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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.

[Picture of John C. Calhoun]

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 world."

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 worker.

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.

[Picture Johnson's 'Ride for Liberty']

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.

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