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.



9 responses

  1. Nice work, Nick, but I have to disagree with you about Lincoln. I don’t see his statement as saying African-Americans are inherently unequal. He acknowledges a physical difference that will keep them from being treated equally. They look different from whites. That by itself doesn’t make them unequal, but it leads to them being treated as unequal by the white society around them. Harry Jaffa goes into this somewhat in his book, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. He tells us, “Throughout the slavery controversy, Lincoln is careful to avoid contesting the question of the equality or inequality of the races ‘in the gifts of nature.’ Given the overwhelming prejudices of white America, North as well as South, it would have been senseless for him to do otherwise. He is at great pains, however, to argue that this question is irrelevant to the question of the justice or injustice of slavery. To have contended for anything more than freedom would only have endangered whatever prospects for freedom there might have been. Yet careful analysis of Lincoln’s many references to the intelligence or abilities of Negroes shows amazingly little concession to the prejudices of his contemporaries, even while seeming not to contradict them.” [p. 166] Acknowledging the physical differences in the races isn’t a claim the two races are inherently unequal, but rather an acknowledgement of how the society treats the races unequally.

    1. Hi Al,

      Thanks for the nice compliment and fair critique.

      You are right that Lincoln, perhaps more clearly than most whites prior to the Civil War, understood the racist barriers that prevented all races from being equal in the U.S. But it’s hard for me to agree with the idea that Lincoln isn’t making a claim that the two races are inherently unequal. I think Jaffa’s interpretation is too forgiving.

      For one, the quote from above and numerous others speeches Lincoln gave are clearly referring to more than just physical differences between the races. He states that “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,” which goes far beyond any description of mere physical differences.

      During his Kansas-Nebraska Act speech in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, Lincoln rhetorically states that “Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals.” Here Lincoln acknowledges again the racism of white society but leaves an open question as to whether this view “accords with justice and sound judgement” and then asserts that they can’t be made equals. Lincoln doesn’t tactily endorse inequality here, but it doesn’t look like he embraces it either.

      Lincoln uses a similar tactic in his Galesburg speech in 1858. In reference to talk about acquiring more territory south of the U.S., he points out that “When we shall get Mexico, I don’t know whether the Judge will be in favor of the Mexican people that we get with it settling that question for themselves and all others; because we know the Judge has a great horror for mongrels,” but then goes on to conclude that “I understand that the people of Mexico are most decidedly a race of mongrels.” I don’t think that statement was intended as a compliment, although there is room to interpret whether or not he believes “a race of mongrels” deserved the same political rights as whites or if he is only referring to physical differences.

      Finally, Lincoln stated in his 1858 Ottawa speech that “I agree with Judge Douglas [that] he [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.” David Lightner argues that “by inserting the word ‘perhaps,’ Lincoln removed all force from reference to black inferiority in morals and intellect. He did state for certain that the Negro was not his equal in color, but that affirmation conveys no clear meaning other than the truism that black people are not white” (300).

      Again, I find that interpretation problematic because Lincoln’s affirmation that blacks were no equal in color would have certainly conveyed a clear message of inferiority to people at the time, although again there is room to interpret what Lincoln means by “not my equal in many respects” and whether he means to limit these points to physical differences.

      James McPherson argued in a 2007 review of a James Oakes book that “[I did not write that] Lincoln in the 1850s ‘was committed to a color-blind society.’ Quite the contrary; Lincoln admitted that he shared the belief of most white Americans in white supremacy. What he did not share was the racist rhetoric employed by Democrats like Stephen Douglas as a political weapon against antislavery Republicans like himself. To counter this Democratic tactic, Lincoln sought to separate the question of slavery from that of race. You can be against slavery, especially against its expansion into the territories, said Lincoln, without necessarily being in favor of the social and political equality of races.” See here: and here

  2. Thanks for your very thoughtful response, Nick. I think we have to look closely at what Lincoln is saying. He was very careful with his word choice. The only difference he is certain of is a difference in color. He acknowledges that “perhaps” there are other differences. That’s part of his modus operandi of taking another person’s viewpoint as a given and showing how his viewpoint is still correct. For example, in his fragment, “On Slavery,” from 1858, he wrote, “Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse of justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him? ‘Give to the needy’ is the Christian rule of charity; but ‘Take from him that is needy’ is the rule of slavery.” Also, as Jaffa wrote, it would be political suicide for him to not come out strongly opposed to black voting and citizenship. Let’s also remember what Frederick Douglass said–that he had never before been treated as an equal by a great man as he had been so treated by Lincoln. In speaking of whites being in a superior position, he was clear that IF one race had to be in a superior position, then just like anyone else he would be in favor of his own race being in the superior position. I think the conditional is very important in understanding Lincoln’s position.

    1. Thanks for this great response, Al. I will have to go through some of my Lincoln resources and further contemplate Lincoln’s views on race. And yes, pragmatism is crucial component of Lincoln’s politics; he would have certainly placed himself in an extremely difficult position to be a presidential candidate in 1860 had he come out in support of political equality and black voting rights.

      Douglass’s relationship with Lincoln is very intriguing. As that McPherson book review mentions, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president” in 1865, but then called him “the White man’s president” a decade later. His views on Lincoln evolved over time, but it seems as if he came away with a largely favorable critique of him in later years.

        1. Thanks for sharing, Al.

  3. Hey Nick,

    Your statement: “…historical legacies of slavery and racism in the United States are not problems unique to the South” made we wonder if you’ve seen or heard anything in terms of people from the North readily or more readily accepting that the legacies of enslavement are in the South? Hope I am stating that clearly. It’s way past my bed time. 🙂

    1. Hi Andrew,

      My time in Indiana presented me some interesting observations about the ways Northerners view the history of slavery and race. Most notable to me was that a lot of the “official” commemorations of the Civil War take a very triumphalist tone. For example, during Black History Month in 2013 Governor Mike Pence gave a presentation at the Indiana State House in which he discussed and commemorated the efforts of the 28th Indiana Infantry Regiment, which was the only United States Colored Troops Regiment to come out of the state. The fact that the regiment did not begin to form until December 1863 (even though Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraging black enlistment was issued in January) due largely to the state government’s hesitance to enlist black soldiers or that an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Indianapolis was torched most likely in response to this regiment forming were conveniently left out of his speech. Likewise, a lot of Southern Indiana homes and trails discuss the Underground Railroad, very few that I’m aware of actively discuss Article 13 of the state’s revised 1851 constitution, which barred blacks who didn’t already live in Indiana from settling in the state.

      Hopefully this answers your question.

      1. Great example. Everyone uses history so selectivity.

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