Slavery in the South

Slavery in the American South remains a topic of interest and fascination because it reveals the best and worst of the human spirit. Slavery was an aspect of the American culture that could only be addressed by legislation and war. Complicated matters force legislation and from the fugitive Slave Act to the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery is a part of American history. Personal liberty, freedom, individuality and basic human rights are things all human beings deserve and while men fought for this right in the Revolutionary War, they had slaves of their own. This conflict of the human spirit could not be vanquished. Slavery was good to many people; it was part of an economic system that flourished. Southern plantation owners were only doing what their ancestors before them had done. Abolitionists fought desperately to unite slave man with his freedom and there would be no middle ground on which these two camps could meet. Slavery was a profitable business and plantation owners in the South were willing to compromise another man's freedom for their own gain. They were willing to build their happiness upon the unhappiness of someone else without regret, without conscious, and without success.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed slaveowners the ability to take their captured slaves to court, prove ownership, and take back their slaves. It also intended to force establishments in free states to return runaway slaves to their former owners. This system operated as smoothly as could be expected, according to Murrin, as long as all involved remained willing to cooperate. In some Northern states, personal liberty laws mandated a jury trail before any fugitive slaves were forced to return to their former owners. Other states prohibited the use officials or jails in the process of owners seeking former slaves. However, the fear of kidnapping loomed overhead. To make matters worse, professional slave catchers often kidnapped free blacks and forged documents so they could sell them into slavery. Anti-kidnapping laws were passed by some states and others allowed slaves to stand trial and testify on their own behalf. In 1842, the Supreme Court declared these laws were declared unconstitutional. However, the slave clause was considered "federal responsibility" (Murrin 455) and, consequently, absolved states from needing to enforce it. With no need for real enforcement, the law sat in the background.

The Fugitive Salve Act of 1793 grew weaker with time and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 resulted as a means to resist further deterioration. The Fugitive Slave Law was part of the Compromise of 1850 and it penalized any Federal Marshals caught not arresting runaways. Law-enforcement officials, too, bore the responsibility of investigating and arresting any suspicious individuals. Suspicion could be no more than a former owner's sworn testimony. Under this law, alleged slaves could not request a trial by jury and they could not testify on behalf of themselves. Generous rewards were granted to officials responsible for helping arrest runaway slaves. Those caught aiding alleged slaves faced imprisonment or fines. Abolitionists quickly reacted to the law as a direct violation of the Bill of Rights. Fugitives were granted no trial and they could not properly defend themselves against any allegations. The South understood the law to mean that slavery could not be illegal in any way. Not only did they believe this, they clung to it for their lives as their economy was built upon it and would certainly face demise without it. There was no way they would let this issue go without a fight. While they might have realized slavery was inherently wrong, they could not willingly destroy their businesses and their livelihoods and thus the tension between slave owner and abolitionist grew.

Slavery split the country in terms of personal beliefs and legislation. While personal beliefs and morality cannot be mandated, laws can and, in an effort to maintain some power over slaves, the South found itself running into legislative roadblocks at every turn. The Kansas-Nebraska Act exposed the flaw in the Compromise of 1850 because it illuminated the fact that sovereignty did not have the same meaning in Missouri that it did in Kansas. The issue of slavery, which had been overlooked, pushed aside, and avoided for so long was suddenly an issue that demanded attention. While President Lincoln did not condemn southerners for their attitudes, he quickly realized the "moral bankruptcy" (Norton 383) the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought to light. Another strange aspect of the Fugitive Slave Law is that it forced those in the North to impose the edict. Abolitionists faced penalties for enforcing laws they believed to be unjust or unconstitutional. The Dred Scott case was another blow to the South. While the high court declared Scott was not a free citizen, it sparked anger in the Union and, consequently, a divide in the Democratic Party. This divide would eventually lead to what would become the Civil War. Tension between the North and the South grew, and while few believed slavery was threatened below the Mason-Dixon line, the South was worried. Many understood the consequences of the tipping point regarding political issues and slavery. The system of a country having free and slaves states would simply not hold out for long without something tipping the scale. Abolitionists encouraged freedom and the Underground Railroad successfully aided thousands of slaves to freedom. The railroad was an indirect response to the Fugitive Slave Law and it consisted of "spirited" (Bailey 403) conductors, stations, and passengers. By 1850, the South was itching for tighter laws regarding slaves as it watched thousands of slaves escape via the railroad every year.

By 1850, those engaged with reform movements could see noteworthy achievements. Public schools and libraries were significant in establishing a path toward reform but they were not nearly enough to set the nation on a path toward freedom for all men. The Revolutionary War is significant to slavery because of its moral message. Men who found themselves fighting for the freedom and natural rights were faced with the dilemma of owning human beings as slaves. Many planters manumitted their slaves and in 1782, the free slave population was approximately 2,000. In 1782, when Virginia passed legislation permitting manumission, that number grew to approximately 13,000, according to Murrin. These freedoms point to an ever-slowly changing of some minds as individuals accepted the fact that all men were indeed created equal. In addition, individuals awakened to the hypocrisy of fighting a war for freedom while owning slaves during the Revolutionary War. North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland passed legislation making it less problematic to free slaves. Gradually, the Northern states abolished slavery but the Southern states we not so willing to eradicate something so important. While these changing attitudes were good and pointed toward some hope of all men living free within America, it was not enough.

The invention of the cotton gin revived slavery in a remarkable way. Suddenly, one gin could clean 50 pounds of cotton per day. Cotton thrived in the South and with this one invention, the economy of the south was not only revived but also revolutionized. The slave movement to the South was so immense Chesapeake planters could sell their slaves and pay for new crops at the same time. Slavery grew in popularity and the "center of slavery" (Murrin 258) in the 18th century, South Carolina and Georgia, recommitted to slave labor. The hope of the Revolutionary War diminished as farmers found ways to utilize slaves. Slavery was more established and sustainable in the South at this time than it ever was in the North previously. The growth of slavery and the loyalty it garnered from southern planters was no doubt an unfortunate consequence of the cotton gin. Without the gin or slaves, no plantations in Antebellum South would have profited. The profits, however, were to be short-lived in the moments preceding the war. However, these profits and the plantation owners' reaction to them illustrate the frail nature of man. Here we see men driven by profits and lifestyle. These items were significant to the freedom of others so much so that the South desired to break from the Union.

The Civil War provided Lincoln with a perfect opportunity to sign the Emancipation Proclamation and "carry the war to the higher moral plane of freeing the slaves" (Davis 166). While this was risky, it was smart because Lincoln was attempting to bring something from something difficult. The Emancipation Proclamation served as a device Lincoln utilized to "sap a source of Confederacy's economic strength by providing an incentive for slaves to escape" (Bailey 157). His hope was to end the war. Interestingly, although the proclamation "freed no bondmen" (Norton 418), it delineated the war as one against slavery. Pleasing no one, Lincoln's signing of the proclamation was not enough for the abolitionists and too much from opponents. In the end, morality would triumph but the war demonstrates how deeply the country was divided about slavery. The proclamation lead to the Thirteenth Amendment and that did eventually bring…