Following my earlier review of, ‘New York and Slavery – time to teach the truth‘. The author, Alan J. Slinger, provides two important lists of ideas for teachers (for all of us?) to bear in mind when dealing with the subjects of Slavery in the Americas and Slavery in New York & the Northern States. Both lists contain important, considered points many of which apply to a study of Pennsylvanian history as much as to that of New York State. By kind permission from the author, I reproduce them below.
Ten Main Ideas About Slavery in the Americas
1. West Africans were experienced agricultural workers whose labour was used to exploit the resources of the American continents. Profits generated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and trade in slave-produced commodities financed the commercial and industrial revolutions in Europe and the United States. Global inequality today is a direct result of this history.
2. European societies and their American colonies accepted hierarchy, injustice, and exploitation as a normal condition of human life. Colour and religious differences made it easier to enslave Africans. Europeans justified this slavery by denying the humanity of the African. These attitudes were reinforced by nineteenth-century Social Darwinism and are the root of contemporary racist ideas.
3. Africans had slaves and participated in the slave trade. But although slavery existed in many times and cultures throughout human history, slavery in the Americas, including the United States, was a fundamentally different institution. There was no reciprocal obligation by the elite to the enslaved. Enslavement, with denial of humanity, was a permanent hereditary status; there was an impassable racial barrier.
4. Democracy and community among White, male, Christian property holders in the early American republic rested on the exploitation of other groups, especially the exploitation of the African. The founders of the United States were aware of the hypocrisy of owning slaves. Slavery was intentionally not addressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
5. Africans in the Americas resisted slavery in many different ways. They built families, communities, and religious institutions that asserted their humanity. In the United States, enslaved Africans developed an emancipatory Christianity based on the story of the Exodus and laced it with African symbols. In Haiti and Brazil, there were successful slave rebellions. Historians W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James believe the rebellion in Haiti was the impetus for the final decisions by Great Britain and the United States to support the suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
6. White and African-American abolitionists struggled for decades against slavery. Most White abolitionists based their beliefs on the Protestant religion. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the “Common Sense” of the antislavery crusade because it presented the humanity of the enslave African. The story of the complicity of some New Yorkers with slavery and resistance of others to oppression is not the story of White villany. Many White New Yorkers took strong political stands against what they perceived as a fundamental moral evil.
7. While Christian religious beliefs were used to challenge slavery, they were also used to justify it. Defenders of slavery, particularly in the South, used biblical citations to defend the “peculiar institution.”
8. Slavery was a national, rather than a southern, institution. There was limited slavery in the North until 1840 and prosperity in the North rested on the slave trade and the processing of slave produced raw materials.
9. The Civil War was not fought by the North to free Africans; it was fought to save the Union. It ended legal bondage, but not the racist ideas that supported the system.
10. With over 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy, the American Civil War should be seen as part of an African-American liberation struggle.
Ten Main Ideas About Slavery and the North
1. Slavery, until its abolition in New York State in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, even after it was declared illegal in 1808, the financing of slave plantations in the South and in the Caribbean, the shipping of slave-produced products, and the manufacture of goods using the commodities of slavery, were all integral to the prosperity of New Netherland, the British colony of New York, and the New York State.
2. Many New Yorkers implicated in the slave system were politically influential and economically powerful. They shaped the policies of the state and nation. A number of prominent individuals and founders of the state and national governments were participants in and profited from the salve system.
3. In order to preserve the Union and protect their own profits from products produced by enslaved workers, many New York and national leaders who opposed the expansion of slavery into the West were willing to compromise with Southern slave owners and to support the slave system in the South even after the outbreak of the Civil War.
4. Despite the Declaration of Independence’s promise of human equality, there were ideological inconsistencies in the early nation. Many leading New Yorkers, including some White opponents of slavery, believed in the racial inferiority of African Americans, opposed full political rights for African Americans, and endorsed their re-colonalisation in Africa. Some of the most radical abolitionists in New York who accepted Black equality were unwilling to accept equal rights for women. Significantly, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were major allies in the struggles for rights for both African Americans and women.
5. The slave system and racism contributed to an endemic of fear of uprisings by New York’s African population during the colonial era. Rumors of potential rebellion led to “witch hunts”. Africans who fought for their freedom in the colonial era were summarily tried, tortured, and executed. Suspects were tortured untill they confessed to “crimes” and implicated others. Minor infractions of the slave code were severely punished. On a number of occasions violent mobs attacked African Americans and White abolitionists.
6. At the same time, New York State offered a safe haven to many Africans who escaped from slavery and a place where free African Americans could organise politically with White allies to end the slave system and achieve full citizenship. New Yorkers, both black and White, were active participants and national leaders in political campaigns to end slavery and to resist the oppression of Black people.
7. African Americans in New York resisted slavery through active and passive means. They resisted slavery through running away, organising their own cultural and religious institutions, building families and communities, openly of surreptitiously disobeying slaveowners, and through open revolt.
8. Resistance to slavery was often violent. Enslaved Africans in New York openly rebelled against slavery during the colonial era. Many supported the British against forces fighting for American independence in an effort to achieve their own emancipation. Leading New York abolitionists, both Black and White, violated the law and physically prevented the recapture of runaway slaves. Some New York abolitionists were supporters of John Brown’s military campaigns against the slave system and were implicated in his armed assault on a federal weapon’s arsenal in 1859.
9. The histories of many parts of New York were influenced by slavery, the slave trade, and the struggles to end them. Because of the pattern of settlement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slavery in the New York State was concentrated on Long Island, in New York City and its surroundings, and in the Hudson River Valley up through Albany. In the nineteenth century, the port of New York functioned as a major international centre for the financing of the slave trade and the trade in goods produced by slave labour.
10. New York was a major centre for abolitionist and anti-abolitionist movements and publications. Due to their proximity to Canada, to work opportunities, and to religious and other social movements, regions of New York State and cities located along the route of the Erie Canal played major roles on the underground railroad and in antislavery agitation during the nineteenth century. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the availability of land in the North Country made it a safe haven for free Blacks and for escaped slaves who sought a place where they could build families and communities.
Alan Singer has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Rutgers University. In Hofstra University’s School of Education and Allied Human Services, he is a professor of secondary education and the director of social studies education.