Power  /  Book Excerpt

A More Imperfect Union: How Differing National Visions Divided the North and the South

On the fragile facade of republicanism in 19th century America.

Political leaders insisted that the Federal Constitution left issues of slavery within states entirely to each state to decide. After the American Revolution, emancipating slaves was possible in the North, where Blacks and masters were relatively few. But racism and segregation intensified as Blacks became free in the North—where they comprised only about 2 percent of the region’s population. Denied access to public education and good jobs, most northern African Americans worked as stevedores, sailors, barbers, bootblacks, domestic servants, and laundresses. After escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass, struggled to find work in a northern city: “I was indeed free—­free from slavery, but free from food and shelter as well.” Discrimination forced Blacks to cluster together in undesirable neighborhoods and to avoid crowds of white people as sources of violence. Free blacks also remained vulnerable to kidnappers who hauled them south for sale as slaves.

Some northerners were abolitionists who wanted southerners immediately to emancipate their slaves without any compensation. Abolitionists highlighted the suffering of Blacks from whipping, hunger, sexual predation, and the rupture of their families by forced sales and migration. Favoring equal rights for all, abolitionists also challenged the North’s racist laws that enforced segregation and discrimination. But abolitionists remained a small minority in the North, where most people despised them as dangerous radicals who threatened social order as well as the Union. Mobs led by prominent men attacked abolitionists and destroyed their meeting halls.

By the 1840s, most southerners claimed that slavery was good for Blacks, making them contented, docile, and grateful to their masters: “the happiest laboring class in the world.” Considering African Americans unfit for liberty, racists exaggerated the supposed misery, insanity, indolence, and criminality of free Blacks in the North.

Despite casting slaves as content, masters warned that they would become murderous if agitated by outsiders. Southerners regarded abolitionists as reckless fanatics spreading insidious lies to disturb the happy relationship of masters and slaves. Southerners insisted that a Black revolt would massacre white people if, as Jefferson Davis asserted, slaves’ “weak minds should be instigated to arson, murder, and rapine.” So southern leaders repressed criticism of slavery, shutting down antislavery societies and abolitionist publications. And they expected northern help in that repression.