Distinctions That Matter

This past week my AP classes focused on the Mexican-American War and the first half of the 1850’s.  Our discussions have centered on trying to better understand how the issue of slavery and the territories emerged as the most important question on the national stage.  It’s hard to draw a connection with an issue today which approaches the extent to which slavery had evolved to divide the nation.  After all, while Americans today debate stem cells, same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq none of these issues divides the nation along strict geographical lines.

Just about every year that I’ve taught the survey course in American history I’ve eventually had the discussion that tears down their neat distinction between the virtuous North and evil South.  I assume that these students were taught at some point in middle school or perhaps earlier to think along these lines.  No surprise given that history must be watered down at an early age owing to the student’s cognitive capacity.  By the time they get to their junior year in high school, however, it’s time to expand those boundaries. 

The specific challenge is in getting my students to a point where they can distinguish between race and slavery in reference to white Northerners.  Most of my students start off with the assumption that what it meant to be anti-slavery meant that you subscribed to the "radical" position of William L. Garrison.  We talk in great detail about the American Colonization Society’s plan to remove black Americans and why they believed this to be necessary.  As I understand it, the ACS did not believe that the races could co-exist and northerners specifically worried about the influx of former slaves into northern territory following the abolition of slavery.  I ask students to keep this in mind as they follow race relations into the twentieth century.

The Free-Soil Party and Republican Party argued against slavery and the spread of slavery into the western territories as a means to protect the future of free labor for white Americans.  Keep in mind that Know-Nothings (nativism) migrated into the new Republican Party.  Republicans maintained that part of the problem with slavery in the South was that it denied opportunity to poorer whites.  More importantly, keeping slavery out of the territories would benefit white Americans and the opportunity to engage in free labor.  Luckily, Eric Foner does a great job of highlighting this distinction:

The defining quality of northern society, Republicans declared, was the opportunity it offered each laborer to move up to  the status of landowning farmer of independent craftsmen, thus achieving the economic independence essential to freedom.  Slavery, by contrast, spawned a social order consisting of degraded slaves, poor whites with no hope of advancement, and idle aristocrats.  The struggle over the territories was a contest about which of two antagonistic labor systems would dominate the West and, by implication, the nation’s future.  If slavery were to spread into the West, northern free laborers would be barred, and their chances for social advancement severely diminished.  Slavery, Republicans insisted, must be kept out of the territories so that free labor could flourish. (p. 421, Give Me Liberty)

In saying all of this I am not denying that some Republicans did indeed focus on the issue of black civil rights as did Charles Sumner and others.  However, concentration on that group does not reflect the opinions of the general public. Without an appreciation of this important distinction between slavery and race it is impossible to understand wartime debates over emancipation, questions surrounding the federal government’s responsibilities during Reconstruction, and finally, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges related to black migration North and school integration in such cities as Boston following the Brown decision. 

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5 comments… add one
  • Sherree Dec 10, 2010 @ 8:07

    You’re welcome, Kevin. Also, you are right about the widget–and about other things, too, even though I know that being “right” is not your goal.

    Have a great holiday, and congratulations on the offer by the New York Times. Excellent!

  • Sherree Dec 10, 2010 @ 6:55

    This is a great post, Kevin. (I clicked on it from your “Random Posts” section) I think that these distinctions can help shape current political discussions placed in historical context as well. Racism in the North and in the South is very different, yet just as devastating in each section of the nation. Boston is a prime example, and had much in common with Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s.

    In reference to yesterday’s post (12/09/2010): I neither know Sebasta nor know anything about him. To give him the benefit of the doubt, however, it could be that he is stuck in a past time period intellectually. To me, the MOC was always synonymous with neo Confederates and racism. That apparently is not the case. Also, the North was virtuous and the South evil. That was not the case, either, I found out through experience. Old habits die hard. Maybe Sebasta will reconsider. I won’t hold my breath, though. He seems fairly adamant.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2010 @ 7:37

      Thanks Sherree. I knew that “Random Posts” widget would be helpful.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2006 @ 10:43

    EHS, — Thanks for the words of support. I draw connections to modern politics as much as possible. Thanks for reminding me once again that the realm of what is possible with younger students is much wider.

  • elementaryhistoryteacher Nov 17, 2006 @ 23:00

    Bravo! I applaud your efforts in this area. I don’t see many at your level doing this. It’s far too easy to allow students to think everything is in neat blocks and groups with no fuzzy in between.

    I wonder….do you ever draw a connection to today’s politics and issues? Every Democrat is not far left as every Repubican is not far right.

    Thanks for the mind jiggle—-even my youngs ones aren’t too young to explore this issue. As we explore the different roles in the 13 colonies I may try to weave this in as we begin to talk about the Fr. and Indian War and the Revolution. Planting the seeds, you know…..

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