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The Meaning of Slavery in the North

Edited by

David Roediger and Martin H. Blatt

This is an image of book entitled The Meaning of Slavery in the North by David Roediger and Martin H. Blatt. [Image of a single line of slaves carrying their materialistic world with them]

The grim shadow that slavery has cast over American history has obscured the reality of what textbooks used to casually refer to as "America's peculiar institution." Most Americans have chosen to think of slavery as a regional aberration rather than a national phenomenon. The essays in The Meaning of Slavery in the North do not seek to lessen the South's culpability regarding the horrors of slavery, but they insist that the so-called free states of the North were full partners in the viability of the slave society of the South.

The opening essays in this collection examine in detail how the economic interests of the industrial North complemented or directly intersected with those of the agrarian South. Even after Northern ships no longer engaged in the slave trade, there were substantial connections to the slave South involving textile production, the maritime industry, and interstate commerce of various kinds. In short, the slave system functioned as a national economic entity based in the South but not regionally restricted.

The concluding set of essays demonstrates that the notion of African racial inferiority generated by slavery was not a sectional prejudice, but a national consensus of the dominant European culture. Various secular and religious movements assailed this consensus with vigor. Although successful to some degree in rallying moral outrage against slavery per se, they failed to significantly alter the racial views of white America.

Uniting the essays in terms of the labor movement is what they reveal about the attitudes of industrial workers and small farmers in the North regarding slave labor. These groups remained largely indifferent to the effects of slavery upon their economic well-being until the land beyond the Mississippi River became available for development. At the point free labor concluded that it could not compete in this new arena with slave labor working on behalf of the plantation aristocracy, economic self-interest necessitated that free labor became antislavery or at least against the expansion of slavery. The essays in The Meaning of Slavery in the North examine the failure of this economic conviction to be transformed into a political commitment of full citizenship for Americans of African origin. Like the various industrial and financial leaders of the North, free labor would have allowed the South its slaves as long as labor was confined to regional economic sectors involving cotton, tobacco, and sugar production.

Although the abolitionists and Radical Republicans were briefly able to set the agenda after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, their views never evolved into a permanent national ideology. The emotional dynamic of the decade following the Civil War was one of national healing. The major priority, North and South, became the political reunion of the European populations that had fought in the war. The reconstruction of Southern society, which would have involved full rights for Americans of African origin, was sacrificed to this end, most obviously in the electoral Compromise of 1877. One long-term consequence of genuine reconstruction was the probability that African Americans would have been invited to the North for jobs ultimatley allotted from 1880 to 1924 to millions of European immigrants. Given the emphasis on reunion, many of the antebellum tradeoffs and compromises reappeared in new garb, setting the stage for another century of racial exploitation.

By demonstrating that the institution of slavery and the psychology it generated were always national in character. The Meaning of Slavery in the North illuminates much in subsequent and contemporary American history. These essays argue that the dominant culture has always lacked the will to resolve the issues formented by slavery in a manner consistent with the political contract embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The obviously disadvantaged in this process have been African Americans. Less obviously the general American working class in the North and South has also been profoundly disadvantaged by directly or indirectly having to compete with an underpaid and otherwise economically exploited sector of national labor numbering in the millions. Part of the process of finally altering this political and economic syndrome involves identifying its tap roots in the first seventy years of the republic. The Meaning of Slavery in the North is a contribution to that process.

MARTIN H. BLATT, formerly chief of professional services/historian at Lowell National Historical Park, is presently chief of cultural resources/historian at Boston National Historical Park. He is the co-editor, with Martha Norkunas, of Work, Recreation, and Culture: Essays in American Labor History (Garland, 1996) and the author of Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood ( University of Illinois Press, 1989).


teaches U.S. history and chairs the American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. His recent books include The Wages of Whiteness (1991) and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, (1994) both from Verso.

The Meaning of Slavery in the North, 0-8153-2345-X hardback $40.00, 192.

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