Ownership of humans as a labor force and cornerstone of the economy of the South until its defeat in the Civil War.

The first slaves arrived in North America from Africa in 1619. They helped cultivate and harvest crops such as coffee, tobacco, sugar, rice, and later, cotton. For the most part, slavery was unprofitable in the North, where smaller farms were cultivated by families themselves, and by the nineteenth century it had mostly disappeared from the North. The Constitution prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808, but in the 1850s Southerners began to discuss the reopening of the slave trade.

Although there were few slaves in the North during colonial times as early as the 1680s Samuel Sewall wrote a topic called The Selling of Joseph in which he warned of the potential problems of slavery and encouraged those in the New World to stop the practice before it became a formal institution. However, Northerners made few attempts to address the issue. In the 1830s, the balance of power in the Senate between free and slave states was threatened when Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state. Henry Clay, the Whig Speaker of the House of Representatives, negotiated the Missouri Compromise allowing the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and establishing 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude as the dividing line—all new states below the line would be slave states, and those above the line would be free states. That appeared to have resolved the issue until Texas won its independence from Mexico and applied for statehood in 1836. Northerners protested the extension of slavery and the admission of Texas as a slave state. During the 1830s several incidents involving slavery gained national attention. A ship carrying slaves left Virginia bound for New Orleans; the slaves took over the ship and landed at Nassau in the British Caribbean, where British authorities declared them free since slavery was illegal throughout the British Empire. American owners claimed the slaves were property obtained before the end of the slave trade in 1808 under the Constitution and should therefore be returned. The British refused, and no compensation was paid. In another famous case, the judge ruled in the Amistad trial in 1840 that the Africans on board the ship had been taken from Africa and therefore must be released because the slave trade had ended almost 30 years earlier.

Slavery became a frequent political issue during the 1840s and 1850s. During the Mexican-American War, Congress debated the Wilmot Proviso in 1846 and 1847, which would have required all new territory gained during the war to be free. The proviso was attached to an appropriations bill for military funding. Although the proviso never passed, the debate it sparked politicized the slavery issue: Northerners advocated the containment of slavery, and Southerners wanted to expand slavery to new territories. The Compromise of 1850 settled the issue temporarily, with California being admitted as a free state and Texas as a slave state. In 1850 Congress also passed a stronger Fugitive Slave Act that placed responsibility for returning runaway slaves with federal authorities instead of the states—many of which had passed personal liberty laws making it difficult for slaves to be returned to the South. To placate Northerners, Congress also passed a law that banned the sale of slaves in Washington, D.C.

The slavery issue emerged again as a national issue in 1854 when Stephen Douglas proposed the construction of a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to California. Southerners wanted the railroad to go from Atlanta to California along a southern route. To gain support for the northern route, Douglas proposed a repeal of the Missouri Compromise and advocated popular sovereignty, which would have allowed people in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska (through which the railroad would run) to determine if their state would be free or slave. Both territories were located north of the Missouri Compromise line. Proslavery and anti-slavery forces engaged in fighting over Kansas. Kansas sent a proslavery constitution to Congress in 1858, and Congress returned it because of voting irregularities, requesting a second vote. The state constitutional convention then removed the proslavery clauses and the slavery advocates refused to participate since they believed the first election to be valid. A new constitution was drafted and sent to Congress in 1859; the House of Representatives approved it, and the Senate rejected it. After Southern states left the Union in December 1860 and February 1861, Congress finally approved the constitution and Kansas became a free state.

Between 1854 and 1860 the issue of slavery gained further attention. In a Senate race in Illinois, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas engaged in several debates, during which Lincoln argued that slavery should not extend into new territories and that it was morally wrong. Southerners remembered his words during the election of 1860, and South Carolina threatened to leave the Union if he was elected president. It followed through on its threat. Southerners were also paranoid of Northern efforts to end slavery after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, in which Brown, a white abolitionist from Kansas, attempted to seize weapons from the federal arsenal to arm slaves for an insurrection. The government prevented the insurrection but Southern fears continued to grow. While these events were transpiring, a few (fewer than 1,000) slaves managed to escape captivity through the Underground Railroad, a network of individuals who hid runaway slaves or assisted them to their freedom in the North or Canada.

The South considered that the perpetuation of slavery was necessary to support its agrarian civilization. During the Civil War, Vice President Alexander Stephens of the Confederate States of America described slavery as the “cornerstone of the Confederacy,” whose plantation wealth was usually dependent on land and “property of persons.” Senator John Calhoun, speaking in the U.S. Senate on December 27,1837, argued that “domestic slavery … composes an important part of their [the South's] domestic institutions, inherited from their ancestors, and existing at the adoption of the Constitution.” James Henry Hammond, governor of South Carolina and later U.S. senator, supported the economic necessity of the institution of slavery in his topic Cotton Is King. In an 1858 speech in the Senate, Hammond argued that blacks constituted an inferior class that could perform the drudgeries of the Southern agrarian economy. Southerners believed that slavery allowed white slaveholders to pursue intellectual and cultural interests.

George Fitzhugh, in his 1850 pamphlet Slavery Justified, by a Southerner, argued that blacks benefited economically from slavery. He contended that they could not take care of themselves, but that their masters ensured that they were “well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy. They have no dread of the future—no fear of want.”

Edmund Ruffin, one of the Southern Fire-Eaters (an organization of people who would rather eat fire than give in to the Northern antislavery position) and also the man who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, which began the Civil War, argued extensively for the need for Southern slavery. Abolition, he believed, would destroy the South economically. In contrast with the economic system of the North and its “wage slavery,” Ruffin argued that the concept of “free labor” should really be called the “slavery of labor to want,” because Northern workers received mere subsistence wages most of the time. Ruffin subscribed to the philosophy of the inferiority of the African slave. He also argued that Southern slaves enjoyed not only employment but also housing, comforts of family and health, and old age care. Ruffin did admit, however, that free laborers had more incentive to work hard and that slaves attempted to work only as much as was necessary to avoid being punished. Ruffin also noted that the North had the advantage of constant shiploads of immigrants adding to the labor pool.

Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s “Thanksgiving Sermon, 1860″ at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, contended that Southern whites had received a “providential trust” to continue slavery as it existed. He reasoned that slavery supported the South’s material interests and that the principle of self-preservation forced the South to continue it. He also argued that only a tropical race could survive working in the tropical climate of the South and that slavery was part of the social fabric of the South. Palmer further argued that if masters freed their slaves and transported them back to Africa, the slaves would starve rather than return to “their primitive barbarism.”

Palmer argued that slavery benefited the North as well as the South, because the North had profited from the South’s need for its products (textiles and iron, for example). Palmer also reasoned that the wealth of England and other countries had increased as a result of the products of Southern soil, because cotton (a duty-free product because it was domestic) was used in the textile mills.

During 1861 and much of 1862, the North did not fare well militarily and lost several battles. The South was able to use slaves to continue farming while the white masters fought in the war. Furthermore, the Confederate states had tried to work out alliances with Great Britain and France, which they believed needed Southern cotton for manufactured products, although the strategy backfired because of a glut on the English cotton market. President Abraham Lincoln developed a strategy that would strike a blow at the Southern economy with the Second Confiscation Act. This legislation, which passed July 17,1862, freed slaves belonging to anyone who rebelled against the U.S. government. Previously Lincoln had attempted to strike a balance between the abolitionists who sought the abolition of slavery and those in the North and the Union border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland who opposed freeing the slaves. Lincoln’s role in the war had been to save the Union, and to bring that about he initially accepted the compromise on the slavery issue by signing the second Confiscation Act (1862), but the act could not be enforced because Union forces did not control any of the South. In the latter part of 1862, Lincoln began drafting his Emancipation Proclamation, which would abolish slavery in rebellious states under Union control. He signed the document January 1, 1863, in an effort to block England’s support of the Confederacy—support that seemed imminent. After the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, England could no longer afford to support the Southern cause. It announced its opposition to slavery, and said it could not support a regime dedicated to upholding this institution.

During much of the war slaves had been fleeing the Confederate states, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, the number of slaves escaping to the North increased. Blacks fought in the Northern armies, strengthening the Northern military, which by then had begun to experience a manpower shortage.

By autumn of 1863, the Confederate economy had started to disintegrate. Consumer products were scarce, as the North had established a successful blockade of the South, and the agrarian South could not manufacture these items at home. Costs rose to extremely high levels, and Southern currency became virtually worthless. In April 1865, the bloody conflict ended. The most devastating blow to the South was the abolition of slavery, which had been the foundation of the Southern economy. Congress abolished slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and protected the rights of African American citizens with the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

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