Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery. 9.5/10

By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank of the Hartford Courant. Published by Ballantine Books (trade paperback edition), 2005. 269 pgs. ISBN: 0-345-46783-3.

The authors set up this narrative completely and succinctly:

“…[T]he North’s story is thought to be heroic…Northerners were the good guys in the Civil War. They freed the slaves.

“Not all of this is exactly mythology, but it is a convenient and white-washed shorthand “

“The truth is that slavery was a national phenomena. The North shared in the wealth it created, and in the oppression it required” (Introduction, xxv).

This book is an eye-opener. I was aware of the complicity of New England’s insurance companies, some of which are still prominent, in providing ‘coverage’ for southern slave owners ‘property.’ Also, it’s widely known that, at the time of the Revolution, most northern states had slavery. That ‘institution’ very gradually disappeared over the early decades of the 19th century, surviving only south of the Ohio River and Mason-Dixon boundary.

That the Civil War was fought over the legality of secession, and not slavery per se, is difficult to dispute. Of course, without slavery, secession would’ve been a moot point. All of this is to say that regional, philisophic, and religious antipathy to slavery in the North did not imply much more than an abstract sympathy for black Americans, free or slave. White people may have thought that the lot of slaves was unjust, but equality between black and white wasn’t envisioned or desired by more than a handful of whites.

So, the author breaks down this pattern of outright complicity in slavery in every corner of the North. Particularly in New England. Shipbuilding, along with the textile and ivory industries, central to the industrial bloom in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts (and New York), were dependent on the need for slaveships, cotton, and ivory.

In other words, the ships were needed to bring slaves from Africa, the cotton from the South (conveyed on other Yankee vessels) for cloth woven into garments in the North, the ivory, also from Africa, for Northern factories to churn out piano keys and billiard balls. The ships, crews, and slaves themselves (as the cargo, or later, simply property) were financed, paid, or insured by Northern banks and insurance companies.

In a sense, it’s hard to see how the North and South drifted apart politically, given this lucrative and symbiotic partnership based on slavery. The authors find complicity is such arcane fields as apprehension of fugitive slaves, the manufacture of the very manacles of bondage, not to mention clothes and food for the slaves.

The links between North American, Carribean, and South American slavery is instructive. Rum, food went from Northern ports to support slavery in other parts of the world. Another well-known fact, the end of the domestic slave trade in 1808, proved to be worth little more than the paper it was written on.

The illicit slave trade (as if slave trade had legitimacy) continued even during the Civil War. All of which was possible with the indifference, acquiescence, tolerance, and outright participation of Northerners. The western states, bordering the Great Lakes, had less culpability in slavery; especially after the region’s gradual emancipation.

Nonetheless, lynchings and race riots were not uncommon across the North, particularly in border areas. Illinois’s proximity to Missouri led to a racial incident from a slave state to re-ignite (literally) in the so-called free state.

If the book has a flaw, it’s something inherent in the topic; there’s simply too much ground to cover. Might have been a bit tighter read to stick to the New England states’ complicity. Even so, including the arc of New Englander John Brown’s mission, as well as that of several other prominent abolitionists, adds a lot of background to the central story.

But to focus on New England’s role in slavery, we have to go back over two centuries before the Civil War. The African situation has to figure in, although juggling with the South itself, border state issues (i.e., Nat Turner’s Rebellion), the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act), and/or other countries with a hand in slavery lead us all over the map from one chapter to the next.

Maybe a more significant quibble with the authors is a hypothetical situation. In the afterword the question is posed–suppose there had been no slavery? “It is obvious that, at the very least, America’s extraordinary ascent into the world arena [without slavery] would have taken far longer than it did” (p.215). Why? I think that conclusion rests on a faulty premise.

The introduction of slavery into North America roughly paralleled the sequence of white colonization; there is no counterexample that could show a different outcome. Is it unrealistic to posit that settlers all up and down the colonies couldn’t have thrived on family farms, pastures, and livestock?

Particularly in the South, with its better soil and climate, I think that the historical version is the unlikeliest. It begs the question: why did people emigrate (first from England, and other countries later)? For religious, economic, and political reasons, as has always been the case when people move on.

Due to some unique convergence of ideas, some people felt a need for slaves. I would say, there was an opportunity to recreate the vassal system with lords and peasants that had just began to break down in Europe by the 17th century. What is more medieval than a major house, surrounded by a vast acreage, worked by subject people for the lord’s benefit, both in wealth and status?

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he suggested–with tongue-in-cheek–that the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s tales of chivalry brought about our Civil War. Unlike Europe, of course, here there was no ready supply of hapless laborers. So, slaves were the answer to an invented problem.

I’d go further and say: we might have come along even more rapidly without slavery (which would’ve also meant no Civil War). What’s remarkable isn’t that the U.S. became a major player on the world stage, but that we accomplished this despite the handicap of an the essentially anti-capitalist and inefficient slavery system.

Yes, cotton and tobacco made a lot of money for some people. But instead of a coterie of extreme wealth, surround by a mass of abject poverty, we might have had a broader class of self-sufficient farmers, with, hopefully, a surplus for cash or investment. That is,the system such as existed throughout most parts of the North.

To look at the North/South dichotomy another way, the Southern states functioned like so many colonies of the North. And, as in colonial experiences elsewhere, the South served as a cash cow for the North–along with its collaborators, the plantation owners–for the benefit of a clique in both areas.

In this case, uniquely, there were two sets of natives to deal with, the actual Native Americans, and the ‘imported’ native Africans. The first group was gradually, but decisively marginalized, the second was forced to make itself useful.

Against the relatively weak position of the South, which weakened increasingly as the 19th century neared its midpoint, the North was literally steaming ahead economically. It’s no wonder that Southern whites, top to bottom, were suspicious and defensive towards the North. They were motivated to fight the North because they feared that their society was endangered.

It was. What I can’t quite figure (as mentioned above) was what motivated the Union soldier in the war. As we saw in the New York Draft Riot of 1863, even compulsion didn’t work. Those guys fought against fighting. Of course, in ’61, neither side had much trouble getting recruits–for 90 day enlistments, that is. The South eventually had to resort to conscription too.

But to win the war, the Union armies had to conquer the South. No easy task, given that the Confederate states comprised an area about as large as western Europe. It would be interesting to know what the generals and the rank-and-file thought about their mission. It took Lincoln a few years to announce Emancipation; had the war ended quickly, there wouldn’t have been the need for that humanitarian policy–that was nonetheless a strategic necessity for Union victory.

I’ve gone well beyond the scope of this book. That’s because it’s so powerful and thought-provoking that the reader comes away with an alarming glimpse at our troubled past. In fact, we will never get away from slavery’s legacy.

An excellent book: 9.5 out of 10.

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