Samples Racism The North’s Complicity in Slavery in the Economic Interdependence

The North’s Complicity in Slavery in the Economic Interdependence

1174 words 4 page(s)

This paper explores the themes outlined by the authors of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery regarding the involvement of the Northern States in the slave trade. The Northern and Southern economies of America prior to the civil war had cotton at the center. The North stayed relatively visibly clean of slavery, but the booming success of major cities like New York City was owed entirely to the slave labor that grew the cotton that New England mills turned into textiles, shipped to in and out of their harbor, and required raw goods like food to be shipped back to support the slaves. New-England-born journalists of the Hartford Courant, authors Anne Farrow, Joey Lang, and Jenifer Frank use this book to hold the Northern states accountable for its central role in the propagation of slavery, and to create an accurate account of the conflict between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists as well as the facts of a slave’s life in the Northern States.

The North’s Complicity in Slavery in the Economic Interdependence between the
North and South of Pre-Civil War America
A quick review of the American Civil War of 1861 divides the North and South squarely onto either side of the slavery issue: the North was anti-slavery, the South pro-slavery. As most black-and-white assessments of an issue as complex as war, this decades-old summary of the civil war leaves out so much of the facts surrounding the developments leading to the war that it is downright inaccurate. In Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, New England-born journalists of the Hartford Courant Anne Farrow, Joey Lang, and Jenifer Frank outline the research that disproves the popular notion that slavery was strictly a southern sin, taking an honest look at the past and holding their ancestors finally accountable for the North’s complicity in the mass enslavement of millions. “We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong.” (p. xix)

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When John Winthrop founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, he had envisioned a “city on a hill,” a prosperous republic on a new, fruiting land. At that time, slave labor from Africa was already being used in the by the British to power sugar production in the West Indies. The new Americas jumped into what would be known from then on as the Triangle Trade, exporting food, livestock, and lumber to the West Indies to support the slave population there, as well as the rum distilled from the molasses, a by-product of the sugar-cane juice “flowing in rivers” on the cane plantations. They also grew cotton, but prior to the Eli Whitney inventing the cotton gin in 1794, the U.S. cotton crop totaled at about 2 million bales per year. The cotton gin suddenly made growing cotton very profitable. “By 1860, the crop had more than doubled to 4.8 million bales” (p. 8). The cotton plantations of the south would soon depend entirely on slave labor, and subsequently, “well before the Civil War the economy of the entire North relied heavily on cotton grown by millions of Slaves- in the south” (p. xxvi).

In the 1700s and 1800s, the rivers of New England were riddled with textile mills. “slavery had become the foundation for a network of interdependent economic systems throughout the country that rested on the premise that it was acceptable to view black human beings as property”(p. xxvi). Northern business, fueled by the cotton boom and the slave trade built to compile it, thrived on the shipment of manufactured goods to Europe, food to feed slaves in the west indies, and of course on the hundreds of ships built to freight illegal human cargo and trade exports alike. Millions of people north of the Mason Dixon line were employed building ships, growing food, and working in factories. Where the average man enjoyed fruitful careers in these jobs, the leaders of the industry like Francis Cabot Lowell – father of the textile industry in America – built fortunes that rested comfortably and unequivocally on the backs of slaves. In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the North enjoyed slavery with “all of the benefits and none of the screams” (p. xxvi).

Although poignant, this wasn’t exactly true. New England was not a slave society the way the south was – by 1860 just under four million black people were enslaved in the southern slave states – but they still had slaves. “In the 1790’s… Connecticut and Rhode Island together still had more than 6,000 people in bondage; Pennsylvania had 3,700; and New York had more than 20,000” (p. 62). Northerners generally rationalized these statistics with the sentiment that slaves in the North were treated better than in the South, like members of the family.

The treatment of slaves in the South was undeniably abhorrent, inhumane, and torturous, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Northern slaves were still subject to being treated like property – whipped and beaten, sold and traded, killed and replaced. The account of Venture Smith’s life in chapter 3, A Connecticut Slave, gives a picture of the experience of slaves in the North, recounting the beatings he endured and resisted, the promises for his freedom that were broken, and the three times he was sold to new owners, one of which separated him from his wife and their month-old daughter. Evidently, slaves in the north did not always feel that they were “part of the family”, or there would not be recorded reports of slaves trying to kill their owners. Venture was one of the few that managed to escape and buy his way into freedom, and his comparatively lucky circumstances allowed him to create a record of his life. There were million in the south and thousands in the North however, whose lives of suffering went unrecorded, never to taste freedom.

In exchange for the prosperity of the economy, many Northerners turned a blind eye to the moral hypocrisy of being technically opposed to slavery while benefitting from it. Not everyone could smother their consciences enough to stomach that approach however. William Lloyd Garrison, wrote one of the first and most famous abolitionist texts, coining “immediatism” and minting it into the national conversation (p. 31). The controversy between slaveholders and abolitionists escalated when abolitionists would no longer stand for concepts such as “gradual emancipation”, demanding an end to slavery altogether (p. 31). When the South started to threaten to secede from the Union, business owners whose livelihoods depended on trade with the South became panicked, desperate to keep the country from entering a Civil War. New York City, a veritable metropolis of the cotton trade in its shipping of cotton, textiles, and other goods between itself, the slave states, and Europe, seemed especially incapable of surviving the split. Despite even New York City’s threat to secede along with the south, the War was inevitable, and the North and South alike suffered it.

  • Farrow, A., Lang, J., Frank, J. (2006) Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. Ballantine Books

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