America in 1800

In 1800, John Adams moved into the unfinished White House. He moved out in 1801, giving way to a Virginian as a Virginian had given way to him. Thomas Jefferson owed his victory in the close election of 1800 to the special accommodations the Constitution gave to slavery: absent the extra electoral votes given primarily to the South for 3/5 of its slave population, otherwise counted by the law as no more than livestock with two legs, Adams would have won. No non-Virginian would again take up residence in the Executive Mansion until Adams’ son came after Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all left.

The Constitution required an election in 1800. It also required a census:

The second census. (Click for a larger version.)

The second census. (Click for a larger version.)

Unfortunately, as American territory expands and states and territories proliferate, the spreadsheets will only grow and so become less and less legible when reduced to a size that fits within the margins of the blog. I put it in the caption as well, but in case I ever forget you can always click the image for a version kinder to the eyes.

By 1800, every state of the North save New Jersey had abolished slavery by means of gradual emancipation. They still had slaves, as you can see. New York’s 20.613 slaves 56.92% of the total Northern slave population. New Jersey’s 12,422 make up 34.30% of the section’s bondspeople. But the remainder hold a few surprises. Probably every American schoolchild learns that the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That land appears in the census for the first time and 135 slaves. More curious still, 107 of those lived in Illinois.

What happened to make the Land of Lincoln into a slave state? Quite a few things and the story deserves its own post. Without looking at the microdata, which I do not have, I can’t tell how many of Illinois’ slaves we can attribute to any particular cause but at least two different stories come into play here. First, the Old Northwest had plenty of French traders living in it. They originally came when France claimed the territory and with British and then American authority distant and local British and Americans thin on the ground, saw little reason to leave. For that matter, it took until 1795 for the British to see cause to leave despite ceding the land to the United States at the end of the Revolution. Those French traders sometimes had slaves with them and the Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the land but took no action against any slaveholders already there.

The second story flies in the face of the usual received narrative about an active, always forward-pressing North and a laid back, some might say ossified, genteel South. When it came to populating the West in the early years of the nation, Yankees tended to stay at home. Southerners filled up Kentucky and got it statehood in 1792. Not satisfied, they filled up the Southwest Territory too and Tennessee came into the Union in 1796. Only Vermont, the fourteenth state, came in before them. Those same energetic Southerners did not see the Ohio River as the Great Wall of China. They came over into the areas immediately adjacent to Kentucky. Probably some of them brought slaves along on the sly. Trying to lure more, Congress suspended the Northwest Ordinance’s ban on slavery for ten years.

But let’s look at the statistics. In 1800, the nation was 16.84% slave, down from 1790’s 17.75%. The sections’ shares of the white population have changed less than a percentage point. But with gradual emancipation on the books in every Northern state that has slaves to emancipate, save tardy New Jersey, its share of the nation’s slave population has dropped from 5.75% to 4.05%. The corresponding rise comes from the South, which still had Constitutional and national license to import slaves from Africa and the Caribbean as well.

Nationally, the typical enslavement rate runs from 1.75% to 31.93%. Of the Northern locales that still have slaves, Illinois (its small population helping skew things) and 1790’s two Northern misfits, New Jersey and New York, fit into the low end of that range. Of the remainder, only Indiana comes close at 1.06%. Both returning misfits have seen declines in their percents enslaved as well. Two data points do not make a trend worth taking very seriously, but so far as they go we can say New Jersey and New York lean more Northern now than they did a decade prior.

By the standards of just the North, the typical percent enslaved falls between -1.55% and 1.55%. The negative number is an artifact of the math; obviously you can’t have negative people. So many places with no slaves at all skew the range. But as slavery declines, the norms pull more and more toward no slavery at all. By the 1800 benchmarks, Connecticut, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island practice slavery on a small enough scale to fit within the North. Illinois, New Jersey, and New York belong no more by the sectional norms than by the national norms.

Down South, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia all exceed the national norms for slavery. Restricting ourselves to Southern demographic standards, the high end of normal slavery comes at 41.15% enslaved. Once again South Carolina stands alone at 42.29%, a very slight decline from its 1790 performance at 43.00%. (They come roaring back later, of course.)

But on the low end, locales with less than 24.24% enslaved populations don’t belong either. (Neither, of course, do the places too enslaved to fit with the Northern norms. High degrees of slavery by Northern standards doesn’t get a place close enough to see the low end of slavery by Southern standards.) Those include the perennial southern misfit Delaware, Kentucky, and Tennessee just as in 1790. The newly incorporated District of Columbia almost slips out of the demographic South, weighing in at 25.44% enslaved. That constancy masks the beginning of another trend: In 1790, the lower bound for slavery in the South stood at 23.15%, a 1.09% difference. One percent doesn’t make the ground shake and cause lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but as early as we have two sets of statistics to compare, the South leans to growing slavery and the North to shrinking slavery.

Neither of those trends had to continue and neither had to make civil war inevitable, but both started at least seventy years before P.G.T. Beuregard looked down the barrel of a cannon at Fort Sumter. I wish we had comprehensive colonial censuses to tell us how far back the divergence goes. Already the regional norms have precious little overlap, but when did they last? Did they ever?

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