November 6, 1860 A Peculiar Institution

From the earliest years of the “new world”, every economy from Canada to Argentina was, to varying degrees, involved with slavery.  Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world in 1501, establishing the new world’s first international slave port in Santo Domingo, modern capital city of the Dominican Republic.

From the earliest years of the “new world”, every economy from Canada to Argentina was, to varying degrees, involved with slavery.  Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world in 1501, establishing the new world’s first international slave port in Santo Domingo, modern capital city of the Dominican Republic.

Hundreds of thousands of African slaves entered the Americas through the sister ports of Veracruz, Mexico, and Portobelo, Panama, “products” of the “Asiento” system, wherein the contractor (asientista) was awarded a monopoly in the slave trade to Spanish colonies, in exchange for royalties paid to the crown.

The first such contractor was a Genoese company who agreed to supply 1,000 slaves over an 8-year period, beginning in 1517.  A German company entered into such a contract eight years later, with a pledge of 4,000.

Richard Schlecht
Painting by Richard Schlecht, National Geographic

By 1590, as many as 1.1 million Africans had come through the port of Cartagena, Colombia, sorted and surnamed under the “casta de nación” classification system.  To this day, black residents of the Colombian interior bear names like Kulango & Fanti, indicating their origins on the Ivory Coast or Ghana:  Musorongo, Loango & Congo, (Congo Region), or Matamba, Anchico & Ambuila (Angola).

In the American colonies, 17th century racial attitudes appear to have been more fluid than they would later become.  The first black Africans, 19 of them, came to the Virginia Colony in 1619 not as slaves, but as indentured servants. Their passage, involuntary as it was,  was paid for by a term of indenture, a sort of ‘temporary slavery’, usually lasting seven years.

John Punch ran away from his term of indenture in 1640, along with two Europeans. The trio was captured in Maryland and sentenced to extended terms of indenture. Alone among the three, Punch was punished with indenture for life, effectively making him the first ‘slave’ in the American colonies.

Born in Angola in 1600, Anthony Johnson was one of that original 19, captured by an enemy tribe and sold to an Arab slave trader.  Johnson was sold to a Virginia planter at the age of 21, paying off the cost of his passage with a seven-year term of indenture.  As a free man, Johnson himself became a successful planter, going on to “own” indentured servants of his own.

One of them, John Casor, sued for his freedom in 1655, claiming to have completed his indenture of “seaven or Eight years”, plus seven more.  The court ruled that Casor himself was considered “property” and not his contract, making him the first person arbitrarily ruled a slave for life.

Map-of-Slave-Trade

The unthinking view of history holds American slavery to have been a strictly southern-states phenomenon, but it isn’t so.  As late as the eve of the Civil War, “northern” slavery was more widespread than you might expect. The 1860 census reported 236 slaves in New Jersey, 90,368 in Maryland, 2,290 in Delaware, and 3,680 in Washington, DC. There were slaves as far north as New Hampshire as late as 1840. New York wouldn’t legally emancipate its last slave until the following year.

Massachusetts became the first American colony to legalize slavery in 1641, with the passage of the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties”.  Slavery was legal at one time or another, in all 13 original colonies and even before, when slavery of and by native Americans, was commonplace.

In 1637, the Pequot tribe of southeastern Connecticut was all but wiped out in a bloody war with an alliance of English colonists from the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Saybrook colonies, and their native American allies of the Narragansett, Mohegan, Niantic and Montauk tribes. Surviving Pequots were forced to become slaves in English households, or shipped to Bermuda or the West Indies, and exchanged for Africans.

Indigenous and African slave populations in northern climates were small compared with the more agricultural economies of the south, which were themselves a drop in a bucket compared with the slave economies of central and south America.

An essay from the New York Public Library (nypl.org) gives a sense of scale to the transatlantic slave trade. “As a whole, the transatlantic slave trade displaced an estimated 12.5 million people, with about 10,650,000 surviving the Atlantic crossing. Thus, even though a substantial number of Africans actually reached the United States, they were only a small proportion, about 3.6 percent, of the total number of Africans who were brought to the Americas. More Africans went to Barbados (435,000), while almost three times as many went to Jamaica (1,020,000). The number of Africans arriving in North America was considerably less than those who were taken to Brazil (4,810,000)“.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened vast new territories. The fight for which would be free and which would permit slavery, would go on for years.

The philosophical underpinnings of southern secession was borne of the Hartford Convention of December 1814 – January 1815.  There, delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, along with “unofficial” delegates from New Hampshire and Vermont, met to discuss New England’s secession over the War of 1812. The convention reported that New England had a “duty” to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, putting forth a legal position very similar to the later nullification position taken by South Carolina.

reynolds-political-map

Protective tariffs were instituted in the wake of the War of 1812, intending to help domestic manufacturers compete with foreign imported goods. Instead, they tended to help northern manufacturing economies, while increasing the cost of manufactured goods to the southern states, and making it more difficult to export cotton.

By this time, cotton was becoming the chief cash crop in most southern economies, and tariffs hit South Carolina particularly hard. Throughout the colonial and early national periods, the Palmetto state climate sustained a strong agricultural economy. South Carolina’s fortunes were hit hard with the panic of 1819, and slow to recover as the gulf states increasingly entered the cotton markets.

The Tariffs of 1828 – ’32 lead to a nullification crisis in South Carolina, where the state told the federal government to pound sand, and mobilized military assets to defend itself against federal enforcement measures sure to follow.

That time the crisis was averted, but a pattern had been established for events to come.

CaningSectional differences grew and sharpened in the years that followed. A member of Congress from Kentucky killed a fellow congressman from Maine.  A Congressman from South Carolina all but beat a Massachusetts Senator to death with a cane, on the floor of the Senate. A fist fight involving at least 30 Congressman broke out on the floor of the US House of Representatives.

Southern states talked about secession as early as 1850. Senator Stephen A Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, in theory allowing a territory to determine its own free or slave status. This effort to “democratize” the issue led to the brutality of the “Bleeding Kansas” period, where pro-slavery Missouri “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery Kansas “Jayhawkers” crossed one another’s borders, primarily to murder each others civilians and burn out one another’s towns.

Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech on June 16, 1858, in which he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.  A year later, John Brown was holed up at Harper’s Ferry, trying to start a slave insurrection.

After 57 ballots, the Democrat’s convention of 1859 adjourned without selecting a candidate for the Presidential election. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A Douglas, while southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge.

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860, on a platform confusingly specifying “That all men are created equal”, an “abhorrence of all schemes of disunion”, and “The maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively”.

One year later, to the day, former United States Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was elected to a six-year term as the first President of the Confederate States of America.

 

 

 

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May 21, 1856 Bleeding Kansas

The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion in the United States, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions.

Lines of conflict had existed since the time of the Revolution, between those supporting federal government leadership of the young nation, and those in favor of greater self-determination by the states. In the South, climate conditions led to dependence on agriculture, the rural economy of the southern states producing cotton, rice, sugar, indigo and tobacco. Colder states to the north tended to develop manufacturing economies, urban centers growing up in service to hubs of transportation and the production of manufactured goods.

In the first half of the 19th century, 90% of federal government revenue came from tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. Most of this revenue was collected in the South, with the region’s greater dependence on imported goods.  Much of this federal largesse was spent in the North, with the construction of railroads, canals and other infrastructure.domestic-tariffs-at-the-souths-expense

This debate over economic issues and rights of self-determination, so-called ‘state’s rights’, grew and sharpened in 1828 with the threatened secession of South Carolina, and the “nullification crisis” of 1832-33, when South Carolina declared such tariffs unconstitutional, and therefore null and void within the state. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry in the subject includes a Cartoon from the time depicting “Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.”

Chattel slavery existed from the earliest days of the colonial era, from Canada to Mexico, and around the world. Moral objections to what was really a repugnant practice could be found throughout, but economic forces had as much to do with ending the practice, as any other. The “peculiar institution” died out first in the colder regions of the US and may have done so in warmer climes as well, but for Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton engine (‘gin’) in 1792.

It takes ten man-hours to remove the seeds to produce a single pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.Cotton-gin

The year of Whitney’s invention, the South exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern colonies. Sixty years later, Britain alone was importing 600 million pounds a year, from the American south. Cotton was King, and with good reason.  The stuff is easily grown, is more easily transportable, and can be stored indefinitely, compared with food crops.  The southern economy turned overwhelmingly to this one crop, and its need for plentiful, cheap labor. The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.

The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion in the United States, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Missouri compromise of 1820 was the first attempt to reconcile these factions, defining which territories would be slave states, and which would be “free”.

The short-lived “Wilmot Proviso” of 1846 sought to ban slavery in new territories, after which the Compromise of 1850 attempted to strike a balance.  The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, basically repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing settlers to determine their own way through popular sovereignty.

This attempt to democratize the issue instead had the effect of drawing up battle lines.  Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, while “antis” set up an alternative government in Topeka. BleedingKansasFight

In Washington, Republicans backed the anti-slavery forces, while Democrats generally supported their opponents.  The standoff resulting was soon to escalate to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more would be killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

The town of Lawrence, Kansas was established by anti-slavery settlers in 1854, and soon became the focal point of pro-slavery violence. Emotions were at the boiling point when Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot trying to arrest free-state settlers on April 23, 1856. Jones was driven out of town but he would return.

On this day in 1856, a posse of 800 pro-slavery forces closed around the town, led by Sheriff Jones. Cannon was positioned to cover the town, and detachments of troops were posted to prevent escape. They commandeered the home of the first governor of Kansas, Charles L. Robinson, and used it as their headquarters.kansas

The town’s two printing offices were sacked, the presses destroyed, and the type thrown into the river. The posse next set about to destroy the Free State Hotel, which they believed had been built to serve more as a fort than a hotel.

They may have been right, because it took the entire day with cannon shot, kegs of gunpowder and incendiary devices, before the hotel was finally reduced to a roofless, smoldering ruin.

There was looting and a few robberies as the men left town, burning Robinson’s home on the way out. There was only one fatality; a slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry.

john-brownIn the next few days, a group of unarmed men will be hacked to pieces by anti-slavery radicals. Four months of partisan violence and depredation ensued. Small armies formed up across eastern Kansas, clashing at Black Jack, Franklin, Fort Saunders, Hickory Point, Slough Creek, and Osawatomie

A United States Senator will be beaten nearly to death on the floor of the Senate, by a member of the House of Representatives. The 80-year-old nation would forge inexorably onward, to the Civil War that would kill more Americans than every war from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.