How the North Became Northern

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, party favorite for the 1860 Republican nomination, and scion of a slaveholding New York family.

I previously identified the South with slavery and slavery with the South. That’s true enough in 1860 and for some time prior, but when the Revolutionary War began all thirteen colonies practiced slavery. They were, in that sense, Southern. At one point or another, such northern luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Hancock owned slaves, though their holdings pale in comparison to the three hundred slaves at Mount Vernon or the roughly two hundred at Monticello. No less an anti-slavery politician than William H. Seward grew up in a slaveholding family.

But before the Civil War, all the states north of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line ended slavery. I choose to say “ended slavery” rather than abolished it because abolition conjures images of immediate freedom for all slaves. That is, after all, the de jure effect of the Thirteenth Amendment and the sought-after goal of abolitionists in the decades before the war.

Instead of abolition, most states in the North which had practiced slavery (Vermont, a semi-independent republic prior to statehood, did not permit slavery in its 1777 constitution and, excepting a decade in the early 1800s, slavery was always forbidden in the Northwest Territory and its descendant states.) adopted gradual emancipation schemes. Pennsylvania passed the first such law in 1780. It provided that:

  1. No slaves could be imported to Pennsylvania, thus prohibiting owners from replacing freed or deceased slaves from elsewhere, and
  2. Freed all future people born to slave mothers, while preserving the status of all slaves born before the law took effect.
  3. But made all born to slave mothers serve a term as indentured servants to their mother’s owner for twenty-eight years.

The law also required owners to register all their slaves each year under penalty of having them freed to ensure compliance. It also exempted slaves held by members of Congress, which then met in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s law showed great deference to the property rights of slaveowners. So much so, in fact, that dozens born before the law took effect remained slaves until 1847. Save for the final state that adopted gradual emancipation, New Jersey in 1804, no other state took such a conservative course. Freeing children at birth and all slaves, no matter when born, after a term of years became typical.

Before the outbreak of war, abolition had a far shorter history. In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts enacted a new constitution that proclaimed all men born free and equal. A slave named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under it the next year and after some appeals received it and a decision that declared slavery abolished by the Massachusetts constitution. Thus all slaves in the state became free, at least on paper.

Most antislavery politicians, including Lincoln’s Republicans, favored not abolition but gradual emancipation. Restricting slavery from the territories was to bring it to a slow, natural death on the model that had banished it from the North. Only the war fully merged the white North’s struggle to preserve the Union with four million slaves’ struggle to free themselves. After, the two would again separate.

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