Early National Systems. Slavery and Its American Social Constructs: part 2.

By the time Joseph Smith moved from Vermont to New York, ca. 1816, there were 8.5 million people in the US. Of those 8.5 million, 1.5 million or so were part of a hereditary slavery system, the property of their white male owners (a few were held by Native Americans).

At the time, few people outside the plantation oligarchy (and their religious and political orbits) in the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia) attempted to justify slavery on principle. The larger public opinion saw the “peculiar institution” as an affront to Christian rule and popular natural rights theories that fired the Declaration of Independence, and so forth. What was the barrier to general emancipation then? Fear. Fear that freeing African American slaves would threaten white hegemony. Fear of organized backlash against the slave holding class and whites in general. In 1816, there were more people in the New World of African descent than European. And looming as large as any of these, fear of racial mixing. And slaves were property. Emancipation then required compensation of owners. Who wanted to be taxed to enable governments to reimburse slave owners? Very few indeed.

The 1787 United States constitution made the individual states regulators of slavery within their respective boundaries. State economies largely dictated their responses to the institution in the beginning. The New England colonies had little use for gang labor crops—the agricultural imperative of the South—and those colonies abolished slavery during the revolution, along with Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress prohibited slavery in the Old Northwest and consequently Ohio was admitted in 1803 as a free state. New York was more gradual in its shedding of slavery. In 1810, it yet had thousands of slaves. A year after Joseph Smith came to the state, (1817) the New York legislature voted that in ten years, on July 4, 1827, all slaves in the state would be freed without compensation to masters. Slaves had varying value of course. Young robust field hands might bring $800.00 at auction. “Breeding females,” as young slave women were called, were highly valued, especially after the 1807 congressional ban on slave importation. Unscrupulous masters in New York sold slaves out of state before the deadline (something prohibited by statute) to regain their capital investment. Others were kidnapped for profit. Moreover, congress permitted slaves to be imported from states to the Louisiana Purchase to be put to work in dreadful backbreaking sugarcane agriculture.

Economies of slave holding were not the only motivation for freeing slaves. Ideology played an important role. White men found “unalienable” rights to apply to blacks and a guilty conscience worked hard in many. Slave holding in cities became problematic for many reasons. First because of the practical issue of escape. Slaves could disappear into the mass of urban life and it was rarely the case that slaves could be occupied every waking hour. That meant educational and religious opportunities, things that tended to put the wish for freedom and entrepreneurship in the hearts of many.

Slaves had largely converted to Christianity during the Great Awakening. That conversion sometimes worked to pacify an individual slave, but it might also inspire rebellion against masters.

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