"We at the South are an agricultural people, and we require an extended territory. Slave labor is a wasteful labor, and it therefore requires a still more extended territory than would the same pursuits if they be prosecuted by the more economical labor of white men."

-Jefferson Davis

Slavery, as the base of the economy and culture of the American South, was a system with inherent faults that deprived the society not only of progress, but also of the ability to feasibly maintain itself in the long term. Such an inefficient system was incapable of longevity, and such a violent and inhumane system was incapable of coexisting beneficially with another society. Too many conflicts arose for slavery to profitably or reasonably exist within finite borders. The white people whose wealth and well-being depended on slavery, and those whose beliefs and customs depended on it, were naturally too scared of change and risk to attempt a total obliteration of their culture in favor of a more beneficial one. This left them with but one short sighted solution to their problems, which was to gain more land to spread slavery to. And while this solution was lucrative to many of the southern whites at the time, it was, for obvious reasons, not sustainable for very long, and it gave rise to a bitter conflict and competition with the South’s rival, her more populous sister, the North, and a conflict that, in the words of Thomas Cobb, could be "only extinguished in blood."

The reason slavery became such a prolific and embedded institution in the South was the huge profits that could be afforded by the use of an absolutely controllable source of labor, which only required that you pay for its basic subsistence, to farm large cash-crop plantations. From the beginning, the most immediately profitably option for planters was to drain the land of its nutrients to quickly produce huge amounts of a single cash crop, such as cotton. Once the land was pillaged, there was plenty more to the west. The western land was empty save for Indian tribes, but the clearing of them was one issue that both the North and South strongly advocated. In 1802, when the Louisiana territory was purchased from France, this left a seemingly boundless expanse for the planters to move into, so they saw no reason to practice any other method of agriculture than the ones which abused the soil. However, this was an extremely short sighted view of the territories available for expansion. The only significant territories acquired in the Louisiana Purchase which became parts of the slave South were Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.

The Louisiana Purchase was not automatically a boon to the slave holding expansionists of the South. As soon as the Louisiana Territory was annexed to the U.S., Senator James Hillhouse proposed a series of bills to try to restrict the role that slavery would play in the new territories. The first bill prevented the foreign slave trade in the territories; this bill passed easily because the southerners wanted a market for slaves where the prices would remain high, and because it was to be nationally prohibited soon anyway. The second was to ban the importation into the new territory of any slave who had been imported to the U.S. after 1798. The only state which allowed the foreign slave trade that late was South Carolina, which at this point was still importing slaves from abroad. This would prevent the new lands from becoming big incentives for the South Carolinians to maximize their slave importation. The North wanted to prevent this because they did not want all of the Louisiana Territories becoming filled with slave labor, and because many of them were morally opposed to slavery. Most of the South wanted to prevent this simply because it would give South Carolina a distinct economic advantage over the rest of the southern states, who had already banned the foreign slave trade. The senators from South Carolina were not present at the meetings, and the bill met no real resistance, though it would have still passed had the South Carolinians been there. These two laws were fairly unimportant, mundane, and did not actually restrict the use of slave labor in the Louisiana Territories. But after these two successes, Hillhouse proposed a law that stated that any slave imported into the new territories might only be kept in servitude for one year. This proposal was not as welcomed as the others, and it lost by about a sixty percent - forty percent split. Some northerners voted against it only because of their fear of radical decisions, most notably John Q. Adams, who usually took the side of human rights.

Though there was a measure passed to restrict people whose sole business was the trading of slaves from the Louisiana Territories, they ended up being annexed to the U.S. with little restrictions on the actual operation of slavery internally. Slavery quickly spread to the wet soil of modern day Louisiana, where New Orleans acted as a hub of trade for the Mississippi River, and cotton and rice could be grown on big plantations. Rice was not as soil taxing as the other plantation crops, but it was not nearly as widespread or profitable either.

Although the normal state of the plantation agriculture was to drain the land of its nutrients and move on, less damaging agricultural techniques did exist, but they did not have the same appeal of huge profit margins and little commitment to the land. Soil conservation methods that were common in the North, such as deep plowing, commercial and manure fertilizers, and especially crop rotation, were scoffed at by most of the southern planters who refused to see the long term unviability of their expansionist policies. Also, it would have been very difficult to enact these reforms while maintaining slavery, because of the extraordinary inefficiency of slave labor as opposed to smaller free farms. A slave would resent his position and his master, and try hard to do as little work as possible and to do minor harm to the master, such as breaking tools. The master would still be required to feed and shelter him, or else he would get no work whatsoever out of him. On a small free farm, such as a family farm, the workers would not engage in such behavior because it would only be self-injurious, and they do not spite their own family so, or if they do, it might be manifested differently. This made in impractical for the planters to farm less soil taxing crops such as grains, because they would not have the huge profit margins of the cotton or tobacco.

The foreign slave trade was banned in 1807, largely due to the support of southern plantation owners who wanted a monopoly on the slave market. This drove up the price of slave labor immensely. Thus, soil saving techniques that required extra labor became too expensive to maintain profitability, and planters, who were often in debt from land and slave purchases, could not afford to have their slaves carting manure and operating heavy, deep soil plows. Also, commercial fertilizer was too expensive to be used on the huge plots of land that the planters owned.

If the planters could not maintain profitable farms for long periods of time, the only solution was to expand the area where where slavery was allowed. Slavery expanded into the territories south of the Ohio River and the gulf states with no trouble whatsoever. The expansion of the slave South first came into major conflict with the free North around 1818, when Missouri applied for statehood in the Union. The population in the territory of Missouri was about 17 % black, and almost all of those blacks were slaves , thus it naturally applied as a slave state. When congress reviewed its application New Yorker James Tallmadge proposed an amendment which stated that no slaves would be imported into Missouri after it became a state, and that its state constitution would provide for the gradual elimination of slavery within its borders, and that young slaves would be freed when they reached their twenty-fifth birthdays. This act instigated a huge debate in congress, whose issues boiled down to an argument over the merits of slavery and its spread. Common arguments against the Tallmadge amendment were that slavery was a beneficial system and that congress did not have the power to restrict slavery inside a state. Northerners refuted this by saying that Missouri was not yet a state and that congress did have the ability to make provisions which a territory must meet to become a state. Other southerners declared that slavery was an institution bad for the southern whites because of the stagnant economy and dependence on black labor it created; however, they used this argument only to advocate the spread of slavery. They said that if slavery was diffused across a broader expanse of land, it would lessen its impact and significance. This argument was obviously bogus, because the slave population had the ability to reproduce itself with available resources, so the slave population among the states which slaves were exported from would bounce back, and the population in areas which slaves were brought to would rise to meet the available resources. Tallmadge seemed to act out of a genuine view of slavery as immoral, but some of the northern supporters of his amendment supported it as an attempt to tip the balance of power between the North and South in their favor, while not actually being concerned over the status of slavery in itself. The southern congressmen used this to their advantage by calling the amendment a mere ploy for power. In these debates the antislavery words of Tallmadge and other Northerners won out, and the bill passed the house. But, it did not fair well in the senate, which represented the South and the West, the states with fewest people and the most likely to advocate slavery or states’ rights, in disproportionate numbers. Thus, the discussion of Missouri’s admission to the Union was postponed.

Concurrently, Alabama was admitted to the Union as a slave state without any struggle; fighting against slavery in Alabama would have been futile, and would have further embittered the relations between the North and the South. This evened out the amount of free and slave states in the Union. Also, Maine applied for statehood, and being the northernmost area in the country at the time, it was of course free. If Maine was let in as a state, there would be one more free state than slave state, thus disrupting the senatorial balance of power. It was now proposed to let Maine into the Union on the condition that Missouri also be admitted, but as a slave state. The debates this time around were even more heated, and Rufus King explicitly denounced slavery as harmful and evil. However, the senate voted for admitting Missouri as a slave state with the addition of an amendment from senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois that permanently banned slavery from any Louisiana Purchase territory north of the latitude mark of 36° 30’ (or what is now the northern border of Oklahoma). The House did not like this, and wanted at first another bill that would ban slavery in Missouri, but after much encouragement to end the stalemate, the Senate’s version passed by a margin of three votes.

Though the northerners had more in numbers, they did not feel as strongly on the issue, and indeed, they definitely did not have as much riding on it as did the southern representatives. A minority of the northerners had ties to southern cotton production and voted along with the South, and four of the northerners missed the vote, one because he left for dinner. The southerners attitudes were very different, largely because many of them had their own slaves, and if they did not, they were definitely tied to the slave aristocracy. One fainted during his speech, and another was carted in on his deathbed to cast his vote.

The sectional division and harsh conflict shown in the debates over the Missouri Compromise would only intensify as time went on and both sides convictions grew stronger. One type of notion that became wide spread particularly contributed to the clash between the North and the South; this was the notion on both sides that the powerful people on the other side were conspiring directly against their own side. Though these notions were not very realistic, they served to strengthen the divisions and opinions, eventually making the real situation much more similar to the conspiracy theories than it originally was.

The South’s push for expansion continued twenty years later with the push to annex Texas. Texas was eventually annexed at the end of John Tyler’s term with a strong push from the embodiment of the Old South, John C. Calhoun and after a scare that if the U.S. did not take Texas in, the British would. Though most of the land in Texas was and is unarable desert, there were areas of fertile alluvial soil in the south, and slavery spread quickly to these, mostly in the form of cotton plantations. However, for southern expansionists there was a definite need for more land, and fortunately for them the new president James Polk was there to help. He instigated a war with Mexico, and eventually seized the Mexican capital. In the treaty negotiations, the U.S. received the sparsely populated upper half of Mexico, and Mexico was paid $15 million. The U.S. had now added another huge portion of land to its territory, and most of it was below the 36° 30’ line. However, most of it was also uninhabitable desert or unarable mountains. The southerners were very disappointed in this, and many of them had encouraged the U.S. to conquer all of Mexico, which many others considered a bad idea, due to the amount of Mexicans already there.

Many slave holders did see great opportunity in what the U.S. acquired from Mexico though. This perceived wealth source lay far to the west, in California. California had, and still has, a very good climate for many types of agriculture, and it had a possibility of mineral resources to be mined. However, the discovery of gold in California brought a huge influx of white settlers from the North in 1849. Though slave labor was often most effective in mines, for every white owner that came over with x amount of slaves, he would be displacing x amount of whites. The whites were already there, and because they were largely frontiersmen, they had a considerable amount of guns, and many of them would have little reservation on using those guns against any slaves that the southerners tried to bring in. Thus, by the 1850’s California was firmly "Northern."

The South now began to feel more and more constricted. Movements to reform the wasteful agricultural techniques had been widely talked about, but in practice had gone nowhere. There were also industrial reform movements in the South, which pushed for the use of slave labor in factories, so that the South would not be so dependent on expansion, and so it could be somewhat competitive with the North. This movement never became widespread. There were no home markets for manufactured goods because the slaves could not buy anything significant and the non-slave holding whites were too poor. Slave labor factories, and the renting out of semi skilled slaves for city jobs just made the situation for the non slave holding whites worse too. The whites in a city, when employed in a similar job as a negro, especially a slave, would refuse to work at all, because of the notion that it was degrading to be doing the same work as a negro. There was no way around this in slavery based culture, because the emphasis on the negroes lowly position was required to keep exploiting them as slaves. Another problem with the industrial slave labor system was the bonus system. There was no way to get the slaves to maintain high levels of production in factories (where constantly keeping eye on every one was impossible) without offering bonuses to workers for extra time or special duties. Slaves with tiny amounts of money were then allowed to go into town to blow it on drink, but drinking in town with other slaves - and free blacks - often gave the slaves subversive ideas. Combined with the way the industrial slave system provided a hierarchy within the slaves’ own culture by offering very small amounts of money and and freedom, this led to a tendency to provide slaves who had subversive ideas, and were leaders among other slaves. Almost all of the slave revolts in the nineteenth century were lead by artisans or industrial slaves.

Another solution which the South looked to for its need to expand was Cuba and other gulf states. Aggressive sentiments towards Cuba had been building up for quite some time among the many slave holders, and in 1854 the Ostend Manifesto, a warning from American diplomats to Spain and the world about America’s desire to take Cuba and Nicaragua, legitimized their feelings. The attempts to take Cuba never amounted to anything significant, which might not have been such a bad thing for the South anyway, as many Southerners, especially Whigs, realized. If the U.S. had taken Cuba, in the process of overthrowing Spanish rule, it would have been likely for the slaves to have rebelled, because there was a huge slave population who were treated even worse than the slaves in the American South. Also, if there was a successful conquest, the U.S. markets would be flooded with cheap sugar and slavery, and Cuba, being already cultivated, provided no new room for the South to expand to. Even so, many Northerners saw this as part of the growing slave power conspiracy which was taking over the U.S.

The more important 1854 event in the history of southern expansion was the Kansas-Nebraska act. This was an act of congress that said that when territories from the Kansas and Nebraska areas applied for statehood, the status of slavery in the state would be determined by popular sovereignty, a vote by the residents. For the South, this was immediately taken as a victory, and for the North as a loss; territories that once were free, now had the choice of becoming free or slave. For Nebraska territories this was irrelevant, their proximity to the North, geography, and climate, made them naturally free lands. Kansas on the other hand wasat the same latitude as Missouri, and had a chance at supporting cotton.

To reverse any possible northern hopes of reviving the Missouri compromises border at 36° 30’, in 1856 the Dred Scott case reached the supreme court. An elderly slave named Dred Scott, and his wife, Harriet Scott, had sued their mistress for freedom, because Mr. Scott claimed that because he accompanied and lived with his former Master while he moved from station to station in the military, he had lived in free states like Illinois and Wisconsin. The standard thing to do with this would have been to say that Mr. Scott was not a free man while in the free states, so he is still not a free man. However, with the conservative president Buchanan in office, and the supreme court being led by an adamant supporter of slavery Taney, the supreme court exceeded its normal powers and stated that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that slavery could not be banned from any of the territories, because it was immoral and unconstitutional to restrict and prohibit the possessing of private property. The court statement also said that slaves were not and could not be citizens, and therefore were not entitled to the same rights as whites.

This outraged the North, whose belief in a slave power conspiracy now had some grounding, and in the same year the South’s attempt to gain Kansas as a slave state had failed, and there had been violence in process. In the coming few years there would be numerous barbarous acts of animosity between the South and the North, such as John Brown’s attack on Harper's Ferry and the beating of Charles Sumner. The race of expansion between the North and the South, after numerous cut-offs and attempted trips, had degenerated into a fight, which would soon become the bloodiest in American history.



1. Barney, William; The Road to Secession, Preager Publishers, New York, NY (1972)
2. Beard, Charles and Mary; In: Slavery as a Cause of the Civil War; Edited by Rozwenc, Edwin C.; D.C. Heath and Co., Boston, MA (1949)
3. Commager, Henry Steele; Documents of American History, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, NY (1949)
  4. Helper, Hinton Rowan; The Impending Crisis of the South, Negro Universities Press, Westport, CO (1970)
5. Nye, Russel B.; In: Slavery as a Cause of the Civil War; Edited by Rozwenc, Edwin C.; D.C. Heath and Co., Boston, MA (1949)
6. Phillips, Ulrich B.; In: Slavery as a Cause of the Civil War; Edited by Rozwenc, Edwin C.; D.C. Heath and Co., Boston, MA (1949)
7. Robinson, Donald L.; Slavery in the Structure of American Politics 1765-1820, Hancourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY (1971)

Web Sources:

1. http://www.bchm.org/wrr/war Brazoria County Historical Museum: Annexation of Texas/ Mexican-American War.

Node Your Homework

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.