During the founding period alone (not Civil War era), was there any arguments at all from thinkers during that time positing that there just be two countries? It seems like many thinkers (Jefferson, Madison, and many more) saw the ruinous nature of slavery and it was fairly obvious that this would be a HUGE problem down the road. Even during their own period, there was significant compromises to keep the nation together.
However, it seems kinda odd that they have such a huge commitment to keeping the entire country together rather than just having a group of Northern states who abolished slavery and an unrelated group of Southern states who can go their own way. I understand they fought the Revolutionary War together, but it still seems very early on into a nation to have a national identity that one would sacrifice huge ethical principals to keep the country together.
This is more of a question of IF these letter exist at all…but I’m still curious… Were there other, more practical reasons? Was the Northern economy entirely contingent on the Southern states being around? Someone just enlighten me here.
At the time of the Revolution, there was not yet any clear-cut geographic division of the country into slavery-based regions. Slavery was still legal in the northern colonies, even in New England. After the Revolution, slavery began to be abolished on a state-by-state basis, often with slavery being more-or-less slowly phased out (“gradual emancipation”), which meant that the process of emancipation stretched well into the 19th Century in the northern areas of the original Thirteen Colonies. Meanwhile, the Northwest Ordinance (under the Articles of Confederation) provided that slavery would not be allowed in the Great Lakes states, so a geographic divide was beginning to form. But it wasn’t until 1820 and the Missouri Compromise that people started to really get a sense of there being a geographic dividing line between “slave states” and “free states”. Thomas Jefferson famously said of that Missouri Compromise, and specifically of the “Compromise Line” (Parallel 36°30′ north):
During the founding period there wasn’t the clear distinction between slave and free states as later developed. Only Massachusetts (1783) had entirely banned slavery before the signing of the Constitution in 1787. Other northern states generally banned slavery gradually (usually by freeing future children of slaves) so that several still had some slaves into the 1840s or even later. New York didn’t begin to free its slaves until 1799.
Slavery was also much less important in the South at that time than it later became. Expansion of cotton plantations due to the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 caused a five fold increase in the number of slaves in the South in the first half of the 19th Century. So while slavery was recognized as being a problem at the time of the foundation of the US, it wasn’t until the 1820s that it became a highly divisive issue.
We think of the United States as a major power. But back in the 18th century, we were an agricultural country with a low population. We were a weak country and the founders knew we’d have a hard time holding off the major European powers if any of them decided to attack us. So the founders wanted to keep the country as strong as possible and not divide it up into even smaller and weaker countries.
The Three-Fifths Compromise was a political battle between northern and southern states. It didn’t rise to the level the OP is talking about, but it definitely indicated a distinction between those two regions.
One thing to remember is that the idea of a foreign country successfully invading the mainland US has been absurd for around a century and a half, which is probably longer than a lot of poster’s families have been in the US. By the time of the civil war, the US was a continent-spanning industrial power that could conscript massively larger armies than anyone could hope to land, and since WW2 has maintained a navy more powerful than every other navy put together. But in the late 1700s, the US was just over a dozen tiny new states clinging to one coast, surrounded by large foreign colonies and hostile Indians, with with nothing like the manpower, economy, production, or shipbuilding capacity of any of the major European powers. In addition to the fact that slave/free was not a pivotal issue at the time, tear of being taken over or threatened and extorted was a major factor in deciding policy, and forming one country instead a bunch of independent states or regions protected much better against it.
I have to disagree. Slave/free was a gigantic issue at the time and was the one thing that might have prevented the unity that was clearly needed.
If you read the disputes during the writing of the Constitution, you quickly see that the split between the southern slave states and the northern states was the basis for every decision. That’s where I disagree with Colibri and MEBuckner. The northern states had slavery but were not dependent upon it like the southern states were. The difference between a mercantile/shipping economy and a plantation economy meant everything. The North wrangled with the South over every issue because of that.
That’s where compromises like slaves being counted as three-fifths their population for apportionment were so powerful. It sounds good to people today to insist that slaves should have counted as one full person - but that was what the South wanted. That would have given them more seats in the House, which was where all the power was expected to be. (And was for the next half century.) The issue had been around since the 1783 talks about the Articles of Confederation. The South obviously won both times, since they got more than one-half. They won the abandonment of any possibility of ending slavery for 20 years as well. Even the creation of the federal district in the South, one where slavery would be permitted, was another sop to them on the subject.
Would the southern states truly have not joined if the northern states were firmer? We’ll never know. But it was much closer than others here are saying. And it was always slavery that caused the threatened split. That created the instability that was simply papered over until the inevitable conflict. The country could not be a unified country until that issue was settled and the southern fanatics had to be forcefully and thoroughly defeated to settle it.
Not sure I can buy into that. I agree with your overall post, but there were lots of debates about the constitution that didn’t involve the issue of slavery. Take the Bill of Rights. There was a disagreement about putting that in, and what it should contain. But it doesn’t touch on slavery at all.
Exapno Mapcase, I agree with your observation about the different economies of the North and the South. The way that historians sometimes put it, especially when explaining it to our undergraduates, is: “societies with slaves” versus “slave societies.”
Your analysis of the three-fifths clause is also spot on. One of the things i have to explain very carefully to my students is that it was the South that was agitating for a full counting of slaves in order to increase its Congressional representation and, by extension, its electoral college vote. And, as you note, the three-fifths compromise was, really, a considerable victory for the South, and one that gave the region an outsized influence in Congress for much of the antebellum period.
I don’t think i would go this far. The first incredibly important dispute that comes to mind is the debate over patterns of representation in Congress; the so-called New Jersey Plan and Virginia Plan. This was much less about the question of slavery than it was about the issue of the relationship between a state’s population and its representation in the national government. Smaller states clearly tended to favor a system of equal weighting, without regard to population, while larger states thought that their larger population should get more representatives. As a result, we get a compromise, with a two-house Congress, one weighted by population, and the other equally weighted among the states.
As John Mace notes, the battle over the Bill of Rights was also not explicitly or predominantly regional or based on the perceived value of slavery.
Not exactly true - The colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War, had more than a quarter of the total manpower available to Britain, so hypothetical odds were 3-1. I do not count Ireland, as it was primarily a conquered nation and kept under control only by constant military presence, and represented a significant and permanent drain on British resources. The 2.5-to-3 million inhabitants of the Colonies was by no means a feeble population in the standards of the time, especially given that it was set to nearly double by 1800 despite the war years.
A slight bit of hyperbole, but not a huge stretch. I’d include the New Jersey plan, moreover. It was not supported by any state south of Maryland, all of whom knew, because of the number of slaves in residence, they would greatly benefit in a two-chamber Congress in which one house was controlled by population. Only about 40,000 out of 700,000 slaves were in the north.
Slavery was banned in Georgia from 1735 to 1751. It didn’t have the same commitment to slavery as other southern states by the start of the Revolutionary War.
(In fact, in 1861 the total vote for the secession convention was against immediate secession. But, like in 2000, the vote was for delegates and a slight majority of those voted for secession. The South wasn’t never uniformly anything.)
Three to one odds against you are not insurmountable but they are a significant disadvantage. It’s certainly not something the Americans would have wanted to amplify by splitting the country in half and making the odds six to one against them.
" By 1843 John Quincy Adams, originally a major supporter of the concept underlying manifest destiny, had changed his mind and repudiated expansionism because it meant the expansion of slavery in Texas."
It seems to answer the question, no one was thinking of a north south split until the ACW seed sprouted.
This was the point - “united we stand, divided we fall”. They’d just proven they could collectively fight a major European power to a draw; individually, they would be easy pickin’s. You’re also forgetting one of the other drivers of independence - economics. The European powers still typically had a tariff wall between their possessions and elsewhere. One goal of the colonial union (which still reverberates today in SCOTUS decisions) was eliminating any future impediment to commerce within the newly independent states.