Challenges with Interpreting Northern Views Towards Slavery

Public historians interpreting nineteenth century United States history are tasked with facilitating discussions with their audiences about a wide range of unique and challenging historical topics. Scholars in recent years have emphasized the importance of discussing slavery, race, gender, economic inequality, and politics at public history sites rather than focusing exclusively on great white men, fancy furniture pieces, or anecdotal legends with dubious historical evidence. While some leaders of historic homes, museums, and other cultural institutions are undoubtedly hesitant to have their interpreters take on these contentious (and inherently political) topics, I believe that interpreters must be ready and willing to discuss them not because the cultural demographics of the U.S. are changing, but because we have an obligation to our audiences to share inclusive narratives that are historically accurate.

One of the biggest challenges I face as an interpreter lies in convincing my audiences that the historical legacies of slavery and racism in the United States are not problems unique to the South. Indeed, slavery thrived in North America for nearly 250 years and racism persists in our society today precisely because the entire nation was and continues to be complicit in accepting these wrongs as standard social practices. Harvard University, for example, had slaveholding presidents who had no qualms about selling and trading slaves for profit during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New England textile factories thrived during the antebellum era thanks to the labors of enslaved people in the South who picked the cotton they used to manufacture their products. And countless Northern politicians like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan defended slavery as a constitutionally sound practice and actively courted the votes of slaveholders throughout their careers.

Many Southern cultural institutions have actively worked towards the creation of more inclusive narratives that acknowledge the role of enslaved people in American society. Have Northern cultural institutions done the same? Some institutions like the New York Historical Society have created exhibits interpreting slavery in Northern states (some of the exhibit materials from the NYHS exhibit “Slavery in New York” can be viewed here), but I think there room for growth and improvement. Equally important, cultural institutions all over the country face the challenge of interpreting the ways Northern states gradually abolished slavery and embraced anti-slavery opinions while tolerating its practice in the South. We can better interpret how these evolving anti-slavery views shaped the vigorous debates over slavery’s role in American society leading up to the Civil War.

Many visitors come to historic sites thinking of pro-slavery and anti-slavery beliefs in black and white terms: Southerners were racists who supported slavery while Northerners thought slavery was wrong and wanted the institution abolished. Yet this dichotomy masks the complex and contradictory ways people throughout the country opposed slavery. At White Haven I often talk about Ulysses S. Grant’s parents Hannah and Jesse Root Grant, who held anti-slavery beliefs. The evidence for these claims stems mainly from Jesse, who once worked at a tannery with John Brown and who sometimes wrote letters to the editor and op-eds for newspapers in Ohio about his opposition to slavery. None of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have seen these newspaper articles, however, nor have historians cited specific newspaper articles from Jesse in their footnotes, instead opting to cite other secondary works on Grant. Thus we are left in a serious interpretive quandary: on what grounds did the Grants’ base their anti-slavery opinions?

Anti-slavery opinions took on a wide range of justifications during the antebellum era. Some based their opposition on economic grounds, arguing that slavery degraded the value of labor by enslaving African Americans. The emerging Republican party in the 1850s argued that the abolishment of slavery would allow all laborers an opportunity to make a livable wage and someday become landowners themselves. Republicans acknowledged that slavery was legal where it already existed, but they sought to ban its extension to new Western territories.

Others based their opposition on their belief that slavery was incompatible with democratic principles. Mob violence was commonplace throughout the country during the antebellum era, and much of this violence was geared towards those who expressed opinions against slavery. When a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed the anti-slavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, some people embraced the anti-slavery cause because they feared that slaveholders and their political allies would take further measures to stifle free expression, dissenting opinions, and the right to petition against slavery. These fears became reality when Congress passed a series of “gag rules” in the 1830s limiting the right to petition or express opinions against slavery to Congress. Similar resentments towards slaveholders emerged after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which included a fugitive slave law requiring officials in free states to return runaway slaves to their masters in the South. Many anti-slavery Northerners found this practice barbaric and resented slaveholder attempts to use the power of the federal government to dictate what Northerners should do about slavery.

Still others opposed slavery simply because they held racist views against black people. They may not have cared for slavery, but they also didn’t care about African Americans and took measures to prohibit their residence in free states. Thus states like Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana passed constitutional provisions banning black settlement within their boundaries. Free-Soil, Whig, and Republican politicians like David Wilmot supported these measures because they protected white labor from possible competition from free blacks, exposing the racist roots of free labor ideology in the 1840s and 1850s.

It is also important to point out that abolitionists were not necessarily the same people who considered themselves anti-slavery. Abolitionists generally believed that slavery was a moral wrong and demanded black equality through equal protection laws, the right to testify in court, and the right to vote. And as I wrote in a recent essay, some abolitionists chose to avoid active political participation in arguing against slavery. Those who held anti-slavery opinions, however, often avoided abolitionist moral arguments and opposed calls for black equality, instead embracing Wilmot’s desire to protect whites. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously argued in 1858 that the two races were inherently unequal:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

In the future, I believe the challenge of exposing audiences to these nuanced arguments within Northern anti-slavery thought will be tough but necessary for public historians studying the history of slavery and race in the United States.

Are there any places you’ve visited that discuss Northern slavery or anti-slavery opinion? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.