De Tocqueville observed that "race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known"
RACE in the NORTH
Sept. ye 15, 1682
To ye Aged and Beloved Mr. John Higginson:
There is now a ship at sea called the Welcome, which has on board a hundred or more of the heritics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn, who is the chief scamp, at the head of them.
The General Court has accordingly given secret orders to master Malachi Huscott, of the brig Porpose, to waylay the said Welcome, slyly as near the Cape of Cod as may be, and make captive the said Penn and his ungodly crew, so that the Lord may be glorified, and not mocked on the soil of this new country with the heathen worship of these people.
Much spoil can be made by selling the whole lot to Barbados, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar, and we shall not only do the Lord great service by puniching the wicked, but we shall make great good for his minister and people.
Master Huscott feels hopeful and I will set down the news when the ship comes back.
Cotton Mather [*]
You can feel chilled by that letter even if you don't have several ancestors on the "Welcome" (as I do). But it's an accurate insight into the mindset of the New England Puritans, whom we honor among the founders of the country, and hold up as models in contrast to the nefarious slave-owners of the South.
De Tocqueville observed that "race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known."
The word "racism" in all its variants is a 20th century invention. Lincoln never heard it. What we would now call "racism" was so pervasive and universal in 19th century America -- North and South and West -- that no one felt a need to coin a word for it. The mere fact that we have a word "racism" in our vocabulary now is a way to rope off a certain attitude or behavior, and that is a first step to moving beyond it. It's a sign of progress.
I dislike the idea of making modern moral labels retroactive. I can no more condemn George Washington as immoral for owning slaves in Virginia in the 1790s than I can call Aristotle stupid for not knowing that the Sun is a star. Modern people sometimes like to trot out some racist statements by Abraham Lincoln. I'm impressed that Lincoln was less racist than the generality of people in the place he was born and raised in, the pre-war U.S. Midwest.
The abolitionists -- that is, the extremists among them who advocated not just emancipation but social equality of the races -- had a uphill fight to persuade popular opinion in the North, South, West and all points that blacks and white were equal in any real sense.
To get an idea of how strongly the North, as a section, despised abolitionists in the 1830s, consider the career of Lydia Maria Child. Born and raised in Massachusetts, in 1824, when she was just 22, she published the first historical novel printed in the United States. It made her an instant celebrity. She spun out novels and stories that the public gobbled up, and she became editor of "The Juvenile Miscellany," a new and popular children's magazine, again one of the first of its kind. Her book The Frugal Housewife was an immensely popular manual.
But in the 1830s Child got involved with Garrison's abolitionist movement, and she dedicated herself to it. She published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833. The work condemned slavery in the standard abolitionist terms, pointing out its contradiction with Christian teachings, and its moral and physical degradation of slaves and owners alike. She also railed at miscegenation, and she took shots at the North for its share of responsibility for the system.
And it stopped her career cold. The views were considered so extreme that the public dropped her. Sales of her books plummeted, publishers refused to take anything she wrote, and she lost her editorial post with "The Juvenile Miscellany." This pioneer of American publishing is now utterly obscure, and most people who see her name have no idea that she wrote, for instance, the Thanksgiving poem that begins, "Over the river and through the woods ...."
To prove the pervasiveness of any opinion, in the days before Gallup polls, you have to introduce masses and masses of documentary evidence, and even then, no matter how many gallons of ink you drain, you're open to a charge of selective bias.
The editorial opinions of anti-administration Northern newspapers during the Civil War were obviously full of a virulent racism. It was there for political purposes, primarily, and the editors of those newspapers often had personal relationships to the blacks in their communities that were at least as benevolent and sincere as those of their Republican enemies.
Their attempt was to stir up resentment of the party in power. And the reason they played on that particular string, and play it so long and loud, is that they were sure it resonated with the voters.
One of the Pennsylvania newspapers I studied was full of race-baiting that makes me cringe even now. It slandered Lincoln, too, calling him every name in the book. But nobody made trouble for the editor until the summer of 1861, when he printed his opinion that the North had gone to war with the ultimate goal of freeing the slaves. This was considered so outrageous and offensive that soldiers just back from their three-months regiments attacked the office and sacked it.
I spent a long time reading letters, journals, newspapers and diaries in a region of Pennsylvania so noted for its abolitionism that it's now marketing historical tourism based on the Underground Railroad. But in all that reading I found almost nothing that would not be considered hard-core racism today.
I wasn't writing about race per se, but the book had to touch on the topic. It became painful at times, reading one thing after another, and I wondered if it wasn't undoing all the rest of my work in trying to paint a vivid, sympathetic picture of a bygone Northern place. Like Thomas Jefferson's slaves, the one fact begins to crowd out all the others. At times it did seem to me to poison every positive quality, in the men, women, and institutions of that whole community.
I could only explain it by remembering the degree of degradation that must have been brought on the black community by lack of education and poverty, and by the pervasive racist views of the day that were passed off as either scientific fact or the immutable word of God. But remember, this was the North, not the South.
From 1843, an appeal trying to drum up public donations to keep open a public school for black children:
"Education is said to be the chief defense of nations, and in the case of white people it is supposed to be a great preventive of crime. It is respectfully submitted that what is so good for white people may also be beneficial for the colored race.
"We know there is a feeling of hostility and prejudice existing against this people, and a wish is often expressed by many, that they could be removed from amongst us. It might be desirable to have them away, but there are many things desirable which are not practicable. They are here, and are likely to remain here, and the question to be asked is, whether it is better to let children of this class grow up in utter ignorance or to bring the purifying influence of Education to bear upon them.
"... They are a kind of people which white persons do not care to be much acquainted with, and whose character they have not thought it worth while to study. They are a degraded people, but they are not all degraded, they are a vicious people, but they are not all vicious, and it is believed that if they could have a schoolhouse and lot of their own, in which the best judging among them could place a teacher of their own choosing, they would be able to keep a good school the whole year, aided of course by the annual appropriation from school directors.
"... Do you care nothing for the colored people and their children? If you do not, still you perhaps desire the welfare of your own children, and upon observing the superiority of educated colored children over those brought up in ignorance, you will readily perceive that it would be much better to have your own offspring brought up in a community where the first are found than to expose them to the pernicious influence of the latter class.
"For your own sake then, contribute to enlighten a population which you cannot remove from among you, that the burden of this disagreeable contact may be rendered as light as possible."
This is a moderate, mainstream -- liberal -- voice in that community. I suspect it was written by a Quaker, perhaps a member of an abolition society.
There are voiciferous and sometimes violent people in the world today who claim that circuses and slaughterhouses and animal testing of new medical techniques are sins against nature and God. In 100 or 1,000 years it may be an obvious opinion that they were right -- I would not be surprised. But then PETA research lab bombers will be the only heroes in our generation. All the rest of us will be written off as immoral or worse.
A VERMONT STORY
From a speech on emancipation, by Sen. J.R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, March 19, 1862 [Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session, vol. IV, appendix, p.84, col. 3]
I can give you a case directly in point. A very distinguished gentleman from Vermont was first elected to Congress, I believe, about 1843. One of the well-to-do farmers in his neighborhood called upon him, the evening before he was to leave for Washington, to pay his respects. He found him in his office, and told him that he came for that purpose, and to bid him good bye.
"And now, judge," said he, "when you get to Washington, I want to have you take hold of this negro business, and dispose of it in some way or other; have slavery abolished, and be done with it."
"Well," said the judge, "as the people who own these slaves, or claim to own them, have paid their money for them, and hold them as property under their State laws, would it not be just, if we abolish slavery, that some provision should be made to make them compensation?"
He hesitated, thought earnestly for a while, and, in a serious tone, replied: "Yes, I think that would be just, and I will stand my share of the taxes." Although a very close and economical man, he was willing to bear his portion of the taxes.
"But," said the judge, "there is one other question; when the negroes are emancipated, what shall be done with them? They are a poor people; they will have nothing; there must be some place for them to live. Do you think it would be any more than fair that we should take our share of them?"
"Well, what would be our share in the town of Woodstock?" he inquired.
The judge replied: "There are about two thousand five hundred people in Woodstock; and if you take the census and make the computation, you will find that there would be about one for every five white persons; so that here in Woodstock our share would be about five hundred."
"What!" said he, "five hundred negroes in Woodstock! Judge, I called to pay my respects; I bid you good evening;" and he started for the door, and mounted his horse. As he was about to leave, he turned round and said: "Judge, I guess you need not do anything more about that negro business on my account." [Laughter.]
Mr. President, perhaps I am not going too far when I say that honorable gentleman sits before me now.
Mr. [Jacob] COLLAMER [R-Vt.]. As the gentleman has called me out, I may be allowed to say that the inhabitants of the town were about three thousand, and the proportion was about one to six.
[*] I have seen this letter in different books -- including, curiously, Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces," which cites it in a scholarly study of American government -- but did not find it in the collection of Mather's writings I consulted, which was published in the 19th century. It is possible the letter is not genuine, or is considered doubtful. The wording varies somewhat in the published versions I have seen. It also is possible it was left out of the 19th century collection out of embarrassment.