The Ultimate Basis of Slavery
But to begin at the very beginning, it is important to remember something I always tell my students: first and foremost, above and beyond all other considerations, slavery is based on violence. It is impossible to compel a person to labor against their will for another without the threat of violence. There are several ways to express this, but Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has put it most bluntly: “Slavery is torture as a system of governance, corporal destruction taken as the mere cost of doing business.” This may seem obvious, but it is easy to overlook or set aside. And I believe it will help explain why modern race relations remain charged with the fear of violence.
Slavery and Institutionalized Racism
Slavery, of course, wasn’t the first choice of a labor system by early colonists. Indentured servants, mostly from England, supplied the bulk of Virginia’s workers for the colony’s first 30-odd years. But the grim environmental conditions of the Tidewater ensured that four out of every five (!) immigrants died. By the 1640s, conditions improved as the colonists began to spread their settlements out. Indentured servants began to survive their seven-year terms of service and become freemen. These freemen struggled to find good farmland, and moved into the Piedmont. This increase in the numbers of poor, resentful, armed farmers tended to unnerve the Tidewater elite—and indeed, in 1676, these farmers (both white and black, free and slave and indentured) rampaged across the Tidewater, burning plantations as they went, in Bacon’s Rebellion. This convinced plantation owners to accelerate the purchase of slaves.
This was essential. Bacon’s Rebellion showed the planter elite they couldn’t control the poor-but-free men of the Piedmont, but they could and did control slaves. In order to make common cause with the small farmers, the elite began to codify slavery. But they didn’t only codify slavery; they began to codify race. Law after law was passed in order to separate whites and blacks, until by 1702, interracial marriage was forbidden. This institutionalized racism in an effort to make common cause with poor whites became a divide-and-conquer strategy to avoid the kind of class conflict that would eventually affect the North in the nineteenth century. In addition, by combining a totally controlled labor supply with political liberalizations for the Piedmont farmers, the planters ensured the ironic result of slavery ensuring freedom.
And this is really the main point: slavery evolved to be an integral part of an economic system, a significant part of the political system, and—perhaps most important—a system of social control to ensure white supremacy. It is this last point that has guaranteed our hideous legacy of racism.
Slavery probably doomed the United States to civil war when Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia with slavery a part of it. In order to ensure the participation of slave states, the convention embedded slavery in the organic law of the United States in three places: Article I, Section 2 (the infamous three-fifths clause); Article I, Section 9 (preventing Congress from restricting the interstate slave trade until 1808); and Article IV, Section 2, (the fugitive slave clause). These unfortunate clauses were the price of getting slave-holding states to agree to a continental Union in 1787. While apparently embarrassed by ordaining slavery in a document dedicated to ensuring republican liberty (none of the three clauses mentions “slavery” by name), it seems clear that the Founders agreed to this because they felt slavery was doomed, that it was not profitable enough to keep, that it would die a natural death. Certainly Virginia slaveholders had complained before the Revolution that they had too many slaves.
Every school kid knows what happened next: that Eli Whitney radically changed the calculus of slavery’s demise with the invention of the cotton gin. Suddenly, slavery was incredibly profitable, especially in the newly-opened Deep South, where short-staple cotton could get the 200 frostless days of growing season it required. As the 1800s matured, cotton became king.
But the wisdom of continuing to hold slaves was still an actual question Southerners (and Northerners) discussed openly. The general feeling was that slavery, though profitable, was a necessary evil. It was lamentable, a regrettable institution to establish, but what could one do? As Jefferson famously remarked of slavery during the Missouri crisis of 1820, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” This notion of “self-preservation” is interesting, since it begins to get to the heart of what Southerners saw in slavery: that it was a way to control blacks who would certainly murder them in their beds if given a chance. But still, many Southerners in the 1820s were having an actual conversation on the morality of keeping slaves. In 1830, Virginia even had a constitutional convention debating whether or not to abolish slavery.
That all changed in 1831 with Nat Turner’s Rebellion, and Virginia decided it would not abolish slavery. The death of 63 whites (I have seen at least five different numbers here, but none less than 55), mostly women and children, shocked the country, and dramatically changed the terms of the debate. No more would Southerners allow talk of freeing slaves. That was akin to encouraging insurrection. No, those who wanted free speech in order to discuss this issue were compelled to leave the South or suffer beatings, jailing, tar-and-featherings, or death.
It is no coincidence that the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina happened the next year. South Carolina tried to “nullify”, or declare unconstitutional and void within the state, the Tariff of 1828. But the issue at stake wasn’t the tariff; it was the power of the federal government, which, if it could be used to push for a protective tariff, might be used by Northerners to abolish slavery. But South Carolina stood alone in 1832—no other slave state came to her aid and joined her protest against federal power. Why not? Why was no other southern state willing to risk the wrath of Andrew Jackson on the principal of federal power?
Because, among slave-holding states, only South Carolina had a black majority. No other Southern state had more blacks than whites.
Simply put, the implication here is that the more blacks, the more fear. The more slaves in a state, the more likely that state to resist any and all manner of anti-slavery sentiment. The fear that abolition would free slaves; the fear that freedmen in a multiracial society would murder whites in their beds; simple, irrational, racism.
And the subsequent years support this idea. As the 1830s became the 1840s, slavery grew substantially in the Deep South. Throughout the 1850s, cotton became more profitable than ever, and plantation owners sunk every spare dollar into more land and more slaves. By 1860, five states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana—either had black majorities or were very close. It is no coincidence that these five states were among the first to secede.
But this still doesn’t fully explain why the Deep South seceded at all. To fully understand that, we need to understand how slavery affected the American political system.