The Impact of Time on the Perception of Slavery
Slavery in the late 18th and 19th centuries was a widely contested topic amongst Americans. The examination of many primary documents from the period allows for a better understanding of the opinions of the time. The primary sources examined include: William Lloyd Garrison’s introduction to The Liberator, the Prigg v. Pennsylvania court case, George Fitzhugh’s argument on slaver, the South Carolina Declaration of Secession, and Alexander Stephen’s speech to the Confederacy. Through the examination of these sources, it is evident that the issues both for and against slavery relied heavily on interpretation of important documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which changed over time as perceptions and belief systems in America evolved.
By the time the American Revolution had established the United States, slavery was commonplace. The rural and agricultural based South relied on slavery to maintain their families and plantations, especially as the international trade market grew. “By 1790, four years after the ratification of the Constitution, 654,121 slaves lived in the South—then just Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the “Southwest Territory” (Tennessee)…in 1810, that number had increased to more than 1.1 million individuals”. Slavery steadily increased after the ratification of the Constitution, initiating the belief that the document was not anti-slavery, igniting the heated debate over whether this document supported or condemned slavery.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the perceptions of slavery began to progress from a necessary evil to a positive good. George Fitzhugh presented a well-thought-out defense of slavery through his study, Sociology for the South. Here, he claimed that northern society was corrupt and called slavery a ‘gentle system designed to “protect” the inferior black race and promote social harmony’. Fitzhugh is pro-slavery and gave the example of women and how, “her subservience to and dependence on man, is necessary to her very existence”. He uses this example as better understanding of how a slave is dependent upon his master. George Fitzhugh speaks highly of the slave and emphasizes the provisions given by the master –“We the slaveholders provide for each slave, in old age and in infancy, in sickness and in health, not according to his labor, but according to his wants”. He is romanticizing the life of the slave by comparing it to that of a woman. All of their needs, wants, and desires are taken care of by the master, and they do not have to worry about anything.
People were oftentimes either strongly pro or anti-slavery, but this did not mean that their views could not change over time. William Lloyd Garrison lived in Massachusetts and was an active participant in reform causes for much of his life. In the 1820’s, he advocated for the colonization of blacks in Africa as well as the slow abolition of slavery. He, however, was influenced by other reformers such as David Walker. In 1831, he created a newspaper that was called The Liberator in order to advocate on behalf of the African Americans and in defense of human rights. Garrison, and his newspaper, were anti-slavery. He even mentions the Declaration of Independence – “Assenting to the ‘self-evident truth’ maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population”. He is arguing that all men are created equal and should have rights, not just the white ones, and that this philosophy should be extended to the slaves and blacks as well. Garrison was not always a strong advocate against slavery. He took the time in his first article in The Liberator to apologize for her previous beliefs by saying, “I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice, and absurdity…My conscience is now satisfied”. This apology and clearing of his conscience implies that slavery and the current treatment of African Americans evoked a strong sense of moral wrongdoing within himself. This change his attitude is indicative of the slowly changing perspectives within America at this time.
Garrison was not the only one whose views were changing in America. During the 1840’s and 50’s a frequent source of tension occurred between state’s rights and the federal government. One major that caused tension was in regard to the northerners refusing to follow the fugitive slave laws set by the federal government. Northern states, like Pennsylvania, began to fight back through laws that made it illegal to remove a black person from the state with the intent of enslavement. In this Supreme Court Case that was held in 1842, the decision was made that the national fugitive slave act overruled Pennsylvania’s law. This court ruling was in favor of slavery. Two clauses from Article 4 section 2 of the Constitution are cited in this particular court case. The first clause states that, “A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime.” The second asserts, “No person held to service or labor 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 labor; but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” The court decided that they did not want to take away the rights of the slaveholders. In order for the slaveholders’ rights to be maintained, they must take the rights from the African Americans. This decision provides a sense of the national climate on slavery – it was more for than against slavery at this point, but things were about to change with the election of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became president with only 40% of the popular vote and no votes from the southern Electoral College. This caused political upheaval and southern states began to organize secession conventions. Just over a month after the election of Lincoln, South Carolina decided to secede and they issued a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes.” They based their pro-slavery argument on the same Constitutional clauses used in Prigg v. Pennsylvania. South Carolina claimed that the other states, “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection”. This tension between the North and South had been building for 25 years, and the rallying of the north supporting the election of Lincoln was the final straw for South Carolina. His hostility toward slavery scared the southerners and they believed that Lincoln would be the cause of the elimination of slavery.
By 1861, the country had split into the Confederacy and Union, and the Confederates had to quickly create their own government and national values. The reason for the secession of many southern states was slavery and the need for slaves to maintain their agricultural ventures. Again, everything is based on the perceptions of the United States Constitution – when the southern states decided that they didn’t like what it said, they left and made their own. In his speech, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, claims that white supremacy and slavery are the “cornerstone” of the Confederate nation as well as the cause for secession. Stephens criticized the Constitution and its interpretation by the northerners. He said, “Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell”. Through this statement, Stephens claimed that a governmental system built on equality surely could not last. He then claimed that his new government, the Confederate Government, was built on a strong cornerstone that, “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man”. Those who cling to the ideals of equality from the north were called insane and fanatics by Stephens. He completely leaves the Constitution behind and rests his new country on ideals that are, in today’s views, completely and morally abominable. Here shows the complete division between the north and the south – in order for any reconciliation to happen, there has to be compromise. It is important to recognize that secession stemmed from different constitutional interpretations on slavery. The south, however, decided that they did not like the constitution nor the ambiguity and decided to create their own.
In 1866, Republicans in Congress decided that the best way to protect their interests in the South was to ensure that African American men had the right to vote. They did this by creating the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was the first federal attempt to constitutionally define all residents who were born in America, except the Native Americans, as citizens. This law also restrictions of the fundamental rights given to citizens, no matter the color of their skin. Around the same time that the Civil Rights Act was being created, the Fourteenth Amendment was being developed as well to make sure it remained constitutional. Section One of the Amendment granted citizenship to all American born citizens and also limited states’ authority and made sure they could not deny due process to or discriminate against anyone because of their race. Eventually, if the southern states wanted to join back to the United States, they had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and enfranchise African Americans. We know that all of the states that seceded eventually came back by the end of 1870– a demonstration of the change in value and perception that occurred over time. Now, we would even look at the Constitution and immediately assume that “all men” includes every man and woman no matter their race or beliefs. The slow change that occurred in the mentality of those in the past is parallel to that which occurs today and will continue to occur in the future.
Many lives of African Americans were significantly improved by 1870, through the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. The amendment’s achievements include the protection of voting rights, the right to get married and have a family, the protection of black churches, the right to own land, and many more. African American men and women are not just limited to working on plantations and they were granted the opportunity to play a role in society – a huge advancement in the lives of these people. Though it took much time, conflict, and lost lives, African Americans finally began to get the rights that they deserved. While there were still prejudices, racism, and other atrocities committed against the African Americans, they began to slowly gain the rights that they deserve. African Americans have come a long way since, and it is all due to the change in societal norms and perceptions, which are continuing to be gradually changed to this day.