Although racial slavery was well-established in the United States by the early 19th century, certain trends contributed to the emergence of slavery as a “peculiar institution,” one unique to the South.
One key reason for the emergence of slavery as a “peculiar institution” in the South was the gradual end of slavery in the North beginning in the late 18th century. Antislavery activists in the North were influenced by the rhetoric and ideology associated with natural equality during the American Revolution, and by religious beliefs that increasingly viewed slavery as sinful. Moreover, the northern economy (which did not rely as heavily on slave labor), along with the development of free labor ideology, which viewed slavery as unfair competition that distorted market relationships, created less incentive to protect the institution.
One way slaves could gain freedom was through manumission.
Manumissions often occurred following the death of a slaveowner, who provided for the freedom of his slaves in a will.
EXAMPLEPhillis Wheatley (her African name is lost to posterity) was born in Africa in 1753. In 1761, she was sold as a slave to the Wheatley family, who lived in Boston, Massachusetts. At a time when most slaves were unable to learn to read and write, Wheatley achieved full literacy and became a well-known poet. Phillis was manumitted upon the death of her master in the 1770s.
However, manumissions were quite rare and few slaveholders were willing to free their own slaves. Fewer than 80 slaveholders in New York City voluntarily manumitted slaves between 1783 and 1800.
Slaves could also gain their freedom through a process known as gradual emancipation, which became the preferred strategy for many northern state legislatures following the American Revolution.
Gradual emancipation promoted the freedom of African-American slaves, but it did so in a way that satisfied the economic interests of northern slaveholders. For instance, gradual emancipation laws could promise to liberate only children born of enslaved mothers. Such laws could also require children to remain in a state of indentured servitude to their mother’s master for a certain number of years. Both requirements allowed slaveholders to continue to exploit the labor of African Americans for a time, and they caused northern emancipation to proceed at a snail’s pace.
EXAMPLEIn 1780, Pennsylvania implemented a gradual emancipation plan that required children of enslaved mothers to serve indentures of 28 years to their mothers’ masters.
Despite the slowness of gradual emancipation, and the limited number of private manumissions, the population of free blacks in the northern United States did increase significantly during the early 19th century.
A number of Americans also expressed optimism that slavery would gradually go away throughout the entire United States once the nation stopped participating in the international slave trade. According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress could abolish American participation in the international slave trade in 1808. In 1807, Congress did just this, implementing a ban on American participation in the international slave trade effective January 1, 1808.
However, the ban on American participation in the international slave trade did not lead to the gradual death of slavery. While smuggling continued to occur after Congress enacted the ban, high fertility rates among slave women and low mortality rates relative to other regions of the world led to a natural population increase among African-American slaves in the South.
EXAMPLEEstimates suggest that the slave population quadrupled between 1808 and 1860, from roughly one million to four million.
This natural population increase — combined with the expansion of cotton cultivation in the South — helps explain why slavery did not go away, despite gradual emancipation in the North and a ban on participating in the international slave trade.
Racism was another reason why slavery did not become extinct in 19th-century America. For instance, Thomas Jefferson's views on race were not unusual in his time. Jefferson doubted the intellectual capacities of African Americans and deemed them all inferior because of their skin color. He went on to suggest that such differences in skin color played a greater role in determining African Americans’ intellectual capacities than their position in forced servitude:
Jefferson’s ideas toward race were informed by the Enlightenment, the intellectual and cultural movement of the 18th century that emphasized reason, scientific inquiry, and progress over superstition and blind faith. Beginning in the early 19th century, a number of American scientists built upon these principles by gathering data and developing theories to explain all facets of life, including racial differences and the perceived superiority of white Americans.
Starting in the 1820s, a number of American scientists accepted the idea that humans were not part of a single creation event (also known as monogenesis). Rather, to explain the variety of cultural and physical differences between people, they sought evidence to support a theory known as polygenesis.
Among the most popular methods was measuring skull capacity. Dr. Samuel George Morton and his associates robbed Indian graves for the sole purpose of collecting and measuring skulls. Morton’s most famous book, Crania Americana (1839), featured numerous images of skulls, as well as his conclusions on race based on cranial measurements.
He characterized white Americans (and Europeans) by writing:
In contrast, he described individuals of African descent by writing:
“Characterized by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide; the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small. In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.”
By the 1850s, Morton’s conclusions were widely accepted. A number of scientists in the northern and southern United States, including Louis Agassiz, who taught zoology and geology at Harvard University, and Josiah Nott, who was a surgeon and physician from Alabama, continued to popularize polygenism.
Racism was certainly a key factor in the perpetuation and defense of slavery in the United States. Still, southern slaveholders worked continuously to ensure that their “peculiar institution” remained protected by the federal government. The expansion of democracy during the 1820s and 1830s was particularly crucial. Southern lawmakers, such as John C. Calhoun, grew increasingly concerned about a democratic phenomenon known as the tyranny of the majority.
Calhoun and other white southerners watched with concern as the North’s slave population declined, while its free, white voting population continued to increase at the expense of the South. They worried that if political power in Congress went to a northern majority that became hostile to slavery, the South’s economy and culture would be in danger. For this reason, white southerners in Congress bristled at what they perceived to be northern attempts to deprive them of their livelihood.
Recall that John C. Calhoun opposed John Quincy Adams’s Tariff of 1828, because he believed it would disproportionately harm the South, which relied heavily on imports, and benefit the North, which would receive protections for its manufacturing centers. More importantly, Calhoun was worried that the tariff would open the door for other federal initiatives that might harm slavery. It was for these reasons that Calhoun argued for nullification in his “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” (Calhoun, 1992):
Calhoun’s support of nullification illustrated the growing importance of states’ rights arguments to the southern states by the mid-19th century. Calhoun increasingly saw white southerners as an embattled minority and, in an attempt to preserve both the Union and the South’s economic and political interests (which revolved around slavery), Calhoun advanced the idea of a concurrent majority.
Calhoun’s idea of the concurrent majority found full expression in his essay “A Disquisition on Government” (Calhoun, 1992), which was published after his death in 1850:
Calhoun went on to argue that the interests of any numerical majority could be countered by constitutional measures that protected minority interests, including those of southern slaveholders (Calhoun, 1992):
“The necessary consequence of taking the sense of the community by the concurrent majority is...to give to each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others. It is this mutual negative among its various conflicting interests, which invests each with the power of protecting itself — and places the rights and safety of each, where only they can be securely placed, under its own guardianship. Without this there can be no systematic, peaceful, or effective resistance to the natural tendency of each to come into conflict with the others; and without this there can be no constitution.”
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Race/Skulls image, PD http://bit.ly/2jmdjJt, Morton, S.G. (1839). Crania Americana. (pp. 5-7) Ret from http://bit.ly/13xyOiu, Jefferson, T. (1853) Notes on the State of Virginia. Ret from http://bit.ly/1SbbHRK, John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992). Ret 1/31/2017 from the Web: http://bit.ly/2kM1AoC, Openstax tutorials 11.2 and 12.2 http://bit.ly/2kfLMth Some sections edited for brevity. Image of Phillis Wheatley, PD http://bit.ly/2o7HdqG .Image of John Calhoun, PD http://bit.ly/2ohbRew