A CHANCE MISSED
Americans from 1760 to 1790 felt a general consensus “that black slavery was a historical anomaly that could survive for a time only in the plantation societies where it had become the dominant mode of production.” In the Revolutionary generation, Southerners and Northerners alike predicted slavery would whither away throughout the United States once the importing of Africans stopped. At the same time the Northern states were committing themselves to gradual abolition, individual slaveowners in the Upper South were doing the same. Manumissions rose sharply. The free black population of Maryland was 1,817 in 1755 and 8,000 in 1790. By 1800, it stood at nearly 20,000, and a decade later nearly a quarter of the state's black population was free. Virginia's free black population rose steeply from 12,866 in 1790 to 30,570 in 1810. In Delaware, the number of free blacks was fewer than 4,000 in 1790, and more than 13,000 in 1810.
The 1790s presented the best chance to end slavery that America ever had. And I agree with Gary B. Nash that historians have been too lenient in letting the Revolutionary leadership, especially that from the North, off the hook for not pushing on and ending it. It is said that they were too busy doing other things, or the unity of the nation was too precarious to risk. I say they knew they were building a nation, unifying different regions, and they deliberately let a cancer be built into it, which they all, at one time or another, said would someday tear the nation apart.
The will to end slavery on a national level was there, among the Virginian leaders. Several of them outlined plans for it in national publications. Slave power was politically the weakest it had been or would be again until 1865. And the resources were in hand to compensate the owners for the loss of their property, in the shape of the western lands that were the nation's treasure. A slightly higher price for the land, which was all but given away, could have provided ample money for compensated emancipation.
Virginia was the key state for this. Half the African-Americans in the colonies lived in Virginia and Maryland in 1776. And both places expressed strong sentiments for abolition during and after the Revolution. Indeed, it predated the Revolution. Virginia's colonial legislature petitioned the crown in 1772 to raise the import duties on slaves to slow the flow of them into the colony, saying the trade benefited a few in Britain but risked terrible consequences.
The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your majesty's American dominions. We are sensible that some of your majesty's subjects of Great Britain may reap emoluments from this sort of traffic, but when we conside that it greatly retards the settlement of the colonies with more useful inhabitants, and may, in time, have the most destructive influence we presume to hope that the interest of a few will be disregarded when placed in competition with the security and happiness of such numbers of your majesty's dutiful and loyal subjects. Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech your majesty to remove all those restraints on your majesty's governors of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce.And the Virginia constitution, after the rebellion began in 1776, listed causes for separation from Great Britain in its first clause. Among them was "the inhumane use of the royal negative" in refusing permission to pass laws excluding slave imports. In part this attitude was a consequence of the "natural rights" philosophy of the Revolution. Religion also played a role, via the rapid spread of Methodism in the 1780s. Methodism, in its early days under Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, was almost as intollerant of slavery as the Society of Friends was becoming. Black soldiers had fought for freedom in large numbers in the Revolution. All in all, this was the least racist generation in American history. The anti-slavery attitude in the Chesapeake colonies was at its peak. The long list of leaders who supported abolishing slavery is stellar: Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, James Madison, Patrick Henry, St. George Tucker in Virginia; Luther Martin and Gustavus Scott in Maryland; Caesar Rodney in Delaware.
A Virginia convention in 1774 had banned the slave trade in the colony, asserting that the delegates wished "to see an entire stop put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade." Virginia was the inspiration for the Continental Congress in its foreswearing of the slave trade later that year. Virginia's state constitution in 1776 had banned further slave importation. Lafayette in 1782 had reported that Virginians "grieved at having slaves, and are constantly talking about abolishing slavery and of seeking other means of exploiting their lands." Residents of several Virginia counties petitioned the legislature for abolition in 1787.
South Carolina and Georgia vigorously defend their slavery, and denied the federal government's right to interfere in the institution. But Georgia was locked in a precarious war with the Creek Indians, and it needed a strong federal presence. It would have likely gone along with a compensated, gradual abolition. Georgia's case, in terms of "federal interference,” was summed up nicely by George Washington: “If a weak State, with powerful tribes of Indians in its rear and the Spanish on its flank, do not incline to embrace a strong general Government there must, I should think, be either wickedness, or insanity in their conduct.” There was no insanity: Georgia rushed to ratify the Constitution, with very little debate, and was the third state in.
South Carolina alone would have kicked up a fuss; but even with Georgia thrown in, the two states had only 5 percent of the population. Where would they have gone? Back to Britain? To Catholic Spain? Was there really enough tail there to wag the dog?
But Virginia and Maryland could not as easily do what the northern states were doing, and pass laws gradually ending slavery. There were just enough committed slave-owners to prevent such a plan. Jefferson drafted several bills to this effect. So did many others in the state. But, as Jefferson wrote in 1786, there were “men enough of virtue and talent in the General Assembly to sponsor” an abolition act, “but they saw that the moment for doing it with success was not yet arrived.” In these states, with their relatively huge black populations, emancipation would also have to be a good deal more complex than it was in the North, where the process was often simply to compensate slave-owners for the loss of their property by keeping slaves, even children yet unborn, in servitude during their most productive years. Even after the emancipation acts passed, most Northern slaves got release from bondage only by dying or running away. There would also have to be some plan for bringing the former slaves into social equality, or re-settling them out of the state. Virginia could not simply do what many New England states had done: free their slaves and then restrict them and expel them whenever possible.
By dealing conservatively with emancipation in their own states, but putting forth no proposals to accomplish it on a national level, and ignoring the petitions from the Upper South (by Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, Ferdinando Fairfax, and others), the Northern leadership effectively made slavery a state-level problem. They accepted the flaw of slavery into the new nation, even though it was widely recognized as incompatible with true democracy.
In effect, northern gradual-abolition laws have gotten the North off the hook, persuading historians who were educated and who taught in the North for more than a century that slavery was a southern problem rather than a national problem. The regional animosity associated with the Civil War also suffused the consciousness of northern historians, heightening their tendency to ignore the fact that slavery was not simply a southern problem in the post-[Revolutionary]-war era.So failing to get help from the North, the Upper South leaders turned to waiting for slavery to weaken naturally, to the point where they, too, could end it by state action. But that hope was vain. As early as 1790, there were alarming signs. The first census revealed that the slave population was vigorously increasing. The number of slaves shot up 250 percent in Virginia from 1755 to 1790, despite the widespread disruption of the Revolution and many sales of slaves from that state to the Deep South.
One reason for slavery’s tenacity, of course, was that the importing of Africans to the South was going on more vigorously than it had before. In fact, the slave trade totals were higher in the U.S. in the period 1790-1810 than during any other 20-year period. And the trade at this time was entirely in the hands of Northern merchants. States that had banned the import of slaves into their own borders, for reasons of economics and morality, had no qualms about flooding them into other states.
For an example of the dereliction of the Northern leaders in picking up the emancipation issue, consider the abolition petitions given to Congress by Philadelphia Quakers in 1790. Guided by the Maryland and Virginia representatives, the petitions went to committee, and resulted in a report that seemed to give Congress the power to regulate the institution. Georgia and South Carolina representatives rose to thunder and filibuster against the report, and the Northern representatives quickly caved in to their hectoring. Hamilton's economic program was before Congress at the same time, and the Northern men did not want to alienate Deep South votes and jeopardize the boon being offered to Northern money interests. John Pemberton, the Philadelphia Quaker leader, watched from the gallery in disgust. “The funding system is so much their darling that they want to obtain the favor of those from Carolina and Georgia.” Only Virginia votes kept the resolution from being tabled altogether, and in the end the offending language was changed.
Even without an immediate political need, the North rarely matched its anti-slavery words with deeds. In 1800, still years before "slave power" was whispered in the halls of Congress or there was a political party of Southern sectional interest, free blacks in Philadelphia petitioned Congress to provide for gradual abolition of slavery, among other things. But the House voted 85-1 to not even accept the petition. Only a lone Massachusetts representative opposed the movement to give “no encouragement or countenance” to these petitions and to refuse to even consider them, because of their “tendency to create disquiet and jealousy.” Oliver Wolcott, a Connecticut Federalist, wrote to his son in 1790 that he favored "the white people of this country to the black," and after Congress "have taken care of the former they may amuse themselves with the other people."
There were social considerations behind this attitude. The North found it convenient to not push too hard for a definitive end to slavery in the United States. In part, it did so out of fear. “A general emancipation, northerners had reason to believe, would bring free blacks churning northward in search of economic opportunity and some measure of social justice.” Anthony Benezet, the Pennsylvania Quaker abolitionist and the least prejudiced of men, in his 1767 pamphlet, listed among the evils of slavery, "continual Apprehensions of Dangers, and frequent Alarms, to which the Whites are necessarily exposed from so great an Encrease of a People, that, by their Bondage and Oppressions, become natural Enemies, yet, at the same time, are filling the Places and eating the Bread of those who would be the Support and Security of the Country."
The social fears sharpened with the news of African uprisings elsewhere. St. Domingue, the French sugar-plantation island in the Caribbean, erupted in slave revolts (partially inspired by the American Revolution) in 1791. They lasted till 1803 and degenerated into a vicious race war. French refugees from the island came to America brought hair-raising tales with them. A similar insurrection, with similar results, broke out on Haiti in 1794. That is why the discovery of Gabriel Prosser's intended insurrection in Virginia in 1800 sent a chill through the nation, North and South.
Then in 1793 came the cotton gin, which brought a 50-fold increase in the average daily output of short-staple cotton, promoted the rapid expansion of a "cotton kingdom" across the Deep South, and made large-scale slavery profitable again. U.S. cotton production had been 3,000 bales in 1790; in 1810, it was 178,000 bales. “Slavery would remain a national problem, not a southern problem,” historian Gary Nash wrote, “but northerners, with few exceptions, acknowledged no responsibility for solving the problem.” In such a nation, disunion or civil war was inevitable. Jefferson, by the end, realized it. He wrote that, “if something is not done, and done soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But they rested, and hoped for the long-term death of American slavery by natural causes, and did nothing. It was a grand missed opportunity. And much of the responsibility for missing it can be laid to the blame of the Northern leadership.
1. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, Oxford University Press, 1987.