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.


California as a Frontier of Unfree Labor in the Nineteenth Century

Freedom's FrontierOur understanding of nineteenth century United States history is primarily shaped by a focus on historical events that took place in two ill-defined regions: “the North” and “the South.” Embedded in this narrative are depictions of various political ideologies that supposedly illuminate the divisive conflicts between Northerners and Southerners during the Antebellum period. The general thrust of this narrative is that disagreements with seemingly clear distinctions–slavery versus freedom, black versus white, and North versus South–precipitated the outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861-1865.

While popular and intriguing, this narrative is woefully inadequate for understanding the complexities of the Civil War Era. For one, the Confederacy is not equivalent to “the South.” Many residents who lived within the Confederate states and considered themselves “Southerners” rejected calls for secession in 1860 and 1861. Nearly 100,000 white males from the Confederate states signed up to fight for the United States military (often incorrectly labeled as “the North”), while an additional 180,000 or so African Americans (most of which came from Southern slave states) also joined the U.S. military. These numbers don’t include the men who joined the Union from border slave states that never formally seceded, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These people–whether black or white–were just as “Southern” as those who supported the Confederacy. Moreover, it was never the goal of the U.S. military to destroy the entire South in the first place. Rather, the U.S. military’s end-goal was to destroy the Confederacy and all secessionist sentiment within the United States. This goal is not the same as wanting to destroy the entire South.

These semantic differences, however, do not provide the chance for a more inclusive understanding of the Civil War that incorporates the role of “the West” in shaping the country’s prewar disagreements, nor do they hint at the difficult tensions underlying concepts like “slavery” and “free labor.” Stacy L. Smith’s 2013 publication Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction complicates our understanding of the Civil War Era, demonstrating the complex ways freedom and enslavement entangled themselves within a larger debate about the future of the United States.

Smith argues in the introduction of her book that scholars can benefit from “recast[ing] the narrative of the sectional crisis, emancipation, and Reconstruction in the United States by geographically recentering it in the Far West.” California presents itself as a particularly appropriate case study because “California’s struggle over slavery did not end with its entrance into the Union as a free state . . . instead . . . California’s free soil was far less solid, its contests over human bondage far more complicated, contentious, and protracted, than historians have usually imagined” (2).

What were these “contests over human bondage” that emerged in California after achieving statehood in 1850? Smith analyzes the experiences of several different racial and ethnic groups throughout Freedom’s Frontier.

Indian Enslavement: As more men emigrated to California following the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, the need for domestic laborers increased. Many single males and families sought servants that they could bind into long-term contracts. The California legislature responded to demands for more domestic labor by passing the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which allowed white householders to claim Indian children as long-term wards. As long as white householders could justify that these Indian children were orphans or living with impoverished, “unsuitable” parents, state courts could convey legal guardianship of these Indian children to white “parents” until the age of eighteen, even if the children had been stolen from their parents and tribes. This act perpetuated a thriving trade in Indian children in the years before the Civil War, even though California was a “free state” according to the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and its 1850 state constitution.

African Enslavement: Despite California’s status as a free state, many California residents originally from slave states hoped to carry their slaves with them to the gold mines. According to Smith, 36 percent of California’s U.S.-born residents in 1850 were from a slaveholding state (8), and they were vastly overrepresented in the California state legislature. Arguing that they had had the right to bring their slaves into California when it was still a federal territory, proslavery forces in the state legislature helped facilitate the passage of a fugitive slave law in 1852 that allowed masters to claim slaves that they brought to California before statehood. Another provision of this fugitive law stipulated that the state would capture runaway slaves (who arrived before and after statehood) and return them to the South, despite the arguments of anti-slavery Californians who argued that black slaves were free immediately upon arrival in the state. Nevertheless, the 1850 census shows that there were at least 203 slaves in California, although Smith suggests that the incompleteness of these records could mean that there may be “a substantial undercount of masters and slaves in my study” (238-239).

Slaves, Coolies, and Peons: Before and after California’s statehood in 1850, Mexican, Chilean, Hawaiian, and Chinese laborers voluntarily and involuntarily emigrated to the state to work as miners in the gold fields. These laborers often entered into voluntary contracts and received wages, but as Smith argues, “contracts were not symbols of freedom but markers of bondage. Foreign employers used these legal instruments to bind otherwise free workers to toil for years on end and to accept nonmonetary compensation–passage, food, clothing, and goods–in lieu of meaningful cash wages,” essentially making them slaves in all but name (10). White free-soil Democrats and Whigs argued that these laborers would degrade the value of free labor, reduce wages, and help drive white male laborers out of the mines. With regards to Chinese labor, the Republican party echoed these concerns about “Coolie” labor well after the Civil War, and it was the Republican party who led the charges in Congress to pass the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both of these acts restricted Chinese immigration to the United States on the grounds that Chinese laborers were actually “forced laborers” who devalued free white labor and who violated the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in the United States. Rather than punishing the employers who arranged these contracts with Chinese laborers, Californians chose to punish Chinese laborers through exclusion.

Chinese Prostitution: Chinese women in California often found themselves in an underground sex trade before, during, and after the Civil War. According to Smith, “demand for domestic labor also fueled a market in bound women and children who worked in private households as wards, apprentices, debt-bound servants, and slaves . . . Diverse Californians bought and sold women as domestic servants and as forced sexual partners, prostitutes, concubines, and wives. The struggle over free-state status, then, often moved out of the mines and into the intimate labor and sexual relations of California households” (11).

Stacy L. Smith’s analysis of nineteenth century California was eye-opening and insightful for me. Books like Smith’s challenge us to view the Civil War in new ways that dismantle commonly-held distinctions between slave and free labor and “North versus South.” Freedom’s Frontier is one of the finest publications I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend it for scholars of the Civil War and the West.