A large majority of whites in the South supported slavery even though fewer of a quarter of them owned slaves because they felt that it was a necessary evil and that it was an important Southern institution.
In 1800 the population of the United States included 893,602 slaves, of which only 36,505 were in the northern states. Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey provided for the emancipation of their slaves before 1804, most of them by gradual measures. The 3,953,760 slaves at the census of 1860 were in the southern states. Eminent statesmen from the earliest period of the national existence, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington regarded slavery as evil but necessary. Individuals and groups of people of almost all sects defended slavery. On the whole, antislavery views grew steadily; but many who personally held strong antislavery opinions hesitated to join actively in abolitionist agitation, unwilling to dispute what many citizens held to be their rights. Those Southern whites who didn’t necessarily like slavery supported it because they felt it was the South’s right to be able to have slavery.
Slavery thus became an increasingly Southern institution. Abolition of slavery in the North, begun in the revolutionary era and largely complete by the 1830s, divided the United States into the slave South and the free North. As this happened, slavery came to define the essence of the South: to defend slavery was to be pro-Southern, whereas opposition to slavery was considered anti-Southern. Although most Southern whites did not own slaves (the proportion of white families that owned slaves declined from 35 percent to 26 percent between 1830 and 1860), slavery more and more set the South off from the rest of the country and the Western world. If at one time slavery had been common in much of the Americas, by the middle of the 19th century it remained only in Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the southern United States. In an era that celebrated liberty and equality, the slaveholding Southern states appeared backward and repressive. This drew most Northerner’s into the abolitionist movement not so much for the behalf of slaves, but how slavery made the United States look.
Despite this, the slave economy grew rapidly, enriched by the spectacular increase in cotton cultivation to meet the growing demand of Northern and European textile manufacturers. Southern economic growth, however, was based largely on cultivating more land. The South did not undergo the industrial revolution that was beginning to transform the North; the South remained almost entirely rural. In 1860 there were only five Southern cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants (only one of which, New Orleans, was in the Deep South); less than 10 percent of Southerners lived in towns of at least 2500 people, compared to more than 25 percent of Northerners. The South also increasingly lagged in other indications of modernization, from railroad construction to literacy and public education. For these reasons, many Southerners felt that slavery was all too necessary because their agrarian economy was based around it. Many feared that the abolition of slavery would result in a Southern economic collapse.
The biggest gap between North and South, however, was ideological. In the North, slavery was abolished and a small but articulate group of abolitionists developed. In the South, white spokesmen, from politicians to ministers, newspaper editors, and authors, rallied around slavery as the bedrock of Southern society. Defenders of slavery developed a wide range of arguments to defend their cause, from those based on race to those that stressed economic necessity. They made heavy use of religious themes, portraying slavery as part of God's plan for civilizing a primitive, heathen people. For a white Southerner to go against slavery would also go against Southern society and religion. Increasingly, Southern spokesmen based their case for slavery on social arguments. They contrasted the harmonious, orderly, religious, and conservative society that supposedly existed in the South with the tumultuous, heretical, and mercenary ways of a North torn apart by radical reform, individualism, class conflict, and, worst of all, abolitionism. This defense represented the mirror image of the so-called free-labor argument increasingly prevalent in the North: to the assertion that slavery kept the South backward, poor, inefficient, and degraded, proslavery advocates responded that only slavery could save the South from the evils of modernity run wild.
From the mid-1840s, the struggle over slavery became central to American politics. Northerners who were committed to free soil, the idea that new, western territories should be reserved exclusively for free white settlers, clashed repeatedly with Southerners who insisted that any limitation on slavery's expansion was unconstitutional meddling with the Southern order and a grave affront to Southern honor. The slavery debate wasn’t so much about the morality of the issue, but how it effected the nation politically and economically. This debate would later erupt into war. This furthers the South’s commitment to Southern ways, especially slavery, in that they were willing to break from the Union, go to war, and die for the Southern cause.
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