The Sleeping Serpent of Slavery

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2012.)

From our Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the start of the Civil War in 1861, slavery posed a fundamental contradiction to our American identity. How could the same country whose Declaration stated “all men are created equal” and which held itself on high as the exemplar of freedom allow slavery? Indeed, there were slave markets right in our nation’s capital.

Unable to resolve differences over slavery, our Founding Fathers avoided mentioning the word in our Constitution. It essentially recognized slavery as lawful by counting each slave as three-fifths a person for purposes of taxes and representation in Congress; however, it refers to them as “other persons,” or a “person held to service or labor.” Historian Barbara Fields has stated that “if there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States … with slavery still a part of its heritage.”

When in 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, allowing the easy removal of cotton seeds, production of cotton and consequently the demand for slaves soared.

Slavery began in Rhode Island, as with the other American colonies, in the 17th century. In 1652, the colony passed the first abolition law in colonial America; however, the law was not really enforced. In the 18th century the colony’s economy became largely dependent on the trade triangle: rum produced in the colony would be exported to Africa for slaves, these slaves would be brought to the Caribbean for molasses and sugar, these commodities would come to the colony to produce the rum.

During the 18th century, Newport and Bristol became major slave markets in the American colonies. Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants like John Brown and George DeWolf financed nearly 1000 slave voyages to Africa and carried over 100,000 slaves to the Western Hemisphere. By 1774, slaves made up 6.3% of the colony’s population, twice as high as any other New England colony. Anti-slavery laws were passed in 1774 and 1784; however, the transatlantic slave trade continued even after the United States banned it in 1807. By the mid-19th century, many Rhode Islanders were active in the abolitionist movement, particularly Quakers in Newport and in Providence such as Moses Brown.

Straining to maintain this so-called “peculiar institution,” so vital to their economy and way of life, southerners defended slavery vehemently, feeling themselves in mortal combat with their northern oppressors. By 1840 southerners maintained that slavery was “a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the slave, and a blessing to the master.” It civilized African savages and provided them social security for life in contrast with the sordid poverty of “free” labor in the North. Some southerners such as Edward Pollard and George Bickley of Virginia even envisioned the extension of the southern version of American liberty to the Caribbean and Central America. Slavery created a far superior society to the “vulgar, contemptible” Yankees. The famous South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun summed up the southern view by maintaining that slavery was a “positive good … the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

A slave’s life was misery. One freed slave stated: “No day ever dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. For the slave, it is all night.” Children were sent to the fields at twelve. Slaves worked from sunrise to sunset, and on moonlight night’s they would work longer. On the auction block, slaves were naked so that buyers could see how little they had been whipped. Historian James McPherson noted that the breakup of slave families was the “largest chink in the armor” of defenders of slavery. It was this theme which author Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized in her highly influential bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. Slave marriage was not recognized as legal, so preachers changed the vows to “until death or distance do you part.”


A former slave stated: “If I thought I’d ever be a slave again, I’d just take a gun and end it all right away, because you’re nothin’ but a dog.”

The greatest African-American of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, freed man, abolitionist, writer, and orator, stated: “In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields …, but my rapture is soon checked when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slave-holding and wrong…. I am filled with unutterable loathing.”

Essayist John J. Chapman called slavery the “sleeping serpent” that lay coiled up under the table at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In the 1850s it awoke, and in 1861 it envenomed our country.

Follow me on Twitter: @FredZilian

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