Slavery is Upheld
It was Thomas Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who proposed a
plan that would have freed slaves born after a certain date and provided for
the removal of all blacks from the state. The plan to abolish slavery in
Virginia was defeated. In the face of the abolitionists' critiques from the
North and slave rebellion in the South, slaveholders rallied around the renewed
defense of their way of life. Dismissing Turner's rebellion as an aberration,
"The slaves," proclaimed one planter, "are as happy a laboring class as exists
on the habitable globe."
The south unified around slavery. Prior to the 1830s, many Southerners
depicted slavery as a necessary evil that would die out on its own accord. But
the cotton gin had rejuvenated the institution economically, and attacks on the
institution from outside united the region. Fearful of interference on the
part of the national government, Southerners urged that liberty, in this case
the freedom to own slaves, came before any commitment to Union.
Southern state legislators began to pass laws that forbade the teaching of
slaves how to read, limited their movements off of the plantation, and made
manumission more difficult. John C. Calhoun described this shift in attitudes.
"Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil.
That folly and delusion are gone," he proclaimed. "We see it now in its true
light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in
The Charleston Mercury summarized the lesson learned from decades of conflict:
"On the subject of slavery, the North and South are not only two peoples, they
are rival, hostile peoples." Those peoples first met in battle on the frontier
in the 1850s. In Kansas, a territory north of the line created by the
Missouri Compromise, blood was shed, and warfare over the status of the
nation's soil, slave or free, had begun.
Slavery and Art
The images of the era capture the complexities of slave life. Cartoons that
circulated on both sides of the Atlantic illustrated the arguments made by
pro-slavery advocates. Slaves are depicted as happy and contented, while free
wage earners are portrayed as miserable and impoverished. "What wretched
slaves this factory life makes me and my children," laments one sickly
But daguerreotypes of actual slaves gave lie to the myth of robust, joyful
bondsmen. These images, taken in 1850, were meant to support racial theories
of a separate creation. And while the fact of their existence demonstrates the
power of the master over the bodies of the enslaved, the gaze and posture of
these men and women suggests endurance and shared humanity.
Some artists recorded the absolute authority possessed by the master. "An American Slave Market" shows the sale of a runaway slave named George. He's
surrounded by loved ones, but the well-dressed buyers tower over the slaves.
Another painting depicts women and children being inspected and auctioned off
as families are broken apart. Those slaves sold at market were often swept
South. Lewis Miller, a Pennsylvania craftsman, happened upon a trader marching
a group of slaves from Virginia to Tennessee. He wrote down the words of the
song that they sang. "Arise, arise and weep no more. Dry up your tears. We
shall part no more."
But part they did, sometimes by running away, sometimes by being sold away, and
eventually by dying. John Antrobus, a Southerner who supported the
Confederacy, painted this scene of a plantation burial: "In the woods, the
slaves could come together and worship in their own way, could share in their
travails as a community." Here the enslaved are at the visual center of the
painting, while a white couple, the owners perhaps, stand in the shadows on the
periphery, and observe this heartfelt, human scene.
In the end, those who could rode to liberty as a family. Eastman Johnson, a
well-known portrait painter, captured such a moment during the Civil War, when
a father, mother, child, and baby took advantage of the chaos of battle -- the
glint of bayonets shine in the distance -- and delivered themselves to a new life.