Engines of Change in 1850's America:
Sectional Tensions Over Slavery

 
     

 The LYCEUM


The Lesson of the Left and Right Banks of the Ohio: The Emergence of Sectional Cultures

One reason was the emerging sectionalism upon which Tocqueville focused. As he pointed out, both North and South were growing rapidly but along very different lines and at very different rates. These differences were, in turn, producing habits of mind, traditions, customs, the basic "stuff" of nationality. So was slavery. The plantation economy, dominated by the production of cotton, was a post-revolutionary development made possible by Eli Whitney's cotton gin and by the industrialization of the textile manufacturing in Great Britain and, later, in the New England states. In one of the most celebrated passages in Democracy in America Tocqueville contrasted the two sections:

. . . this truth [of the superiority of free labor] was most satisfactorily demonstrated when civilization reached the banks of the Ohio. The stream that the Indians had distinguished by the name of Ohio, or the Beautiful River, waters one of the most magnificent valleys which have ever been made the abode of man. Undulating lands extend upon both shores of the Ohio, whose soil affords inexhaustible treasures to the laborer; on either bank the air is equally wholesome and the climate mild, and each of them forms the extreme frontier of a vast state: that which follows the numerous windings of the Ohio upon the left is called Kentucky; that upon the right bears the name of the river. These two states differ only in a single respect: Kentucky has admitted slavery, but the state of Ohio has prohibited the existence of slaves within its borders. Thus the traveler who floats down the current of the Ohio to the spot where that river falls into the Mississippi may be said to sail between liberty and servitude; and a transient inspection of surrounding objects will convince him which of the two is more favorable to humanity.

Upon the left bank of the stream the population is sparse; from time to time one descries a troop of slaves loitering in the half-deserted fields; the primeval forest reappears at every turn; society seems to be asleep, man to be idle, and nature alone offers a scene of activity and life.

From the right bank, on the contrary, a confused hum is heard, which proclaims afar the presence of industry; the fields are covered with abundant harvests; the elegance of the dwellings announces the taste and activity of the laborers; and man appears to be in the enjoyment of that wealth and contentment which is the reward of labor.

However overstated the contrast, however mistaken in detail, Tocqueville's discussion offers several crucial insights. One is that the effect of slavery upon the master was as profound as upon the slave. Another is that the market more profoundly shaped the white Northerner than his southern counterpart:

The influence of slavery . . . affects the character of the master and imparts a peculiar tendency to his ideas and tastes. Upon both banks of the Ohio the character of the inhabitants is enterprising and energetic, but this vigor is very differently exercised in the two states. The white inhabitant of Ohio, obliged to subsist by his own exertions, regards temporal prosperity as the chief aim of his existence; and as the country which he occupies presents inexhaustible resources to his industry, and ever varying lures to his activity, his acquisitive ardor surpasses the ordinary limits of human cupidity: he is tormented by the desire of wealth, and he boldly enters upon every path that fortune opens to him; he becomes a sailor, a pioneer, an artisan, or a cultivator with the same indifference, and supports with equal constancy the fatigues and the dangers incidental to these various professions; the resources of his intelligence are astonishing, and his avidity in the pursuit of gain amounts to a species of heroism.

But the Kentuckian scorns not only labor but all the undertakings that labor promotes; as he lives in an idle independence, his tastes are those of an idle man; money has lost a portion of its value in his eyes; he covets wealth much less than pleasure and excitement; and the energy which his neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat. Thus slavery prevents the whites not only from becoming opulent, but even from desiring to become so.

One needs to make allowances for overstatement. Many Southerners coveted wealth with a zeal equal to that of the most avarious Northerner. Many Northerners coveted pleasure and excitement. Still, Tocqueville's main point holds. Slavery shaped white southern culture while the market shaped that of both but especially that of the North.


"The Weak Mistrust the Strong": A New Insistence on State's Rights

Since the free labor market of the North produced wealth far more effectively than the slave system of the South, there was a "constant gravitation of the Federal power and influence towards the northwest" which is "shown every ten years, when a general census of the population is made and the number of delegates that each state sends to Congress is settled anew."

In 1790 Virginia had nineteen representatives in Congress. This number continued to increase until 1813, when it reached twenty-three; from that time it began to decrease, and in 1833 Virginia elected only twenty-one. During the same period the state of New York followed the contrary direction: in 1790 it had ten representatives in Congress; in 1813, twenty-seven; in 1823, thirty-four; and in 1833, forty. The state of Ohio had only one representative in 1803; and in 1833 it already had nineteen.

This was a source of potential disaster for the Union. Tocqueville was impressed not only by the battles over the tariff but by the efforts of South Carolina, led by Vice Presidentand then Senator John C. Calhoun, to deny to the federal government a power clearly ennumerated in the Constitution. What had led Calhoun, once an ardent nationalist, to champion "states' rights"? Tocqueville believed it was the differential rate of growth of the North and South.

It is difficult to imagine a durable union of a nation that is rich and strong with one that is poor and weak, even if it were proved that the strength and wealth of the one are not the causes of the weakness and poverty of the other. But union is still more difficult to maintain at a time when one party is losing strength and the other is gaining it. This rapid and disproportionate increase of certain states threatens the independence of the others.

A state like New York might succeed in dominating the others, but "even if the more powerful states make no attempt to oppress the smaller ones, the danger still exists; for there is almost as much in the possibility of the act as in the act itself." He offered as a truism that "The weak generally mistrust the justice and the reason of the strong." As a result, states like South Carolina "look upon those that are more favored by fortune with envy and suspicion." This was the source of "the deep-seated uneasiness and ill-defined agitation which are observable in the South and which form so striking a contrast to the confidence and prosperity which are common to other parts of the Union." This suspiciousness and hostility were counterproductive. It was "the inhabitants of the Southern states . . . who are most interested in the maintenance of the Union; they would assuredly suffer most from being left to themselves; and yet they are the only ones who threaten to break the tie of confederation." The reason for this dangerous stance was not far to seek.

It is easy to perceive that the South, which has given four Presidents to the Union, which perceives that it is losing its federal influence and that the number of its representatives in Congress is diminishing from year to year, while those of the Northern and Western states are increasing, the South, which is peopled with ardent and irascible men, is becoming more and more irritated and alarmed. Its inhabitants reflect upon their present position and remember their past influence, with the melancholy uneasiness of men who suspect oppression. If they discover a law of the Union that is not unequivocally favorable to their interests, they protest against it as an abuse of force; and if their ardent remonstrances are not listened to, they threaten to quit an association that loads them with burdens while it deprives them of the profits. "The Tariff," said the inhabitants of Carolina in 1832, "enriches the North and ruins the South; for, if this were not the case, to what can we attribute the continually increasing power and wealth of the North, with its inclement skies and arid soil; while the South, which may be styled the garden of America, is rapidly declining."

 

"More Hurt in Their Feelings Than Their Interests": Southern Anxieties Over Nothern Power

These reflections led Tocqueville to make a prediction. Even though the South benefitted from the Union more than the North, even though it would be far less able to function independently, it would be the South which would threaten secession precisely because their own progress was being outpaced by the economic success of the North.

It must not be imagined, however, that the states that lose their preponderance also lose their population or their riches; no stop is put to their prosperity, and they even go on to increase more rapidly than any kingdom in Europe. But they believe themselves to be impoverished because their wealth does not augment as rapidly as that of their neighbors; and they think that their power is lost because they suddenly come in contact with a power greater than their own.

Tocqueville again returned to his dissent from Locke. White Southerners "are more hurt in their feelings and their passions than in their interests. But this is amply sufficient to endanger the maintenance of the Union." Feelings and passions, these are often the stuff of human behavior. "If kings and peoples had only had their true interests in view ever since the beginning of the world, war would scarcely be known among mankind."

 

The Immovable Prejudice That United and Divided

Working in the opposite direction, because also based in feelings and passions, was racial prejudice. White Northerners struck Tocqueville as even more biased against African Americans than were white Southerners. Most had no desire to abolish slavery in the South, only in expanding the area of free labor which they hoped to monopolize for themselves. They has abolished slavery in their own states in their own interest, not to benefit the slave. In a justly famous passage, Tocqueville wrote:

. . . slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. Whoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the Negroes are no longer slaves they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites. On the contrary, the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.

It is true that in the North of the Union marriages may be legally contracted between Negroes and whites; but public opinion would stigmatize as infamous a man who should connect himself with a Negress, and it would be difficult to cite a single instance of such a union. The electoral franchise has been conferred upon the Negroes in almost all the states in which slavery has been abolished, but if they come forward to vote, their lives are in danger. If oppressed, they may bring an action at law, but they will find none but whites among their judges; and although they may legally serve as jurors, prejudice repels them from that office. The same schools do not receive the children of the black and of the European. In the theaters gold cannot procure a seat for the servile race beside their former masters; in the hospitals they lie apart; and although they are allowed to invoke the same God as the whites, it must be at a different altar and in their own churches, with their own clergy. The gates of heaven are not closed against them, but their inferiority is continued to the very confines of the other world. When the Negro dies, his bones are cast aside, and the distinction of condition prevails even in the equality of death. Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the afflictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.

Racial prejudice gave the white Southerner a purchase upon the imagination of the white Northerner. Would he free the slave? Would he then allow that free person of color any of the rights of an American?

David Potter has persuasively shown how white Southerners inexorably chipped away at this bond by demanding, as their power in the Union gradually diminished, symbolic gestures from Northerners which would formalize northern support of slavery. The first of these was the Gag Rule against anti-slavery petitions. White Southerners insisted upon a rule in the House of Representatives banning these petitions. They thus pitted two provisions of the Constitution against each other. One was the article empowering the House to make its own rules. The other was the amendment guaranteeing the right to petition. Former President John Quincy Adams led the campaign against the Rule, becoming known as "Old Man Eloquence" in the process and demonstrating to many in the North that Southerners intended to restrict their liberties in the name of protecting slavery.

What white Southerners failed to appreciate, wrote Potter, is that white Northerners were willing to leave slavery be, so long as it was the South's "peculiar institution." As late as 1858 this was Stephen Douglas' argument against Lincoln. [click on homepage, founders' library, nineteenth century] If the people of Maine chose to outlaw the sale of liquor or the people of Georgia chose to maintain slavery, that was their right under the Constitution. The people of Illinois were free to make their own choice. Lincoln denied this. Southerners were intent upon making slavery a national institution, indeed were engaged in a conspiracy with that very object. It was the demand for "symbolic victories," such as the Gag Rule, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its "repeal" of the Missouri Compromise Line, that made Lincoln's argument plausible.


The U. of Virginia's Democracy in America site contains Tocqueville and Beaumont's journal entries which enable the reader to determine exactly what they saw of slavery. There is not a comparable section on the market in the North but the visitor can browse through the people Tocqueville consulted and learn what they told him.

Historians agree that Tocqueville did not supply an accurate picture of plantation slavery. Here are some useful resources:

 Oratory in 19th Century America Rhetoric books and Schoolbooks The Influence of The Columbian Orator  A Collection of Speeches
Responses to Orators and Orations Additional Resources Classroom Projects  Project Home Page