Freedom in the North: Slavery in the South

Map of the United States in 1863. States where slavery was prohibited are blue and states where slavery was legal are red.
African Americans leaving a cotton field after a day of picking cotton.
The United States Supreme Court.
One slave was counted as three fifths of a free person in the Constitution.
Slaves planting sweet potatoes.

Following a shift in public opinion, slavery was abolished in the northern American states, including New York, around the year 1800. These decisions by the northern state governments to universally free all remaining slaves was revolutionary, yet undramatic, since relatively few slaves lived here. By contrast, the same abolitionist ideas were much more controversial in the southern states, where millions of slaves lived and where numerous slave owners depended heavily on their work.

The work carried out by the African Americans who remained slaves in the southern states mainly involved sowing and harvesting cotton, tobacco and corn. The bondage class, in this way, contributed greatly to white plantation owners’ income, and if slaves were liberated, the plantation owners feared, profits would decrease, since nobody would work without a salary anymore. For this reason, and out of a general feeling of white supremacy over other races, much of the white south worked to maintain their peculiar institution.

Arguments for and against

The efforts by pro-slavery southerners to maintain the status quo in the early to mid-19th century, apart from physically controlling the slaves, included justifying human bondage to abolitionists who verbally challenged the morality of the practice. An argument they then used was that slave labor, in terms of the practical jobs slaves performed, was relatively humane compared to the dirty and dangerous factory work that free black northerners often had to endure. The same champions of slavery, furthermore, when asked to motivate their practices, also contended that slaves should be considered property, as had always been the case in the past, and that slave owners’ right to own property must be protected.

Abolitionists often responded to pro-slavery arguments by saying that slaves must not be seen as property and that they, too, had the right to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. The U.S. Constitution, the abolitionists believed, supported this view, but the fact that the country’s supreme law could be interpreted in different ways also caused proponents of slavery to believe that they were legally right. On the one hand, the Constitution talked extensively about individual freedoms, interpreted by abolitionists to be rights all persons had, and on the other hand, the Constitution counted one slave as three fifths of a free person for the purpose of allocating political representatives in proportion to the population. The latter, unsurprisingly, was taken by slave holders as acceptance of slavery.

Slavery was legal

Validating the slave owners’ view, as the U.S. Supreme Court applied the Constitution in the first half of the 19th century, slavery was legally accepted if state laws condoned it. Furthermore, given that the block of northern anti-slavery states and the block of southern pro-slavery states had about equal representation in the U.S. Congress, northern legislators could not add an anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution, since such a change required a two-thirds majority to pass. As a result, it was going to take the upheaval of the U.S. Civil War to finally make it illegal to own other people.