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White into Black: Seeing Race, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery in Antebellum America

Sarah L. Burns, Indiana University
Joshua Brown, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Historical Background

Cotton became the major commercial crop of the American South after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Eli Whitney’s gin (short for “engine”), which quickly separated the seeds from the cotton, vastly increased the crop’s profitability. As the South’s staple crop, cotton benefited from and also fueled the growth of the textile industries in both England and the northern states. The ascension of “King Cotton” required more workers to pick and process the cotton, rejuvenating the institution of slavery and promoting its expansion, including the growth of an increasingly profitable internal slave trade.

As slavery became entrenched in the South and wage labor in the North, sectional tensions mounted over whether new territories and new states would be reserved for one labor system or the other. By the 1820s the North’s predominance in population challenged the South’s political power; as a result, the spread of slavery became critical to the region’s continuing existence. The first sectional crisis arose over the question of whether the Missouri territory should be admitted as a slave or free state. The 1821 Missouri Compromise, allowing Missouri to join the Union as a slave state (and admitting Maine as a free state), momentarily eased tensions. But slavery’s subsequent move westward would provoke more crises and additional compromises that served only to patch over and not resolve the fundamental conflict.

Widespread opposition to slavery was not pronounced until the 1830s. It was the expansion of slavery and, in particular, the resistance of enslaved African Americans that galvanized protest. The rebellion led by the Virginia slave Nat Turner in 1831 and the intense repression imposed on the lives of slaves and southern free blacks in the uprising’s aftermath mobilized northern anti-slavery opinion and organizing. At first a marginal and heavily victimized movement (anti-abolitionist riots were common), it would grow over the years, composed of a loose coalition of different groups, including many northern free blacks. These groups propounded a range of attitudes and tactics for ending slavery. The greatest division among anti-slavery forces was between proponents of “moral suasion,” who rejected any engagement with a political system founded on slavery, and those wanting to pursue abolition through electoral politics.

Antislavery agitation, especially after the Turner rebellion, provoked a counter pro-slavery movement. Inciting intimidation and violence against abolitionists, slavery’s advocates adopted South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s defense of the system as a “positive good” as opposed to the earlier claim that it was a “necessary evil.”

The struggle against slavery was aided and abetted by images. “[W]e regard anti-slavery prints,” declared the southern-born, white anti-slavery activist Sarah Grimk√© in 1837, “as powerful auxiliaries in the cause of emancipation, and recommend that these ‘pictorial representations’ be multiplied a hundred fold; so that the speechless agony of the fettered slave may unceasingly appeal to the heart of the patriotic, the philanthropic, and the Christian.” Abolition was the first reform movement to rely heavily on a range of visual media to promote its cause.