The title of this post is taken from a line in Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s book, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. Cited items are also from this book, except as noted.
Slavery in the North American Colonies
Slavery had not always divided the South from the North. Prior to the American Revolution, all British colonies in the New World legally sanctioned the practice.
There were black slaves in nearly every colony; 42% of New York City households possessed slaves at the end of the seventeenth century; as late as 1770, nearly twice as many blacks were in bondage in New York as compared to Georgia.
The Revolution brought change, directly and indirectly. Royal governors of various colonies declared any slave free who would bear arms against the colonists. At the end of the war, as many as 18,000 freed blacks departed with the British forces.
Slavery During the Continental Congress
The Revolutionary spirit further caused white Americans to challenge the institution.
Quakers organized the world’s first antislavery society in Philadelphia in 1775, and soon similar organizations dotted the colonies.
Some states offered freedom to blacks who enlisted in the military. Vermont in its constitution of 1777 became the first to abolish the institution. The Pennsylvania legislature enacted gradual emancipation in 1780, while the Massachusetts courts pronounced slavery inconsistent with the state’s declaration of rights in 1783. State after state followed with either outright abolition or gradual emancipation. The Continental Congress meanwhile passed the Ordinance of 1787, prohibiting slavery in the western territories north of the Ohio river. New Jersey in 1804 became the last remaining state above the Mason-Dixon line to put chattel slavery on the road to extinction.
Even in the South progress was made:
Many southern states banned the importation of slaves; southern societies encouraging masters to free their human chattel flourished; and several states relaxed legal obstacles to such voluntary manumissions. These actions spawned the first substantial communities of free blacks, concentrated in the upper South. Delaware saw the process furthest; three-quarters of the state’s blacks were out of bondage by 1810.
So What Happened?
The Constitution, that’s what:
The first cooling of antislavery fervor became evident in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787.
First, the Constitution allowed for a further 20 years to import slaves, giving time for the states of the lower South to replenish their stocks. Second, Article IV, Section 2 compelled the return of fugitive slaves even if they escaped to free states – thus requiring the national government to subsidize the enforcement of the slave system. Finally, three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for representation; these “non-persons” would be contributing to the power of their states in the national Congress, furthering their subjugation.
In 1820 the United States slave population was three times what it had been at the outset of the Revolution. Thus, while slavery was disappearing throughout the rest of the world, it was expanding in the American South.
According to Rufus King of New York, a veteran of the Constitutional Convention, “The disproportionate power and influence allowed to the slave-holding states was a necessary sacrifice to the establishment of the constitution.”
One is left to wonder: so why do it? Why establish that particular constitution? Why not two separate unions in the first place?
Missouri presented a challenge in 1820 – ready to join the Union as a state, yet a slave state. Eventually a compromise was reached, allowing for this. There was Texas, with real and perceived intrigue involving British advances toward this independent Republic; slavery was also permitted. In the Compromise of 1850, the slavery question in Utah and New Mexico was to be left open to popular sovereignty. But the worst part of this compromise was the stronger Fugitive Slave Law:
One of the harshest congressional measures ever, the act created a class of federal court officials, called commissioners, to help slaveholders seize runaways. All the slaveholder needed to do was present an affidavit. The alleged fugitive enjoyed no right to a jury trial or even to testify. Furthermore, commissioners had a financial incentive to rule against the fugitive. They received a $10 fee from the government for deciding that a black was an escaped slave, but only $5 for not. To enhance enforcement, Congress empowered commissioners to conscript the physical aid of any private citizen, thereby extending the principle behind compulsory slave patrols into the North. Obstructing the law was subject to a $1,000 fine, six months in prison, and $1,000 civil damages for each escaped slave.
The FISA courts have nothing on these guys.
From this law came Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a wildly popular novel directly credited with fueling anti-slavery opinion. With this law, Southern states made clear that nothing would stand in the way of recovering their human chattel.
Free blacks were the northern group in greatest jeopardy. They had no legal recourse if a Southerner claimed they were escaped slaves.
As you would expect, professional slave catchers made a good living by kidnapping free blacks in the North and selling them in the South.
The Slave Power’s Designs for Conquest
An 1848 rebellion in the Yucatán Peninsula, then independent from Mexico, provided the President [Polk] with a pretext for additional seizures, except that Congress failed to act in time.
Designs for the expansion of slavery would not be limited to this one example.
Cuba, however, was the territorial trophy that Polk and Southerners coveted most. With vast sugar plantations, worked by almost half a million black slaves, “the Pearl of the Antilles” as a new state could add thirteen to fifteen slaveholding representatives in Congress.
“Cuba must be ours,” according to Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis.
His Mississippi colleague, Albert Gallatin Brown, was more explicit: “I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it up for a fair equivalent, well – if not, we must take it.” Brown however would not stop there. “I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States…And a footing in Central America will powerfully aid us in acquiring those other States…Yes, I want these Countries for the spread of slavery. I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth.
Polk offered $100 million for the island. The Spanish refused.
With Taylor next in office, Southerners had to turn to unofficial channels in order to continue their expansionist pursuits:
The United States had always been blessed with private adventurers, or filibusters, eager to risk military expeditions for the capture of foreign lands.
The hope was to foster revolutions – it worked in places like Florida, Texas and California.
Narcisco Lopez was one such adventurer, assisted by prominent Southerners. Spanish authorities captured and executed him in 1851, along with 50 of his American followers. One Virginian organized the Knights of the Golden Circle – so-named for the desired circle of slavery around the entirety of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, extending to northern South America. William Walker successfully gained control of Nicaragua in 1855, re-legalizing slavery there; he held it for two years before being driven out. He next tried was in Honduras, where he met a firing squad.
The fervor for expanding an empire of slavery can perhaps best be seen in the Ostend Manifesto:
The American Ministers to Spain, France, and England met in Ostend, Belgium, and drafted a confidential memorandum warning that Cuba might become “Africanized because of recent labor reforms on the island, and this posed a danger of slave unrest extending “to consume the fair fabric of our Union.” If the Spanish continued refusing to sell the island, “by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wrestling it from Spain if we possess the power.”
More on this Manifesto, from Wikipedia:
At Pierce's inauguration, he stated, "The policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion." While slavery was not the stated goal nor Cuba mentioned by name, the antebellum makeup of his party required the Northerner to appeal to Southern interests, so he favored the annexation of Cuba as a slave state. To this end, he appointed expansionists to diplomatic posts throughout Europe, notably sending Pierre Soulé, an outspoken proponent of Cuban annexation, as United States Minister to Spain.
Returning to Hummel, the Manifesto was leaked to the public at the end of 1854. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune denounced it as the “Manifesto of the Brigands.”
Northerners saw confirmed their worst fears about the Slave Power’s designs for conquest.
Pierce was forced to disavow the manifesto and further, to pressure the former Governor of Mississippi, John A. Quitman, into disbanding his well-financed filibustering mission against the island.
In any case, things were getting nasty in Kansas. But that is another story.