Slavery and the White Population, North and South

A view by the author / researcher / collector, Horace Seldon

If white people of the North were to look to Garrison for support of any assumptions of moral superiority over the South, there would be a sharp and persistent rebuke.

“As a people, we of New England, are lamentably ignorant of the subject of slavery, but even our ignorance is exceeded by our apathy. When we hear of the cruel conduct of the slaveholders, we often kindle into a flame, and our judgments tell us that they are without excuse. We can hardly believe that such beings exist in our land. This is a righteous indignation; these feelings of abhorrence are creditable to our humanity. But what if it should appear, on a candid examination, that we are as guilty as the slave owners? that we uphold a system which is full of cruelty and blood? that the chains which bind the limbs of the slaves have been riveted by us? Let us see whether we are indeed implicated in this bloody business. ….In its origin, slavery was a common crime; it is equally so in its continuance, as well as a common curse; in its removal we are all bound to assist. The foundation of the system was laid in Massachusetts and Virginia. Other colonies immediately began to build thereon; and if the free states have since overturned the wings of the superstructure, they have also assisted in furnishing material to enlarge the main edifice. For thirty-two years after the Declaration of Independence, the ships of New England were actively engaged in stealing victims on the coast of Africa… Moreover, the transportation of domestic slaves (a trade equally atrocious with the foreign) is almost exclusively effected in eastern vessels….”

Any superiority feeling among white Northerners, slaveholders or not, was quickly devastated by the facts of their complicity. This was no simple statement of “mere” complicity in the beginnings of slavery.   It was a charge that the North was a continuing center for the system of slavery.

Slavery was a system of such evil origin that it was clear that anyone involved directly in the operation of that system was tainted. Any word for or about such people would remind them of their sin. Garrison was also clear that even those who were not directly involved in the operation of the system, were a part of and beneficiaries of the system.

For the whites of the South, slaveholders or not, most often Garrison condemned them for their support of a system which provided valued things for their lives, while degrading the lives of the enslaved. While most Southern slaveholders saw the system as a beneficial one for themselves, there were some doubts expressed about its ultimate value. On at least one occasion Garrison used the words of a Southern gentleman legislator, from Virginia, warning them that slavery also had disastrous meaning for all of Southern life. The words were from a certain “T. Marshall”… “Slavery is ruinous to the whites — retards improvement — roots out industrious population, banishes the yeomanry of the country —deprives the weaver, the spinner, the smith, the carpenter of employment and support. This evil admits of no remedy –it is increasing, and will continue to increase, until the whole country will be inundated with one black wave, covering its whole extent, with a few white faces here and there floating on the surface. The master has no capital but what is invested in human flesh – the father, instead of being richer for his sons, is at a loss how to provide for them — there is no diversity of occupations, no incentive to enterprise. Labor of every species is disreputable, because performed mostly by slaves. Our towns are stationary, our villages almost everywhere declining – and the general aspect of the country marks the curse of a wasteful, idle, reckless population who have no interest in the soil, and care not how much it is impoverished. Public improvements are neglected, and the entire continent does not present a region for which nature has done so much, and art so little. If cultivated by free labor, the soil of Virginia is capable of sustaining a vast population, among whom labor would be honorable, and where ‘the busy hum of men’ would tell that all were happy, and all were free.”

So the agitation of white minds and hearts began. In that effort Mr. Garrison never ceased throughout his life.