The way antebellum world: Slavery in the North

So I was reading over at Echidne of the Snakes and ran across this post, entitled “Looking Down on the South” (which is a whole nother lengthy post in which I digress from this blog’s stated purpose, but let me avoid the digression for now), which lead me in turn to Douglas Harper and Slavery in the North.

Which leads us, by commodius vicus of recirculation, back to the stated purpose of this blog, and the antebellum world in which war was brewing. Because if you went to public school in the US, the story you probably got was one in which the virtuous abolitionists of the North, their own hands clean of the blood of enslaved people, contended with the evil slave owners of the South.

Harper makes the point that, as always, it’s not quite that simple. You could do a lot worse than to click over there, some of the points he makes that US audiences will find unfamiliar are that many of the First Families of New England actually made their money in the slave trade, and that they did not turn to supporting abolition until it was economically advantageous for them to do so.

Now, I’m not saying all of this in order to claim that abolition was not a worthy goal, or to somehow imply that northern abolitionists were not worthy people. But I think it brings up an interesting point, which is that it’s a lot easier to be an Abolitionist when your family done made its money in the slave trade and moved on than when the slave trade is still the source of your family’s wealth.

Harper also makes some really interesting points about how slavery impacted the relationship of the white middle class to black Americans, and it’s not difficult to see many of those impacts played out today. To come forward 100 years and some change, the Civil Rights era dramas may have mainly played out in the South, but that’s not to say that the North’s hands were clean in the matter of racism.

At any rate, click on over to Slavery in the North when you have an hour or two to spare. It’s nicely arranged and beautifully footnoted, and contains much fodder for thought from perspectives you may not have previously considered. These repeated revelations of history have so far been one of the best parts of my fledgling blog here, at least for me.

In particular, I found myself fascinated by this page, on the way Revolutionary leadership missed perhaps the best chance to do away with chattel slavery in the new nation without massive bloodshed. It’s a whole new way of looking at the problem of slavery (that phrasing sounds too trivial for the massive, horrific abomination that chattel slavery was, but I don’t know how eles to put it) in the early days of the US, and the ways in which it was left to be a problem of the states rather than dealing with it on a national level. Which tactic, of course, lead us straight to the Civil War, four score and 7 years later, give or take.


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