Wednesday, January 21, 2009

USH6: An Uncivil War

The objections to slavery in this country go a long way back. The abolutionist movement in the United States had its start with a society that was formed mainly by Quakers of Philadelphia in 1775. That same year, Thomas Paine wrote an article on "African Slavery in America", which advocated freeing the slaves and abolishing slavery. By 1790, the Pennsylvania Quakers and Benjamin Franklin, who disagreed with them on most matters of war and state, were petitioning Congress together to end slavery.

As I mentioned in my last posts, one of the ongoing tensions as the US expanded was the issue of slave states vs. free states. The war with Mexico was seen by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and James Russell Lowell, as well as iconoclast Henry David Thoreau, as a ploy to extend and spread slavery.

But it wasn't just the abolitionists that opposed slavery. The slaves themselves didn't like it much. Resistance to slavery took the forms of revolting and running away.

There were numerous slave uprisings: a thousand slaves attempted an assault on Richmond, VA, in 1800; 400-500 slaves revolted in New Orleans in 1811; and hundreds of blacks were involved in a plot to burn the city of Charleston, SC, in 1822 (details aren't clear on this one because court records were destroyed, lest other slaves get ideas). The most famous of the slave uprisings was in 1831 when Nat Turner and seventy other slaves went on a rampage in Southampton, VA, killing fifty-five white folks--men, women, and children--and sending fear throughout the South.

As far as running off, one of the main avenues for the slaves to escape was the Underground Railroad, a network of houses (known as 'stations') willing to hide runaway slaves and people who led them from house to house by night (known as 'conductors). The most famous of the conductors was Harriet Tubman, who escorted over 300 slaves north to freedom. Slavery was fought by the abolitionists of the north and those slaves who could get free in the south, but the southern slave holders weren't about to give it up.

When California requested admission to the US in 1849 (as a free state) it set off a chain of events that culminated in the 'Compromise of 1850', a series of bills which admitted California, made provisions for Texas, New Mexico, and Utah, and contained the 'Fugitive Slave Act'--an act that offered federal help in retrieving slaves. This last act infuriated the abolitionists. Now no escaped slave was ever safe. Several attempts by federal marshalls to recapture slaves were thwarted by mobs that overwhelmed the marshalls or broke into prisons and helped the ex-slaves make it to Canada. The southern states were outraged by this, but Canada refused to return the slaves.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, was inspired by the indignities of the Fugitive Slave Act. This novel, filled with descriptions of the horrors of slavery, had an influence almost as big as Thomas Paine's Common Sense. It galvanized and polarized the nation. Lincoln reportedly credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with some responsibility for starting the Civil War.

Another major step to the war was the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857, which basically said that slaves had no rights at all, they were just a piece of property belonging to the slaveowner. This further upset the anti-slavery people in the North, and made them determined to end slavery. On the other hand, when John Brown, a militant (and some would say fanatic) abolitionist and fifteen others, white and black, attacked and occupied the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA, with the intention of starting an uprising of the slaves, it inspired fear throughout the South. And when northerners expressed grudging admiration for the audacity of the scheme, southerners felt there was no place for them in the Union.

The last straw was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Scared that he and the Republican party would make them free the slaves, and that the banks of the North, who dictated the prices of the crops of the South, could force plantation owners into a situation where they would be the slaves, several southern states, beginning with South Carolina, announced they would secede from the Union. The Civil War had begun.

It lasted four years, from April, 1861, to April, 1865. Over 600,000 soldiers died in the war. In fact more soldiers died in some of the battles than were killed in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Generals that worked together to battle the Mexicans in the last war were now leading the attacks against each other. It tore the country apart. Ironically, just over a week after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at Ford's theatre.

Lincoln is touted as a 'great man' and it appears that he had some pretty good qualities, but reading the historical record makes it clear that he didn't free the slaves until it was politically expedient. In fact, in one of this election speeches he claimed that "...I am not... in favor of ... the social and political equality of the white and black races..."

Political expediency also defined the period after the war and Lincoln's assassination, an era called Reconstruction. Yes, black people made progress during this time. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, abolished slavery, promoted racial equality, and gave black men the right to vote. And they not only voted, they ran for office, getting elected to state legislatures, as well as Congress. But often, it seemed, the intent of some of the reforms was less to advance equality and more to punish the South and to assert the political superiority of the northern states.

A couple of terms that I heard of before but didn't know what they meant: 'Carpetbaggers' were northern whites who went south and ran for office, using black votes to get in office; and 'Scalawags' were white, southern-born Republicans, viewed as traitors to their region and race. And, unfortunately, black political power was short-lived. Although there were two black US senators and twenty black representatives in the 1870s, by 1902, they were all gone.

Howard Zinn talks about what he calls 'The Other Civil War' that was also going on at the time, class struggles of the nineteenth century that are left out of most history books: the 'Anti-Renter' movement in New York state during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s; the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island in the 1840s which struggled against state laws that said only land owners could vote; early attempts to build trade unions; the Riot of 1835 in Baltimore when the Bank of Maryland collapses and depositers felt fraud had taken place; the New York City Flour Riot of 1837; strikes by women mill workers; the shoeworkers strike of 1860 that started in Lynn, MA, and spread throughout New England; strikes that occurred throughout the Civil War period, including one spate of labor uprisings that a newspaper of the times referred to as "The Revolution in New York". Union troops were used for strike breaking. They were also used (fresh from the battle at Gettysburg) to quell an anti-recruiting riot in New York City in 1863 that may have led to as many as four hundred people being killed, many of them black (this was a riot by poor and working-class whites against both the rich and against black folks who they thought were taking their jobs). There is a lot more but I've already written a lot more than I intended to. Read A People's History of the United States for more detail.

Quote of the Day: "...though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask of you in return? ... we ask you now for our RIGHTS...." - Henry MacNeal Turner

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Wikipedia, various articles (mainly one on Abolitionism )
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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