Could Slavery Have Died a Peaceful Death?

American slavery 1860, from

American slavery 1860, from

Civil Discourse encourages guest submissions from academic and popular historians alike.  Today's guest author is Nathan Johnson.  Nathan is a master's student in history at North Carolina State University.

On January 31, 1865, the United States Congress narrowly passed an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery; that this was accomplished thanks to the American Civil War is undeniable. That destroying slavery became a primary goal of the Civil War, however, was not initially expected. Many northerners were extremely reluctant to abolish the institution. Only through the actions of enslaved men and women, a small group of abolitionists, and the interaction of U.S. soldiers with the brutal institution was the North compelled to focus on slavery. Which begs the question: Could slavery have been abolished without the Civil War?

Some might say, of course it could. Slavery was already on its way out in the United States and, with time, might have died naturally. How possible is that scenario, though? Slavery was much healthier in 1860 than some believe today. Spread across fifteen states (and the District of Columbia), involving more than 4 million people, and creating great wealth for enslavers, the institution was very entrenched—and so valuable that eleven states seceded from the United States to protect it.

Yet slavery was retreating across the nation, starting in the northeast and eventually, perhaps, the South. However, biology and geography explain this historical trend. Enslavement was never widespread in the North, not because northerners were more moral, but geography dictated that they did not need as many African workers. Malaria, which did not exist in the Americas before 1492, thrives where mosquitoes do--south of the Mason-Dixon line. Africans have a greater resistance to malaria and could survive the disease better than Europeans. That enslavement did not last in the North just means that black slaves were not ecologically necessary (and consequently, it was easier to jettison the practice when the revolutionary ideas of equality appeared in 1776).

Holding enslaved people was capitalistic and economical. An enslaved person was more than a worker, they were an investment. Many enslavers purchased slaves to grow their wealth, own collateral for borrowing, or profit from “breeding.” By the 1850s, Deep South slavers complained that Upper South states were becoming “breeder states,” where slave owners purchased female slaves to breed them and then sell the children. However repugnant, the practice was economical. Although the price of a slave by 1860 was around $800—which is $260,000 in 2011 dollars—this was still less than the cost of a paid worker. Remember, you only have to pay for a slave once. A wage earner is paid for every day he works. Slaves are cheaper than wage earners. Moreover, there was the tremendous (titanic is better) amount of money invested in enslaving humans. In 1860, the value of slaves was $2.5 billion, more than the value of all the land in the South! No wonder they started a war to protect it.

The Atlantic world offers good evidence of the state of slavery in the mid-19th century. Slavery was on its way out across the world. French Haiti destroyed slavery in 1789. Mexico and all of Spain’s American holdings ended the practice during the 1820s and 1830s. Russian Czar Nicholas I declared an end to serfdom in 1861, the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, and Brazil ended the enslavement of Africans in 1888. However, the particulars of all these cases show just how slavery could have lasted decades longer in the United States. Haitians destroyed slavery through the exact same practice as the United States: by the killing of many white people. Mexico (as did all of Spanish South America) fought a long and often brutal war of independence against Spain and brought in enslaved people as allies, promising them freedom. Unlike American leaders the Russian Czar was accountable to no polity. The British ended slavery only in their imperial holdings; slavery did not exist in the homeland, and the British kept its exploitative empire through two world wars. Finally, Brazil abolished slavery when it had a population which was more than 70% black. As a majority, slaves and their descendants had more power over their overseers in Brazil than at any point in United States’ history.

The defenses of slavery were also powerfully entrenched. Though the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal,” the Constitution implicitly protected slavery in the Three-Fifths Compromise. Moral arguments abounded: Africans are “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” declared Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857. A year earlier, Colonel Robert Lee wrote, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare them & lead them in better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” While Lee did hint at gradual emancipation, this concept was as old as the United States and embedded in defense of white supremacist ideas which underpinned American slavery.

The unfinished Capitol dome during the war. 

The unfinished Capitol dome during the war. 

The idea that America’s Congress could have peacefully ended slavery is hard to believe. Care to take a peek at the insanity in Congress? Let’s start with railroads. In 1848, Congress started discussion of a bill to create a transcontinental railroad. Only in 1862 was the bill passed—not because building the railroad was so difficult (though it was) but because of sectional politics. The debate over the railroad route immediately broke down into a North–South divide. Each section demanded it get the route, and then, the matter exploded in 1856 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which brought the issue of slavery into the mix. The bill only passed because half the country left during the Civil War, leaving only one section in Congress. But railroads are just an extreme example. Congress in the 1850s also failed to deal with issues such as western settlement, Kansas’ statehood and constitution, college land grants, and the future legal status of the territories.

For even more craziness, look at politics during the Civil War. When President Lincoln asked Congress to end slavery in Delaware in 1862, he ran into a roadblock. Delaware, with fewer than 2,000 slaves, seemed an excellent case for compensated emancipation. It would not have been overly expensive (the war itself cost $2.5 million a day), and Delaware had chosen to stay in the Union after 1861. This could have offered a potential way to end the Civil War and safely abolish slavery. Yet, even here, Congress and the Delaware slave owners balked. Neither was willing to agree. Congressmen (almost none of whom were slave owners) would not agree to purchase the slaves and Delaware slave owners would not agree to sell slaves.

If Congress could not agree on a major railroad (which was a win-win) or abolishing slavery in a small state (another potential win-win for the Union), then how could it ever pass any bill abolishing slavery in the whole country?

But did ending slavery require a war? Bloodshed is a common catalyst of major societal change. The Revolutionary War marked the death of monarchical ideas and the Civil War the doom of both secession and slavery. Black Americans did not get the right to vote until after serving in the military (1869); the same is true of American Indians (1924: Indians, unlike blacks were not considered citizens and were therefore not subject to the 15th Amendment). America’s Civil War lasted for four years, and it took two years for slavery’s destruction to become a primary goal. Slavery in Haiti only ceased to exist during a huge war which killed tens of thousands. Abraham Lincoln offered an eloquent argument for the necessity of a war to end slavery:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Alabama Governor George Wallace stands in front of a Confederate battle flag.

Alabama Governor George Wallace stands in front of a Confederate battle flag.

Yet despite the bloodshed and amendments white supremacy dominated much of the United States after the Civil War. Could the United States have turned into a pariah which practiced and accepted slavery? Or was secession inevitable because it contrasted with the bedrock ideals of the Declaration of Independence? War, occupation, Reconstruction, and generations of black activism failed to fully enfranchise African-Americans throughout the United States. Looking at the nation in the 1960s, I think it is no small thing to say that, without the Civil War, the abolition of slavery would have taken decades or even a century, possibly even longer. If a governor of Alabama could fly the Confederate flag behind him during a speech a full century after the civil war, perhaps slavery could have lived into the 20th century in America.

Sources & Further Reading:

Potter, David. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861.

Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansionism and the Creation of the Deep South.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Williamson, Samuel. Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars.”

Nathan Johnson is a graduate student in Public History at NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina. With a focus on monuments and memorials, he is interested in how memory affects history, especially in relation to the Civil War. He has been involved in digital history since 2011 with his history blog.