Not Knowing the Future

From the perspective of 150 years later it is possible to apply penetrating hindsight to Spring 1861. For example, the March 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation was able to look at a few instances of slaves seeking sanctuary at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens soon after Lincoln’s inauguration, and know that the African Americans who acted so daringly were the harbinger of many thousands to come. The first stirrings, in other words, of nearly four million slaves who collectively by their actions would help destroy the peculiar institution in the United States.

Yet the people of 1861 did not know that slavery’s end in North America was just over the horizon. March 18, 1861, brought two articles in the New York Times that amply illustrate that reality.

The first article was a column by the Times‘ Washington, D.C., correspondent, writing as “Observer,” analyzing what the departure of the Lower South portended for the future of slavery in the remaining slave states of the Union. The columnist believed the Lower South’s secession had broken forever the power of slaveholder interests in Congress, and left the long-term survival of slavery in the Upper South in question although he refused to speculate how much longer it would survive.

Observer wrote:

If the States which have attempted to secede from the Union succeed in their enterprize, by the acknowledgment of their independence on the part of this Government, the bereavement will bring with it this consolation, at least, that we, at the same time, get rid of three-fifths of the slave population, while parting with only about one-eleventh of the white race. In round numbers, the fifteen Slave States have now 4,000,000 of slaves. Of these the seceding States contain 2,350,000, which leaves in the Union only 1,650,000. The extent of this relief can be appreciated if we consider that the slaves are now nearly an eighth of the population, whereas with this reduction they will constitute little more than a seventeenth. We shall have, after the aggregate population of the seceding States is taken away, more than twenty-seven millions, of which, as above stated, 1,650,000 will be slaves. In 1850, with only 23,191,000 population, we had 3,204,000 slaves. In 1820, when the aggregate population was 9,638,000, the slaves numbered 1,538,000, and the proportion of the latter to the former was as 1 to 5 and 11-hundredths.

The result of secession will be, therefore, to reduce the burden of Slavery to within manageable proportions From 1 to 5, the proportion of slaves to whites forty years ago, to 1 to 17 at present, is a consolation, at least, for the loss of South Carolina and the six States which adopt her barbarous and desperate policy; and when this deed of madness shall be accomplished, it may be doubtful if the Free States will be in a hurry to take back into the Union the enormous element of weakness and strife which secession will remove.

Whatever may now take place, great good will result from the folly of the Secessionists to the cause of freedom. Whether the Border and Middle Slave States remain in connection with the North, or go with the Cotton Confederacy, the champions of Slavery will find, when they come to their senses, that the institution has received a blow from which it will never recover. They themselves have dealt the death wound, and though it may stagger and reel for years, it can never regain its position or reinstate itself in the public confidence. Whatever time-servers may say, at present the oligarchy may put it in their pipes and smoke it, that Slavery will henceforth be regarded, North and South, as an institution full of peril, pecuniary, social and political; and the thought ever uppermost in the minds of the people will in future be, “How can this great evil, this curse, this night-mare of Slavery, be got rid of?” “What shall we do with it?” will now become the puzzling problem for the Southern people. The demagogues have ridden the hobby until it has broken down under them, and can never be brought into the field again.

I expect to be able to show in a few days that the slaves in the States which adhere to the Union have only increased at a rate of some six or seven per cent. in ten years, while the aggregate increase in all the States has been about 29 or 30. It cannot be doubted that in the next decade the number of slaves in the eight adhering States will decline, in consequence of the removals to the South.

The talk of compelling the Northern Slave States to join the Southern Confederacy by passing laws prohibiting importations, is all gammon.Such laws have heretofore existed, but they were ever dead letters on the statute books in consequence of the demand for slaves. On the contrary, the Northern Slave States have it in their power to compel the Southern Confederacy to receive their surplus, or even to come back into the Union, by threatening the Abolition of Slavery. The Free States will gladly assist in the emancipation of the 1,650,000 now in the Union, whenever they are called upon by their Southern neighbors. So let King Cotton beware.

Another article on March 18, 1861, exemplifying the uncertainty over the future of slavery was a reprint by the New York Times of a piece in the London Times, dated March 1, bemoaning Great Britain’s failure to suppress the African slave trade and convince other nations, including the United States, to free their slaves as the British Empire had decades before.

The London Times article seethed with frustration, in part reading:

… there was enough of vehemence in our old convictions to urge us not only to persuade but to coerce all the rest of the world to feel as we felt and to be penitent as we were penitent. We lavished our money, we concentrated our efforts, we exerted all our influence, we compromised our political relations, we coerced the weak, and we went to the verge of making war upon the strong, in order to bring the rest of the world to join with us in our crusade against the traffic in mankind. Never was there in the history of our race so magnificent and so disinterested an enthusiasm. When the great book of history shall become so vaat that far-off generations shall be unable to seize any other than the tallest events in the great vista from which they emerge, this work of England must stand out and challenge admiration, as something to which the story of past ages has no parallel. We English alone have been hearty in the cause. We have shamed some by our example, we have bought others by our largesses, and we have deterred others by our power; but of all the peoples of the earth we alone have labored, with gold and with arms, for no other object than for that point of conscience which is to us our “idea” — to put down Slavery and the Slave-trade. Yet we nave not succeeded. While we have been starving our own colonists and suffering our West Indian possessions to return to jungle in very fanaticism, [???] that Slavery must lurk under every contract for labor, other countries have eluded their engagements, or have openly resented our interference. Portugal has required all our attention to keep her at all up to the mark; Spain has impudently repudiated all her promises; France has changed the name, but not the substance; and America has continued the odious traffic at sea under the pretext of a jealousy of her national honor, and has, to her misfortune, nursed Slavery at home and acknowledged it as a domestic institution.

Great as we are, we are not powerful enough to coerce the world. Strong as we are, we must submit to the laws which universally influence human conduct. After all our vain efforts, we are reduced at last to admit that we must be content to attract mankind by their interests, and not pretend to govern them by fear. France claps her hand upon her sword if we presume to ask whether she has slaves or free laborers in the hold of the Charles-et-Georges. Spain laughs at us if we pretend to prevent her from importing as many slaves as she may want in Cuba. America threatens war if we attempt to liberate the live cargo of a vessel covered with the Stars and Stripes.

So from the perspective of March 1861, slavery still appeared so entrenched that not even mighty Great Britain could by its will completely suppress the African slave trade or persuade other nations to abandon slavery. Slavery seemed, while embattled, quite stubbornly alive. We would do well, celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the coming of emancipation, to remember that in Spring 1861 the peculiar institution appeared to have a future (however uncertain) and that the events soon to transpire were by no means foreordained.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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