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Monday, 29 October 2018 07:05

Unmaking the Myth: How the North Was Deeply Complicit in the Slave Trade

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Chain 1029wrp(Photo: G.S. Matthews / Flickr)


America's collective and individual grasp on history trends shallow, all to often based on the perpetuation of myths, and who is writing it. Recently, while back East visiting my daughter and scanning her bookshelves, I came across Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery. While the title of the book is pretty much self-explanatory, the details spelled out by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank – reporters with The Hartford Courant – are illuminating. While this is not "Breaking News," it is nevertheless worthwhile being reminded that before the country was divided by secession into a North and a South – free and slave states -- slavery was a national institution, influencing the economies of both northern and southern states.

In 1860, shortly before Christmas, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Within weeks, six more states followed. By the end of May 1861, the Confederacy had been formed. Meanwhile, in January of 1861, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood delivered his State of the City message to the New York Common Council. Wood declared solidarity with the secessionist movement, proposing that New York City also secede from the United States:

With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy. As a free city, [New York] would have the whole and united support of the Southern States, as well as all other States to whose interests and rights under the constitution she has always been true.

Mayor Wood recognized "that the lifeblood of New York City's economy was cotton, the product most closely identified with the South and its defining system of labor: the slavery of millions of people of African descent," Farrow, Lang and Frank write in Complicity.   

Since the end of the Civil War, Americans have been imbued by the notion that while the South was where evil-doing slaveholders lived and worked their slaves to death, the North was where anti-slavery sentiment prevailed and abolitionists gathered to hatch plans to free the slaves. Good vs. evil makes for a convenient narrative, but it disregards complicated, disturbing, and messy details.

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Complicity tells the unvarnished truth about how Northern corporations, wealthy businessmen, and workers reliant on mostly cotton-related industries for their livelihoods, were dependent on the slave trade. "As much as it is linked to the barbaric system of slave labor that raised it, cotton created New York," the authors write.

"By 1740, enslaved people were one-fifth of the population of the early city, and enslaved black men were one-third of the work force," co-author Anne Farrow told NPR's Farai Chideya in a 2005 interview. By 1820, however, while slavery had basically faded out, racism persisted: Former slaves "were relegated, by and large, to the worst jobs, to the worst of everything, discriminated against in terms of housing, education, all the good things of life," Farrow noted.

"In those prewar decades, hundreds of shrewd merchants and smart businessmen made their fortunes in ventures directly or indirectly tied to cotton," Complicity points out. Many of the major protagonists are names that are familiar today: The Lehman brothers moved to New York from Montgomery, Alabama, where they were cotton brokers, "and helped establish the New York Cotton Exchange"; Junius Morgan, had his son J. Pierpont Morgan "study the cotton trade in the South as the future industrialist and banker was beginning his business career"; and, John Jacob Astor, a shipping and real estate magnate, made a fortune carrying tons of cotton. Charles L. Tiffany, whose father "operated a cotton mill in eastern Connecticut," was given enough money by his father to open his first store on Broadway in 1837.       

Wealthy and influential Northern men -- even so-called steadfast abolitionists -- rarely if ever, thought twice about how they were making their money.

New York City was not the only area in the North that was economically dependent on the slave trade. Several hundred cotton mills dotted the New England landscape. "Just between 1830 and 1840, Northern mills consumed more than 100 million pounds of Southern cotton. With shipping and manufacturing included, the economy of much of New England was connected to textiles."

Wealthy northern industrialists and their political allies attempted to forge some type of compromise with the South. At a 1858 meeting in Boston, Jefferson Davis "walked onto the stage" to a "standing ovation."

Even after the war, both the New York Herald and New York Tribune printed "editorials sympathetic to secession and to the fate of Jefferson Davis," the president of the Confederacy. 

As Adrian Brettle wrote in "Myths & Misunderstandings: The North And Slavery" -- posted here -- "The interdependency between North and South was more than the direct connection between mass production of cheap cotton in the South, picked by enslaved people, and the success of northern textile mills.  Recently, historians of American capitalism argued that slavery was even more tightly connected with the modernizing national and global economy. Above all that the U.S. domestic slave trade, worth perhaps $440m in total and moving more enslaved people (about 750,000) since 1790 than the middle passage of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was crucial in the westward movement of investment together with the development of new financial products including securities, bonds, and mortgages. These historians have revealed how deeply committed many nineteenth century banks, especially in New York, were to the continued expansion of slavery."

In 1860, the U.S. was the largest slaveholding country in the Western Hemisphere. "Its nearly 4 million slaves were an asset valued at $3 billion, worth as much as all the country's factories, railroads, and livestock combined," write the authors of Complicity

On the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren wrote "The Legacy of the Civil War," which talks about two prevailing myths: The South's "the Great Alibi," and North's "the Treasury of Virtue." "Once the War was over," says Warren, "the Confederacy became a City of the Soul... (O)nly at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality." The Great Alibi, glorifies the fight for Southern independence, while discounting and largely dismissing the inhumanity of  slavery. 

"The Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed," Warren writes. "He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner in the Middle Ages, but a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history."