The Antebellum Conundrum: How to End Slavery

By the outbreak of the Civil War, most Americans had come to the realization that slavery was an inherently immoral institution. This was true not only of Northerners, but also of many in the South. As obvious as this conclusion should have been, the incompatibility of slavery with Christianity and natural rights was, at that point, a fairly recent development in world history.

But the belief that slavery was morally wrong did not lead to an easy answer about how to end it. Economist Thomas Sowell has written that “By the time the existence of slavery became an issue in the Western world, the question was no longer whether such an institution should have been created in the first place, but what to do, now that both the institution and millions of people brought from Africa by that institution were already inside Western societies…”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery had existed in America for two centuries and, as a result, it had become embedded in many facets of American life. Ending slavery, while obviously the moral choice, presented a plethora of difficult questions, none of which seemed to have an easy answer.

Even Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this difficulty. In an 1854 speech, he said, “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”

Lincoln believed that most Americans understood slavery to be morally wrong. He was joined in this opinion by Southerners like Confederate general Robert E. Lee, a slaveowner who nevertheless wrote of his belief that “There are few…in this enlightened age who will not acknowledge that slavery is a moral and political evil.”

Not everyone held this opinion. Some southern slaveholders went to ridiculous lengths to dehumanize their victims in an attempt to justify their ownership of other human beings. Virginian George Fitzhugh, for instance, embraced slavery as a natural part of society. Henry Hammond, a Senator from South Carolina, made the incredible statement that “In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties…” and that “fortunately…(the South) has found a race adapted to that purpose…”

In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel remarks that, despite these callous opinions, “Many Southerners held back from this proslavery extreme, especially in the northern tier of slave states, where the peculiar institution was less entrenched and the ‘positive good’ argument never won universal acceptance.”

Still, although the immorality of slavery was apparent to the majority of Americans, what should be done about it was not. Only abolitionists advocated immediate emancipation, but in this they were a vast minority. Many in the South feared the eruption of a race war should the slaves be freed en masse. Many Northerners wanted to keep their societies white and feared that an influx of free black labor would adversely effect the employment prospects of white laborers. These overwrought fears deterred people who knew that slavery was wrong from advocating its immediate end.

Lincoln was himself befuddled about the solution to slavery. In a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858 He said,

“I surely will not blame (Southerners) for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution (slavery). My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, – to their own native land… (But) free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this…”

Lincoln’s belief that slaves should be sent “to their own native land” was informed by his association with the American Colonization Society, a group dedicated to ending slavery in the United States by freeing the slaves and then transporting them to Africa. To this end the organization helped to create what would become the country of Liberia, the would-be destination of the emancipated slaves.

Lincoln’s mentor, Henry Clay, was once president of the Society and Lincoln believed that the successful colonization of freed slaves would be Clay’s greatest legacy. Lincoln and other Northerners wanted to both end slavery and create a purely white society. The colonization scheme, not unconditional emancipation, was their plan to achieve these goals.

Southerners, who benefited from slavery, were more willing to take a long-term view of the problem. Many held the belief that although slavery was immoral, it was up to God to put and end to it. In this way Southerners could both disagree with slavery in principle and still not actively work to abolish it. Lee held this opinion, placing his belief in the expectation that slavery would end at a time “known and ordered by a merciful Providence.”

And so, on the momentous issue of what to do about slavery, most Americans, North and South, had no real solutions and only a small minority advocated the immediate, uncompensated emancipation of all slaves. A century and a half later we look back on our ancestors in amazement that they did not all reach this conclusion.

Sowell, in attempting to explain what took them so long, has observed that it is easy for moderners to look back on the past and pass judgment. He writes,

“Today, slavery is too often discussed as an abstract question with an easy answer, leading to sweeping condemnations of those who did not reach that easy answer in their own time. In nineteenth-century America, especially, there was no alternative that was not traumatic… Many problems can be made simple, but only by leaving out the complications which those in the midst of these problems cannot so easily escape with a turn of a phrase, as those who look back on them in later centuries can.”

Sowell’s point is worth considering, especially in the light of the full world history of slavery. In that context, it is amazing that an inhuman institution that had persisted for millennia was snuffed out across much of the world in the relatively short span of 100 years. In doing this, the societies that ended slavery had to confront and resolve issues that their progenitors never did.

But ultimately we cannot absolve Northerners or Southerners for their positions on slavery. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the immoral injustice of slavery was obvious, and yet the majority of Americans were still content to dodge the issue.

In relation to the Civil War, neither Northerners’ racial attitudes nor their attitudes towards slavery suggest that ending slavery was a primary motivation for the war that eventually came. The image of Northerners crusading for freedom and equality in the Civil War is belied by their opinions on race and slavery before it.

Ultimately, it would take something other than slavery to galvanize public opinion in favor of war.

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