Slavery and Abolition
At the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, all of the colonies allowed slavery. But between Independence and 1820, all states in the North had either banned slavery or begun gradual emancipation programs, choosing to base their economies on free labor instead. These free states remained agricultural, but they also went through a process of industrialization, creating a diversified economy as they invested in cities, factories, and new forms of transportation. The South, by contrast, invested more and more in agriculture, becoming increasingly reliant on slave labor while escalating its cotton production.
As Edward Atkinson’s 1863 map of The Cotton Kingdom illustrates, cotton plantations expanded rapidly in the South and production rose dramatically, increasing from under 200,000 bales per year in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860. The map also shows how cotton cultivation varied throughout the region. The Deep South was more invested in the crop than the Upper South was. But nonetheless, the entire region remained a slave society, in which economic, political, and cultural life was shaped by a need to maintain the system.
Between 1820 and 1840, growing numbers of white Americans, mostly in the North, began to express concerns about slavery, though not always for the same reasons. Colonizationists proposed that slaves be emancipated and then relocated to Liberia, a colony on the west coast of Africa. Although colonizationists viewed slavery as an evil, they did not believe that an interracial free society could survive.
Abolitionists opposed colonizationist schemes as racist and unjust to freed slaves. They joined already active black abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, to insist on the end of slavery because it was morally wrong. These activists protected runaway slaves, published anti-slavery newspapers, and held public gatherings where people spoke out against the evils of slavery and urged new followers to do the same. Susan Torrey Merritt's 1845 painting Antislavery Picnic at Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts shows one such anti-slavery gathering.
Northern anti-slavery artists documented the movement and made art to change hearts and minds. They produced numerous illustrations for anti-slavery publications, including novels and first- and secondhand accounts of the experiences of enslaved people. The Auction Sale by Hammatt Billings shows a scene from the abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published in 1852), when a boy is sold away to a plantation owner without his mother, who pleads to be taken along. Traveling British artist Eyre Crowe brought attention overseas to the cruelties of the slave trade, including the splitting of families, when he exhibited his painting, After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond, in London in 1854.
The vast majority of white Southerners viewed all anti-slavery attitudes as dangerous threats to the stability of their society. (Those few Southerners who opposed slavery were intimidated into silence by law and custom.) They argued that slavery was protected in the Constitution as a form of property. They also believed that slavery was a matter for states to handle on their own, an issue of states’ rights. Moreover, they defended it as a social and moral good, something they were proud of and believed was right. They also developed the false—and to our ears, shocking—argument that people of African descent were “naturally” slave-like and belonged in bondage. All of these ideas were part of an increasingly heated Southern defense of slavery in the antebellum period.