We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor.
HIt is surely certain - as certain as one can be about any historical events - that the fall of New World slavery could not have occurred if there had been no abolitionist movements. We can thus end on a positive note of willed achievement, a century’s moral achievement that may have no parallel. It is an achievement, despite its many limitations, that should help inspire some confidence in other movements for social change, for not being condemned to fully accept the world into which we are born.
The subject of British abolitionism has long been controversial, complex, and even baffling. It also raises the issue of moral progress in history - whether groups of reformers and even nations can succeed in eliminating deeply entrenched forms of human oppression, and if so, by what methods, misconceptions, and under what conditions?
What matters is that Southern slaves, at least on the larger plantations, created their own African American culture, which helped to preserve some of the more crucial areas of life and thought from white control or domination without significantly reducing the productivity and profitability of slave labor. Living within this African American culture, sustained by strong community ties, many slaves were able to maintain a certain sense of apartness, of pride, and of independent identity.
What matters is that Southern slaves, at least on the larger plantations, created their own AfricanAmerican culture, which helped to preserve some of the more crucial areas of life and thought from white control or domination without significantlyreducing the productivity and profitability of slave labor. Living within this African American culture, sustained by strong community ties, many slaves were able to maintain a certain sense of apartness, of pride, and of independent identity.
Much as slavery in the United States was part of a larger Atlantic Slave System, so America’s War of Independence was an outgrowth of Europe’s Seven Years’ War — from 1756 to 1763 — and also a precursor or harbinger of the French and Haitian revolutions and of the subsequent Latin American wars for independence from Spain.
It was the mission of the Confederacy, ordinary whites were told, to carry out God’s design for an inferior and dependent race. Slaveholders claimed that owning slaves always entailed a duty and a burden — a duty and burden that defined the moral superiority of the South. And this duty and burden was respected by millions of nonslaveholding whites, who were prepared to defend it with their lives. That, perhaps, was the ultimate meaning of a “slave society.
Some Southerners effectively applied slave labor to the cultivation of corn, grain, and hemp (for making rope and twine), to mining and lumbering, to building canals and railroads, and even to the manufacture of textiles, iron, and other industrial products. Nevertheless, no other American region contained so many white farmers who merely subsisted on their own produce. The “typical” white Southerner was not a slaveholding planter but a small farmer who tried, often without success, to achieve both relative self-sufficiency and a steady income from marketable cash crops.