Slavery is a black mark in the history of the United States, particularly on the slave states of the South. The North escapes any negative regard this ptoduces by most individuals today because of the opposition of the Civil War and the resulting freedom from slavery that resulted from the North’s victory. However, history is written by those who win the wars, not the losers, and this understanding of the nation’s past conveniently overlooks the reality of events in the Northern states relating to the practice of slavery. In this essay, this benign view of the North will be challenged, demonstrating instead how the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery.
New York City was once a colonial town like any other, although its prosperity began early in its past. That prosperity would not have been possible without the efforts of unpaid labor, mostly black slaves, although white indentured servants were also present. In chapter four of the text, the author notes the population of slaves living in New York in 1741, noting that it had doubled in the years since 1712 to just under 1,800 (Farrow, Lang, & Frank, 2006). The town’s entire white population benefited from the efforts of slaves, with even tradesmen able to afford one or more. These benefits would be numerous for the white individuals, who were free from the grueling labor that would normally accompany their daily activities. For examples like the baker, bricklayer, and carpenter mentioned in the text, this must have been nearly priceless. The slave could perform the hard labor, while the white owner directed efforts. Alternately, the owner could perform twice the amount of work as usual, reaping the financial benefits without being forced to pay an employee. This would result in greater wealth and likely health benefits as well.
The slave trade was banned in the United States in 1808, and it is easy to forget that the years prior would include active participation in the slave trade. However, the level of activity found in Rhode Island, one of the most progressive states now, is startling even in light of that fact. The text states that Rhode Island was responsible for 1,000 trips to Africa, resulting in a minimum 100,000 slaves brought back to the colonies (Farrow et al., 2006). This would produce additional benefits far greater than those discussed in the previous paragraph. The tax rolls discussed in the text were clear evidence of the wealth garnered in the slave trade by Rhode Island. The wealthiest people were those that bankrolled the voyages. The impact of slavery was evident then, and it is evident today in the buildings which remain intact from the time. It is interesting to compare the buildings mentioned within chapter four and those discussed in chapter five. Despite the eventual prosperity that grew within New York, the discussion of the earlier chapter was focused on the fire slaves set to the buildings, a peril due to the structures being made of wood and situated very closely. Although this type of construction was most likely in evidence in Rhode Island as well, the examples discussed in the text were large, airy buildings of brick. These were far less vulnerable, and a great deal more expensive. This speaks to the wealth the slave trade provided to the area.
The eventual banning of the slave trade in the United States was fought not just by the Southern states, but by those in the North that profited as well. The defense of the slave trade in 1800 made by John Brown was particularly telling about the importance of slavery to the development of the United States. The activity of Congressman Brown on behalf of the trade can be compared to the results of lobbyist activities today and speaks to the amount of money at stake. This would, as Brown pointed out, earn wealth for the government as well through the taxation on the profits. Taxes provide the capital that allows government to function, meaning that the early government of the United States was funded by slavery to some degree. When examined from that perspective, one could say that the United States would be less likely to exist as the major world power it is at this time without the slave trade, and perhaps would not exist at all.
Although the slave trade was officially banned in the United States, it did not actually stop. The slave trade discussed in chapter six was brazen in its practices. The text discusses at length the slavers would go to ensure they could continue to profit from slavery even after it was made illegal. The amount of money which would be required to make some of the activities discussed within the text is difficult to imagine and, given that bribery is not a documented expense, often impossible to discover. To continue the slave trade, customs officials, ship builders, judges and lawyers, merchants, sailors, and government officials at every level of government would need to be bribed at some point. That amount of financial investment would only be reasonable in the face of huge amounts of wealth. The fact that this piracy originated in New York City is unsurprising given that it was and is a popular port city, but it also forces one to consider the wealth of that city in light of this illegal trade. The amount of money brought into the area during this time would have then been circulated in the economy and used in the creation of buildings and other projects which would have profited the city. This magnitude of wealth would have given New York City advantages that would have impacted the development of the region in a positive way. Greater regional wealth would have resulted in better education for the children, more public works by the government, and more available resources. These benefits can still be seen in the power of the modern New York.
The three chapter discussed here demonstrate the level of complicity found in the Northern states. Slavery was a major part of the region’s economy and must have impacted the development of the area. In a very real sense, the United States of today owes far too much to the practice of slavery in the North.
- Farrow, A., Lang, J., & Frank, J. (2006). Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. Ballantine Books.