A Short Treatise on Slavery in America

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our
inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter
the state of facts and evidence.”

~John Adams~

If one writes anything at all about the Civil War they are bound to find a few people who feel that the Civil War was fought over one issue and one issue only – Slavery. However, if one writes anything specifically dealing with slavery, they are taking a huge risk of opening an emotional can of worms. Slavery is a touchy subject for some people, yet it is also one which is very misunderstood by most people in this country.

For instance, if I were to mention slavery in a room full of people, I’m guessing that most of them would envision the Confederate Battle Flag, Southern Plantations, or something to do with the Antebellum South. I’d also be willing to bet that very few would think about New England ship owners – who transported most of the slaves into America, or the White House even – which was built using a lot of slave labor. In most people’s minds slavery, and the cause of the Civil War, are firmly attached to the South and there is very little one can do to prove that the South did not cause either.

Before I say another word I want to make it perfectly clear that I believe slavery to be an abomination. I believe that any man, or group of men, who seek to hold others in bondage to them so that they can benefit from their sale or their labor is evil, that slavery is a crime against humanity and against the unalienable rights of ALL MEN regardless of who the victims of it are.

Are we clear on that?

The only reason I dare tread on this emotional minefield is because the other morning my friend Jamie Bell sent me a YouTube video to watch by some guy named Steven Crowder who does a bunch of videos called Louder with Crowder. This particular video was about a visit to a Civil War museum managed by a guy named David Barton who attempted to prove that the Civil War was, in fact, fought only about slavery. Barton provided a respectable amount of evidence to support his position, and anyone not in possession of the facts would probably have ended up agreeing with him by the end of the video.

Fortunately, or unfortunately if you if you side with Mr Barton, I know a bit more about that period of history, and slavery in general, than the average person. I’m not saying I have a PhD on the subject, but I’ve done my due diligence and studied both pretty extensively; so I think I can claim to be somewhat informed on the subjects.

I know I’m probably somewhat guilty of this, but what galls me is when people use historical facts to push a certain agenda or bias by withholding crucial evidence that, if presented, would shoot their position down in flames. I see that all the time, from those we call our educators, to the media, to so-called historians who publish books or give speeches that are only half truthful. I think the American people deserve the full truth, and should be allowed to decide for themselves which side to take on an issue; even though most people care little to nothing about the truth, only those facts which support their pre-existing beliefs.

That is why I decided to respond, in essay form, to Mr. Barton’s position that the Civil War was all about slavery. I just hope I don’t step on too many toes along the way.

Are people today so naive to think that slavery was a uniquely American experience; that it was only practiced by those evil Southerners in the years prior to the Civil War? Slavery, in one form or another, is almost as old as man himself is. At some point in their history almost every country on the planet has practiced slavery; and some still do in some form or another.

If you were to ask a roomful of people who is to blame for slavery in America, I’m betting that most people would respond by saying, “The white man” or even more specific, “Anglo Saxons.” Yet did you know that the first slaves to arrive in America were not brought here by British explorers, they were brought here by the Spanish?

When Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon came to the America’s in 1526 he brought slaves with him to aid in establishing a colony in, what is now, South Carolina. This was almost 100 years before the first British settlers would arrive at Jamestown. Then, in 1865 another Spaniard, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, established a colony in St. Augustine, Florida, which became a hub for the importation of slaves into the Spanish held territories in America.

So right there we see that slavery on this continent is at least as old as the first Europeans to set foot upon American soil, and therefore it is not a uniquely Southern thing, nor is it tied specifically to Anglo Saxon white men.

The first slaves to arrive here in America, which were owned and held in bondage by Anglo Saxon’s were brought here by British Privateers, (essentially pirates working under contract to the British government). In 1619 British Privateers brought around 20 slaves to the British Colony of Jamestown, after having captured them from a Portuguese slave ship.

What I find so highly ironic is that slavery is so firmly tied in most people’s minds to the South, yet the majority of the slaves owned in the British Colonies, and later the individual States of the Union, were transported here by New England ship owners. It’s almost like if people were to blame the drug problem in America only upon the users, and not those who smuggle in and sell those drugs to them.

Another thing, although in the years directly preceding the Civil War slavery was mostly practiced in the South, there was a time when it was practiced throughout the Colonies. In fact, there was a time when those living in the Colony of New York held more slaves than any single Southern Colony did. So to say that slavery is a uniquely Southern thing is disingenuous at best, if not an outright lie.

Again, I’m not justifying the holding of any man in bondage, I’m only trying to provide facts which explain the way things were back in this period of our country’s history. To understand why slavery, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, was so prevalent in the South you need to understand the economies of both the North and the South.

The Northern economy did not rely upon a large workforce to operate. Even the merchant ships that sailed across the ocean to transport goods, or people, back and forth only required a crew of about 30 people. On the other hand, on the big Southern Plantations there was a lot of labor involved in managing and harvesting the crops they grew; hence the need for slaves.

I’m not saying it was right, but you have to remember this was before the days of big combines and harvesters that could do the work of dozens, if not hundreds of workers. Furthermore, look at the use of illegal aliens today on many of the farms in some States, such as my home State of California; as they could be considered as a form of indentured servants – if they get out of line, or complain about conditions there are a dozen others willing to take their place.

Whatever the reasons may be slavery, as an institution, found a foothold in America and became necessary for certain economies to thrive and function. That said, it wasn’t condoned by all, even those in the South where it was more prevalent.

For instance, George Mason, who authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, wrote the following three years before the Declaration of Independence was written, “[Slavery is] that slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People.”

Then of course there is the Declaration of Independence itself. Most people only know the version that is on display at the National Archives, totally unaware that the original version was much longer, and included a grievance about King George’s refusal to allow the Colonies to ban the importation of slaves into them. In his original draft of the Declaration Jefferson writes, “…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them…”

However, Jefferson was a realist and knew that, if emancipated, or freed, it would be better to educate and colonize them outside the territory held by the English Colonists. In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson wrote, “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

While that may, on the surface, sound racist, it was merely Jefferson’s thoughts on why the two people’s could not exist side by side in a society. Yet Jefferson was not alone in thinking that way. Again it is ironic that the man who is credited with freeing the slaves also believed in colonizing the slaves outside the territory held by the United States – Abraham Lincoln.

In 1862 President Lincoln met with a group of former slaves when he sought their help in convincing other former slaves to consider colonizing outside the U.S. From the transcript of that meeting we read, “Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”

I know I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself, but I needed to share this information to show you that the beliefs held by some anti-slavery pre-revolutionary Americans were not so different than those held by the President most Americans hold in such high esteem for freeing the slaves.

Getting back to my original timeline, slavery had become an institution that, although was beginning to be less and less prevalent in the North, still had a firm foothold in America at the time of the Revolution.

The issue of slavery kind of took second stage during this period of our history, as most people were focused on winning the war for independence, or losing it if they were British Loyalists. But once the war was over, and we became 13 independent States, the focus to peacetime life saw a return to the festering issue of slavery.

The issue of slavery came to a head during the convention assembled to amend the Articles of Confederation; known as the Constitutional Convention. Some Northern delegates, such as Gouverneur Morris, wanted wording included which would have prohibited the importation, if not the outright owning of slaves. Other arguments arose as to whether slaves should be counted in determining representation, or if, as property, they should not be counted in the census.

The issue threatened to stall any progress in producing a document both regions of the country could agree to. For the sake of establishing a national union, a compromise was agreed to in which slavery could not be prohibited until at least 1808, and that the existing slaves would count as 3/5’s a person when conducting any census; thereby helping the South in their representation in Congress. In his book The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, author William Wieck explained it as follows, ” [F]or the framers, the highest good was national union. For this they sacrificed all other considerations, including the well-being of black Americans.”

Had the northern delegates pushed the issue of abolishing slavery within the wording of any Constitution, they would have either doomed that Constitution to failure, or ensured that the country would be divided into two segments; one under the authority of the government they were trying to establish, and one free of it. They simply could not allow that, so they kicked the issue of slavery down the proverbial road for future generations to deal with.

So the drafters of our Constitution sacrificed morality and the belief that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, just so they could get their precious Union and its centralized system of government. Do you still hold them with the same high esteem now?

You may not know this, but slavery was becoming cost prohibitive towards the end of the 18th century; it cost a lot for the slaves themselves, and it cost a lot to feed and house them. Had Eli Whitney not have invented the Cotton Gin in 1793 there is a good chance that slavery would have ended without a shot being fired. But, since the Cotton Gin allowed for one slave to do the work of 10 by hand, slavery once became lucrative; so it continued on as an institution.

Regardless of all this, there was a growing abolitionist movement in the North that saw slavery as a sin against humanity, and they wanted it abolished. Unfortunately the Constitution stood in their way as it tolerated slavery – at least up until the year 1808. But just as the thought of abolishing slavery threatened the future of the Constitution itself at the convention, any thought of abolishing slavery was sure to be met with stiff opposition by the States that depended upon it for their livelihood.

Another thing you may not be aware of, and I’m getting slightly ahead of myself again, Lincoln had sought to purchase the freedom of slaves in certain States by requisitioning funds from Congress for that express purpose. In some instances the funds were made available but the States refused them. For instance, in 1861 Lincoln sought to purchase the freedom of all the slaves in the State of Delaware, about 1,800 total, but the resolution failed in the Delaware State Legislature – they wanted to keep their slaves. And Delaware was a NORTHERN State!

Again returning to my timeline, there was a movement in the North to aid those who had escaped slavery and sought refuge in the North. Known as the Underground Railroad, these people were dedicated to finding refuge, often in Canada, for those who had escaped their bondage.

The problem was, as offensive as this is, those slaves were believed to be property; the slave owners had shelled out good money to purchase them, and without compensation they wanted them back if they escaped. So they viewed this Underground Railroad as an attack against their property rights and interference by pesky Northern Abolitionists into the internal affairs of a sovereign State.

It is interesting to note what actions our government was taking at this time in regards to slavery. If you remember, the Constitution had prohibited them from doing anything about slavery until 1808, but they were now well past that deadline and could have taken measures to gradually end it…yet they didn’t. In fact, they did things which seem to show that they supported the institution of slavery.

The first thing government did was enact the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it mandatory to return all escaped slaves to their owners and that the citizens of slave free states must cooperate with authorities in capturing those who had escaped.

The Constitution, under Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 declared, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Yet it was not being enforced and hundreds of slaves were escaping bondage and seeking refuge in the North.

So in 1793 Congress enacted the first Fugitive Slave Act, which only required the authorities assist in returning slaves to their owners. The new law also attached a fine to those who did not obey the law, or cooperate with the authorities in capturing runaway slaves.

I hate to keep repeating myself, but you have to remember, at this time in our history the owning of slaves was perfectly legal. In fact, it was a Northern State, Massachusetts, that had passed the first law legalizing slavery when it passed the Body of Liberties back in 1641. Under the Constitution owning slaves was not considered a crime under the law; although it WAS a crime against the equal rights of all men.

The issue of slavery, whether to allow it or make it illegal, was left entirely up to the individual States, and any interference in that institution by the federal government, or the other States, without a formal constitutional amendment banning slavery, WAS A VIOLATION OF THE 10TH AMENDMENT PROTECTING STATES RIGHTS!

I know that is hard for some to grasp, but no matter how offensive the idea of slavery is, it was perfectly legal under the Constitution and there wasn’t a damned thing anyone could do to end it until the States utilizing slave labor decided that they no longer wanted to practice it within their State! Any actions taken by the people of neighboring, or Northern States where abolitionist sentiments ran high, was a violation of the Constitutional protections of the rights of the individual states. So the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a violation of the Constitution as it stood back in the early to mid 1800’s.

The next thing the government did was to, not only justify slavery, but declare that those held in bondage had no rights under the Constitution came when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Dred Scott v Sandford.

Dred Scott was a slave who had been purchased in Missouri but his owners had transported him to the Missouri Territory, (Google the difference between the two if you want more info on it), which was designated as a free territory by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott sued for his freedom, first taking the case to the State Court, then the federal court, finally taking his case to the Supreme Court.

In the Courts ruling in Dred Scott the Chief Justice, Roger Taney, held that blacks, “…are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”

So here we have the government of the United States declaring, first that slavery was legal under the Constitution; secondly that slaves were property and must be returned to their owners if they escaped; and finally, that under the Constitution black people had absolutely no rights. What an amazing system of government they chose for themselves!

Anyhow, regardless of all that the anti-slavery movement still was growing in the North and the Underground Railway kept helping escaped slaves seek their freedom; those people doing what their hearts told them was the right thing to do, not what the law declared was their obligation to do.

One other quick thing before I move on to the election of Abraham Lincoln. In 1831 two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont came to America to study our culture and society. Their intent was to report back to France on the burgeoning young democracy in America. However, de Tocqueville eventually wrote a 2 book essay titled Democracy In America, where he laid out what he say as he travelled the country.

An interesting point de Tocqueville talks about is the way in which blacks were treated; both in the North and the South. One would think that since the Northerners were anti slavery that they would be more open to, and friendly towards blacks. De Tocqueville found that the reverse was true, stating, “In that part of the Union where the Negroes are no longer slaves, have they come closer to the whites? Everyone who has lived in the United States will have noticed just the opposite. Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

I will discuss this in a bit more detail in a bit, but I wanted to address it now to prove that just because the Northerners may have wanted to end slavery did not mean they felt the blacks should be on the same footing of equality as they were.

Enter the election of 1860 with a 4 way bid for the office of president. The Democrats were divided into two camps, the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats. The Northern Democrats were more moderate on the issue of slavery, wanting only to preserve it where it already existed, but the Southern Democrats wanted to expand slavery into territories that had not yet become States; possibly to expand Democratic control in Congress.

The Republicans stood solidly behind the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, while the former Whig Party and a few offshoots formed the Constitutional Union Party which nominated John Bell.

It’s interesting to note that of the 11 States that would form the Confederate States of America, Abraham Lincoln was not on the ballot in 10 of them. If slavery was the reason the Southern States seceded, why was the election of Abraham Lincoln the catalyst that led them to secede?

Lincoln had never said he was going to end slavery, only limit its expansion into new territories, a fact he re-affirmed after winning the election, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes. That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”

Not only did Lincoln adamantly say that he had no intentions of interfering with slavery where it already existed, he supported a constitutional amendment that would have made slavery permanent and untouchable by the government for all time; the Corwin Amendment.

The Corwin Amendment was introduced into Congress by Senator William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and Thomas Corwin in 1861. The text of the amendment reads, “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Lincoln addressed this fact as well in his Inaugural Address, stating, “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

So not only did Lincoln state that he had no intentions of interfering with slavery where it already existed, he declared his support for an amendment that would make slavery permanent in the South. So, if slavery was their only concern, why did the South not just accept the proposed amendment and remain in the Union; there must have been other reasons besides slavery that led them to secede.

Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety? Not only is it a declaration of 27 grievances leveled against the King of England, it is also a universal declaration on the rights of man, the purpose which government should serve, and the right of the governed should government no longer serve that purpose.

So if the Declaration of Independence lists 27 grievances against King George, is it not possible that there was more behind the South seceding than just the North’s continued interference in the institution of slavery; like burdensome tariffs that were draining the wealth of the South to fund Northern expansion and internal improvements?

Yes the Declarations of Secession of the Southern States mention slavery as their reason behind seceding, but even if that is true slavery remained legal, (for the time being), under the Constitution. So wouldn’t their seceding be an act of defending the Constitution, while the Northern abolitionists were actually the ones guilty of violating it by refusing to return runaway slaves to their owners?

Also, when the Constitution was ratified, three of the States included wording in their ratification statements which said that should the federal government ever become oppressive, or no longer serve the purposes for which it was established, it was their right to resume their original condition and withdraw from the Union. And, according to Article 4, Section 2, Clause 1, “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” Therefore, if the people of one state had declared that they held the right to withdraw from a voluntary agreement to accept a government for certain specific purposes, then so did EVERY state.

It really doesn’t matter what their reasons were for seceding, be it slavery, taxes, or whatever, the people of each State could choose to leave the Union and the federal government would have no legal authority to deny them that right. To deny that principle is like saying if you join a gym and sign a membership contract you must remain a member, not only for your own life, but for the life of your children and your grandchildren.

No, the States could, for whatever reasons they chose to give, declare that they were leaving the Union and there was absolutely nothing the Union could do to stop them…legally.

Abraham Lincoln saw things differently. He felt that it was his duty to preserve the Union, intact and inviolable, regardless of the consequences. Freeing the slaves was not his concern, keeping the Union together was, and he made that abundantly clear in an 1862 letter to publisher Horace Greeley, “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”

Lincoln did close his letter to Greeley by saying, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”

Yet Lincoln, even if in his heart, wanted all men, including slaves, to be free, did not want them living among as; as I have already shown by his support for colonization. Lincoln also felt that the black race was inferior to the white race; a fact I have withheld from addressing until now.

When Lincoln was running for president he held a series of presidential debates against Steven Douglas. In his fourth such debate Lincoln clearly stated his beliefs regarding the two races, “While I was at the hotel to—day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, —that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like what de Tocqueville spoke of in his book Democracy in America?

So, while Lincoln may have felt slavery to be wrong, and hoped that one day it would end in America, he was not in favor of equality between the two races. Yet he is the one who is immortalized by a statue in our nation’s capital and on Mount Rushmore, while the images and monuments dedicated to Confederate heroes and leaders are being torn down at an alarming rate.

History, good or bad, should never be erased or hidden. If it is bad, then let it serve as a lesson for future generations. If it is good, then let us celebrate it, as we do with Independence Day every year. But in both instances let the truth be told…the entire truth.

I know this was long, much longer than even my long winded rants of before. That was because there was a lot of information that I needed to cover if I was to be sure to provide ALL the facts.

Slavery was a blot on our history, no doubt about it. But far too many people look at the issue with tunnel vision, believing that it was only a Southern thing, and therefore the Confederacy ONLY stood for racist men who sought to keep their slaves. Many of those who volunteered to fight for their country, (the Confederate States of America), did not own a single slave. Some were dirt poor farmers barely scratching a living out for themselves and their families. Do you honestly think they would volunteer to fight in a war for a bunch of rich folks who owned a bunch of slaves?

I know I’m asking a lot of some of my readers, but I beg of you, please go back and try re-reading this with an open mind about the whole history of slavery in America. Put aside whatever prejudices you might have towards the Confederacy and look at it from the founding up through the Civil War. See who could have ended slavery and chose to establish a system of government over doing what the Declaration of Independence stood for. See how the government sought to protect slavery just so the Southern States would remain in the Union. And look at Lincoln’s words to see why he sent so many men off to die in the bloodiest war America has ever fought, with families torn apart and brothers and cousins fighting against each other.

I only ask that you examine all the facts, not just those that support the conclusions you have drawn, or those provided you by some high school history book. I don’t know if the facts I have presented will change anyone’s mind, but if I get you to at least think about slavery with an open mind, then I will have accomplished something.

Thanks for bearing with me…

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