Lately the topic of racism in America has been a lead story in the media. So, I did some research on what things were like for free blacks in antebellum America. First the word “racism” in all its variants is a 20th century creation. What we would now call “racism” was so pervasive and universal in 19th century America both in the North and South that no one felt a need to coin a word for it. The mere fact that we have the word “racism” in our vocabulary now is a way to signify a certain attitude or behavior, and that is a first step to moving beyond it. It is a sign of progress unless the word is used irresponsibly for political and financial gain.
To gain a true perspective of history one must step back in time to truly understand what the opinions and thoughts of people were during the time in question. The idea of making moral judgments retroactive is preposterous. One can no more condemn George Washington for owning slaves in the 1790s than one can ridicule Columbus for thinking he had landed in the East Indies in 1492.
Several misguided historians will try to tell you that prior to the War Between the States the anti-slavery movement in the Northern states was widespread. But most people of the day considered abolitionists as extremists and outside of the mainstream. Besides emancipation most of these movements also advocated for the social equality of the races. But, the effort to persuade popular opinion that blacks and white were equal in any real sense fell mostly on deaf ears.
To get an idea of how the North felt about abolitionists, consider the career of Lydia Maria Child. Born and raised in Massachusetts, in 1824, at just 22 years old she published the first historical novel printed in the United States. It made her an instant celebrity. She went on to write many other novels and became editor of “The Juvenile Miscellany,” a new and popular children’s magazine, again one of the first of its kind. Her book “The Frugal Housewife” was an immensely popular manual. But in the 1830s Child got involved with William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist movement, and she dedicated herself to it. She published “An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833.” The work condemned slavery in the standard abolitionist terms and its moral and physical degradation of slaves and owners alike. She also condemned the North for its share of responsibility for the system. This ended her career. Her views were considered so extreme that the sales of her books plummeted, publishers refused to print anything she wrote, and she lost her editorial post with “The Juvenile Miscellany.” This pioneer of American publishing is now utterly obscure, and most people who see her name have no idea that she wrote, for instance, the Thanksgiving poem that begins, “Over the river and through the woods ….”
The editorial opinions of anti-administration Northern newspapers during the War were obviously full of racism. It was there for political purposes primarily. Their attempt was to stir up resentment of the party in power and the reason they used this so often was that they were sure it resonated with the voters. One Pennsylvania newspaper was full of race-baiting that would make anyone today cringe. But nobody made trouble for the editor until the summer of 1861, when he printed his opinion that the North had gone to war with the ultimate goal of freeing the slaves. This was considered so outrageous and offensive that soldiers just back from their three-month regiments attacked the office and sacked it. In fact many Northern states that have been noted for their abolitionism now market historical tourism based on the Underground Railroad. But the editorials of the day would tell a very different story. Most contain almost nothing that would not be considered hard-core racism today. Most of these prevalent racist views of the day were passed off as either scientific fact or the immutable word of God. But remember this was in the North, not the South.
In truth, most of the Northern opposition to slavery arose from pride. Northerners fancied themselves enlightened and living in the cradle of liberty. Slavery, they felt, sullied their reputation. Concerned with the opinion of England, a strong advocate of universal manumission, many Northerners distanced themselves from slavery and slave states. “One of the most extensive kinds of misrepresentation adopted by European travelers in the United States,” wrote Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale, “is found in the use of the word American.” Dwight and many other Northerners sectionalized America because they could not accept that they lived in an imperfect national community. Had the North confronted slavery and worked towards a national solution, inroads might have been made against the institution.
Instead, the North taught the doctrine of separate national regions so as to remain happily isolated from slavery. Enacting legislation that confined slaves and free blacks to the South appeased not only their embarrassment, but also their latent racism. Author Matthew Mason writes: “Many white Northerners who disdained African Americans also hated slavery, precisely because it brought blacks into their midst.” The Northwest was quick to codify racism. Ohio enacted black codes in 1804. Indiana blocked recently freed Southern slaves from immigrating because they feared a black population would lead to “a holocaust.” Another North Westerner expressed the popular sentiment: “Paradise will be converted into a Hell, if those Negroes remain in this Neighborhood.” Further, when Missouri’s admission as a state brought slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Northerners were incensed. An Ohio congressman wrote: “The southern states are taking measures to throw their worthless black population into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.” Clearly, the plight of the Negro was not foremost in these Northern minds.
Black immigration also threatened free white labor, a commodity Northerners protected bitterly. Were blacks allowed to migrate north, countless jobs previously available for whites only would face competition. It was in the economic interest of the North to keep blacks in the South. Hence, the only solution Northerners offered to the slavery problem was one which detached the North from the fate of blacks: colonization. The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 with the express goal of emancipating slaves and transporting them to Africa. Many Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, lauded this solution – ignoring that the American slave population reproduced itself faster than colonization could be enacted. Mason makes it clear that colonization was not the result of a misplaced altruism, but of a blatant Northern hostility: “In 1824, a New Jersey ACS meeting stigmatized free people of color as ‘a moral and political pestilence’ and an ‘enormous mass of revolting wretchedness and deadly pollution.”
Many other countries around the globe proved that emancipation could be enacted peacefully and gradually through a hearty dialogue within the halls of government and civil society. Though Southerners must live with some of the guilt of steering America away from such a course, Northerners must be charged with an equal share of the blame. While there were certainly many moral Northerners and Southerners for that matter, a great many Northerners exploited the slavery issue for political and financial gain while in tandem resisting any solution which threatened their economic stability or racial integrity.