Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply did not seem consistent with the practice of chattel slavery. How could a group of people feel so passionate about these unalienable rights, yet maintain the brutal practice of human bondage? Somehow slavery would manage to survive the revolutionary era, but great changes were brought to this peculiar institution nevertheless.
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In many ways, the Revolution reinforced American commitment to slavery. On the other hand, the Revolution also hinged on radical new ideas about "liberty" and "equality," which challenged slavery's long tradition of extreme human inequality. The changes to slavery in the Revolutionary Era revealed both the potential for radical change and its failure more clearly than any other issue.
George Washington, like most powerful Virginians of the 18th century, derived most of his wealth and status from the labor of African and African American slaves. At his father's death in 1743, eleven-year-old George inherited ten slaves. His property grew larger with the death of his half-brother Lawrence in 1754, which brought him the 2600 -acre plantation of Mt. Vernon along with another 18 slaves.
The activities of a literate slave named Gabriel in Richmond, Virginia, present a final critical view of Jeffersonian America. At the same time Gabriel also shows how fully African Americans embraced central currents of American politics and culture. Gabriel remains a difficult figure to fully reconstruct from surviving historical evidence. In fact, his last name is not definitively known, though he is usually referred to as Gabriel Prosser, after the name of the man who owned him.
The American Industrial Revolution, concentrated in the northeast, would ultimately prove to be the most significant force in the development of the modern United States. This economic innovation sprung primarily from necessity. New England's agricultural economy was the poorest in the country and that helped to spur experimentation there. Meanwhile, the far more fertile southern states remained fully committed to agriculture as the central source of its wealth, here, too, dramatic changes created a wholly new economy that would have been unrecognizable to late-18th century Americans.
"The Peculiar Institution" is slavery. Its history in America begins with the earliest European settlements and ends with the Civil War. Yet its echo continues to reverberate loudly. Slavery existed both in the north and in the South, at times in equal measure.
Life on the fields meant working sunup to sundown six days a week and having food sometimes not suitable for an animal to eat. Plantation slaves lived in small shacks with a dirt floor and little or no furniture. Life on large plantations with a cruel overseer was oftentimes the worst. However, work for a small farm owner who was not doing well could mean not being fed.
When Americans think of African-Americans in the Deep South before the Civil War, the first image that invariably comes to mind is one of slavery. However, many African-Americans were able to secure their freedom and live in a state of semi-freedom even before slavery was abolished by war. Free blacks lived in all parts of the United States, but the majority lived amid slavery in the American South. It is estimated that by 1860 there were about 1.5 million free blacks in the southern states.
Starting as early as 1663, slaves were organizing revolts to regain their freedom. Hundreds of minor uprisings occurred on American plantations during the two and a half centuries of slavery. Most of the uprisings were small in scope and were put down easily. Some were larger in ambition and sent a chill down the spines of countless Southern planters. Two of the most famous revolts were in the early nineteenth century. One was led by Denmark Vesey and the other was led by Nat Turner.
Those who defended slavery rose to the challenge set forth by the Abolitionists. The defenders of slavery included economics, history, religion, legality, social good, and even humanitarianism, to further their arguments.
Across the north, readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin became acutely aware of the horrors of slavery on a far more personal level than ever before. In the south the book was met with outrage and branded an irresponsible book of distortions and overstatements. In such an explosive environment, her story greatly furthered the Abolitionist cause north of the Mason-Dixon Line and promoted sheer indignation in plantation America.
By the standards of his day, David Wilmot could be considered a racist. Yet the Pennsylvania representative was so adamantly against the extension of slavery to lands ceded by Mexico, he made a proposition that would divide the Congress. On August 8, 1846, Wilmot introduced legislation in the House that boldly declared, "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist" in lands won in the Mexican-American War. If he was not opposed to slavery, why would Wilmot propose such an action? Why would the north, which only contained a small, but growing minority, of abolitionists, agree?
Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts dominated national politics from the end of the War of 1812 until their deaths in the early 1850s. Although none would ever be President, the collective impact they created in Congress was far greater than any President of the era, with the exception of Andrew Jackson. There was one issue that loomed over the nation throughout their time in power slavery. They were continuously successful in keeping peace in America by forging a series of compromises. The next generation's leaders were not.
California was admitted to the Union as the 16th free state. In exchange, the south was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah or New Mexico. Texas lost its boundary claims in New Mexico, but the Congress compensated Texas with $10 million. Slavery was maintained in the nation's capital, but the slave trade was prohibited. Finally, and most controversially, a Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law.
Kansas would be the battleground on which the north and south would first fight. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led both to statehood and to corruption, hatred, anger, and violence. Men from neighboring Missouri stuffed ballot boxes in Kansas to ensure that a legislature friendly to slavery would be elected. Anti-slavery, or free soil, settlers formed a legislature of their own in Topeka. Within two years, there would be armed conflict between proponents of slavery and those against it.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 may have been the single most significant event leading to the Civil War. By the early 1850s settlers and entrepreneurs wanted to move into the area now known as Nebraska. However, until the area was organized as a territory, settlers would not move there because they could not legally hold a claim on the land. The southern states' representatives in Congress were in no hurry to permit a Nebraska territory because the land lay north of the 36°30' parallel where slavery had been outlawed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Just when things between the north and south were in an uneasy balance, Kansas and Nebraska opened fresh wounds.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would lead to a civil war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas.Missouri counties that bordered Kansas were strongly pro-slavery and wanted their neighbor to be a slave state. In the fall of 1854, Senator David Atchison of Missouri led over 1,700 men from Missouri into Kansas to vote for their pro-slavery representative. These were the infamous "border ruffians," who threatened to shoot, burn and hang those opposed to slavery.
Lawrence was the center of Kansas's anti-slavery movement. It was named for Amos Lawrence, a New England financier who provided aid to anti-slavery farmers and settlers. This group went beyond simple monetary aid. New England Abolitionists shipped boxes of Sharps rifles, named "Beecher's Bibles," to anti-slavery forces. The name for the rifles came from a comment by Henry Ward Beecher, the anti-slavery preacher who had remarked that a rifle might be a more powerful moral agent on the Kansas plains than a Bible. The lines were now drawn. Each side had passion, and each side had guns.
John Brown was not a timid man. A devout reader of the Bible, he found human bondage immoral and unthinkable. The father of 20 children, he and his wife Mary settled in Kansas to wage a war on the forces of slavery. A few days after the sack of Lawrence, Brown sought revenge. He was furious that the people of Lawrence had chosen not to fight. He told his followers that they must "fight fire with fire," and they must "strike terror in the hearts of the pro-slavery people." In his eyes, the only just fate for those responsible for the border ruffian laws was death. A great believer in "an eye for an eye," John Brown sought to avenge the sack of Lawrence.
Between 1856 and 1860, America would see a breakdown in many of its political processes that had developed over the last eight decades. The great compromisers of the early 19th century Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun were gone, and their leadership in avoiding disunion were gone as well. Forces on the extremes were becoming more and more powerful, reducing the influence of moderates and crippling the spirit of reconciliation. Front and center was the issue of slavery. Could the country be saved, or was it on an irrevocable path toward disunion?