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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Nevertheless they did not uproot it


The

next factor to be noticed was that to which Jefferson referred in the passage quoted above--the constant dread of a Negro rising. Such a rising actually took place in Virginia in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. It was a small affair, but the ghastly massacre of whites which accompanied it was suggestive of the horrors that might be in store for the South in the event of a more general movement among the slaves. The debates which this crisis produced in the Virginian legislature are of remarkable interest. They show how strong the feeling against Slavery as an institution still was in the greatest of Slave States. Speaker after speaker described it as a curse, as a permanent peril, as a "upas tree" which must be uprooted before the State could know peace and security. Nevertheless they did not uproot it. And from the moment of their refusal to uproot it or even to make a beginning of uprooting it they found themselves committed to the opposite policy which could only lead to its perpetuation. From the panic of that moment date the generality of the Slave Codes which so many of the Southern States adopted--codes deliberately framed to prevent any improvement in the condition of the slave population and to make impossible even their peaceful and voluntary emancipation.

There was yet another factor, the economic one, which to most modern writers, starting from the basis of historical materialism, has necessarily seemed the chief of all.

It was really, I think, subsidiary, but it was present, and it certainly helped to intensify the evil. It consisted in the increased profitableness of Slavery, due, on the one hand, to the invention in America of Whitney's machine for extracting cotton, and, on the other, to the industrial revolution in England, and the consequent creation in Lancashire of a huge and expanding market for the products of American slave labour. This had a double effect. It not only strengthened Slavery, but also worsened its character. In place of the generally mild and paternal rule of the old gentlemen-planters came in many parts of the South a brutally commercial _regime_, which exploited and used up the Negro for mere profit. It was said that in this further degradation of Slavery the agents were often men from the commercial North; nor can this be pronounced a mere sectional slander in view of the testimony of two such remarkable witnesses as Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Beecher Stowe.

All these things tended to establish the institution of Slavery in the Southern States. Another factor which, whatever its other effects, certainly consolidated Southern opinion in its defence, was to be found in the activities of the Northern Abolitionists.

In the early days of the Republic Abolition Societies had existed mainly, if not exclusively, in the South. This was only natural, for, Slavery having disappeared from the Northern States, there was no obvious motive for agitating or discussing its merits, while south of the Mason-Dixon line the question was still a practical one. The Southern Abolitionists do not appear to have been particularly unpopular with their fellow-citizens. They are perhaps regarded as something of cranks, but as well-meaning cranks whose object was almost everywhere admitted to be theoretically desirable. At any rate, there is not the suspicion of any attempt to suppress them; indeed, the very year before the first number of the _Liberator_ was published in Boston, a great Conference of Anti-Slavery Societies, comprising delegates from every part of the South, met at Baltimore, the capital city of the Slave State of Maryland.


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