Lecture 12: Slavery


This issue, foreshadowed in past lectures, is the one that drives the content of the course hereafter. Here we go back to colonial times to deal with the origins, decline, and tragic resurgence of human slavery in America. Then we trace the rise of this issue as a sectional controversy through 1850, when one more great compromise offered brief promise for preservation of the Union.


Outline of Lecture


For a long time historians were reluctant to deal with slavery as the central issue at state in the Civil War, or race as a central issue in American society. Historians cannot shrink from such moral issues, but they also need to seek empathy with the historical figures of the past in order to understand what happened.

Slavery Entrenched in the South

Slavery, established in colonial times, seemed to be withering away in the early years of the republic. It came back, though, with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in the South. The so-called peculiar institution not only became ingrained into southern life but also acquired the protection of law.


Thinking About Slavery

Slavery was a difficult issue for early Americans to approach, first because given their values, they could not see how to solve the problems of economic and race that would accompany emancipation. Moreover, discussion of the issue was radicalized, southerners voicing intractable arguments in favor of slavery, northerners condemning them just as loudly.


Uneasy Compromise

Slavery was entrenched, but it was vulnerable in certain aspects: slavery in DC, and the handling of fugitive slaves. The main focus of controversy, however, was the possibility of slavery extended into the western territories. This was an explosive issue, involving several states and territories, apparently settled by the Compromise of 1850.


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9. Liberty of the Press in the United States


In the lecture on slavery we encounter a peculiar example of reform journalismóthe abolitionist press. By reading Tocqueville's remarks on the press in general, you will come to see how remarkable the abolitionist press was.


         Journalists sometimes do irresponsible things and print things they shouldn't. (Many southerners said this was the case with the abolitionist press.) According to Tocqueville, is there any way to regulate this sort of behavior?

         With so many newspapers, why wasn't the press in Tocqueville's America powerful and dangerous?

         Many people today are concerned with the abuse of free speech on the Internet. Can you apply Tocqueville's observations to this later situation?


Slavery and the Old South remain shrouded in clouds of romance. For instance, Gone with the Wind is now out in DVD and other digital formats. Take a look around this exhibition at the University of Texas, and consider how this cinematic phenomenon of popular culture may affect our images of history.

Film Review

Gone with the Wind

Itís epic, itís romance, but our main concern here is how the film depicts slavery and the slave-holding South.


The virtue of this compelling film about kidnapped Africans seeking freedom is that it cuts through the legalities and the images to portray slaves as people with fears, befuddlements, and aspirations.


A mother attempting to escape from slavery in Kentucky makes an agonizing choice.

Book Review

Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


Jacobs & Barsky, Eds., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Washington, Ed., Narrative of Sojourner Truth


Johnson, Middle Passage


Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South