Episode 15 (Segment 1): Slavery and the New Republic

Uploaded by BlackStudiesOnline on 21.05.2012

On September 17, 1787 a group of men -- about a third of whom were slaveholders -- ratified
a document originally premised on a bold declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed
by their creator with rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The other two
thirds -- at the very least -- indirectly really reaped the rewards of slave labor.
The mental gymnastics required to forge a nation grounded in notions of liberty and
justice for all, while the republic was daily increasing its reliance on slave labor will
be discussed in a later episode. For the purpose of this discussion, however, it will be sufficient
to note that framers of the constitution were well aware of the contradictions, and from
the beginning there were conflicting views on how the peculiar institution ought to be
addressed. When folks like Samuel Adams began to complain
that British colonial policies were making slaves out of the American colonists, Thomas
Paine, who penned the revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, called them out on their inconsistencies,
stating, "With what sense of decency or consistency can you complain of attempts to enslave you
while you hold so many and bondage?" For a variety of reasons, slavery began to
phase out in the northern states fairly quickly after the revolution. Largely because of people
like Thomas Paine, the revolutionary ethos of natural rights, doctrines of life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness espoused by Thomas Jefferson (although not practiced universally)
gained far greater traction in the northern states as opposed to in the southern states
where property owning white men saw no contradiction between their own pursuit of happiness and
their denial of liberty to everyone else. Additionally, African-Americans themselves
challenged post-revolutionary America to live up to its creed of freedom, liberty, and equality
by pressing their own claims of freedom through escape, self-purchase, petitions and successful
lawsuits. As a result, slavery began to steadily phase out even in the Mid-Atlantic States
such as Pennsylvania in 1780 and New York in 1799 which tended to have a greater investment
in slavery than did New England states. Eventually virtually all of the northern states had legally
abolished slavery by the 1830s. In Massachusetts by 1783, free black men who paid taxes were
extended the right to vote. Why did African American's claims of freedom
seem to gain more traction in the northern states? Were the northern states simply more
morally enlightened than the southern states? The answer is largely an economic one, however,
I have often observed that one's moral compass is often aligned with one's economic interests.
For example, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787 was formed
in the United Kingdom. Their numbers and influence grew until British Parliament passed The Slave
Trade Act on March 25, 1807. The Royal Navy, vigorously enforced the act by establishing
the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the coast of West Africa, ultimately seizing
over a thousand slave ships and freeing 150,000 enslaved Africans who were onboard.
The committee for the abolition of the slave trade was formed largely by a group of evangelical
English Protestants who now voiced strong moral objections to the slave trade. But was
it any coincidence that the committee formed in 1787 – the same year that the Constitution
of United States was ratified? Hadn't evangelical Protestants previously voiced their moral
obligation to enslave Africans as a rescue from barbarism? What changed? Well, one obvious
change is that the British North American colonies were no longer British possessions
but colonial competitors. With that largely economic change, the British moral outlook
seems to take a corresponding 180 degree about-face with regard to slavery, as almost overnight
slavery goes from being a moral obligation to a moral abomination.
Likewise, in contrast to the Southern states which were increasingly turning to slavery
to fuel its economic engine, the northern states were increasingly relying on wage labor.
Why would wage labor be preferable to slave labor? Well, the expense of maintaining a
large slave labor force -- that is to feed, clothe, and house a large number of slave
laborers -- would not make sense unless you have an economy that requires year round labor
such as ... say ... a cotton plantation. In the northern states, a more disposable labor
force was desired. For example, if all you want your laborer to do is unload a cargo
ship, it would make much more sense to simply pay them a set wage, extract the labor you
need from them and then you never have to see that person again (much less provide year-round
food, clothing, and housing). Additionally, there was a steady supply of white ethnic
immigrants to supply the cheap labor needs of the northern states. Far from an economic
asset, slavery in the northern context would prove be a social liability. How would white
European immigrants who came to American shores with high hopes of freedom and economic opportunity
react if they had to compete with slave labor? Might that stir up a resentment of the economic
elite which was exploiting their labor? Could that lead to a replay of Bacon's rebellion
as we saw in Episode 4? Thus, the northern states were framing the
morality of slavery around a far different set of economic interests than were their
Southern brethren.