The Fear That Preserved Slavery

My day job (in reality, day, evening, night–just about any time) is college professor. One of the issues I always try to cover in relevant classes is American slavery, including the factors that kept it alive and vital in the United States up to the eve of the Civil War. My students do not seem to have much problem understanding the economic/financial reason slavery survived. (That is, slavery was profitable to antebellum slaveholders up to the eve of the Civil War, especially the cotton planters who because of strong demand for their product in international markets, Great Britain especially, could be counted among the richest Americans in the late 1850s.) With improving their condition being a big reason they attend college, my students can relate to the economic motives of antebellum slaveholders even if they disapprove of how these planters obtained their wealth.

What the students have a harder time wrapping their minds around was the tremendous fear slaveholders lived with that played just if not more as important a role in the survival of slavery as the economic benefits they derived from the institution. That is, it was an article of faith among white Southerners before the Civil War that without slavery to keep them under control, the slaves would rise up against their owners and other whites in a war of savage vengeance. For proof, slaveholders pointed to the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in 1831, overlooking, of course, the peaceful end of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s. Like many irrational fears, its adherents readily dismissed evidence to the contrary, and grasped at any fact–however flimsy–that reinforced it. Hence, for many white Southerners, John Brown’s pathetically failed raid on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, became evidence for them that Northerners were conspiring to let loose their slaves upon them in a bloody race war, and that they must begin organizing and drilling militias in self-defense. Likewise, the fear explains why the Lower South seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election and parts of the Upper South seceded in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter. Many white Southerners saw these events as a prelude to the North unleashing their slaves against them.

This fear also could infect visitors to the South, as it did an unnamed Englishman whose words made it into print in the New York Times on November 16, 1861. He wrote:

The overtasked slaves of a cruel or poor master may be known even if met upon the road. Sullen and downcast, the savage depicted in their countenances and in the gleam of their eyes, as they glance furtively at the passer-by; wild as the native African, and their natural cunning increased by their contact with the white man, whose vices they have learnt, without having acquired, or been able to acquire, any of his virtues; woe to the day, should it ever arrive, when these men are let loose to work their will upon their oppressors! It has been said by England and Englishmen: ‘Make this a war of emancipation, and we are with you heart and soul.’ They know not what they say who speak thus, and it is well the North cannot listenif it would. If emissaries from the North were possibly to make their appearance, in arms, and personally to declare the immediate freedom of the slaves of the South, an indiscriminate massacre of every white man, woman and child in the South, would be the result. It would be a second edition of the massacre of St. Domingo. It were folly to speak of the restraint which would be exercised by the educated and well-disposed among the negroes, — these would be overpowered, or drawn into the army of avengers, against their will. There were many well-disposed, faithful negroes amongst the Haytians. Of what service were they? In all revolts, whether among civilized or savage men, some leading spirit is sure to arise and assume command, and in case of forcible emancipation, a second Touissant l’Ouverture would lead the negroes of the South to vengeance, as did the veritable TOUISSANT lead his followers to the massacre of their French masters. Whichever way this struggle may turn out, however, in my humble opinion, the death blow has already been given to Slavery; but its extinction must be gradual, and must be managed by the South itself.

No one — not the bitterest foe to the South — none but an insane zealot, would wish to bring upon that unhappy section of the country the horrors that would follow a sudden, forced emancipation of the slaves. Meanwhile a great dread of an outbreak prevails over a large portion of the South, particularly where the white male inhabitants have been, generally, called away to serve in the army. The negro quarters in many plantations are most vigilantly guarded at night, and the masters and mistresses sleep — if sleep they can — with firearms beneath their pillows!

This fear of emancipation even influenced white Northerners. For example, in late November 1861, Abraham Lincoln was working on a plan for compensated emancipation in Delaware (which will be dealt with soon in Civil War Emancipation). It would call for not only paying loyal slaveholders who agreed to free their slaves, but also for removing those freed slaves from the state. Indeed, Lincoln supported, until it was proven impractical, the emigration of ex-slaves outside the United States. He accepted the idea that former slaveholders and former slaves could not peaceably live side by side. It would take time and hard circumstance to convince him and many other white Americans otherwise.


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
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Fear That Preserved Slavery

  1. Chris Wise says:

    The southern slaveowners’ fearfulness reveals an awareness of their slaves’ humanity, denied elsewhere in their relationships.
    Interesting that this item would show up in November 1861 in the NYT, playing to northern racism as well.

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    Good post Donald. I wonder how 1860 New Englanders would have felt about including Delaware as a Northern State. After all, it was a slave state and voted solidly for Breckinridge. The Northern States had already abolished slavery and because Delaware bordered on these free states, perhaps it made sense to Lincoln to abolish slavery through compensated emancipation. I am waiting to see your post on Delaware. Ed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s