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Slavery Divides the North and South

[Picture of Professor Masur]

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 and deeper."

Two Economies

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.

[Picture of a slave plantation]

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.

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