Slavery was a reality of American life since the emergence of the young republic, since, by the end of the 18th century, it was an integrated part of the nation’s social and economic landscape. Even in the early years of the country’s history, it was already a political issue – one does not have to look further than the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution to recognize this fact. However, the political tensions involving slavery became more and more acute as the 19th century marched on.
By the middle of the century, North and South were more than just two regions with different social compositions – they became two bitterly opposed political forces, each with its ideology and conflicting interests. The Southern ideal of a successful slaveholder conflicted with the Northern vision of Free Labor epitomized in Lincolns’ powerful leadership, and John Brown’s terror illustrated the irreconcilable nature of the deepening sectional divide.
While the primary difference between the slave states and the free states was an economic and social one, the two parts of the country soon developed ideologies that supported their respective societies. In the South, the vision of the ideal social and economic life was firmly connected to the idea of African American slavery. In the South, the road to economic success was growing and selling cash crops, mainly cotton – and doing it in large quantities for high profits required using slave labor on plantations (Roark et al. 653).
Proponents of bonded labor insisted that “superior” human beings – that is, white people – “should control and dispose of those who are inferior” – that is, black slaves (Roark et al. 651). Admittedly, wealthy planters only constituted a small proportion of the white Southern population, but even poorer white shared a general pro-slavery consensus (Roark et al. 685). Even if a particular white Southerner did not own slaves and benefit from slavery personally, he still supported it insofar as he aspired to achieve success –and, in the South, success came through exploiting slaves.
While the slave states based their vision of success and self-realization on slavery, the free states produced a different ideological vision that lauded Free Labor – that is, the labor performed by free people. The free Labor ideal stressed success through “hard work, self-reliance, and independence” (Roark et al. 599). Thus, just like in the South, the Northern ideal emphasized individual economic prosperity but proposed to achieve it through one’s own labor and persistence rather than the exploitation of slaves. Free Labor was a powerful notion recognized by many influential figures – and some politicians, like Lincoln, used it consciously in their rhetoric.
It is no coincidence that the future 16th President often stressed his humble origins as a wage laborer in his speeches, thus emphasizing his image as a self-made man (Roark et al. 599). Lincolns example demonstrates that becoming a powerful leader in the free states required adhering to Free Labor as an ideological platform. Thus, by the mid-century, the ideal of Free Labor was prevalent in the mindset of the Northern population and also presented a competing vision that opposed the Southern ideology of slavery.
The struggle between these two conflicting visions of the American future became bitterer due to the nation’s territorial expansion. Acquiring new territories raised questions of whether they will become free states or slave states. Sometimes this struggle became violent, as in Bleeding Kansas, where leaving the fate of slavery to popular sovereignty led to clashes between the proponents and opponents of slavery (Roark et al. 720-721).
It was in this struggle that John Brown emerged as a staunch abolitionist, ready to use terror and murder to achieve his ends (Roark et al. 689). He later continued his activities with the famous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 in a failed attempt to cause a slave rebellion (Roark et al. 689). Lincoln was right to point out that slaves wanted little to do Brown’s activities, thus making them “an attempt by white men” to defeat other white men (Roark et al. 691). Still, Brown’s example was a testimony that these two groups of white men – were bitter enough to kill each other, and Lincoln’s very criticism was a recognition of a deep sectional divide.
To summarize, the USA gradually came apart during the antebellum decades due to the rise of two conflicting visions of the American future rooted in the social and economic systems of North and South. South hailed the ideal of a successful paternalist slaveholder who ruled over supposedly “inferior” black slaves. North, on the other hand, promoted the idea of Free Labor and reliance on one’s own capabilities as opposed to the exploitation of bonded labor – a notion soon to be epitomized in Lincoln’s powerful leadership.
The conflict between the supporters of these ideological platforms became bitterer with the passing of time and eventually led to open violence, as in the activities of John Brown. Thus, by the end of the 1850s, Southern and Northern visions of America were not merely competing but locked in irreconcilable conflict.
Roark, James L., et al. The American Promise: A Concise History, vol. 1: To 1877. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.