DENYING the PAST
As the reality of slavery in the North faded, and a strident anti-Southern abolitionism arose there, the memory of Northern slaves, when it surfaced at all, tended to focus on how happy and well-treated they had been, in terms much reminiscent of the so-called "Lost Cause" literature that followed the fall of the Confederacy in 1865.
"The slaves in Massachusetts were treated with almost parental kindness. They were incorporated into the family, and each puritan household being a sort of religious structure, the relative duties of master and servant were clearly defined. No doubt the severest and longest task fell to the slave, but in the household of the farmer or artisan, the master and the mistress shared it, and when it was finished, the white and the black, like the feudal chief and his household servant, sat down to the same table, and shared the same viands." [Reminiscence by Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867) of Stockbridge, Mass.]
Yet the petitions for freedom from New England and Mid-Atlantic blacks, and the numbers in which they ran off from their masters to the British during the Revolution, suggest rather a different picture.
Early 19th century New Englanders had real motives for forgetting their slave history, or, if they recalled it at all, for characterizing it as a brief period of mild servitude. This was partly a Puritan effort to absolve New England's ancestors of their guilt. The cleansing of history had a racist motive as well, denying blacks -- slave or free -- a legitimate place in New England history. But most importantly, the deliberate creation of a "mythology of a free New England" was a crucial event in the history of sectional conflict in America. The North, and New England in particular, sought to demonize the South through its institution of slavery; they did this in part by burying their own histories as slave-owners and slave-importers. At the same time, behind the potent rhetoric of Daniel Webster and others, they enshrined New England values as the essential ones of the Revolution, and the new nation. In so doing, they characterized Southern interests as purely sectional and selfish. In the rhetorical battle, New England backed the South right out of the American mainstream.
The attempt to force blame for all America's ills onto the South led the Northern leadership to extreme twists of logic. Abolitionist leaders in New England noted the "degraded" condition of the local black communities. Yet the common abolitionist explanation of this had nothing to do with northerners, black or white. Instead, they blamed it on the continuance of slavery in the South. "The toleration of slavery in the South," Garrison editorialized, "is the chief cause of the unfortunate situation of free colored persons in the North."
"This argument, embraced almost universally by New England abolitionists, made good sense as part of a strategy to heap blame for everything wrong with American society on southern slavery, but it also had the advantage, to northern ears, of conveniently shifting accountability for a locally specific situation away from the indigenous institution from which it had evolved."
Melish's perceptive book, "Disowning Slavery," argues that the North didn't simply forget that it ever had slaves. She makes a forceful case for a deliberate re-writing of the region's past, in the early 1800s. By the 1850s, Melish writes, "New England had become a region whose history had been re-visioned by whites as a triumphant narrative of free, white labor." And she adds that this "narrative of a historically free, white New England also advanced antebellum New England nationalism by supporting the region's claims to a superior moral identity that could be contrasted effectively with the 'Jacobinism' of a slave-holding, 'negroized' South." The demonizing adjective is one she borrows from Daniel Webster, who used it in the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830.
The word is well-chosen. Webster's "Second Reply," given in January 1830 during his debate with Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina -- the most famous speech in a famous clash of North and South -- shows the master orator of his time at the peak of his powers. In these speeches Webster compellingly turned New England sectional values into the supreme national values, while at the same time playing on the racist fears of the average Northerner, who loathed slavery less for its inherent injustice and more because it flooded the country with blacks.
Webster "articulated a clear and compelling vision of an American nation made up of the union of northern and western states, bonded by an interpretation of the origin and meaning of the union and the U.S. Constitution and reflecting the core values of New England political culture and history. Coded implicitly among those essential values were claims to historical freedom and whiteness, against which Webster could effectively contrast a South isolated by its historical commitment to slavery. Such an interpretation, appealing as it did to the widespread desire among northern states outside New England to eradicate their black populations and achieve a 'whiteness' like that of New England, could rally and solidify northern opposition to Slave Power."
In the speech, Webster, like Pilate, washes his hands of anything to do with American slavery. "The domestic slavery of the Southern States I leave where I find it, -- in the hands of their own governments. It is their affair, not mine." This allows him to keep within the frame of the Constitution, and at the same time cleverly disavow more than a century and a half of New England slavery and slave-trading, which had financed the first families and institutions of his home district.
After this contemptuous dismissal, he holds forth on the glories of pure Massachusetts, which he apotheosizes, above Philadelphia and Virginia, till it becomes the true genius of independence. "There is Boston, and Concord, and Lexington, and Bunker Hill; ... where American liberty raised its first voice, and where its youth was nurtured and sustained, there it still lives in the strength of its manhood and full of its original spirit."
This was the opening salvo. Within a few months, Webster's speech had been reprinted whole in newspapers across the country and published in pamphlets that ran through 20 editions. A single printing of it churned out 40,000 copies. Other Northern speakers and writers picked up the tone and carried it like a battle-flag down the years to the Civil War.
"Indeed, by the outset of the actual war in 1861 the New England nationalist trope of virtuous, historical whiteness, clothed as it was in a distinctive set of cultural, moral, and political values associated with New England's Puritan mission and Revolutionary struggle, had come to define the Unionist North as a whole."
Nothing illustrates this process better, perhaps, than the semantic development of the word "Yankee," which, in United States usage, always meant "a New Englander" before the Civil War. But within a decade of Appomattox, it was being used generically by Americans to mean "an American, regardless of place of residence."
1. "Liberation," Jan. 8, 1831.