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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 2


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the second of a three installment bit of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.


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Economic Effects of the Compromise of 1850

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,” [1] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [2] The result was that slave owners and those who benefited from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation.  It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [3]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [4] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [5]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [6] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election n of 1860. Helper wrote that:

“Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.”  [7]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [8] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.” [9]

Men like Helper were an anomaly in the South, other leaders were much more like Jefferson Davis who urged the creation of a “Southern “system,” internal improvements, building factories, even reforming education to eliminate all textbooks at odds with his notion of the blessings of slavery.” [10]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through  its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [11] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote these words of warning:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [12]

The trigger for the increase in tensions that eventually ignited the powder keg was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [13]

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.10

[2] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.54

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[5] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[6] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame  p.177

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[10] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.258

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[12] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/159.html  24 March 2014

[13] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245


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