write an Essay about what happened during and after Reconstruction and how Du Bois’ treatment of those developments confirmed or challenged Marxist positions.This book made available by the Internet Archive.
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Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2013
The story of transplanting millions of Africans to the new world, and of their bondage for four
centuries, is a fascinating one. Particularly interesting for students of human culture is the
sudden freeing of these black folk in the Nineteenth Century and the attempt, through them,
to reconstruct the basis of American democracy from 1860-1880.
This book seeks to tell and interpret these twenty years of fateful history with especial
reference to the efforts and experiences of the Negroes themselves.
For the opportunity of making this study, I have to thank the Trustees of the Rosenwald
Fund, who made me a grant covering two years; the Directors of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People, who allowed me time for the writing; the President of
Atlanta University, who gave me help and asylum during the completion of the work; and the
Trustees of the Carnegie Fund who contributed toward the finishing of the manuscript. I
need hardly add that none of these persons are in any way responsible for the views herein
It would be only fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person
toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes
that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under
given environment develops like other human beings, then he will read this story and judge it
by the facts adduced. If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation, who
can never successfully take part in modern civilization and whose emancipation and
enfranchisement were gestures against nature, then he will need something more than the
sort of facts that I have set down. But this latter person, I am not trying to convince. I am
simply pointing out these two points of view, so obvious to Americans, and then without
further ado, I am assuming the truth of the first. In fine, I am going to tell this story as
though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first
seriously curtail my audience.
Atlanta, December, 1934
How black men, coming to America in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, became a central thread in the history of the United States, at once a challenge to
its democracy and always an important part of its economic history and
social development
Easily the most dramatic episode in American history was the sudden move to free four
million black slaves in an effort to stop a great civil war, to end forty years of bitter
controversy, and to appease the moral sense of civilization.
From the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality
of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed.
Within sound of the voices of those who said this lived more than half a million black slaves,
forming nearly one-fifth of the population of a new nation.
The black population at the time of the first census had risen to three-quarters of a million,
and there were over a million at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before 1830, the
blacks had passed the two million mark, helped by the increased importations just before
1808, and the illicit smuggling up until 1820. By their own reproduction, the Negroes reached
3,638,808 in 1850, and before the Civil War, stood at 4,441,830. They were 10% of the whole
population of the nation in 1700, 22% in 1750, 18.9% in 1800 and 1.1.6% in 1900.
These workers were not all black and not all Africans and not all slaves. In i860, at least 90%
were born in the United States, 13% were visibly of white as well as Negro descent and
actually more than one-fourth were probably of white, Indian and Negro blood. In i860, 11%
of these dark folk were free workers.
In origin, the slaves represented everything African, although most of them originated on or
near the West Coast. Yet among them appeared the great Bantu tribes from Sierra Leone to
South Africa; the Sudanese, straight across the center of the continent, from the Atlantic to
the Valley of the Nile; the Nilotic Negroes and the black and brown Hamites, allied with
Egypt; the tribes of the great lakes; the Pygmies and the Hottentots; and in addition to these,
distinct traces of both Berber and Arab blood. There is no doubt of the presence of all these
various elements in the mass of 10,000,000 or more Negroes
transported from Africa to the various Americas, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth
Most of them that came to the continent went through West Indian tutelage, and thus finally
appeared in the United States. They brought with them their religion and rhythmic song, and
some traces of their art and tribal customs. And after a lapse of two and one-half centuries,
the Negroes became a settled working population, speaking English or French, professing
Christianity, and used principally in agricultural toil. Moreover, they so mingled their blood
with white and red America that today less than 25% of the Negro Americans are of unmixed
African descent.
So long as slavery was a matter of race and color, it made the conscience of the nation uneasy
and continually affronted its ideals. The men who wrote the Constitution sought by every
evasion, and almost by subterfuge, to keep recognition of slavery out of the basic form of the
new government. They founded their hopes on the prohibition of the slave trade, being sure
that without continual additions from abroad, this tropical people would not long survive,
and thus the problem of slavery would disappear in death. They miscalculated, or did not
foresee the changing economic world. It might be more profitable in the West Indies to kill
the slaves by overwork and import cheap Africans; but in America without a slave trade, it
paid to conserve the slave and let him multiply. When, therefore, manifestly the Negroes
were not dying out, there came quite naturally new excuses and explanations. It was a matter
of social condition. Gradually these people would be free; but freedom could only come to the
bulk as the freed were transplanted to their own land and country, since the living together of
black and white in America was unthinkable. So again the nation waited, and its conscience
sank to sleep.
But in a rich and eager land, wealth and work multiplied. They twisted new and intricate
patterns around the earth. Slowly but mightily these black workers were integrated into
modern industry. On free and fertile land Americans raised, not simply sugar as a cheap
sweetening, rice for food and tobacco as a new and tickling luxury; but they began to grow a
fiber that clothed the masses of a ragged world. Cotton grew so swiftly that the 9,000 bales of
cotton which the new nation scarcely noticed in 1791 became 79,000 in 1800; and with this
increase, walked economic revolution in a dozen different lines. The cotton crop reached onehalf million bales in 1822, a million bales in 1831, two million in 1840, three million in 1852,
and in the year of secession, stood at the then enormous total of five million bales.
Such facts and others, coupled with the increase of the slaves to which they were related as
both cause and effect, meant a new
world; and all the more so because with increase in American cotton and Negro slaves, came
both by chance and ingenuity new miracles for manufacturing, and particularly for the
spinning and weaving of cloth.
The giant forces of water and of steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black
workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and
they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but
rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of
power and visions of empire.
First of all, their work called for widening stretches of new, rich, black soil—in Florida, in
Louisiana, in Mexico; even in Kansas. This land, added to cheap labor, and labor easily
regulated and distributed, made profits so high that a whole system of culture arose in the
South, with a new leisure and social philosophy. Black labor became the foundation stone not
only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the
English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale;
new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all
white labor, arose both in Europe and America.
Thus, the old difficulties and paradoxes appeared in new dress. It became easy to say and
easier to prove that these black men were not men in the sense that white men were, and
could never be, in the same sense, free. Their slavery was a matter of both race and social
condition, but the condition was limited and determined by race. They were congenital wards
and children, to be well-treated and cared for, but far happier and safer here than in their own
land. As the Richmond, Virginia, Examiner put it in 1854:
“Let us not bother our brains about what Providence intends to do with our Negroes in the
distant future, but glory in and profit to the utmost by what He has done for them in
transplanting them here, and setting them to work on our plantations. . . . True philanthropy
to the Negro, begins, like charity, at home; and if Southern men would act as if the canopy of
heaven were inscribed with a covenant, in letters of fire, that the Negro is here, and here
forever; is our property, and ours forever; . . . they would accomplish more good for the race
in five years than they boast the institution itself to have accomplished in two centuries. . . .”
On the other hand, the growing exploitation of white labor in Europe, the rise of the factory
system, the increased monopoly of land, and the problem of the distribution of political
power, began to send wave after wave of immigrants to America, looking for new freedom,
new opportunity and new democracy.
The opportunity for real and new democracy in America was broad. Political power at first
was, as usual, confined to property holders and an aristocracy of birth and learning. But it was
never securely based on land. Land was free and both land and property were possible to
nearly every thrifty worker. Schools began early to multiply and open their doors even to the
poor laborer. Birth began to count for less and less and America became to the world a land of
economic opportunity. So the world came to America, even before the Revolution, and
afterwards during the nineteenth century, nineteen million immigrants entered the United
When we compare these figures with the cotton crop and the increase of black workers, we
see how the economic problem increased in intricacy. This intricacy is shown by the persons
in the drama and their differing and opposing interests. There were the native-born
Americans, largely of English descent, who were the property holders and employers; and
even so far as they were poor, they looked forward to the time when they would accumulate
capital and become, as they put it, economically “independent.” Then there were the new
immigrants, torn with a certain violence from their older social and economic surroundings;
strangers in a new land, with visions of rising in the social and economic world by means of
labor. They differed in language and social status, varying from the half-starved Irish peasant
to the educated German and English artisan. There were the free Negroes: those of the North
free in some cases for many generations, and voters; and in other cases, fugitives, new come
from the South, with little skill and small knowledge of life and labor in their new
environment. There were the free Negroes of the South, an unstable, harried class, living on
sufferance of the law, and the good will of white patrons, and yet rising to be workers and
sometimes owners of property and even of slaves, and cultured citizens. There was the great
mass of poor whites, disinherited of their economic portion by competition with the slave
system, and land monopoly.
In the earlier history of the South, free Negroes had the right to vote. Indeed, so far as the
letter of the law was concerned, there was not a single Southern colony in which a black man
who owned the requisite amount of property, and complied with other conditions, did not at
some period have the legal right to vote.
Negroes voted in Virginia as late as 1723, when the assembly enacted that no free Negro,
mulatto or Indian “shall hereafter have any vote at the elections of burgesses or any election
whatsoever.” In North Carolina, by the Act of 1734, a former discrimination against Negro
voters was laid aside and not reenacted until 1835.
A complaint in South Carolina, in 1701, said:
“Several free Negroes were receiv’d, & taken for as good Electors as the best Freeholders in
the Province. So that we leave it with Your Lordships to judge whether admitting Aliens,
Strangers, Servants, Negroes, &c, as good and qualified Voters, can be thought any ways
agreeable to King Charles’ Patent to Your Lordships, or the English Constitution of
Government.” Again in 1716, Jews and Negroes, who had been voting, were expressly
excluded. In Georgia, there was at first no color discrimination, although only owners of fifty
acres of land could vote. In 1761, voting was expressly confined to white men. 1
In the states carved out of the Southwest, they were disfranchised as soon as the state came
into the Union, although in Kentucky they voted between 1792 and 1799, and Tennessee
allowed free Negroes to vote in her constitution of 1796.
In North Carolina, where even disfranchisement, in 1835, did not apply to Negroes who
already had the right to vote, it was said that the several hundred Negroes who had been
voting before then usually voted prudently and judiciously.
In Delaware and Maryland they voted in the latter part of the eighteenth century. In
Louisiana, Negroes who had had the right to vote during territorial status were not
To sum up, in colonial times, the free Negro was excluded from the suffrage only in Georgia,
South Carolina and Virginia. In the Border States, Delaware disfranchised the Negro in 1792;
Maryland in 1783 and 1810.
In the Southeast, Florida disfranchised Negroes in 1845; and in the Southwest, Louisiana
disfranchised them in 1812; Mississippi in 1817; Alabama in 1819; Missouri, 1821; Arkansas
in 1836; Texas, 1845. Georgia in her constitution of 1777 confined voters to white males; but
this was omitted in the constitutions of 1789 and 1798.
As slavery grew to a system and the Cotton Kingdom began to expand into imperial white
domination, a free Negro was a contradiction, a threat and a menace. As a thief and a
vagabond, he threatened society; but as an educated property holder, a successful mechanic
or even professional man, he more than threatened slavery. He contradicted and undermined
it. He must not be. He must be suppressed, enslaved, colonized. And nothing so bad could be
said about him that did not easily appear as true to slaveholders.
In the North, Negroes, for the most part, received political enfranchisement with the white
laboring classes. In 1778, the Congress of the Confederation twice refused to insert the word
“white” in the Articles of Confederation in asserting that free inhabitants in each state should
be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of free citizens of the several states. In the law
of 1783, free Negroes were
recognized as a basis of taxation, and in 1784, they were recognized as voters in the
territories. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, “free male inhabitants of full age” were
recognized as voters.
The few Negroes that were in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont could vote if they had the
property qualifications. In Connecticut they were disfranchised in 1814; in 1865 this
restriction was retained, and Negroes did not regain the right until after the Civil War. In New
Jersey, they were disfranchised in 1807, but regained the right in 1820 and lost it again in
1847. Negroes voted in New York in the eighteenth century, then were disfranchised, but in
1821 were permitted to vote with a discriminatory property qualification of $250. No property
qualification was required of whites. Attempts were made at various times to remove this
qualification but it was not removed until 1870. In Rhode Island they were disfranchised in
the constitution which followed Dorr’s Rebellion, but finally allowed to vote in 1842. In
Pennsylvania, they were allowed to vote until 1838 when the “reform” convention restricted
the suffrage to whites.
The Western States as territories did not usually restrict the suffrage, but as they were
admitted to the Union they disfranchised the Negroes: Ohio in 1803; Indiana in 1816; Illinois
in 1818; Michigan in 1837; Iowa in 1846; Wisconsin in 1848; Minnesota in 1858; and Kansas
in 1861.
The Northwest Ordinance and even the Louisiana Purchase had made no color discrimination
in legal and political rights. But the states admitted from this territory, specifically and from
the first, denied free black men the right to vote and passed codes of black laws in Ohio,
Indiana and elsewhere, instigated largely by the attitude and fears of the immigrant poor
whites from the South. Thus, at first, in Kansas and the West, the problem of the black
worker was narrow and specific. Neither the North nor the West asked that black labor in the
United States be free and enfranchised. On the contrary, they accepted slave labor as a fact;
but they were determined that it should be territorially restricted, and should not compete
with free white labor.
What was this industrial system for which the South fought and risked life, reputation and
wealth and which a growing element in the North viewed first with hesitating tolerance, then
with distaste and finally with economic fear and moral horror? What did it mean to be a
slave? It is hard to imagine it today. We think of oppression beyond all conception: cruelty,
degradation, whipping and starvation, the absolute negation of human rights; or on the
contrary, we may think of the ordinary worker the world over today, slaving ten, twelve, or
fourteen hours a day, with not enough to eat, compelled by
his physical necessities to do this and not to do that, curtailed in his movements and his
possibilities; and we say, here, too, is a slave called a “free worker,” and slavery is merely a
matter of name.
But there was in 1863 a real meaning to slavery different from that we may apply to the
laborer today. It was in part psychological, the enforced personal feeling of inferiority, the
calling of another Master; the standing with hat in hand. It was the helplessness. It was the
de-fenselessness of family life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will of any sort of
individual. It was without doubt worse in these vital respects than that which exists today in
Europe or America. Its analogue today is the yellow, brown and black laborer in China and
India, in Africa, in the forests of the Amazon; and it was this slavery that fell in America.
The slavery of Negroes in the South was not usually a deliberately cruel and oppressive
system. It did not mean systematic starvation or murder. On the other hand, it is just as
difficult to conceive as quite true the idyllic picture of a patriarchal state with cultured and
humane masters under whom slaves were as children, guided and trained in work and play,
given even such mental training as was for their good, and for the well-being of the
surrounding world.
The victims of Southern slavery were often happy; had usually adequate food for their health,
and shelter sufficient for a mild climate. The Southerners could say with some justification
that when the mass of their field hands were compared with the worst class of laborers in the
slums of New York and Philadelphia, and the factory towns of New England, the black slaves
were as well off and in some particulars better off. Slaves lived largely in the country where
health conditions were better; they worked in the open air, and their hours were about the
current hours for peasants throughout Europe. They received no formal education, and
neither did the Irish peasant, the English factory-laborer, nor the German Bauer; and in
contrast with these free white laborers, the Negroes were protected by a certain primitive sort
of old-age pension, job insurance, and sickness insurance; that is, they must be supported in
some fashion, when they were too old to work; they must have attention in sickness, for they
represented invested capital; and they could never be among the unemployed.
On the other hand, it is just as true that Negro slaves in America represented the worst and
lowest conditions among modern laborers. One estimate is that the maintenance of a slave in
the South cost the master about $19 a year, which means that they were among the poorest
paid laborers in the modern world. They represented in a very real sense the ultimate
degradation of man. Indeed, the system was so re^e
actionary, so utterly inconsistent with modern progress, that we simply cannot grasp it today.
No matter how degraded the factory hand, he is not real estate. The tragedy of the black
slave’s position was precisely this; his absolute subjection to the individual will of an owner
and to “the cruelty and injustice which are the invariable consequences of the exercise of
irresponsible power, especially where authority must be sometimes delegated by the planter
to agents of inferior education and coarser feelings.”
The proof of this lies clearly written in the slave codes. Slaves were not considered men. They
had no right of petition. They were “devisable like any other chattel.” They could own
nothing; they could make no contracts; they could hold no property, nor traffic in property;
they could not hire out; they could not legally marry nor constitute families; they could not
control their children; they could not appeal from their master; they could be punished at
will. They could not testify in court; they could be imprisoned by their owners, and the
criminal offense of assault and battery could not be committed on the person of a slave. The
“willful, malicious and deliberate murder” of a slave was punishable by death, but such a
crime was practically impossible of proof. The slave owed to his master and all his family a
respect “without bounds, and an absolute obedience.” This authority could be transmitted to
others. A slave could not sue his master; had no right of redemption; no right to education or
religion; a promise made to a slave by his master had no force nor validity. Children followed
the condition of the slave mother. The slave could have no access to the judiciary. A slave
might be condemned to death for striking any white person.
Looking at these accounts, “it is safe to say that the law regards a Negro slave, so far as his
civil status is concerned, purely and absolutely property, to be bought and sold and pass and
descend as a tract of land, a horse, or an ox.” 2
The whole legal status of slavery was enunciated in the extraordinary statement of a Chief
Justice of the United States that Negroes had always been regarded in America “as having no
rights which a white man was bound to respect.”
It may be said with truth that the law was often harsher than the practice. Nevertheless, these
laws and decisions represent the legally permissible possibilities, and the only curb upon the
power of the master was his sense of humanity and decency, on the one hand, and the
conserving of his investment on the other. Of the humanity of large numbers of Southern
masters there can be no doubt. In some cases, they gave their slaves a fatherly care. And yet
even in such cases the strain upon their ability to care for large numbers of people and
the necessity of entrusting the care of the slaves to other hands than their own, led to much
suffering and cruelty.
The matter of his investment in land and slaves greatly curtailed the owner’s freedom of
action. Under the competition of growing industrial organization, the slave system was
indeed the source of immense profits. But for the slave owner and landlord to keep a large or
even reasonable share of these profits was increasingly difficult. The price of the slave
produce in the open market could be hammered down by merchants and traders acting with
knowledge and collusion. And the slave owner was, therefore, continually forced to find his
profit not in the high price of cotton and sugar, but in beating even further down the cost of
his slave labor. This made the slave owners in early days kill the slave by overwork and renew
their working stock; it led to the widely organized interstate slave trade between the Border
States and the Cotton Kingdom of the Southern South; it led to neglect and the breaking up of
families, and it could not protect the slave against the cruelty, lust and neglect of certain
Thus human slavery in the South pointed and led in two singularly contradictory and
paradoxical directions—toward the deliberate commercial breeding and sale of human labor
for profit and toward the intermingling of black and white blood. The slaveholders shrank
from acknowledging either set of facts but they were clear and undeniable.
In this vital respect, the slave laborer differed from all others of his day: he could be sold; he
could, at the will of a single individual, be transferred for life a thousand miles or more. His
family, wife and children could be legally and absolutely taken from him. Free laborers today
are compelled to wander in search for work and food; their families are deserted for want of
wages; but in all this there is no such direct barter in human flesh. It was a sharp
accentuation of control over men beyond the modern labor reserve or the contract coolie
Negroes could be sold—actually sold as we sell cattle with no reference to calves or bulls, or
recognition of family. It was a nasty business. The white South was properly ashamed of it
and continually belittled and almost denied it. But it was a stark and bitter fact. Southern
papers of the Border States were filled with advertisements:—”I wish to purchase fifty
Negroes of both sexes from 6 to 30 years of age for which I will give the highest cash prices.”
“Wanted to purchase—Negroes of every description, age and sex.”
The consequent disruption of families is proven beyond doubt:
“Fifty Dollars reward.—Ran away from the subscriber, a Negro
girl, named Maria. She is of a copper color, between 13 and 14 years of age—bareheaded and
barefooted. She is small for her age—very sprightly and very likely. She stated she was going
to see her mother at Maysville. Sanford Tomson.”
“Committed to jail of Madison County, a Negro woman, who calls her name Fanny, and says
she belongs to William Miller, of Mobile. She formerly belonged to John Givins, of this
county, who now owns several of her children. David Shropshire, Jailer.”
“Fifty Dollar reward.—Ran away from the subscriber, his Negro man Pauladore, commonly
called Paul. I understand Gen. R. Y. Hayne has purchased his wife and children from H. L.
Pinckney, Esq., and has them on his plantation at Goosecreek, where, no doubt, the fellow is
frequently lurking. T. Davis.” One can see Pauladore “lurking” about his wife and children. 3
The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible
and unusually effective by the presence of the poor whites. This explains the difference
between the slave revolts in the West Indies, and the lack of effective revolt in the Southern
United States. In the West Indies, the power over the slave was held by the whites and carried
out by them and such Negroes as they could trust. In the South, on the other hand, the great
planters formed proportionately quite as small a class but they had singularly enough at their
command some five million poor whites; that is, there were actually more white people to
police the slaves than there were slaves. Considering the economic rivalry of the black and
white worker in the North, it would have seemed natural that the poor white would have
refused to police the slaves. But two considerations led him in the opposite direction. First of
all, it gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol
system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the
masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded
himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to
become a planter and to own “niggers.” To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and
hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held
stable and intact by the poor white. Even with the late ruin of Haiti before their eyes, the
planters, stirred as they were, were nevertheless able to stamp out slave revolt. The dozen
revolts of the eighteenth century had dwindled to the plot of Gabriel in 1800, Vesey in 1822,
of Nat Turner in 1831 and crews of the Amistad and Creole in 1839 and 1841. Gradually the
whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and
to kill the black rebel.
But even the poor white, led by the planter, would not have kept the black slave in nearly so
complete control had it not been for what may be called the Safety Valve of Slavery; and that
was the chance which a vigorous and determined slave had to run away to freedom.
Under the situation as it developed between 1830 and i860 there were grave losses to the
capital invested in black workers. Encouraged by the idealism of those Northern thinkers who
insisted that Negroes were human, the black worker sought freedom by running away from
slavery. The physical geography of America with its paths north, by swamp, river and
mountain range; the daring of black revolutionists like Henson and Tubman; and the extralegal efforts of abolitionists made this more and more easy.
One cannot know the real facts concerning the number of fugitives, but despite the fear of
advertising the losses, the emphasis put upon fugitive slaves by the South shows that it was
an important economic item. It is certain from the bitter effort to increase the efficiency of
the fugitive slave law that the losses from runaways were widespread and continuous; and
the increase in the interstate slave trade from Border States to the deep South, together with
the increase in the price of slaves, showed a growing pressure. At the beginning of the
nineteenth century, one bought an average slave for $200; while in i860 the price ranged
from $1,400 to $2,000.
Not only was the fugitive slave important because of the actual loss involved, but for
potentialities in the future. These free Negroes were furnishing a leadership for the mass of
the black workers, and especially they were furnishing a text for the abolition idealists.
Fugitive slaves, like Frederick Douglass and others humbler and less gifted, increased the
number of abolitionists by thousands and spelled the doom of slavery.
The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of
America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of
democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black as well as white, became free—
were given schools and the right to vote—what control could or should be set to the power
and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the
right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of
dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected? This was the
great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of
the United States and continued in the minds of thinkers down through the slavery
controversy. It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches
all races and nations.
And of all human development, ancient and modern, not the least singular and significant is
the philosophy of life and action which slavery bred in the souls of black folk. In most
respects its expression was stilted and confused; the rolling periods of Hebrew prophecy and
biblical legend furnished inaccurate but splendid words. The subtle folk-lore of Africa, with
whimsy and parable, veiled wish and wisdom; and above all fell the anointing chrism of the
slave music, the only gift of pure art in America.
Beneath the Veil lay right and wrong, vengeance and love, and sometimes throwing aside the
veil, a soul of sweet Beauty and Truth stood revealed. Nothing else of art or religion did the
slave South give to the world, except the Negro song and story. And even after slavery, down
to our day, it has added but little to this gift. One has but to remember as symbol of it all, still
unspoiled by petty artisans, the legend of John Henry, the mighty black, who broke his heart
working against the machine, and died “with his Hammer in His Hand.”
Up from this slavery gradually climbed the Free Negro with clearer, modern expression and
more definite aim long before the emancipation of 1863. His greatest effort lay in his
cooperation with the Abolition movement. He knew he was not free until all Negroes were
free. Individual Negroes became exhibits of the possibilities of the Negro race, if once it was
raised above the status of slavery. Even when, as so often, the Negro became Court Jester to
the ignorant American mob, he made his plea in his songs and antics.
Thus spoke “the noblest slave that ever God set free,” Frederick Douglass in 1852, in his 4th
of July oration at Rochester, voicing the frank and fearless criticism of the black worker:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more
than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant
victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your
national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious
parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a
thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. . . .
“You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while
the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is
solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your
countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crown-headed tyrants
of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your democratic institutions, while you
yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and
Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with
banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and
pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise,
hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet
you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation—a
system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over
fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen,
and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against the
oppressor; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would
enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to
make those wrongs the subject of public discourse!” 4
Above all, we must remember the black worker was the ultimate exploited; that he formed
that mass of labor which had neither wish nor power to escape from the labor status, in order
to directly exploit other laborers, or indirectly, by alliance with capital, to share in their
exploitation. To be sure, the black mass, developed again and again, here and there,
capitalistic groups in New Orleans, in Charleston and in Philadelphia; groups willing to join
white capital in exploiting labor; but they were driven back into the mass by racial prejudice
before they had reached a permanent foothold; and thus became all the more bitter against
all organization which by means of race prejudice, or the monopoly of wealth, sought to
exclude men from making a living.
It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth
century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying
cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.
That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in
the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of
mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry
—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below
the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the
world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices,
rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather— how shall we end the list and where?
All these are gathered up at
prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at fabulous gain; and
the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and
universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York
and Rio de Janeiro.
Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and
Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of
the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured
lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the
emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of
workers who are yellow, brown and black.
Dark, shackled knights of labor, clinging still Amidst a universal wreck of faith To
cheerfulness, and foreigners to hate. These know ye not, these have ye not received, But these
shall speak to you Beatitudes. Around them surge the tides of all your strife, Above them rise
the august monuments Of all your outward splendor, but they stand Unenvious in thought,
and bide their time.
Leslie P. Hill
i. Compare A. E. McKinley, The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies in
America, p. 137.
2. A Picture of Slavery Drawn from the Decisions of Southern Courts, p. 5.
3. Compare Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South; Weld, American Slavery as It Is.
4. Woodson, Negro Orators and Their Orations, pp. 218-19.
How America became the laborer’s Promised Land; and flocking here from all the world the
white workers competed with black slaves, with new floods of foreigners, and with growing
exploitation, until they fought slavery to save democracy and then lost democracy in a new
and vaster slavery
The opportunity for real and new democracy in America was broad. Political power was at
first as usual confined to property holders and an aristocracy of birth and learning. But it was
never securely based on land. Land was free and both land and property were possible to
nearly every thrifty worker. Schools began early to multiply and open their doors even to the
poor laborer. Birth began to count for less and less and America became to the world a land of
opportunity. So the world came to America, even before the Revolution, and afterward during
the nineteenth century, nineteen million immigrants entered the United States.
The new labor that came to the United States, while it was poor, used to oppression and
accustomed to a low standard of living, was not willing, after it reached America, to regard
itself as a permanent laboring class and it is in the light of this fact that the labor movement
among white Americans must be studied. The successful, well-paid American laboring class
formed, because of its property and ideals, a petty bourgeoisie ready always to join capital in
exploiting common labor, white and black, foreign and native. The more energetic and thrifty
among the immigrants caught the prevalent American idea that here labor could become
emancipated from the necessity of continuous toil and that an increasing proportion could
join the class of exploiters, that is of those who made their income chiefly by profit derived
through the hiring of labor.
Abraham Lincoln expressed this idea frankly at Hartford, in March, i860. He said:
“I am not ashamed to confess that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails,
at work on a flat boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” Then followed the
characteristic philosophy of the time: “I want every man to have his chance—and I believe a
black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward
and hope to be a hired laborer this
year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him. That is
the true system.”
He was enunciating the widespread American idea of the son rising to a higher economic
level than the father; of the chance for the poor man to accumulate wealth and power, which
made the European doctrine of a working class fighting for the elevation of all workers seem
not only less desirable but even less possible for average workers than they had formerly
considered it.
These workers came to oppose slavery not so much from moral as from the economic fear of
being reduced by competition to the level of slaves. They wanted a chance to become
capitalists; and they found that chance threatened by the competition of a working class
whose status at the bottom of the economic structure seemed permanent and inescapable. At
first, black slavery jarred upon them, and as early as the seventeenth century German
immigrants to Pennsylvania asked the Quakers innocently if slavery was in accord with the
Golden Rule. Then, gradually, as succeeding immigrants were thrown in difficult and
exasperating competition with black workers, their attitude changed. These were the very
years when the white worker was beginning to understand the early American doctrine of
wealth and property; to escape the liability of imprisonment for debt, and even to gain the
right of universal suffrage. He found pouring into cities like New York and Philadelphia
emancipated Negroes with low standards of living, competing for the jobs which the lower
class of unskilled white laborers wanted.
For the immediate available jobs, the Irish particularly competed and the employers because
of race antipathy and sympathy with the South did not wish to increase the number of Negro
workers, so long as the foreigners worked just as cheaply. The foreigners in turn blamed
blacks for the cheap price of labor. The result was race war; riots took place which were at
first simply the flaming hostility of groups of laborers fighting for bread and butter; then they
turned into race riots. For three days in Cincinnati in 1829, a mob of whites wounded and
killed free Negroes and fugitive slaves and destroyed property. Most of the black population,
numbering over two thousand, left the city and trekked to Canada. In Philadelphia, 18281840, a series of riots took place which thereafter extended until after the Civil War. The riot
of 1834 took the dimensions of a pitched battle and lasted for three days. Thirty-one houses
and two churches were destroyed. Other riots took place in 1835 and 1838 and a two days’ riot
in 1842 caused the calling out of the militia with artillery.
In the forties came quite a different class, the English and German workers, who had tried by
organization to fight the machine and in
the end had to some degree envisaged the Marxian reorganization of industry through trade
unions and class struggle. The attitude of these people toward the Negro was varied and
contradictory. At first they blurted out their disapprobation of slavery on principle. It was a
phase of all wage slavery. Then they began to see a way out for the worker in America
through the free land of the West. Here was a solution such as was impossible in Europe:
plenty of land, rich land, land coming daily nearer its own markets, to which the worker could
retreat and restore the industrial balance ruined in Europe by the expropriation of the worker
from the soil. Or in other words, the worker in America saw a chance to increase his wage and
regulate his conditions of employment much greater than in Europe. The trade unions could
have a material backing that they could not have in Germany, France or England. This
thought, curiously enough, instead of increasing the sympathy for the slave turned it directly
into rivalry and enmity.
The wisest of the leaders could not clearly envisage just how slave labor in conjunction and
competition with free labor tended to reduce all labor toward slavery. For this reason, the
union and labor leaders gravitated toward the political party which opposed tariff bounties
and welcomed immigrants, quite forgetting that this same Democratic party had as its
backbone the planter oligarchy of the South with its slave labor.
The new immigrants in their competition with this group reflected not simply the general
attitude of America toward colored people, but particularly they felt a threat of slave
competition which these Negroes foreshadowed. The Negroes worked cheaply, partly from
custom, partly as their only defense against competition. The white laborers realized that
Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose
competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and
stability in the North. When now the labor question moved West, and became a part of the
land question, the competition of black men became of increased importance. Foreign
laborers saw more clearly than most Americans the tremendous significance of free land in
abundance, such as America possessed, in open contrast to the land monopoly of Europe. But
here on this free land, they met not only a few free Negro workers, but the threat of a mass of
slaves. The attitude of the West toward Negroes, therefore, became sterner than that of the
East. Here was the possibility of direct competition with slaves, and the absorption of
Western land into the slave system. This must be resisted at all costs, but beyond this, even
free Negroes must be discouraged. On this the Southern poor white immigrants insisted.
In the meantime, the problem of the black worker had not ceased
to trouble the conscience and the economic philosophy of America. That the worker should
be a bond slave was fundamentally at variance with the American doctrine, and the demand
for the abolition of slavery had been continuous since the Revolution. In the North, it had
resulted in freeing gradually all of the Negroes. But the comparatively small number of those
thus freed was being augmented now by fugitive slaves from the South, and manifestly the
ultimate plight of the black worker depended upon the course of Southern slavery. There
arose, then, in the thirties, and among thinkers and workers, a demand that slavery in the
United States be immediately abolished.
This demand became epitomized in the crusade of William Lloyd Garrison, himself a poor
printer, but a man of education, thought and indomitable courage. This movement was not
primarily a labor movement or a matter of profit and wage. It simply said that under any
condition of life, the reduction of a human being to real estate was a crime against humanity
of such enormity that its existence must be immediately ended. After emancipation there
would come questions of labor, wage and political power. But now, first, must be demanded
that ordinary human freedom and recognition of essential manhood which slavery
blasphemously denied. This philosophy of freedom was a logical continuation of the freedom
philosophy of the eighteenth century which insisted that Freedom was not an End but an
indispensable means to the beginning of human progress and that democracy could function
only after the dropping of feudal privileges, monopoly and chains.
The propaganda which made the abolition movement terribly real was the Fugitive Slave—the
piece of intelligent humanity who could say: I have been owned like an ox. I stole my own
body and now I am hunted by law and lash to be made an ox again. By no conception of
justice could such logic be answered. Nevertheless, at the same time white labor, while it
attempted no denial but even expressed faint sympathy, saw in this fugitive slave and in the
millions of slaves behind him, willing and eager to work for less than current wage,
competition for their own jobs. What they failed to comprehend was that the black man
enslaved was an even more formidable and fatal competitor than the black man free.
Here, then, were two labor movements: the movement to give the black worker a minimum
legal status which would enable him to sell his own labor, and another movement which
proposed to increase the wage and better the condition of the working class in America, now
largely composed of foreign immigrants, and dispute with the new American capitalism the
basis upon which the new wealth was to be divided. Broad philanthropy and a wide
knowledge of the elements of human progress would have led these two movements to unite and in their union to
become irresistible. It was difficult, almost impossible, for this to be clear to the white labor
leaders of the thirties. They had their particularistic grievances and one of these was the
competition of free Negro labor. Beyond this they could easily vision a new and tremendous
competition of black workers after all the slaves became free. What they did not see nor
understand was that this competition was present and would continue and would be
emphasized if the Negro continued as a slave worker. On the other hand, the Abolitionists did
not realize the plight of the white laborer, especially the semi-skilled and unskilled worker.
While the Evans brothers, who came as labor agitators in 1825, had among their twelve
demands “the abolition of chattel slavery,” nevertheless, George was soon convinced that
freedom without land was of no importance. He wrote to Gerrit Smith, who was giving land
to Negroes, and said:
“I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was
before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my
views as to the means of abolishing Negro slavery. I now see, clearly, I think, that to give the
landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would
hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age,
although he is in a favorable climate. If the Southern form of slavery existed at the North, I
should say the black would be a great loser by such a change.” 1
At the convention of the New England anti-slavery society in 1845, Robert Owen, the great
champion of cooperation, said he was opposed to Negro slavery, but that he had seen worse
slavery in England than among the Negroes. Horace Greeley said the same year: “If I am less
troubled concerning the slavery prevalent in Charleston or New Orleans, it is because I see so
much slavery in New York which appears to claim my first efforts.”
Thus despite all influences, reform and social uplift veered away from the Negro. Brisbane,
Channing, Owen and other leaders called a National Reform Association to meet in New York
in May, 1845. In October, Owen’s “World Conference” met. But they hardly mentioned
slavery. The Abolitionists did join a National Industrial Congress which met around 18451846. Other labor leaders were openly hostile toward the abolitionist movement, while the
movement for free land increased.
Thus two movements—Labor-Free Soil, and Abolition, exhibited fundamental divergence
instead of becoming one great party of free
labor and free land. The Free Soilers stressed the difficulties of even the free laborer getting
hold of the land and getting work in the great congestion which immigration had brought;
and the abolitionists stressed the moral wrong of slavery. These two movements might easily
have cooperated and differed only in matters of emphasis; but the trouble was that black and
white laborers were competing for the same jobs just of course as all laborers always are. The
immediate competition became open and visible because of racial lines and racial philosophy
and particularly in Northern states where free Negroes and fugitive slaves had established
themselves as workers, while the ultimate and overshadowing competition of free and slave
labor was obscured and pushed into the background. This situation, too, made extraordinary
reaction, led by the ignorant mob and fomented by authority and privilege; abolitionists were
attacked and their meeting places burned; women suffragists were hooted; laws were
proposed making the kidnaping of Negroes easier and disfranchising Negro voters in
conventions called for purposes of “reform.”
The humanitarian reform movement reached its height in 1847-1849 amid falling prices, and
trade unionism was at a low ebb. The strikes from 1849-1852 won the support of Horace
Greeley, and increased the labor organizations. Labor in eastern cities refused to touch the
slavery controversy, and the control which the Democrats had over the labor vote in New
York and elsewhere increased this tendency to ignore the Negro, and increased the division
between white and colored labor. In 1850, a Congress of Trade Unions was held with no
delegates. They stressed land reform but said nothing about slavery and the organization
eventually was captured by Tammany Hall. After 1850 unions composed of skilled laborers
began to separate from common laborers and adopt a policy of closed shops and a minimum
wage and excluded farmers and Negroes. Although this movement was killed by the panic of
1857, it eventually became triumphant in the eighties and culminated in the American
Federation of Labor which today allows any local or national union to exclude Negroes on any
Other labor leaders became more explicit and emphasized race rather than class. John
Campbell said in 1851: “Will the white race ever agree that blacks shall stand beside us on
election day, upon the rostrum, in the ranks of the army, in our places of amusement, in
places of public worship, ride in the same coaches, railway cars, or steamships? Never! Never!
or is it natural, or just, that this kind of equality should exist? God never intended it; had he
so willed it, he would have made all one color.” 2
New labor leaders arrived in the fifties. Hermann Kriege and Wilhelm Weitling left their work in Germany, and their friends Marx and Engels, and came to
America, and at the same time came tens of thousands of revolutionary Germans. The
Socialist and Communist papers increased. Trade unions increased in power and numbers
and held public meetings. Immediately, the question of slavery injected itself, and that of
Kriege began to preach land reform and free soil in 1846, and by 1850 six hundred American
papers were supporting his program. But Kriege went beyond Evans and former leaders and
openly repudiated abolition. He declared in 1846:
“That we see in the slavery question a property question which cannot be settled by itself
alone. That we should declare ourselves in favor of the abolitionist movement if it were our
intention to throw the Republic into a state of anarchy, to extend the competition of ‘free
workingmen’ beyond all measure, and to depress labor itself to the last extremity. That we
could not improve the lot of our ‘black brothers’ by abolition under the conditions prevailing
in modern society, but make infinitely worse the lot of our ‘white brothers.’ That we believe
in the peaceable development of society in the United States and do not, therefore, here at
least see our only hope in condition of the extremest degradation. That we feel constrained,
therefore, to oppose Abolition with all our might, despite all the importunities of sentimental
philistines and despite all the poetical effusions of liberty-intoxicated ladies.” 3
Wilhelm Weitling, who came to America the following year, 1847, started much agitation but
gave little attention to slavery. He did not openly side with the slaveholder, as Kriege did;
nevertheless, there was no condemnation of slavery in his paper. In the first German labor
conference in Philadelphia, under Weitling in 1850, a series of resolutions were passed which
did not mention slavery. Both Kriege and Weitling joined the Democratic party and numbers
of other immigrant Germans did the same thing, and these workers, therefore, became
practical defenders of slavery. Doubtless, the “Know-Nothing” movement against the foreignborn forced many workers into the Democratic party, despite slavery.
The year 1853 saw the formation of the Arbeiterbund, under Joseph Weydemeyer, a friend of
Karl Marx. This organization advocated Marxian socialism but never got a clear attitude
toward slavery. In 1854, it opposed the Kansas-Nebraska bill because “Capitalism and land
speculation have again been favored at the expense of the mass of the people,” and “This bill
withdraws from or makes unavailable in a future homestead bill vast tracts of territory,” and
“authorizes the further extension of slavery; but we have, do now, and shall continue to protest most emphatically against both white and black slavery.”
Nevertheless, when the Arbeiterbund was reorganized in December, 1857, slavery was not
mentioned. When its new organ appeared in April, 1858, it said that the question of the
present moment was not the abolition of slavery, but the prevention of its further extension
iand that Negro slavery was firmly rooted in America. One small division of this organization
in 1857 called for abolition of the slave trade and colonization of Negroes, but defended the
Southern slaveholders.
In 1859, however, a conference of the Arbeiterbund condemned all slavery in whatever form
it might appear, and demanded the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. The Democratic and proslavery New York Staats-Zeitung counseled the people to abstain from agitation against the
extension of slavery, but all of the German population did not agree.
As the Chartist movement increased in England, the press was filled with attacks against the
United States and its institutions, and the Chartists were clear on the matter of slavery. Their
chief organ in 1844 said: “That damning stain upon the American escutcheon is one that has
caused the Republicans of Europe to weep for very shame and mortification; and the people
of the United States have much to answer for at the bar of humanity for this indecent, cruel,
revolting and fiendish violation of their boasted principle—that ‘All men are born free and
The labor movement in England continued to emphasize the importance of attacking slavery;
and the agitation, started by the work of Frederick Douglass and others, increased in
importance and activity. In 1857, George I. Holyoake sent an anti-slavery address to America,
signed by 1,800 English workingmen, whom Karl Marx himself was guiding in England, and
this made the black American worker a central text. They pointed out the fact that the black
worker was furnishing the raw material which the English capitalist was exploiting together
with the English worker. This same year, the United States Supreme Court sent down the
Dred Scott decision that Negroes were not citizens.
This English initiative had at first but limited influence in America. The trade unions were
willing to admit that the Negroes ought to be free sometime; but at the present, selfpreservation called for their slavery; and after all, whites were a different grade of workers
from blacks. Even when the Marxian ideas arrived, there was a split; the earlier
representatives of the Marxian philosophy in America agreed with the older Union movement
in deprecating any entanglement
with the abolition controversy. After all, abolition represented capital. The whole movement
was based on mawkish sentimentality, and not on the demands of the workers, at least of the
white workers. And so the early American Marxists simply gave up the idea of intruding the
black worker into the socialist commonwealth at that time.
To this logic the abolitionists were increasingly opposed. It seemed to them that the crucial
point was the matter of freedom; that a free laborer in America had an even chance to make
his fortune as a worker or a farmer; but, on the other hand, if the laborer was not free, as in
the case of the Negro, he had no opportunity, and he inevitably degraded white labor. The
abolitionist did not sense the new subordination into which the worker was being forced by
organized capital, while the laborers did not realize that the exclusion of four million workers
from the labor program was a fatal omission. Wendell Phillips alone suggested a boycott on
Southern goods, and said that the great cause of labor was paramount and included mill
operatives in New England, peasants in Ireland, and laborers in South America who ought not
to be lost sight of in sympathy for the Southern slave.
In the United States shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War there were twenty-six trades
with national organizations, including the iron and steel workers, machinists, blacksmiths,
etc. The employers formed a national league and planned to import more workmen from
foreign countries. The iron molders started a national strike July 5, 1859, and said: “Wealth is
power, and practical experience teaches us that it is a power but too often used to oppress and
degrade the daily laborer. Year after year the capital of the country becomes more and more
concentrated in the hands of a few, and, in proportion as the wealth of the country becomes
centralized, its power increases, and the laboring classes are impoverished. It therefore
becomes us, as men who have to battle with the stern realities of life, to look this matter fair
in the face; there is no dodging the question; let every man give it a fair, full and candid
consideration, and then act according to his honest convictions. What position are we, the
mechanics of America, to hold in Society?”
There was not a word in this address about slavery and one would not dream that the United
States was on the verge of the greatest labor revolution it had seen. Other conferences of the
molders, machinists and blacksmiths and others were held in the sixties, and a labor mass
meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston in 1861 said: “The truth is that the workingmen care little
for the strife of political parties and the intrigues of office-seekers. We regard them with the
contempt they deserve. We are weary of this question of slavery; it is a matter which does not
concern us; and we wish only to attend to our business,
and leave the South to attend to their own affairs, without any interference from the North.”
In all this consideration, we have so far ignored the white workers of the South and we have
done this because the labor movement ignored them and the abolitionists ignored them; and
above all, they were ignored by Northern capitalists and Southern planters. They were in
many respects almost a forgotten mass of men. Cairnes describes the slave South, the period
just before the war:
“It resolves itself into three classes, broadly distinguished from each other, and connected by
no common interest—the slaves on whom devolves all the regular industry, the slaveholders
who reap all its fruits, and an idle and lawless rabble who live dispersed over vast plains in a
condition little removed from absolute barbarism.”
From all that has been written and said about the ante-bellum South, one almost loses sight
of about 5,000,000 white people in i860 who lived in the South and held no slaves. Even
among the two million slaveholders, an oligarchy of 8,000 really ruled the South, while as an
observer said: “For twenty years, I do not recollect ever to have seen or heard these nonslaveholding whites referred to by the Southern gentleman as constituting any part of what
they called the South.” 5 They were largely ignorant and degraded; only 25% could read and
The condition of the poor whites has been many times described:
“A wretched log hut or two are the only habitations in sight. Here reside, or rather take
shelter, the miserable cultivators of the ground, or a still more destitute class who make a
precarious living by peddling ‘lightwood’ in the city. . . .
“These cabins . . . are dens of filth. The bed if there be a bed is a layer of something in the
corner that defies scenting. If the bed is nasty, what of the floor ? What of the whole enclosed
space ? What of the creatures themselves? Pough! Water in use as a purifier is unknown.
Their faces are bedaubed with the muddy accumulation of weeks. They just give them a wipe
when they see a stranger to take off the blackest dirt. . . . The poor wretches seem startled
when you address them, and answer your questions cowering like culprits.” 6
Olmsted said: “I saw as much close packing, filth and squalor, in certain blocks inhabited by
laboring whites in Charleston, as I have witnessed in any Northern town of its size; and
greater evidences of brutality and ruffianly character, than I have ever happened to see,
among an equal population of this class, before.” 7
Two classes of poor whites have been differentiated: the mountain whites and the poor
whites of the lowlands. “Below a dirty and ill-favored house, down under the bank on the
shingle near the river, sits a family of five people, all ill-clothed and unclean; a blear-eyed old
woman, a younger woman with a mass of tangled red hair hanging about her shoulders,
indubitably suckling a baby; a little girl with the same auburn evidence of Scotch ancestry; a
boy, and a younger child all gathered about a fire made among some bricks, surrounding a
couple of iron saucepans, in which is a dirty mixture looking like mud, but probably warmedup sorghum syrup, which with a few pieces of corn pone, makes their breakfast.
“Most of them are illiterate and more than correspondingly ignorant. Some of them had
Indian ancestors and a few bear evidences of Negro blood. The so-called ‘mountain boomer,’
says an observer, ‘has little self-respect and no self-reliance. … So long as his corn pile lasts
the “cracker” lives in contentment, feasting on a sort of hoe cake made of grated corn meal
mixed with salt and water and baked before the hot coals, with addition of what game the
forest furnishes him when he can get up the energy to go out and shoot or trap it. . . . The
irregularities of their moral lives cause them no sense of shame. . . . But, notwithstanding
these low moral conceptions, they are of an intense religious excitability.'” 8
Above this lowest mass rose a middle class of poor whites in the making. There were some
small farmers who had more than a mere sustenance and yet were not large planters. There
were overseers. There was a growing class of merchants who traded with the slaves and free
Negroes and became in many cases larger traders, dealing with the planters for the staple
crops. Some poor whites rose to the professional class, so that the rift between the planters
and the mass of the whites was partially bridged by this smaller intermediate class.
While revolt against the domination of the planters over the poor whites was voiced by men
like Helper, who called for a class struggle to destroy the planters, this was nullified by deeprooted antagonism to the Negro, whether slave or free. If black labor could be expelled from
the United States or eventually exterminated, then the fight against the planter could take
place. But the poor whites and their leaders could not for a moment contemplate a fight of
united white and black labor against the exploiters. Indeed, the natural leaders of the poor
whites, the small farmer, the merchant, the professional man, the white mechanic and slave
overseer, were bound to the planters and repelled from the slaves and even from the mass of
the white laborers in two ways: first, they constituted the police patrol who could ride with
planters and now and then exercise unlimited force upon recalcitrant or runaway slaves; and
then, too, there was always a chance that they themselves might also become planters by
saving money, by investment, by the power of good luck; and the only heaven that attracted
them was the life of the great Southern planter.
There were a few weak associations of white mechanics, such as printers and shipwrights and
iron molders, in 1850-1860, but practically no labor movement in the South.
Charles Nordhoff states that he was told by a wealthy Alabaman, in i860, that the planters in
his region were determined to discontinue altogether the employment of free mechanics. “On
my own place,” he said, “I have slave carpenters, slave blacksmiths, and slave wheelwrights,
and thus I am independent of free mechanics.” And a certain Alfred E. Mathews remarks: “I
have seen free white mechanics obliged to stand aside while their families were suffering for
the necessaries of life, when the slave mechanics, owned by rich and influential men, could
get plenty of work; and I have heard these same white mechanics breathe the most bitter
curses against the institution of slavery and the slave aristocracy.”
The resultant revolt of the poor whites, just as the revolt of the slaves, came through
migration. And their migration, instead of being restricted, was freely encouraged. As a result,
the poor whites left the South in large numbers. In i860, 399,700 Virginians were living out
of their native state. From Tennessee, 344,765 emigrated; from North Carolina, 272,606, and
from South Carolina, 256,868. The majority of these had come to the Middle West and it is
quite possible that the Southern states sent as many settlers to the West as the Northeastern
states, and while the Northeast demanded free soil, the Southerners demanded not only free
soil but the exclusion of Negroes from work and the franchise. They had a very vivid fear of
the Negro as a competitor in labor, whether slave or free.
It was thus the presence of the poor white Southerner in the West that complicated the whole
Free Soil movement in its relation to the labor movement. While the Western pioneer was an
advocate of extreme democracy and equalitarianism in his political and economic philosophy,
his vote and influence did not go to strengthen the abolition-democracy, before, during, or
even after the war. On the contrary, it was stopped and inhibited by the doctrine of race, and
the West, therefore, long stood against that democracy in industry which might have
emancipated labor in the United States, because it did not admit to that democracy the
American citizen of Negro descent.
Thus Northern workers were organizing and fighting industrial integration in order to gain
higher wage and shorter hours, and more and more they saw economic salvation in the rich
land of the West. A Western movement of white workers and pioneers began and was
paralleled by a Western movement of planters and black workers in the South. Land and
more land became the cry of the Southern political leader, with finally a growing demand for
reopening of the African
slave trade. Land, more land, became the cry of the peasant farmer in the North. The two
forces met in Kansas, and in Kansas civil war began.
The South was fighting for the protection and expansion of its agrarian feudalism. For the
sheer existence of slavery, there must be a continual supply of fertile land, cheaper slaves,
and such political power as would give the slave status full legal recognition and protection,
and annihilate the free Negro. The Louisiana Purchase had furnished slaves and land, but
most of the land was in the Northwest. The foray into Mexico had opened an empire, but the
availability of this land was partly spoiled by the loss of California to free labor. This
suggested a proposed expansion of slavery toward Kansas, where it involved the South in
competition with white labor: a competition which endangered the slave status, encouraged
slave revolt, and increased the possibility of fugitive slaves.
It was a war to determine how far industry in the United States should be carried on under a
system where the capitalist owns not only the nation’s raw material, not only the land, but
also the laborer himself; or whether the laborer was going to maintain his personal freedom,
and enforce it by growing political and economic independence based on widespread
ownership of land.
This brings us down to the period of the Civil War. Up to the time that the war actually broke
out, American labor simply refused, in the main, to envisage black labor as a part of its
problem. Right up to the edge of the war, it was talking about the emancipation of white labor
and the organization of stronger unions without saying a word, or apparently giving a
thought, to four million black slaves. During the war, labor was resentful. Workers were
forced to fight in a strife between capitalists in which they had no interest and they showed
their resentment in the peculiarly human way of beating and murdering the innocent victims
of it all, the black free Negroes of New York and other Northern cities; while in the South, five
million non-slaveholding poor white farmers and laborers sent their manhood by the
thousands to fight and die for a system that had degraded them equally with the black slave.
Could one imagine anything more paradoxical than this whole situation?
America thus stepped forward in the first blossoming of the modern age and added to the Art
of Beauty, gift of the Renaissance, and to Freedom of Belief, gift of Martin Luther and Leo X,
a vision of democratic self-government: the domination of political life by the intelligent
decision of free and self-sustaining men. What an idea and what an area for its realization—
endless land of richest fertility, natural resources such as Earth seldom exhibited before, a
infinite in variety, of universal gift, burned in the fires of poverty and caste, yearning toward
the Unknown God; and self-reliant pioneers, unafraid of man or devil. It was the Supreme
Adventure, in the last Great Batde of the West, for that human freedom which would release
the human spirit from lower lust for mere meat, and set it free to dream and sing.
And then some unjust God leaned, laughing, over the ramparts of heaven and dropped a black
man in the midst.
It transformed the world. It turned democracy back to Roman Imperialism and Fascism; it
restored caste and oligarchy; it replaced freedom with slavery and withdrew the name of
humanity from the vast majority of human beings.
But not without struggle. Not without writhing and rending of spirit and pitiable wail of lost
souls. They said: Slavery was wrong but not all wrong; slavery must perish and not simply
move; God made black men; God made slavery; the will of God be done; slavery to the glory
of God and black men as his servants and ours; slavery as a way to freedom—the freedom of
blacks, the freedom of whites; white freedom as the goal of the world and black slavery as the
path thereto. Up with the white world, down with the black!
Then came this battle called Civil War, beginning in Kansas in 1854, and ending in the
presidential election of 1876—twenty awful years. The slave went free; stood a brief moment
in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown
to color caste. The colored world went down before England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy
and America. A new slavery arose. The upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars
for profit based on color caste. Democracy died save in the hearts of black folk.
Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable
to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and
which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863. The resulting
color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white
labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over. Thus the
majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a
system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and
Depression. And this book seeks to tell that story.
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm, Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow, another reaps; The wealth ye find, another keeps; The robes ye weave,
another wears; The arms ye forge, another bears. Percy Bysshe Shelley
1. Schliiter, Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, p. 66.
2. Campbell, Negromania, p. 545.
3. Schliiter, Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, pp. 72, 73.
4. Schliiter, Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, p. 135.
5. Schliiter, Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, p. 86.
6. Simkins and Woody, South Carolina During Reconstruction, p. 326.
7. Olmsted, Seaboard Slave States, p. 404.
8. Hart, The Southern South, pp. 34, 35.
How seven per cent of a section within a nation ruled five million
white people and owned four million black people and sought to
make agriculture equal to industry through the rule of property
without yielding political power or education to labor
Seven per cent of the total population of the South in i860 owned nearly 3 million of the
3,953,696 slaves. There was nearly as great a concentration of ownership in the best
agricultural land. This meant that in a country predominantly agricultural, the ownership of
labor, land and capital was extraordinarily concentrated. Such peculiar organization of
industry would have to be carefully reconciled with the new industrial and political
democracy of the nineteenth century if it were to survive.
Of the five million whites who owned no slaves some were united in interest with the slave
owners. These were overseers, drivers and dealers in slaves. Others were hirers of white and
black labor, and still others were merchants and professional men, forming a petty bourgeois
class, and climbing up to the planter class or falling down from it. The mass of the poor
whites, as we have shown, were economic outcasts.
Colonial Virginia declared its belief in natural and inalienable rights, popular sovereignty, and
government for the common good, even before the Declaration of Independence. But it soon
became the belief of doctrinaires, and not a single other Southern state enacted these
doctrines of equality until after the Civil War. The Reconstruction constitutions incorporated
them; but quite logically, South Carolina repudiated its declaration in 1895.
The domination of property was shown in the qualifications for office and voting in the
South. Southerners and others in the Constitutional Convention asked for property
qualifications for the President of the United States, the federal judges, and Senators. Most
Southern state governments required a property qualification for the Governor, and in South
Carolina, he must be worth ten thousand pounds. Members of the legislature must usually be
Plural voting was allowed as late as 1832. The requirement of the ownership of freehold land
for officeholders operated to the disadvantage of merchants and mechanics. In North
Carolina, a man must
own 50 acres to vote for Senator, and in 1828, out of 250 voters at Wilmington, only 48 had
the qualifications to vote for Senator. Toward the time of the Civil War many of these
property qualifications disappeared.
Into the hands of the slaveholders the political power of the South was concentrated, by their
social prestige, by property ownership and also by their extraordinary rule of the counting of
all or at least three-fifths of the Negroes as part of the basis of representation in the
legislature. It is singular how this “three-fifths” compromise was used, not only to degrade
Negroes in theory, but in practice to disfranchise the white South. Nearly all of the Southern
states began with recognizing the white population as a basis of representation; they
afterward favored the black belt by direct legislation or by counting three-fifths of the slave
population, and then finally by counting the whole black population; or they established, as
in Virginia and South Carolina, a “mixed” basis of representation, based on white population
and on property; that is, on land and slaves.
In the distribution of seats in the legislature, this manipulation of political power appears. In
the older states representatives were assigned arbitrarily to counties, districts and towns,
with little regard to population. This was for the purpose of putting the control in the hands
of wealthy planters. Variations from this were the basing of representation on the white
population in one House, and taxation in the other, or the use of the Federal proportion; that
is, free persons and three-fifths of the slaves, or Federal proportion and taxation combined.
These were all manipulated so as to favor the wealthy planters. The commercial class secured
scant representation as compared with agriculture. ,
“It is a fact that the political working of the state [of South Carolina] is in the hands of one
hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty men. It has taken me six months to appreciate
the entireness of the fact, though of course I had heard it stated.” *
In all cases, the slaveholder practically voted both for himself and his slaves and it was not
until 1850 and particularly after the war that there were signs of self-assertion on the part of
the poor whites to break this monopoly of power. Alabama, for instance, in 1850, based
representation in the general assembly upon the white inhabitants, after thirty years of
counting the whole white and black population. Thus the Southern planters had in their
hands from 1820 to the Civil War political power equivalent to one or two million freemen in
the North.
They fought bitterly during the early stages of Reconstruction to retain this power for the
whites, while at the same time granting no political power to the blacks. Finally and up to this
day, by making good their efforts to disfranchise the blacks, the political heirs of the planters still retain
for themselves this added political representation as a legacy from slavery, and a power to
frustrate all third party movements.
Thus, the planters who owned from fifty to one thousand slaves and from one thousand to
ten thousand acres of land came to fill the whole picture in the South, and literature and the
propaganda which is usually called history have since exaggerated that picture. The planter
certainly dominated politics and social life—he boasted of his education, but on the whole,
these Southern leaders were men singularly ignorant of modern conditions and trends and of
their historical background. All their ideas of gentility and education went back to the days of
European privilege and caste. They cultivated a surface acquaintance with literature and they
threw Latin quotations even into Congress. Some few had a cultural education at Princeton
and at Yale, and to this day Princeton refuses to receive Negro students, and Yale has
admitted a few with reluctance, as a curious legacy from slavery.
Many Southerners traveled abroad and the fashionable European world met almost
exclusively Americans from the South and were favorably impressed by their manners which
contrasted with the gaucherie of the average Northerner. A Southerner of the upper class
could enter a drawing room and carry on a light conversation and eat according to the rules,
on tables covered with silver and fine linen. They were “gentlemen” according to the older
and more meager connotation of the word.
Southern women of the planter class had little formal education; they were trained in
dependence, with a smattering of French and music; they affected the latest European styles;
were always described as “beautiful” and of course must do no work for a living except in the
organization of their households. In this latter work, they were assisted and even impeded by
more servants than they needed. The temptations of this sheltered exotic position called the
finer possibilities of womanhood into exercise only in exceptional cases. It was the woman on
the edge of the inner circles and those of the struggling poor whites who sought to enter the
ranks of the privileged who showed superior character.
Most of the planters, like most Americans, were of humble descent, two or three generations
removed. Jefferson Davis was a grandson of a poor Welsh immigrant. Yet the Southerner’s
assumptions impressed the North and although most of them were descended from the same
social classes as the Yankees, yet the Yankees had more recently been reenforced by
immigration and were strenuous, hard-working
men, ruthlessly pushing themselves into the leadership of the new industry. Such folk not
only “love a lord,” but even the fair imitation of one.
The leaders of the South had leisure for good breeding and high living, and before them
Northern society abased itself and flattered and fawned over them. Perhaps this, more than
ethical reasons, or even economic advantage, made the way of the abolitionist hard. In New
York, Saratoga, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, a slave baron, with his fine raiment, gorgeous
and doll-like women and black flunkies, quite turned the heads of Northern society. Their
habits of extravagance impressed the nation for a long period. Much of the waste charged
against Reconstruction arose from the attempt of the post-war population, white and black,
to imitate the manners of a slave-nurtured gentility, and this brought furious protest from
former planters; because while planters spent money filched from the labor of black slaves,
the poor white and black leaders of Reconstruction spent taxes drawn from recently
impoverished planters.
From an economic point of view, this planter class had interest in consumption rather than
production. They exploited labor in order that they themselves should live more grandly and
not mainly for increasing production. Their taste went to elaborate households, wellfurnished and hospitable; they had much to eat and drink; they consumed large quantities of
liquor; they gambled and caroused and kept up the habit of dueling well down into the
nineteenth century. Sexually they were lawless, protecting elaborately and flattering the
virginity of a small class of women of their social clan, and keeping at command millions of
poor women of the two laboring groups of the South.
Sexual chaos was always the possibility of slavery, not always realized but always possible:
polygamy through the concubinage of black women to white men; polyandry between black
women and selected men on plantations in order to improve the human stock of strong and
able workers. The census of i860 counted 588,352 persons obviously of mixed blood—a
figure admittedly below the truth.
“Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of
custom, and of pecuniary gain [The law declares that the children of slaves are to follow the
fortunes of the mother. Hence the practice of planters selling and bequeathing their own
children.], to tempt him to the common practice. Those who, notwithstanding, keep their
homes undefiled may be considered as of incorruptible purity.” 1
Mrs. Trollope speaks of the situation of New Orleans’ mulattoes:
“Of all the prejudices I have ever witnessed, this appears to us the
most violent, and the most inveterate. Quadroon girls, the acknowledged daughters of
wealthy American or Creole fathers, educated with all the style and accomplishments which
money can procure at New Orleans, and with all the decorum that care and affection can give
—exquisitely beautiful, graceful, gentle, and amiable, are not admitted, nay, are not on any
terms admissible, into the society of the Creole families of Louisiana. They cannot marry;
that is to say, no ceremony can render any union with them legal or binding.” 2
“It is known by almost everybody who has heard of the man, Richard M. Johnson, a
Democratic Vice-President of the United States, that he had colored daughters of whom he
was proud; and his was not an exceptional case.” 3 Several Presidents of the United States
have been accused of racial catholicity in sex.
And finally, one cannot forget that bitter word attributed to a sister of a President of the
United States: “We Southern ladies are complimented with names of wives; but we are only
mistresses of seraglios.” 4
What the planters wanted was income large enough to maintain the level of living which was
their ideal. Naturally, only a few of them had enough for this, and the rest, striving toward it,
were perpetually in debt and querulously seeking a reason for this indebtedness outside
themselves. Since it was beneath the dignity of a “gentleman” to encumber himself with the
details of his finances, this lordly excuse enabled the planter to place between himself and
the black slave a series of intermediaries through whom bitter pressure and exploitation
could be exercised and large crops raised. For the very reason that the planters did not give
attention to details, there was wide tendency to commercialize their growing business of
supplying raw materials for an expanding modern industry. They were the last to
comprehend the revolution through which that industry was passing and their efforts to
increase income succeeded only at the cost of raping the land and degrading the laborers.
Theoretically there were many ways of increasing the income of the planter; practically there
was but one. The planter might sell his crops at higher prices; he might increase his crop by
intensive farming, or he might reduce the cost of handling and transporting his crops; he
might increase his crops by making his laborers work harder and giving them smaller wages.
In practice, the planter, so far as prices were concerned, was at the mercy of the market.
Merchants and manufacturers by intelligence and close combination set the current prices of
raw material. Their power thus exercised over agriculture was not unlimited but it was so
large, so continuous and so steadily and intelligently exerted that it gradually reduced agriculture to a subsidiary industry whose returns scarcely supported the farmer and his labor.
The Southern planter in the fifties was in a key position to attempt to break and arrest the
growth of this domination of all industry by trade and manufacture. But he was too lazy and
self-indulgent to do this and he would not apply his intelligence to the problem. His
capitalistic rivals of the North were hard-working, simple-living zealots devoting their whole
energy and intelligence to building up an industrial system. They quickly monopolized
transport and mines and factories and they were more than willing to include the big
plantations. But the planter wanted results without effort. He wanted large income without
corresponding investment and he insisted furiously upon a system of production which
excluded intelligent labor, machinery, and modern methods. He toyed with the idea of local
manufactures and ships and railroads. But this entailed too much work and sacrifice.
The result was that Northern and European industry set prices for Southern cotton, tobacco
and sugar which left a narrow margin of profit for the planter. He could retaliate only by
more ruthlessly exploiting his slave labor so as to get the largest crops at the least expense.
He was therefore not deliberately cruel to his slaves, but he had to raise cotton enough to
satisfy his pretensions and self-indulgence, even if it brutalized and commercialized his slave
Thus slavery was the economic lag of the 16th century carried over into the 19th century and
bringing by contrast and by friction moral lapses and political difficulties. It has been
estimated that the Southern states had in i860 three billion dollars invested in slaves, which
meant that slaves and land represented the mass of their capital. Being generally convinced
that Negroes could only labor as slaves, it was easy for them to become further persuaded
that slaves were better of! than white workers and that the South had a better labor system
than the North, with extraordinary possibilities in industrial and social development.
The argument went like this: raw material like cotton, tobacco, sugar, rice, together with
other foodstuffs formed the real wealth of the United States, and were produced by the
Southern states. These crops were sold all over the world and were in such demand that the
industry of Europe depended upon them. The trade with Europe must be kept open so that
the South might buy at the lowest prices such manufactured goods as she wanted, and she
must oppose all Northern attempts to exalt industry at the expense of agriculture.
The North might argue cogently that industry and manufacture could build up in the United
States a national economy. Writers on
economics began in Germany and America to elaborate and insist upon the advantages of
such a system; but the South would have none o£ it. It meant not only giving the North a new
industrial prosperity, but doing this at the expense of England and France; and the Southern
planters preferred Europe to Northern America. They not only preferred Europe for social
reasons and for economic advantages, but they sensed that the new power of monopolizing
and distributing capital through a national banking system, if permitted in the North in an
expanding industry, would make the North an even greater financial dictator of the South
than it was at the time.
The South voiced for the Southern farmer, in 1850, words almost identical with those of the
Western farmer, seventy-five years later. “All industry,” declared one Southerner, “is getting
legislative support against agriculture, and thus the profits are going to manufacture and
trade, and these concentrated in the North stand against the interests of the South.”
It could not, perhaps, be proven that the Southern planter, had he been educated in
economics and history, and had he known the essential trends of the modern world, could
have kept the Industrial Revolution from subordinating agriculture and reducing it to its
present vasssalage to manufacturing. But it is certain that an enlightened and far-seeing
agrarianism under the peculiar economic circumstances of the United States during the first
half of the nineteenth century could have essentially modified the economic trend of the
The South with free rich land and cheap labor had the monopoly of cotton, a material in
universal demand. If the leaders of the South, while keeping the consumer in mind, had
turned more thoughtfully to the problem of the American producer, and had guided the
production of cotton and food so as to take every advantage of new machinery and modern
methods in agriculture, they might have moved forward with manufacture and been able to
secure an approximately large amount of profit. But this would have involved yielding to the
demands of modern labor: opportunity for education, legal protection of women and children,
regulation of the hours of work, steadily increasing wages and the right to some voice in the
administration of the state if not in the conduct of industry.
The South had but one argument ‘against following modern civilization in this yielding to the
demand of laboring humanity: it insisted on the efficiency of Negro labor for ordinary toil and
on its essential equality in physical condition with the average labor of Europe and America.
But in order to maintain its income without sacrifice or exertion, the South fell back on a
doctrine of racial differences which it asserted made higher intelligence and increased
efficiency impossible for Negro labor. Wishing such an excuse for lazy indulgence, the planter easily found,
invented and proved it. His subservient religious leaders reverted to the “Curse of Canaan”;
his pseudo-scientists gathered and supplemented all available doctrines of race inferiority;
his scattered schools and pedantic periodicals repeated these legends, until for the average
planter born after 1840 it was impossible not to believe that all valid laws in psychology,
economics and politics stopped with the Negro race.
The espousal of the doctrine of Negro inferiority by the South was primarily because of
economic motives and the inter-connected political urge necessary to support slave industry;
but to the watching world it sounded like the carefully thought out result of experience and
reason; and because of this it was singularly disastrous for modern civilization in science and
religion, in art and government, as well as in industry. The South could say that the Negro,
even when brought into modern civilization, could not be civilized, and that, therefore, he and
the other colored peoples of the world were so far inferior to the whites that the white world
had a right to rule mankind for their own selfish interests.
Never in modern times has a large section of a nation so used its combined energies to the
degradation of mankind. The hurt to the Negro in this era was not only his treatment in
slavery; it was the wound dealt to his reputation as a human being. Nothing was left; nothing
was sacred; and while the best and more cultivated and more humane of the planters did not
themselves always repeat the calumny, they stood by, consenting by silence, while
blatherskites said things about Negroes too cruelly untrue to be the word of civilized men.
Not only then in the forties and fifties did the word Negro lose its capital letter, but African
history became the tale of degraded animals and sub-human savages, where no vestige of
human culture found foothold.
Thus a basis in reason, philanthropy and science was built up for Negro slavery. Judges on
the bench declared that Negro servitude was to last, “if the apocalypse be not in error, until
the end of time.” The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer of January 9, i860, said, “We can’t see for the
life of us how anyone understanding fully the great principle that unde…
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