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.