The Future of Slavery

John Gast's "American Progress"

Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past.  We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible.  Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us.  I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).

As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals.   Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860.  It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction.  It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any  discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole.   In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.

Whether or not that is true is worth considering and there are a number of very talented historians who have offered their own answers to this question, but this has little to do with what many Americans predicted in 1860.  What emerges from Thomas’s book is that many Americans believed to be a bright future for slavery.  He thoroughly explains the importance that Americans attached to the growth of the railroads as a symbol of progress and of national power.  While the dramatic growth of railroads in the North signaled the supremacy of an economy steeped in Free Labor white southerners understood their own progress as stemming from the institution of slavery.  The modernization of the South through the development of railroads as well as other urban centers took place with the support of slave labor.  According to Thomas, there was nothing contradictory for white southerners in their push for a more progressive society with all the trappings of modernism within a slaveholding society. [Here Thomas’s work should be read alongside John Majewski’s Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation, William Link’s Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia and Peter Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.]  Southern railroads utilized slave labor to extend their lines, which in turn helped to push the value of cotton and slaves ever higher.

This confidence in slavery’s future abounds in the private and personal correspondence of those involved in the railroads.  Consider the president of the Mississippi Central Railroad’s 1855 address to its shareholders:

I am led to the irresistible conclusion, that in ease of management, in economy of maintenance, in certainty of execution of work–in amount of labor performed–in absence of disturbance of riotous outbreaks, the slave is preferable to free labor, and far better adapted to the construction of railways in the south. [quoted on p. 22]

The existence of slavery within an expanding economy did not just generate wealth, it represented what was “exceptional” in the South as compared to their Northern neighbors.  Surprisingly, many northerners agreed with this assessment.  All too often the Civil War is framed as one side holding on to what we believe to be a pre-modern society/economy against an enemy that had already entered an industrial revolution, but if we look more closely at the railroads we see that both North and South were moving in the same direction, albeit at difference paces.  The root question was whether slavery would fuel that engine as opposed to slave labor.  Both sides were confident in their respective world view and without a bloody civil war it is impossible to know how it might have turned out.

Whatever that future looked like apart from the Civil War it is unlikely that slavery would have died as a result of any serious crisis of confidence.  And that is the rub.  Our need to see slavery as in gradual decline on the eve of the Civil War directly contradicts what many imagined for us.


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6 comments… add one
  • London John Nov 26, 2011 @ 5:27

    I think according to Battle Cry of Freedom etc both Lincoln and the slaveholders understood that plantation slavery could only remain profitable if the area under slave cultivation was continually expanded. The cause of secession was Lincoln’s commitment to restrict slavery to its current area. So the railroads were vital to the future of slavery as envisaged by the Confederates, to bring plantation crops to market from the new territories.

  • Lyle Smith Nov 25, 2011 @ 17:09

    Some writer for the Disunion series actually claimed in their article that slavery was on the way out. I commented and said something to the effect that the institution of slavery was economically viable leading up to secession, and that was largely why secession happened, i.e. the fear of losing the economic wealth attributed to and expected from slavery.

  • Ray O'Hara Nov 25, 2011 @ 15:26

    The idea slavery was on the way to extinction makes the the actions of the secessionists to preserve the institution all the more tragic.
    Sans the war Slavery might have lasted until the 20th century but I think international pressure would have become more intense starting around the 1880s and the big cotton importers like the U.K. would have begun looking elsewhere for a source.

  • Marc Ferguson Nov 25, 2011 @ 11:07

    The belief that slavery was on a path to extinction before the CW intervened and needlessly caused hundreds of thousands of deaths is certainly related to some Southerners’ wish to see slavery as not at the root of the war, but also, I think at the sentiments expressed by Michelle Bachmann that the Founders worked tirelessly to end slavery. For Americans it is a need to see America as engaged in an endless process of progress and moral and material betterment.

    • Seth Owen Nov 25, 2011 @ 12:08

      This widespread modern faith that slavery was inevitably doomed provides comfort for many but I don’t see any reason to think that it was so. Lincoln saw the stakes clearly when he said that the country would not remain half free and half slave but would become one or the other. He did not predict, notably, which of the alternatives it would become. It is easy for us to forget today how fragile the “liberal” interpretative of human rights was in the Nineteenth Century nor how many powerful interests expected and hoped that the American Republic would fail. When we consider the many horrific political philosophies the historical 20th Century brought, with all it’s “isms,” is it really so hard to imagine that the victory of the southern slaveholders would not have strengthened the hand of colonialists, imperialists, and whatever flavors of communists, fascists and who-knows-whatists that the alternative 20th Century would have spawned? In our world, even with the inspiration of the USA, the notion of human equality has had a bumpy road. How much more so in a world where a powerful nation exists that rejects the entire idea, whose “cornerstone” is the belief that people are NOT created equal?

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