Slavery Divides the North and South
Masur: In the 1850s, Frederic Law Olmsted, a 28-year-old farmer and
landscaper, journeyed from New York through the South. He would become best
known for his work at Central Park, but at the time, his reputation rested on
his writings. In a series of letters to The New York Times, he described the differences between the two regions. Southern society, he thought, was agricultural, hierarchical, and mainly static. Northern society, by comparison, was industrial, meritocratic, and dynamic. The glaring difference, of course, was free labor vs. slave labor.
Olmsted could not comprehend slavery. In Louisiana he interviewed a slave, and
he asked him what would he do if he were free. And the slave responded that he
would work, save money, buy a house and land, and he would visit his mother
back in Virginia. Slaves, too, had dreams, and in Olmsted's telling, this
particular slave's dream fit with those of most Americans. Olmsted asked how
was it possible that slaveholders could handle simply as property a creature
possessing human passions and feelings.
Well, if Northerners critiqued Southern society, Southerners also had plenty to
say about Northern society. George Fitzhugh, a self-taught Virginian,
published several books during the 1850s. Northern society, he said, was a
failure. Wage labor was far more exploitative than slave labor. Free
laborers, he claimed, have not a thousandth part of the rights and liberties of
Negro slaves. Northern workers, he thought, were slaves without masters,
subject to the moral cannibalism of capitalists.
Well these tensions between North and South percolated through the years and
they reached one climax as early as 1819 when, Missouri petitioned to enter the
Union. If that occurred, the slave states would outnumber the free states 12
to 11. Slavery would inch northward into a region occupied by the free states
of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
A volatile argument over the admission of Missouri as a slave state ensued. A
New York legislator proposed an amendment that would ban slavery altogether,
and Southerners in response threatened to dissolve the Union.
A compromise was finally reached when Missouri joined the union as a slave
state, Maine entered as a free state, and a line along Missouri's southern
border, the 36° 30" line, forbade slavery north of the area. Jefferson, in
retirement, watched the proceedings, and he commented on this geographic line.
He said that "such a line coinciding with a marked principle moral and
political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never
be abolished. And every new irritation," he predicted, "will mark it deeper
Northerners and Southerners saw themselves as rival, antagonistic, incompatible
sections. But in fact, culturally and commercially they shared a great deal.
Southerners enjoyed great upward mobility, struggling to get ahead just as
Northerners did. They were a migratory people, just as Northerners were,
moving west in search of land and opportunity. And the South also engaged in
commercial development, committing themselves early on to railroads, turnpikes,
even state banks to promote the development of the region.
There were many, many links between North and South, particularly economic
ones. Northern merchants were the ones who extended credit to Southern
planters. It was Northern ships that got crops to market. And the
Southerners, relying on an export economy, basically bought Northern goods and
supplied themselves with their needs. For all the talk of Southern
backwardness, if we were to consider the South apart from the United States, it
would have ranked 4th in the world economy at the time, behind only the
Northeast, Great Britain, and Australia.
But the differences, real or perceived, overwhelmed the affinities. The
Southern economy lagged behind that of the North. The production of
manufactured goods was largely centered in the Northern region. The percentage
of the labor force in agriculture was increasing in the South, whereas it was
decreasing in the North. And the free states were urbanizing and modernizing
far more rapidly than the slave states. The Southern economy may have been
growing, but it wasn't developing.