evidence shows Jim Crow laws proscribing black voters in New York, Ohio passed laws against black emigration, and segregated transportation was common – and Frederick Douglass stated that Philadelphia was the most segregated city in the North.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

“Ever-Present, Ever-Crushing Negro Hate” Up North

“Samuel R. Ward . . . was born on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland to slave parents in 1817. The family escaped to Greenwich, New Jersey in 1820, and removed six years later to New York City. In New York Ward’s father was a house painter, whose experience in slavery seems to have induced in the son a resonance to abolitionism.

Poverty compelled Ward to work, “but inclination led [him] to study.” He was placed in a public school and taught “by Mr. Adams, a Quaker gentleman.” Thus in spite of poverty, Ward was able to make some progress in learning.

Poverty, however, was not the only obstacle for a black lad in New York City. There was also “the ever-present, ever-crushing Negro-hate.” [He wrote:] “As a servant it denied me a seat with my white fellow servants . . . the idea of employing a white clerk was preposterous . . . So if I sought a trade, white apprentices would leave, if I were admitted. I found all the Negro-hating usages and sentiment of general society [in New York] encouraged and embodied in the Negro [church] pew . . . I know of more than one colored person driven to a total denial of all religion, by the religious barbarism of white New Yorkers . . . ”

Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery in New Market, Maryland . . . in 1815. In 1824, his parents, after receiving permission to leave the plantation to attend a funeral, escaped with him to Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1826. Between 1826 and 1828, Garnet was educated at African Free Schools of the city.

In 1855 Garnet went to Canaan Academy, New Hampshire. Henry did not escape “Negro-hate” in this rural community. A mob using ninety-five oxen and working two days pulled down the building which housed the academy out of line of the other buildings and burned it to the ground. “The mob further attacked Garnet in the home of Mr. Kimball with whom Garnet was boarding.”

Charles Ray was born on 25 December 1807 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where his father was a mail carrier. Charles was educated at schools and academies of his native town. Afterwards he worked for five years on his grandfather’s farm in Westerly, Rhode Island.

In the early 1830s, Ray, financed by the abolitionists, studied at Wesleyan Seminary in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. [White] students raised objections to his presence at the university, calling it “inexpedient.” Charles was forced to leave.”

(The New York Abolitionists, A Case Study of Radical Politics, Gerald Sorin, Greenwood Publishing, 1971, pp. 85-93)

America's Inescapable Tragedy

The American South did not invent African slavery. It did inherit a British colonial labor system which populated both North and South with African labor; New England’s slave trading and cotton mills helped greatly in perpetuating that labor system as well as Manhattan bankers who extended credit to planters for expansion westward. The great tragedy is that the South was not left to solve the riddle itself, and Northern abolitionists never offered a practical and peaceful solution to what they expressed so much concern over.

Berhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

America’s Inescapable Tragedy

“There has been a tendency, stubbornly persistent even in our time, to mistake the planter aristocracy for the entire South. It is therefore important to point out that if one could identify an average Southerner of the eighteen-fifties, statistics would demand that he be, at least by plurality of numbers, a non-slaveholding white farmer who cultivated a few acres with the help of his wife and children. A small nucleus, about 4 percent of all slaveholders, held on hundred or more slaves. Yet it was the large slaveholder, fictionalized by partisan pens, that has constituted popular portraits of the South.

Moreover, a sense of history was conspicuously lacking in antebellum Northern views of the South. It is not inappropriate here to recall that the beginnings of slavery coincide with the first English settlements in America. During the seventeenth century slave-traders of many nations joined in establishing in America, North and South, an institution which was not to become “peculiar” in anyone’s eye’s for nearly two centuries.

No generation was alone responsible for the enslavement of men; but no generation could escape the mounting social tensions and moral complexities that accompanied its growth. By the time prevailing ideologies of the world had become expressly opposed to slavery, most Southerners had come to consider it indispensible to either their economic or their social well-being. To understand the tragedy of the South is to realize that it is inescapably America’s tragedy.”

(The South in Northern Eyes, 1831 to 1861, Howard R. Floan, McGraw-Hill, 1958, pp. viii-ix)

Colonial Fears of Slave Insurrection

The great fear of slave insurrection prompted severe restrictions on slave freedoms in the early 19th century South with the horrid example of Santo Domingo’s massacre of whites a stern lesson of what to expect. The extreme concern by Virginians and North Carolinians over the continued slave importations to the Southern colonies on British and New England ships fell on deaf ears in the mid-1700’s; Royal Governors were instructed to ignore colonial legislative efforts to restrict slave imports and forced to accept the British colonial labor system.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Colonial Fears of Slave Insurrection

“Although in 1808 North Carolina felt considerable alarm over the plot which was discovered in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, this State did not have another threat of conspiracy until 1821. Previous to this, however, runaway Negroes on various occasions had organized camps and defied the police. In 1811 a party of men searched Cabarrus Pocosin and found a camp occupied by three men and two women. It contained a “vast deal of plunder” and a great number of keys. In 1818 a group of whites went in search of runaways and killed one of them.

It was a group of runaways, at one time reported to be eighty in number, who caused the so-called insurrection of 1821. The Negroes had taken refuge in a swamp in Onslow County near a place called White Oaks on Trent River, and the whites feared an insurrection among the Negroes from Wilmington to Washington [North Carolina]. On August 7, two justices of the peace in Onslow County unlawfully called out two detachments of militia, 200 men who remained under arms twenty-six days.

In September Bladen and Carteret Counties also called out the militia. The panic among the whites in that section of the State was widespread. Many white families fled from their homes. William L. Hill, colonel of the Onslow militia, on several occasions stated that the ranks of the Negroes “were filled with the most daring runaways, who well armed and equipped had long defied civil authority, and in open day had ravaged farms, burnt houses, and had ravaged a number of females.” By the middle of September the band had been dispersed and the whites had returned to their everyday life.

In December, 1825, Tarboro was greatly excited “by the partial discovery of an insurrectionary plot among the “blacks” of Edgecombe [county] and, “if it is believed, some of the adjacent counties.” The plot was hatched, according to a petition which reached the Legislature, by “those preachers who under the semblance of religious worship instill into the minds of the blacks, the most diabolical opinions & prepare them for the perpetration of the most horrible crimes.”

The Negroes had been told that the National government had set them free in October and that they were being unjustly held in servitude. Christmas Eve was to have been the time for rebellion, but the plot was discovered, the militia called out, and the patrol strengthened.”

(Antebellum North Carolina, Guion Griffis Johnson, UNC Press, 1937, pp. 514-515)

 

Enlightened Southern Labor Management

While the older brother of Jefferson Davis, Joseph E. Davis, was conducting enlightened labor management techniques in Mississippi, New England factory and mill owners worked young women, and children under ten, hard sixteen-hour workdays in dimly lit sweat-shops. Their meager pay was usually insufficient to cover living expenses and left nothing health care—Africans in the South enjoyed cradle to grave medical care and security.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Enlightened Southern Labor Management

“ . . . Joseph Davis demonstrated the enlightened methods of slave management that he had developed from modifications of the ideas of Robert Owen, Frances Wright, and other reformers of an earlier era. In the words of a family member, “[The cabinets] were well built, with plastered walls and large fireplaces, two large rooms and two shed rooms behind them.” Each had its own henhouse from which the slaves could sell surplus chickens and eggs and a small garden patch for their own use.

Davis was determined to make his [plantation] enterprise a model of labor management as well. As one of nine Mississippians who owned more than 300 slaves in 1860, Davis was faced with a major administrative task [and had learned] that people worked best when treated well and given incentives rather than when driven by fear of punishment.

He established a court, eventually held every Sunday in a small building called the Hall of Justice, where a slave jury heard complaints of slave misconduct and the testimony the accused in his own defense. No slave was punished except upon conviction by this jury of peers. Sitting as a judge, Davis seldom intervened except to ameliorate the severity of some of the sentences.

Davis insisted that the overseers, too, must bring their complaints before the court, and they could not punish a slave without [their] permission. In addition to self-government, Davis provided more direct incentives for his laborers. Convinced that every human being should be allowed to develop to his full potential, the master encouraged his slaves to acquire skills in areas that interested them.

He provided opportunities for training in current trades and crafts. Moreover, skilled workers were allowed to enjoy the benefits of their more valuable labor; Davis ruled that all slaves might keep anything they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands.

Davis was sensitive to the needs of his workers and regularly rewarded them for unusual achievements, in addition to providing gifts for a birth or wedding, or in consolation for a death. He expected them to work hard for their own benefit as well as his, and he was quick to commend and encourage those who performed well.

Davis’s benevolent management methods seemed amply vindicated by the example of his most able slave, Benjamin Montgomery, who seized the opportunities Davis provided and became an invaluable assistant as well as confidant and companion to his master. Born in Virginia in 1819, the brilliant Montgomery learned to read and write along with his young master.

With access to the large (plantation] library, Ben improved his literary skills and was soon copying letters and legal briefs as the office clerk. He learned to survey land to plan the construction of levees essential for flood protection on Davis Bend. He drew architectural plans and participated in the construction of several buildings, including the elaborate garden cottage.

(Joseph E. Davis, Pioneer Patriarch, Janet Sharp Hermann, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 53-58)