American Racial Attitudes Before the Civil War

Southerners were all slave-owning racists. Northerners believed in racial equality.

This is the lens through which Americans view American history up to the Civil War. The war itself, cast in this light, takes on a moral tinge, as morally superior Northerners are seen to have brought retribution and enlightenment to benighted, bigoted Southerners.

But are these portrayals correct?

The assumptions about the racial attitudes of the North and the South are seldom scrutinized because, on the surface, they appear to be obviously true. By the time the war broke out, slavery was nearly extinct in the North while large portions of the South continued to rely on slave labor. However, the real history of American attitudes towards race and equality is more complicated than it first appears to be.

Southern Abolitionists

When considering the American anti-slavery movement, modern Americans think exclusively of Northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, and not without reason. Garrison and his fellow abolitionists were true American heroes, men and women who had the courage to stand on principle when they knew that most people in the country would not stand with them. In the words of abolitionist Elihu Embree, they endeavored to “Do good because it is good, not because men will call it so.”

Embree was a character that many Americans assume could not have existed – a southern abolitionist. But while they are mostly forgotten today, not only were there abolitionists in the South, Southerners were at the vanguard of abolitionism in the years following the American Revolution. Many Southerners were working to end slavery in the South at the same time the northern states were beginning the process of ending slavery there.

In a 1948 article in Phylon, William M. Boyd explored the early abolitionist activity in the South, noting that “Anti-slavery workers appeared early in Tennessee” and that abolitionist sentiment was evident in Kentucky as early as 1792. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson penned a law banning the importation of slaves in 1787 and a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery was introduced to the legislature of Virginia by St. George Tucker in 1796.

In the second decade of the 1800s, Embree, a Tennessean, became an important figure in the early abolitionist movement. His belief in “universal and equal liberty” was a more radical opinion that most Northerners were willing to commit to, even at the time of the Civil War. In 1817, he worked to submit a memorial to the Tennessee state legislature with the stated goal being the “amelioration of the condition of persons in bondage” based upon the principle that God had made all men equal. By 1819, Embree had founded in Jonesboro, Tennesse the first American newspaper dedicated solely to abolitionism.

Embree publicly labeled slave owners “monsters in human shape,” and was such an effective abolitionist that by the time of his untimely death in 1820, he had fostered the abolitionist spirit in Tennessee to the point that, according to Boyd, “societies of respectable citizens (had) arisen to plead (its)…case.”

Some southern abolitionists were even responsible for transplanting abolitionism to the North. Many of the abolitionists in southern Ohio were southern emigrants who moved north. Boyd concluded that, “The anti-slavery sentiment in the North was in some respects not as strong as in the South between 1800-1830” and that “the groundwork for the lively anti-slavery era after 1831 was, to a large extent, laid in the South…”

Ironically, the inflammatory rhetoric of northern abolitionists towards the South undid much of the work accomplished by southern abolitionists. This led Bostonian William Ellery Channing to conclude that Northern abolitionists’ “influence in the South has been wholly evil. It has stirred up bitter passions and a fierce fanaticism, which have shut every ear and heart against its arguments and persuasions.”

This, combined with the political power of southern slaveholders and the uncertainty of how to integrate the races, meant that by the time of the Civil War abolitionism in the South had regrettably declined in both activity and influence.

Northern Racists

Much has been written of southern opinions on race before (and after) the Civil War, but what is less commonly investigated is the degree to which Northerners differed in their own racial attitudes. In relation to the war, this is an important question because Northerners’ attitudes on race go a long way towards determining the veracity of the claim that racial equality was a primary northern war aim.

In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel observes that there was virtually no difference in the racial attitudes of northern whites compared to southern whites. Hummel writes that “both practiced safe white supremacy, the black minority being either enslaved (in the South) or legally discriminated against (in the North).”

While northern racism is an often-neglected topic, there is plenty of evidence that it existed. The most startling example of it comes from an unexpected source – Abraham Lincoln. Forced to rebut the accusation that he believed in racial equality during a debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln responded,

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

This quote, once swept under the rug and forgotten, has been recently resurrected to an almost embarrassing degree in order to paint Lincoln as some sort of uniquely grotesque monster. But while Lincoln was clearly not the crusader for equal rights that the official history tells us he was, his opinion, as expressed in this quote, represents the mainstream Northern views on race at the time. Lincoln, ever the politician, was always careful to not appear to be too radical, so his opinions tells us more about the dominant racial climate than it does about him.

At the time most Northerners believed in the superiority of whites as a race. Free blacks were excluded from many facets of northern society and several states, particularly those in the Midwest and Northwest, prohibited any black person, slave or free, from entering.

In The Real Lincoln, Tom DiLorenzo cites Indiana as an example of the terrible legal oppression Northern blacks faced. DiLorenzo notes that free blacks and those of mixed ethnicity were forbidden from voting, from testifying in court against whites, from holding political offices and from marrying whites, an act which was punishable by a ten-year prison term and a fine of up to $5,000. Black children were forbidden from attending public schools because, in the opinion of an Indiana court, “black children were deemed unfit associates of whites, as school companions.” Any contract with a black person was “null and void.”

Furthermore, any white person who encouraged blacks to enter the state or to intermarry with whites was subject to fines of up to $1,000. And Indiana was no outlier. DiLorenzo observes, “Such discriminatory laws were common in virtually every Northern state as of 1860.”

Historian Douglas Harper has summarized the legal oppression that northern blacks endured, writing,

“When the Civil War ended, 19 of 24 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote. Nowhere did they serve on juries before 1860. They could not give testimony in 10 states, and were prevented from assembling in two. Several western states had prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Blacks who entered Illinois and stayed more than 10 days were guilty of ‘high misdemeanor.’ Even those that didn’t exclude blacks debated doing so and had discriminatory ordinances on the local level.”

Northerners Against Slavery – and Abolitionism

Despite these attitudes, most Northerners were against slavery inasmuch as they believed that it was morally wrong. But we interpret their opinions incorrectly if we believe that their opposition to slavery was based solely in altruism and resulted in support for abolition.

We can’t understand northern anti-slavery motives without understanding the political landscape of the time. While Northerners (and many Southerners) believed that slavery was wrong, that didn’t necessarily translate into a belief in immediate emancipation. In fact, for most it didn’t. Northerners were largely content to allow slavery to continue where it already existed. But they were opposed to Southerners moving into recently-acquired Western territories and bringing slaves with them.

This is where Northerners drew the line. In so doing they found, in Hummel’s words, “an anti-slavery position that could be made consistent with Negrophobia. Keeping slaves out of the territories was an excellent way to keep blacks out altogether.”

There were also political benefits in this position to the North. Hummel writes that “Blocking slavery’s spread would contain the South’s political influence. So long as abolitionists had talked about the welfare of blacks, their message had limited appeal among northern whites. But when abolitionists directed their attacks at the ominous sounding Slave Power, Northerners paid more attention.”

In an 1854 speech Lincoln himself elaborated on why Northerners opposed slavery’s extension into the West. He said, “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them.”

Northerners were against slavery, then, not so much for the benefit of blacks, but for the advantage of whites. Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Lincoln’s Illinois, proudly stated that “we…are the white man’s party.” Historian Eugene Berwanger writes that during the election of 1860 “Republicans made no pretense of being concerned with the fate of the Negro and insisted that theirs was a party of white labor.”

This explains some Northerners’ attitudes towards abolitionists who, Hummel writes, “were the…targets of northern violence, often instigated and directed by gentlemen of prominence and high rank.” By the time war broke out abolitionists were receiving a warmer welcome throughout the North, although the majority of Northerners were still unwilling to make blacks equal to whites.

As we think about northern motives for the Civil War, we must consider that the majority of Northerners were not battling the South to bring about racial equality or even the end of slavery. Nothing in mainstream northern culture suggests this would have been the case. For many Northerners, the war seems to have been about something else – perhaps something as mundane as political power.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.