The Distinction Between Slavery and Race in US History

This article by historian Patrick Rael identifies a crucial distinction we need to understand in studying American history. While related in the Antebellum United States, race and slavery are different. As Dr. Rael explains, in the Antebellum sectional disputes, the basic divide was over slavery, whether lands should be free or slave. However, with regard to race, there wasn’t much of a divide. Nineteenth Century white Americans were racists who on the whole believed African-Americans to be inferior. In fact, this predated the Nineteenth Century as well. It goes well back and includes the Founding Fathers. “At the Founding, the argument over slavery was an argument between powerful elites, some of whom depended completely on slavery for their profits and some who did not. While the issue of slaveholder power eventually came to dominate the national political agenda, the question of race — and particularly the racial equality of non-Europeans — did not. Widespread consensus consigned nearly all blacks to sub-citizen status, even when they were not legal property.”

As Northern states one-by-one abolished slavery, they retained that racial outlook. “Northern emancipation demonstrated how race could thrive even in slavery’s absence. Ending slavery was never easy, but it was easier where slavery was less central to the economy. It was no surprise that New Hampshire, home to around one hundred slaves in the 1770s, ended the institution in 1777, while New Jersey, home to some ten thousand at the Founding, still listed eighteen “apprentices for life” on its 1860 census. Wherever and whenever slavery ended in the North, freedom generated whole new waves of racial hostility. Slavery, it turned out, rested atop the deeper foundation of a vicious racial caste order. Labor competition between white and black workers unleashed new furies of racial violence. It became possible for European immigrants to leverage their whiteness into a form of symbolic capital that proved quite precious when the real article was scarce. Racial science elicited fears of ‘amalgamation’ while blackface minstrel shows wove denigrating stereotypes into the nation’s burgeoning popular culture.”

Professor Rael gives us two lessons to take away from this essay: “First, we must end any notion of the free states as morally superior to the slave states, for that is a calculation that only works if slavery, and not race, is being considered. It is true that the movement to end slavery came largely from the free states. But the North did not honor the abolitionists. To the end the most committed of them remained a small minority, despised almost as much as were the free blacks who had inspired them. We all need to let this one go; there was plenty of karma for everyone. Second, we need to look at how the arc of history bent in this instance against progress and expanding liberty, toward a narrower and less tolerant vision of the country. Unfortunately, that happens regularly in our history. It seems bizarre that anyone could believe that democracy is bettered by writing people out of it, but of course, such arguments are today raising unprecedented levels of alarm.”

This is an excellent essay that has applicability throughout American history, all the way to the current day.



  1. bob carey · · Reply

    I think the essay is timely and informative. It deals with facts that should be mentioned. That being said I disagree with with Professor Rael on one point, I believe that the Union was morally superior because you cannot take slavery out of consideration. The fact that the majority of white northerners were against expanding slavery into the territories, regardless of their reasoning, is still on a higher moral road than the Souths’ position. This coupled with the North’s position of preserving the Union puts them on the higher moral ground
    I believe that most knowledgeable people agree that racism was rampant throughout the Country in 1860 but when it comes down to judging morality the other factors have to be part of the equation.

    1. Bob, I think we might lose focus if we make moral judgments. I think we today can be thankful the Union won, but we need to seek to understand historical folks on their terms. We need to remember both sides thought they were acting morally based on their values and mores.

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        Al, I must disagree. Permit me to explain, a person, such as yourself, who has spent a great deal of their lifetime studying the Civil War era objectively will reach the point where their knowledge of the subject will entitle them to make a moral judgment. Prof. Rael is included in this category but by limiting his view strictly to racism, his judgment is flawed as it pertains to Northern morality.
        What irks me to no end is someone such as DiLorenzo who will cherry pick through this era and publish his moral judgments to a particular audience just for profit.

        1. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I think we students of history do historical figures, history, ourselves, and our fellow citizens a disservice by trying to make moral judgments instead of simply trying to understand what these folks were doing and thinking on their terms, not on our terms. Trying to make a moral judgment on a person who was acting in what he or she believes was a moral manner, in my opinion, skews the lens through which we’re looking at them. I think making moral judgments takes us out of the realm of studying history and into another realm–perhaps one of ethics or philosophy. I’m not saying historical actors should be completely exempt from moral judgments, just that history students should shy away from it. Making a moral judgment on men and women who lived 150+ years ago doesn’t do anything to improve our understanding of what they did and why they did it. If we want to move into a study of ethics, though, then perhaps we can use their example to discuss moral successes or failures. That’s not what I’m trying to do, though.

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    It would be very difficult for me to bestow a higher level of morality to one side or the other in the Civil War, because I would have to symbolically hold my thumb up and blot out what came after the Civil War: the Indian Wars. How does one make these sorts of judgments? By individual conflict? This side was moral during the Civil War, but they threw the book away during the Indian Wars? (sorry, just finished re-watching Mark Grimsley’s discussion on the difference between how the US Army treated the South vs. how it dealt with the Indians) I have learned that humans rarely make decisions based on pure altruism, rather, a healthy amount of personal gain is usually in the mix. As Dr. Rael states: the institution of slavery disappeared in the North, but the racism did not, so that attitudes towards the African American did not really change in the hearts and minds of the people. I am fortunate that am a west/south westerner, so it is easy for me to remove myself emotionally from the study of the Civil War. I study the events, people, and places and leave it at that. When I study the Indian Wars, I make a conscious effort to separate myself from my reading material, so that I can remain objective to the facts, rather than creating a bias that may blind me to the truth.

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