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On Racism in the Antebellum North

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lifeinphili

"How you find yourself?" Source: Lithograph by Edward Clay, Life in Philadelphia, plate 4 (Philadelphia: S. Hart, 1829); courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

There is much in Bruce Levine’s Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War that informed my study of Antebellum America. Most of it fit with my understanding of the era and the issues with which Americans grappled. I gained much, however, from adding Levine’s insights to my own.

Several things stood out as surprising to me in my reading of Levine’s work. One epiphany came from Levine’s treatment of racism that existed in the North prior to the Civil War. It is easy for today’s generations to naively assume that since the North fought, in part, to end slavery, the peoples engaged in that effort felt some affinity for the black man. But Levine points out that “while deploring slavery as an institution,” many northerners “despised African Americans as much as southern whites did.” (1) But, Levine posits,

“Racism had a different significance in the free and slave states. Whereas in the South racism enlisted in the cause of keeping African Americans enslaved, in the North it aimed chiefly to force blacks out of the white population’s vicinity and path. Precisely because it served such very different practical ends, in different locales, antebellum America’s ubiquitous anti-black racism could not indefinitely reconcile northerners to southern demands and could not permanently calm slaveholders’ anxieties about northern intentions.” (2)

So while Northern religious and social values of the era were increasingly “antithetical to bondage,” they should not be interpreted as an invitation to the black man to fully join in Northern Antebellum white society.

About the image: The History Teacher provides an excellent description about this image in a larger lesson titled Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North and penned by Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College. He provides a description about the image that I believe will be helpful and which I quote here. I recommend a full reading of his essay which is available here.

“How you find yourself?”
Etchings such as this mocked the social pretensions of free black urbanites who, through their habits of consumption and display, were thought to desire social status above their stations. This image was one of a series, entitled “Life in Philadelphia” by political cartoonist Edward Clay, which lampooned the behavior of a range of city dwellers, white and black. The text on this image reads:

Mr. Ceasar: “How you find yourself did hot weader Miss Chloe?”
Miss Chloe: “Pretty well I tank you Mr. Cesar[,] only I aspire too much!”

The humor here, such as it is, depends on a malapropism, or a ludicrous misuse of words that signals their speaker’s inability to master proper English. This form of parody helped to define stereotypes of free blacks in nineteenth-century America, and continued well into the twentieth century.”

Image Source: Lithograph by Edward Clay, Life in Philadelphia, plate 4 (Philadelphia: S. Hart, 1829); courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

halfslavehalffree

(1) Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, Revised (Hill and Wang: New York, 2005), 251.

(2) Patrick Rael, “Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North,” The History Teacher February 2006 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/39.2/rael.html> (18 Jan. 2009).

Fugitive Slave Law Backfires

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Source: American Treasurers of the Library of Congress

Interesting reading from Bruce Levine’s text, Half Slave and Half Free : The Roots of Civil War, this evening. He contends that the fugitive slave law that was a part of the Compromise of 1850 actually did more damage to slavery’s cause than good.

So long as slavery seemed geographically contained and remote, free-state residents could despise it without feeling much direct personal involvement in its workings; slavery could thus remain the peculiar institution of the South, not a problem or responsibility of the North. By sending slave hunters into the free states and requiring even antislavery citizens to aid them, however, the new law made such rationalizations impossible.

Net-net: pushing compliance to slavery controls “compelled Northerners to confront slavery as a national, not just a sectional, issue.” (Levine, 189-190)

About the image:

S. M Africanus
The Fugitive Slave Law
Hartford, Connecticut: 1850
Printed broadside
Rare Book & Special Collections Division (33A)

In 1850, Congress passed this controversial law, which allowed slave-hunters to seize alleged fugitive slaves without due process of law and prohibited anyone from aiding escaped fugitives or obstructing their recovery. The law threatened the safety of all blacks, slave and free, and forced many Northerners to become more defiant in their support of fugitives. Both broadside and print, shown here, present objections in prose and verse to justify noncompliance with this law.


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Next Class: Antebellum America: Prelude to Civil War

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After a short break, I’ll be diving into my next class which starts November 3rd. As is my custom, I’ve added this to “The Courses” page.

“Antebellum America: Prelude to Civil War” (starts November 3rd)

This course is an analysis of the conditions existing in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. The course focuses on the political, cultural/social, economic, security, leadership, and other issues that played roles in starting and shaping the Civil War. We will analyze the issues in the context of war and peace to determine whether or not such conflicts as civil wars can be avoided prior to their inception.

Required Texts:

TBD once the syllabus is available. For now, the list is as follows which is very light in comparison with my last class:

Half Slave and Half Free : The Roots of Civil War by Bruce Levine

Publisher: Hill and Wang

Road to Disunion : Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854, Volume 1 by William W. Freehling

Since I read 14 books in Studies in U.S. Military History (a challenge but I loved IT!), this may be a light reading term.
Because William Freehling’s book, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836, received such high acclaim, I’ve purchased it as well.
Finally, it would not surprise me at all if Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, What Hath God Wrought, was added to the reading list as well.
All of these texts can be found on the “Antebellum America” shelf of my virtual library here.