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Causes of the Civil War – 7: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control

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William E. Gienapp

Slave sale poster

This post continues a series exploring Causes of the Civil War. See the full series here.
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Political discord represents yet another candidate for the war’s cause. Late historian William E. Gienapp (pictured right) suggests that “however much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.”[i]

Slave sale posterGienapp points to the role of slavery as the underlying cause of the sectional conflict. “Without slavery it is impossible to imagine a war between the North and the South (or indeed, the existence of anything we would call “the South” except as a geographic region).”[ii] He also asserts that America’s slave heritage was completely associated with race. That is, had the slaves brought to America been white, the practice would have disappeared much earlier.[iii] But an argument asserting slavery as chief cause of the war neglects the fact that not only was it older than the republic, but “for over half a century following adoption of the Constitution, the institution had only sporadically been an issue in national politics, and it had never dominated state politics in either section.”[iv] What changed? It was the rise of the slavery issue in American society; that is, the heightened awareness of it. This development was rooted in a number of changes in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century already addressed.[v]

Jame Polk Image

James Polk

As mentioned in previous posts in this series, the abolitionist movement did a great deal to raise that awareness. But Gienapp suggests that “it was the politicians themselves, as part of the struggle for control of the two major parties, who ultimately injected the slavery issue into national politics.”[vi] The key development was the introduction in Congress in 1846 of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, by a group of Van Burenite Democrats who were angry with President James K. Polk and his southern advisers. Once the slavery issue, in the shape of the question of its expansion into the western territories, entered the political arena, it proved impossible to get it out. The issue took on a life of its own, and when politicians tried to drop the issue after 1850, they discovered that many voters were unwilling to acquiesce.[vii]

Gienapp makes a good case for the war’s true cause in the following discourse.

A second critical development, intimately related to the first, was the crystallization of rival sectional ideologies oriented toward protecting white equality and opportunity. Increasingly, each section came to see the other section and its institutions as a threat to its vital social, political, and economic interests. Increasingly, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Informed by these ideologies, a majority of the residents of each section feared the other, and well before the fighting started the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future.

It fell to the political system to adjudicate differences between the sections and preserve a feeling of mutual cooperation and unity. And for a long time the political system had successfully defused sectional tensions. Because it brought northern and southern leaders together, Congress was the primary arena for hammering out solutions to sectional problems. In various sectional confrontations–the struggle over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-21, the controversy over nullification and the tariff in 1833, the problem of the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1850, and the struggle over the proslavery Lecompton constitution in 1858-Congress had always managed to find some acceptable way out of the crisis.

Yet the American political system was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions. One reason was the institutional structure of American politics. The Civil War occurred within a particular political institutional framework that, while it did not make the war inevitable, was essential to the coming of the war.

Integral to this institutional framework was the United States Constitution. While some aspects of the Constitution retarded the development of sectionalism, it contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division in the nation. No constitution can anticipate all future developments and conclusively deal with all controversies that subsequently arise. The purpose in analyzing the Constitution’s role in the sectional conflict is not to fault its drafters or condemn it as a flawed document, but rather to indicate the importance of certain of its clauses for the origins of the war.

Image of Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore

One significant feature of the Constitution was its provision for amendment. Lurking beneath the surface in the slavery controversy was white Southerners’ fear that the Constitution would be amended to interfere with the institution. In advocating secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama predicted that the Republicans would quickly create a number of new free states in the West, which “in hot haste will be admitted to the Union, until they have a majority to alter the Constitution. Then slavery will be abolished by law in the States.”[viii]

The fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with this possibility, on the part of the Southern political establishment, pushed the country toward war.

The next post: “The Influence of the Individual.”The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt and Why the Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt. Why the War Came

© 2010 Rene Tyree
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Photo credits:
Historian William E. Gienapp. Source: Harvard Gazette Archives, Issue: April 07, 2005.
Poster Announcing Sale and Rental of Slaves, Saint Helena (South Atlantic), 1829. Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record., Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Image H003.
President James K. Polk
Cropped image of the constitution of Kansas
Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama. Source: Alabama Department of Archive and History
[i] William E. Gienapp, “The Crisis of American Democracy, the Political System and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 82; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., 83., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 86.
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Causes of the American Civil War – 4: The Antebellum North

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Dewitt Clinton Train

Dewitt Clinton Locomotive

Methodist Camp Meeting

Continuing the series on the causes of the American Civil War, this post looks at the Antebellum North. The North evolved from its Puritan roots into a culture driven by a strong work ethic. A man was valued by what he could earn and accomplish. The capital of the north was invested in the engines of modernization. Labor moved from agriculture and artisan to factory as modern farming tools improved productivity. Individuals became more dependent on wages. Material wealth was seen as evidence of good, productive, hard work.

As the country expanded, northeastern populations migrated almost directly west. Foreign immigration increased. With modernization came an extensive transportation system including both impressive roadways and railroads.

New levels of wealth were attained by the leaders of the industrial revolution. A new poor working class emerged but so did a middle class that no longer had to produce large families to work the land. Urban centers developed particularly in the northeast.

Methodist Camp Meeting

Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839 Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts Gift of William F. Havemeyer (187) Source: Library of Congress.

Modernization drove social reform including the creation of public education systems in the North and associated high literacy rates. Enlightenment crusades flourished, touching literature and religion. Suffrage and temperance movements formed. Abolitionism became tied with humanitarian reforms driven by Christian crusades.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter, Harriot--1856. LOC Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-48965

The North became more and more distinct from the South on many levels, not the least of which was its distaste for slavery. Even so, like white populations in most of western society, northerners considered blacks to be inferior in the antebellum North.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

Causes of the American Civil War – 3: The Antebellum South

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The Southern man aspired to a lifestyle that had, as utopian model of success, the English country farmer. Jeffersonian agrarianism was valued over Hamiltonian industrialization.
To achieve success, cheap labor in the form of slavery was embraced.

Monticello

Monticello

Watercolor View of the West Front of Monticello and Garden (1825) by Jane Braddick. Peticolas. The children are Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren.

Inspection of slave

Inspection and Sale of a Slave. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Digital ID: cph 3a17639

The capital of the south was invested in slaves even after modernized farming equipment became available. More land was needed to produce more crops which required, in turn, more slaves. This cycle repeated until some 4 million slaves populated the South by mid-century. The system became self-perpetuating because – as posited by historian James McPherson - slavery undermined the work-ethic of both slave and Southern whites. The slave obviously had limited opportunity for advancement. Manual labor became associated with bondage and so lacked honor. The result was a limited flow of white immigrants to the south who could provide an alternative labor force and an increase in the migration of southern whites to free states.

Simply stated, the South chose not to modernize. It hosted little manufacturing. It also lacked a well developed transportation system (a fact that would prove key to the conduct of the war).

White supremacy was simply a fact. Part of the responsibility of owning slaves was to care for their material needs as you would children. White southern children grew up with a facility for “command” and became a part of what was viewed by many as a southern aristocracy.[ii]

According to historian Avery Craven, “three great forces always worked toward a common Southern pattern. They were:

  • a rural way of life capped by an English gentleman ideal,
  • a climate in part more mellow than other sections enjoyed, and
  • the presence of the Negro race in quantity. More than any other forces these things made the South Southern.”[iii]

Next post – The Antebellum North

For additional reading on Jeffersonian Agrarianism see the University of Virginia site here

[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 10., 41.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 33.
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Eric Foner Lectures on Lincoln and Slavery

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Anyone studying 19th century American history will likely have read Eric Foner. WGBH Forum Network provides an audio video lecture Foner provided on Lincoln and slavery in November of 2008 at The Boston Athenaem. It provides some interesting insights on Lincoln’s views on slavery and the Civil War. You can access it here.

Eric Foner is professor o history at Columbia University.

foner-on-lincoln

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Freeaudio.com Carries the Works of Douglass, Lincoln, and Others

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In this world of hustle and bustle, having books read to me is a wonderful luxury. Today I found a terrific site, Freeaudio.org, that takes largely public domain works and provides them free to the public in audio form. This trumps my Kindle 2 text-to-speech feature in that real human readers are easier to listen to.

I picked up the American Library version of Frederick Douglass’ works back in January and love it, but with freeaudio.org, I can clean the garage and “listen” to a professional reading of Douglass’ work as performed by Marvin Pain, an excellent reader.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Part 1

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Part 2

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American  Slave Part 3

I will be adding the site to my “Primary Sources” links. Note that some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches are also available.

I plan on submitting a donation and asking that they begin putting up some of the biographies and autobiographies of our American Civil War military men as well as soldiers diaries.

frederick_douglass2

Frederick Douglass

The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 4

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An illustration shows men lining up to vote on the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory. In 1855 voters chose to allow slavery.  The Granger Collection, New York

An illustration shows men lining up to vote on the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory. In 1855 voters chose to allow slavery. The Granger Collection, New York

The actual number of free-state settlers that made it to Kansas was far more modest than the expectations set in the press but the perception was in the public psyche.

reeder

Andrew Reeder

When the Kansas Territory’s first governor, Andrew Reeder, called for elections of the Kansas Territorial Legislature on March 30, 1855, pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border in droves and took advantage of a poorly conceived suffrage law that required little to no proof of residency to vote. The government they elected was widely recognized as bogus but Reeder let the election stand and President Franklin Pierce endorsed it. The new government created exceptionally pro-slavery laws, some verging on the absurd. Free-state men revolted by setting up their own shadow government in Topeka claiming that its laws and elected officials would become legitimate once statehood was achieved. This exacerbated further the rift between the two factions and opened the door for the Lecompton government to take legal action against the free-soil men, indeed eventually accusing some of treason.

“If one government was valid, the other was spurious, either morally or legally, as the case might be. If the acts of one were binding upon the citizens, then submission to the authority of the other by, for instance, paying its taxes or serving in its militia would constitute sedition, or even treason.” (i)

Polarization of the factions increased.

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This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

the-impending-crisis(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 206.

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 1

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free-state-hotel-ruins

Ruins of the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas. From a Daguerreotype. (The Kansas State Historical Society)

One of the most surprising things I learned from reading Michael F. Holt’s exceptional book, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, was that the “Sacking of Lawrence” was not the murderous affair I had always thought it was. It led to further research on my part and the realization that I was guilty of combining the stories surrounding the raid on Lawrence with other violent events occurring in the region, an area in which I am a resident. As is often the case with history, I had developed a mythical sense of the day, one that went well beyond the simple destruction of property. This new post series summarizes the findings of my search for the truth about the events of May 21, 1856. Its writing helped to crystallize my understanding of why the Kansas and Missouri borderland became such a focal point for politics in the 1850s. It also revealed that there has been much liberty with the facts and that even today, historians do not agree on all of the specifics.

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The Compromise of 1850: Effective Political Action or Forecast of Disaster?

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Thanks to everyone that has participated in the Compromise of 1850 Poll going on here. If you haven’t voted, please do!

To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.

compromise1850

The United States Senate, A.D. 1850. Drawn by P. F. Rothermel; engraved by R. Whitechurch. c1855. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZCN4-149

Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s , that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)

This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which -  on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.

But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.

Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.

And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.

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See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.

(1) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983), 139.

New Acquisition – Fredrerick Douglass Autobiographies

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fdouglass

My study of Antebellum America this term has revealed a significant gap in my library. That has been filled with the arrival this week of Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies. I purchased The Library of America edition. I like the look and feel.

It includes three works:

douglass

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • My Bondage and My Freedom
  • Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

From historian Bruce Levine,

“Frederick Douglass’s magnificent autobiography, The Life and Time of Frederick Douglass is indispensable.”

I look forward to getting to know this important American.

Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, Revised (Hill and Wang: New York, 2005), 264.

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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).

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Fugitive Slave Law Backfires

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fugitiveslavelaw

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.


New! The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Audiobook

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The good folks at BBC Audiobooks America have sent me a review copy of their new audiobook, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This production is particularly apropos because we have arrived at the 150th anniversary of these debates. The timing couldn’t be better for me because I am studying Antebellum America this term.

I put this 16 hour performance into the category of primary source in that it uses as script the same verbatim text captured by the scribes who got every word of the debates down uses shorthand so that they could be published in papers across the nation. Text for the production was provided by the Abraham Lincoln Association.

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, provides historical commentary.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Stephen Douglas and David Strathairn, Abraham Lincoln.

Having listened to first two CDs, I can highly recommend!

lincolndouglasdebates

  • ISBN: 978-1-60283-402-6
  • Published on: 2009-01
  • Format: Audiobook (Unabridged)
  • Binding: Audio CD
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On Free Soilers – 2

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wilmotproviso

For more information on this illustration, click it.

A key reason that “Free Soilers” feared the South, and particularly slaveholders, was because of the political power they wielded in the national parties and government. This resentment found as “epithet the term ‘Slave Power,’ which Northern politicians of both parties used to denounce the political pretensions of slaveholders. Prohibiting slavery from the territories was the easiest way to prevent the admission of more slave states and thus to stop the growth of the political power of slaveholders.”(1)

dwilmot

David Wilmot

Fear of the South’s power manifest itself in the resentment and writings of politicians such as David Wilmot (Wilmot Proviso).

“I am jealous of the power of the South….The South holds no prerogative under the Constitution, which entitles her to wield forever the Scepter of Power in this Republic, to fix by her own arbitrary edit, the principles of policy of this government, and to build up and tear down at pleasure… Yet so dangerous do I believe the spirit and demands of the Slave Power, so insufferable its arrogance, if I saw the way open to strike an effectual and decisive blow against its domination at this time, I would do so, even at the temporary loss of other principles.” (1)

Even within parties there was resentment between North and South. Michael Holt provides a quote from a young Massachusetts Whig that shows the visceral nature of the resentment of Northerners toward their party colleagues from the South.

“They have trampled on the rights and just claims of the North sufficiently long and have fairly shit upon all our Northern statesmen and are now trying to rub it in and I think now is the time and just the time for the North to take a stand and maintain it till they have brought the South to their proper level.” (1)

While the reasons for this resentment were complex, one clear fear was that the South would dictate the expansion of slavery into Western territories and this would degrade the value of free white labor and thus the potential for movement of the Northern-based labor ethic into those territories.

(1) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1978), 51.

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On Free Soilers – 1

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David M. Potter describes “Free Soilers” as “antislavery dissenters within both old parties.”(1)

Michael F. Holt provides an excellent profile of the Northerners who made up the “Free Soil” Party in his description of the delegates, both elected and self-appointed, who attended the first convention of the party in Buffalo.

jpolk

James K. Polk

“Uniformly zealous, they were a heterogeneous lot: Midwestern Democratic proponents of rivers and harbors improvements, which neither party had officially endorsed and Polk had vetoed; labor reformers interested in free homesteads in the West; and even vengeful Clay loyalists from New York City. But most were primarily determined to stop slavery’s spread, and they included three main groups: antislavery Whigs from New England and the Midwest; antislavery Democrats, including New York’s Barnburners; and Liberty men.”(2)

clay

Henry Clay

Holt goes on to reinforce that “by itself, antislavery sentiment does not explain who became Free Soilers and who did not.” (3)  It varied by state and had much to do with how eager statesmen were to stay with trusted leaders from older existing parties.

—–

(1) David M. Potter, “The Impending Crisis 1848 – 1861,” (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 227.

(2) Michael F. Holt, “The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War,” (New York: The Oxford University Press, 1999), 339-340.

(3) Ibid.

On Slavery 9 – Partus Sequitur Ventrem

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When considering slaves, Colonial Virginians abandoned the English tradition of partus sequitur patrem (one’s status was determined by the disposition of their father) in favor of the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem, a “child inherits the condition of the mother.” (1) Thus offspring of slave women were the property of their mother’s owner whether fathered by freeman or not. Annette Gordon–Reed, in her book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” speculates on why Virginian colonists made up this particular form of slavery that endured until the Civil War.

reed_annette“White men, particularly the ones who made up the House of Burgesses, the legislature in colonial Virginia, were the masters of a growing numbers of African women, owning not only their labor but their very bodies. That these women sometimes would be used for sex as well as work must have occurred to the burgesses. Inevitably offspring would arise from some of these unions. Even white males who owned no slaves could contribute to the problem by producing, with enslaved black women, children who would be born free, thus destroying a critical component of the master’s property right: the ability to capture the value of the “increase” when female slaves gave birth.” (2)

Gordon-Reed goes on to describe an actual court case that occurred in 1655 in which Elizabeth Key, a woman of mixed blood, “successfully sued for her freedom on the basis of the fact that her father was English.” (3) This ruling, if left to stand as precedent, would have created a gap by which a growing number of children could escape slavery, those fathered by free white men and black women in bondage.

The impacts were staggering. First, the law “assured that white men – particularly the privileged ones who passed the law, who would not likely have been hauled into court for fornication even with white women – could have sex with enslaved women, produce children who were items of capital, and never have to worry about losing their property rights in them.” (4)

Gordon-Reed suggests that the law was likely intended to reduce racial-mixing in that along with it was passed a measure that increased the fines for mixed-race couples that engaged in sex out of wedlock. But in effect, it meant “the private conduct of men would have no serious impact on the emerging slave society as a whole. White men could engage in sex with black women without creating a class of freeborn mixed-race people to complicate matters.” (5)

Second, the law implied that every person suspected of having African blood, was assumed to be a slave unless they could prove otherwise. “…The English common-law presumption in favor of freedom did not apply to Negroes; in all slave states (except Delaware) the presumption was that people with black skins were slaves unless they could prove that they were free.” (6)  Kenneth Stampp explains that this hyper race sensitive system required that “the offspring of a free white father and a Negro, mulatto (half), quadroon (one Negro grandparent), or octoroon (one Negro great-grandparent) slave mother was a slave.” (7) This ruling once again encouraged exploitation of women in that mixed-blood, often very white appearing women, were kept as slave prostitutes to service white men.

isaac-and-rosaParadoxically, the child of a black enslaved father and a free white mother was considered by law in most states, free. Likewise, children found to have descended from a female Indian were considered free because, with the exception of a short time in the 17th century, it was unlawful to enslave an Indian.

As might be imagined, interpretation of the rules governing race and thus one’s status as property varied by locale. “In Alabama a ‘mulatto’ was ‘a person of mixed blood, descended, on the part of the mother or father, from negro ancestors, to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person.” (8) South Carolina didn’t specifically define terms such as Negro and mulatto but left interpretation to visible evidence of mixture and took into account “a person’s reputation among his neighbors.” (9) One was considered free in Kentucky if it could be proven that one had “less than a fourth of African blood.” (10)

The legacy of the men who created a country built upon laws that supported racial slavery was in part the creation of a culture that expended a great deal of energy establishing the racial status and thus property rights to a growing population of mix-blood “chattel personal.” It was a legacy that encouraged widespread abuses and the flagrant misuse of female slaves who had no legal rights at all. As contended by Gordon-Reed, “under the rules of the game the burgesses constructed,” there was no need to interfere with other men’s conduct. Whatever the social tensions and confusion created by the presence of people who were neither black nor white, Virginia’s law on inheriting status through the mother effectively ended threats to slave masters’ property rights when interracial sex produced children who confounded the supposedly fixed categories of race.” (11) Hyper-race sensitivity and all its implications would continue for centuries to come.

For more information on Elizabeth Key’s freedom case, see a paper by Taunya Lovell Banks from the University of Maryland School of Law, “Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit – Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia” here.

(1) Kenneth M. Stamp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 193.
(2) Annette Gordon – Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 46.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 46-47.
(6) Kenneth M. Stamp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, 193-194.
(7) Ibid., 194.
(8) Ibid., 195.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid., 196.
(11) Annette Gordon – Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, 47.

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