Slavery [The Causes of the Civil War] by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

Story type: Literature

Read March 14, 1909.

In my first paper I endeavored to present a picture of the sunny Southland in the ante-bellum days, when wealth and culture and hospitality were the watchwords of the hour–before the invasion of hostile hordes had vandalized the sacred old traditions, and crumbled the household gods in the dust.

But long before the tocsin of civil war had sounded there were mutterings of thunder in the halls of Congress, and the cloud, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, was yearly gathering force, till it finally burst in a cyclone of passion and prejudice and tyranny, and swept all before it in one besom of destruction. That the question of slavery lay at the root of the dissension cannot be doubted by any who are conversant with the political history of the United States. The tariff rulings had their weight, as did the unfair division of new territory: but the main issue was negro slavery, which, always a stumbling-block to the North, had most violently agitated the whole country for eleven years before the appeal to arms.

Negro laborers were brought to Virginia and sold as slaves, fifty years after the first cargo landed at Jamestown. In the year 1619, a Dutch vessel brought over twenty negroes to be thus held in bondage. To the men who watched the landing of this handful of Africans it was doubtless an unimportant matter, yet it was the beginning of a system that had an immense influence upon our country. In those days few persons in the world opposed slavery. Even kings and queens made money out of the traffic. But for tobacco slavery would not have taken such a hold on America. When it was found that the negro made the cheapest laborer for cultivating the plantation many more were imported.

They were also employed in the New England and Middle States, largely as household servants, the soil not being favorable to the production of rice, indigo, cotton and sugar, which were the staples of Southern agriculture. Moreover, the African is not physically adapted to the northern climate. He was especially liable to tubercular disease–hence he was sold to the Southern planters, except in a few cases where the Puritan spirit caused his emancipation.

In the year that Harvard College was erected, 1636, the first slave ship built in America was launched at Marblehead, Mass. It brought a large cargo of slaves to be sold to the settlers. During the one hundred years preceding 1776, millions of slaves had been imported to the States. King George III favored the institution, and forbade any interference with the colonies in this matter. The horrors of slavery in Massachusetts, as recorded by reliable documents of the period, far exceed all that has been charged against the South, by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or any other records of fact or romance. The Encyclopedia of Political Economy and United States History, Vol. 3, page 733, has the following taken from the New York Evening Post:

“During the eighteen months of the years 1859-60 eighty-five slave ships (giving their names) belonging to New York merchants, brought in cargoes annually of between 30,000 and 60,000 African slaves, who were sold in Brazil, there being great demand for them in that country, owing to new industries. Old Peter Faneuil built Faneuil Hall with slave money, and many other fortunes were thus made.”

Thomas Jefferson says in his autobiography that though the Northern people owned very few slaves themselves, at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of slaves to others. In 1761 Virginia and South Carolina, alarmed at the rapid increase of slaves, passed an act restricting their importation, but as many persons in England were growing rich from the trade the act was negatived, or vetoed. While providing in the Constitution of the United States for the Southern planters to hold slaves, the North thought that the laws that were in the course of events to be passed for prohibiting their foreign importation, would so work out so that the institution would die a natural death. They little dreamed that economical and political conditions were destined to fasten it upon the South. At the framing of the Constitution slaves were held in all the States except Massachusetts, and she had only very lately abolished the institution. The South owned twice as many, by reason of her special agricultural products, and even at this early day the slavery question became sectional. Mason’s and Dixon’s line, which was an imaginary boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, was recognized as the division line between the free and slave states.

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(Here are omitted several pages illustrating the utter absence of affinity between the two sections of the country, introduced in the manuscript as social, not historical, matter.)

During the Revolutionary war it was deemed expedient to enlist the colored race as soldiers. In Rhode Island they were made free by law, on condition that they enlisted in the army, and this measure met with Gen’l Washington’s approval. After the Declaration of Independence, in 1777, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts freed their slaves and permitted them to vote, “provided they had the requisite age, property and residence.” The 15th Amendment of a later day was an outrageous document, framed regardless of any such qualifications, but giving the ignorant black man rights even above the white citizens.

In order to induce the Southern States to accept the Federal constitution in the beginning and have the country become a Union of States, the opposers of slavery had to compromise the use of terms, and take measures that seemed expedient. They fondly hoped as time rolled on, to legislate the freedom of slaves. But the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, in 1793, immensely increased the value of slave labor, and forever fastened the institution upon the southern planters, so far as future legislation was concerned. It had been so difficult to separate the cotton fiber by hand, requiring a whole day to one pound, that it was only a minor product; but now the wonderful source of revenue made possible by the new invention, caused the importation of many more slaves, and cotton growing in a million acres became king of the marts. The planter would not willingly give up his property honestly acquired, and plainly permitted by the constitution.

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Slavery was a constant obstacle to the perfect Union of States. In 1790 during the second session of the first congress, the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, through Benjamin Franklin, its President, prayed Congress to restore to liberty those held in bondage. The question was debated in the House in a warm, excited manner. Members from South Carolina and Georgia argued that slavery, being commended by the Bible, could not be wrong; that the Southern States would not have entered into the Confederacy unless their property had been guaranteed them, and any action of the general government looking to the emancipation of slavery would not be submitted to. They said that South Carolina and Georgia could only be cultivated by negro slaves, for the climate, the nature of the soil, and ancient habits, precluded the whites from performing the labor. If the negro were freed he would not remain in those States; hence all the fertile rice and indigo swamps must be deserted and would become a wilderness. Furthermore the prohibiting of the slave trade was at that time unconstitutional. James Madison poured oil on the troubled waters by stating that Congress could not interfere according to constitutional restrictions, “Yet,” he said, “there are a variety of ways by which it could countenance the abolition; and regulations might be made to introduce the freed slaves into the new states to be formed out of the Western territory.” (In parenthesis I remark that if Madison could have looked down the years, he would have found that even though emancipated, the negro will not leave the white settlements. Take our own little city of Lexington where some 17,000 of them are congregated, living in discomfort and poverty in most cases; yet their nature is to depend in some fashion upon their white neighbors and employers.)

It was finally decided in the House that Congress could not prohibit the slave trade until the year 1808–that Congress had no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them within any of the States. This last resolution which is of great historic importance, may be found on page 1523 of the II Vol. of Annals of Congress.

Washington wrote to David Stuart in June 1790: “The introduction of the Quaker memorial respecting slavery was, to be sure, not only ill-timed, but occasioned a great waste of time.”

In 1793 the Fugitive Slave law was passed, whereby a runaway slave captured in a free State, must be returned to his owner. As the new States were admitted into the Union they came in for the most part alternately free and slave States. This was done to preserve the balance of power in Congress.

The great aggressive Abolition movement that led eventually to the Civil War, had its birth in 1831. Fanatics like John Brown, and Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, fanned into flame the sparks that had so long-smouldered, till the helpless negro was dragged from his havens of peace and comfort. If he felt bitterness towards the whites, what was to prevent his rising in insurrection and slaying them all? There were plantations where 600 or 700 slaves were governed by two or three white owners. They occupied little villages and had no care upon earth. They had their pastimes and religious worships. “The courtly old planter, highbred and gentle, the plantation “uncle” who copied the master’s manners; and the broad-bosomed black mammy, with vari-colored turban, spotless apron, and beaming face, the friend and helper of every living thing in cabin or mansion, formed a trio we love to remember.” The black woman cared more for her white nursling than her own child. This seems unnatural, but it was true; and many of us recall the times that the mistress of the house had to interfere to prevent the kitchen mother from cruelly whipping her naughty offspring. Some relic of ancient African barbarism still lingered in their untutored minds. We loved our colored playmates, and their sable mothers and fathers. Many a winning story of “way down upon de ole plantation” has been truthfully told. Will S. Hays has immortalized it in song.

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A Southern writer has thus portrayed the Xmas time: “For weeks beforehand everything was full of stir and preparation. Holly and mistletoe and cedar were being put about the rooms of the big house to welcome home the boys and girls from school. Secret councils were held as to the Xmas gifts to be given to everyone, white and black. The woodpile was loaded with oak and hickory logs to make bright and warm the Christmas nights. The negro seamstresses were busy making: new suits for all the servants.” The King was in the parlor counting out his money–to pay out for gifts of the season–and the queen was in the kitchen dealing bread and honey–to paraphrase Mother Goose. Into the stately plantation home, with its lofty white columns, its big rooms, and its great fireplaces, poured the sons and daughters, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces. Assembled around the groaning board, the patriarch asked the divine blessing and the twin spirits of christianity were rife in the land. There was only a fitful sleep for the small boys and girls, who were up at peep of day, stealing: from room to room crying “Christmas Gift!” Out on the back porches waited the negroes in grinning rows to follow the example. All week the cabin fires burned brightly and constant was the rejoicing over their treasures, not forgetting the grand eatables and the big bowl of egg-nogg.

Negroes are a religious as well as a superstitious race. At midnight Saturday it was their custom to ring the great plantation bell, and spend the next several hours in exhorting, praying and singing their curious, doleful hymns. The whites gave them instruction and training along these lines. Heart and conscious were alike cultivated–not alone the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. Statistics show that there were 466,000 slaves belonging to churches in the South: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and other sects. So the owners of these christianized people thought that they were doing missionary work in saving them from the cannibalism of heathen Africa. Both men and women were taught trades and useful occupations. There were tanners, shoemakers, blacksmiths, farmers, gardeners, horticulturists and carpenters among the men. The women could sew, cook, card, spin, weave, knit, wash, iron, in fact what they produced in this way would put to shame the acquirements and accomplishments of free labor. Many of the older negroes refused to be freed, when the mighty proclamation came. They would not withdraw from the protection of “Old Marster.” Look at the product of these two generations of freedom. What is he? Well we know the painful answer.

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But while the buying of slaves for domestic, or field service, was legitimate, the man who pursued the traffic as a business, and purchased merely to sell again, was despised. He was termed a “nigger-buyer,” and was a pariah in the lowest sense of ostracism. It was claimed that there was a distinction with a very great difference. Three or four servants for ordinary household duties were deemed sufficient. On a farm more hands were needed, and the plantations further south required several hundred. The refractory slave of Kentucky and the border states, was sold “down the river” in commercial parlance, where the discipline of the rice, sugar, and cotton plantations kept in check his evil inclinations. There might have been cases of cruel punishment, but the rule was kindness–if for no other reason, the master would not injure that which stood for money, for property. The expense of keeping slaves was enormous. Where is the laborer of to-day who is furnished his house, clothing, doctors, medicine, and not a little pocket money on occasions?

The South employed her laborers to produce the great staple of cotton, which was to clothe mankind. They were properly clothed, fed and made comfortable. In addition, they were cared for when sick, and there existed the warmest affection for the majority of them. The world can nowhere show human beings as care-free in bondage as were the negroes of the ante-bellum days. Judge the Southern owner by the rule and not the exception. As well judge a town by its halt, maimed, blind, diseased and lawless citizens, as the slave owners by occasional acts of oppression to be found on the plantations. But it was the “Down east” Yankee overseer who was cruel–not the master. It was the African in New England who was denied religious teaching, and even baptism. There was no sympathy there, to quote from a writer, for the poor creatures transplanted from their native sunny clime, dying by hundreds from disease on the bleak Northern shores. It was merely a question of profit and loss. They were sold to the South as fast as they could be shipped. Even when the great hue and cry for freedom led the Northern Senators to legislate for the cessation of foreign slavery in 1808, these great philanthropists rushed over some 5,000 slaves to sell to the South before the limited date could come around. Many prominent rich men of New England made their money by this traffic, then pulled a long face of condemnation for the Southern planter, whose money had been paid over to swell the Northern coffers.

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In 1861 Mr. C.C. Glay, of Alabama, made a bitter speech in the United States Senate. Part of his arraignment was that not a decade had passed that the North had not persecuted the South on account of her slaves.

“You denied us Christian communion because you could not endure slave-holding. You refused us permission to sojourn, or even pass through the North with our property. You refused us any share of the lands acquired mainly by our diplomacy and blood and treasure. You robbed us of our property and refused to restore it.”

The speaker went minutely into the outrages perpetrated by the Abolition party. The list of oppressions had reach a crisis. Meanwhile the cotton and the cane went on in Dixie land, to the weird ditties and the quaint folk-lore of the happy-go-lucky race. So the outbreak of the war found the American slave in the height of his prosperity, unmindful of so-called wrongs, and utterly unfit for the boasted freedom that was thrust upon him. The cruel decree was carried out, and millions of helpless beings were turned adrift without rudder or compass, to bemoan the loss of the good old times when they were provided with the comforts of life they were nevermore to know. With the moral question of slavery this paper has nothing to do. Facts, and facts alone, dictate the record. But who has been, and who is now, the friend of the erstwhile slave? The Northerner or the Southerner? Says one: “We have freed you, but we don’t want you.” Says the other: “We did not free you, but we will take you and make you comfortable. We love your people–you, who have rocked us on your faithful breasts–who have interlarded our very speech with your dialect, and who were our playmates in the joyous days of youth. We have laid your hoary heads in honored graves, and will treasure your memory till the final hour when death shall make all men equal.”

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