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Slavery as a cause of the civil war

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  • 1. Teresa Long HIST 4133 Critique 1 2/25/2013 SLAVERY: THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR Enslavement of Africans and profiting from their forced labor was the issue beating at the very heart of the division between the Northern and Southern United States. War would not have happened had slavery not existed. Other issues, such as sectionalism, tyranny, tariffs and State’s Rights, are suggested in Stampps’ “Causes of the Civil War”; however slavery was the cause all others were centered around and not a trivial matter of little consequence as southerners would have one believe. These other issues, while real, were merely a desperate, elaborate façade designed to excuse and justify the profitable institution of slavery. One human being professing ownership of another as if they were livestock is profoundly wrong and never morally acceptable. Those who would argue slavery was a Christian institution aimed at helping the poor heathen darkies better their lot in life surely did not suffer the dehumanizing experience which was the essence of every slave’s life, beaten into the core of their being by the flay of a whip; that hopeless, tormented feeling of being inferior and somehow dirty. Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave or self-emancipated as he called himself, wrote about these atrocities inflicted upon him and how they shaped his life in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. Negro slaves plucked from their homeland and sold on the auction block were extremely valuable and quite often the biggest investment a plantation owner made. While the North was being transformed and modernized into an industrialized city-dwelling culture, the Southern economy remained dependent on cotton and the slave labor relied upon to produce it. Slave 1
  • 2. Long 2 owners resisted the change and progress embraced by the North, investing instead in more slaves rather than powered machinery.1 Southern slaveholders justified this stealing of souls for furthering their own economic interests by rationalizing Negroes were heathens and inferior because of the color of their skin. Slavery was also perpetuated by laws declaring slave status for any child born to a slave mother. Douglass questions scriptural enslavement and points out that soon it must become unscriptual because thousands of slave children having white fathers were being born.2 Supporters and defenders of slavery depicted a land where starvation was virtually unknown.3 While the majority of those slaves living in the cities had enough to eat, life on the rural plantations could be quite different. Many suffered regular pangs of hunger while their masters were well fed. Children not yet old enough to toil in the fields were cold, naked, and barefoot. There were no beds or blankets to keep them warm during winters spent sleeping on cold, wet, dirt floors. What passed for food was put into a trough on the ground where the children fought for it like animals and ate without spoons. 4 Whippings were viewed as necessary to manage slaves and keep them submissive. Some owners did so out of a sense of duty while others enjoyed it. It wasn’t illegal to kill a slave; they were property. Eventually, a slave lost their will and became resigned to harsh punishment whether guilty or not. When the usual whippings failed to make him manageable, Douglass describes being sent to a “nigger-breaker” who was proud of breaking men’s wills, much like 1 Stamp, Kenneth M., ed. The Causes of The Civil War. 3rd. ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991) 104-106. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. (Kindle. Boston: The Anti-Slavery Office, No.25 Cornhill, 1845), Chapter 1. 3 Stamp, 203. 4 Douglass, Chapter 2. 2
  • 3. Long 3 breaking a horse to the saddle as something he happily welcomed since he would surely get enough to eat there.5 Frederick Douglass knew at a very young age that “the pathway from slavery to freedom” was in learning to read. His determination to succeed in doing so was only strengthened when his mistress was forbidden to teach him any longer and his master said to her “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” Slaveholders feared an educated slave and knew it would undermine all their claims of being a superior race. Why else would it be considered a crime to teach blacks to read and write? Along with the sense of empowerment, learning to read also brought Frederic Douglass an awareness of the wrongs thrust upon him by his enslavers. He came to understand not only the terrible price slavery exacted on those enslaved but the incredible harm it had done to those that enslaved. On one occasion, he describes reading a book containing a speech written on Catholic emancipation and deducing from that a sense of human rights, the wrongness of slavery, and the “power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder”. More importantly, reading enabled him to organize his feelings, give then a name, and vocalize them in order to effectively argue against the pro-slavery writings of the day.6 An irreparable divide between the states occurred well before the war actually began.7 The two sections of the United States had evolved into entirely different cultures. The northern states were free, had a middle class that flocked to its cities to earn wages, and were fast becoming an industrialized society. Southerners were divided into two classes, wealthy 5 Douglass, Chapter 9. Douglass, Chapter 7. 7 Stampp, 142-43. 6
  • 4. Long 4 landowning planters and everyone else. They felt their almost aristocratic society was more culturally refined than the working classes inhabiting the north. Southern planters could neither have obtained nor maintained their almost feudalistic way of life without the benefit of slave labor. Did northerners hate southerners and all they stood for, or was it their insistence on owning other human beings that was hated? 8 Northerners viewed slavery as a great wrong and southern planters as oppressors and criminals. Southern planters thought Northerners were meddlesome, self-serving and should mind their own affairs. Owning slaves was their God-given right. Throughout his self-written narrative of his life as a slave, Douglass often questions Southern Christianity and whether there is a there is a god, and if so, why slavery isn’t ended. Northerners were so opposed to slavery they were willing to risk everything and defy the Fugitive Slave Act rather than return those that managed to escape to a horrible existence in the south to have part of their feet cut off or subjected to other equally vile forms of torture. In the end there could be no compromise. Carefully spun defenses put forth by proslavery advocates could not begin to right the grave wrongs inflicted upon black human beings or justify the grossly inhumane practice of slavery. War was inevitable and came at a terrible cost to both the North and the South, but slavery was no more. 8 Stampp, 54-58.

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