1. Crisis Within the Slave System

The slave system had served Amerika well, but as the settler nation matured what once was a foundation stone increasingly became a drag on the growth of the new Euro-Amerikan Empire. The slave system, once essential to the life of white society, now became worse than an anachronism; it became a growing threat to the well-being of settler life. While the settler masses and their bourgeois leaders still intended to exploit the oppressed to the fullest extent, increasingly they came to believe that one specific form of exploitation - Afrikan slavery - had to be shattered.

Nothing is gained without a price. As "natural" and "Heaven-sent" as the great production of Afrikan slave labor seemed to the planters, this wealth was bought at the cost of mounting danger to settlers as a whole. For the slave system imported and concentrated a vast, enemy army of oppressed right in the sinews of white society. This was the fatal contradiction in the "Slave Power" so clearly seen by early settler critics of slavery. Benjamin Franklin, for example, not only gave up slave-owning himself, but in 1755 wrote that slavery should be banned and only Europeans permitted to live in North America. (1) Twenty years later, as the Articles of Confederation were being debated, South Carolina's Lynch stated that since Afrikans were property they shouldn't be taxed any more than sheep were. Franklin acidly replied: "Sheep will never make insurrection!" (2)

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia probably personified this contradiction more visibly than any other settler. He is well-known in settler history books as the liberal planter who constantly told his friends how he agonized over the immorality of slavery. He is usually depicted as an exceptional human being of great compassion and much intellect. What was pushing and pressuring his capitalist mind was the contradiction between his greed for the easy life of the slavemaster, and his fear for the safety of his settler nation. (3)

He knew that successful revolution against settler rule was a possibility, and that in a land governed by ex-slaves the fate of the former slave-masters would be hard. As he put it: "...a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events..." That is why, as U.S. President in 1791, he viewed the great Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture as a monstrous danger. His Administration quickly appropriated relief funds to subsidize the French planters fleeing that island.

Jefferson's agile mind came up with a theoretical solution to their "Negro problem" - gradual genocide. He estimated that returning all slaves to Afrika would cost Amerika $900 million in lost capital and transportation expenses - a sum 45 times the annual export earnings of the settler economy at the time! This was an impossible cost, one that would have bankrupted not only the planters but the entire settler society as well.

President Jefferson's solution to this dilemma was to take all Afrikan children away from their parents for compact shipment to the West Indies and Afrika, while keeping the adults enslaved to support the Amerikan economy for the rest of their lives.* This would theoretically generate the necessary profits to prop up the capitalist economy, while still moving towards an all-white Amerika. Jefferson mused: "...the old stock would die off in the ordinary course of nature ... until its final disappearance." The President thought this Hitlerian fantasy both "practicable" and "blessed."

It is easy to understand why this fantastic plan never became reality: the oppressor will never willingly remove his claws from the oppressed so long as there are still more profits to be wrung from them. Jefferson himself actively bought more and more slaves to maintain his pseudo-Grecian lifestyle. As President he signed the 1808 bill allegedly banning the importation of new slaves in part, we suspect, because this only raised the price he could obtain from his slave-breeding business.

Jefferson gloated over the increase in his wealth from the birth of new slaves: "... I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man." It sums matters up to note that President Jefferson, who believed that the planters should restrict and then wipe out entirely the Afrikan colony, ended his days owning more slaves than he started with. (4)

The Northern States had slowly begun abolishing slavery as early as Vermont in 1777, in the hopes that the numbers of Afrikans could be kept down. It was also widely believed by settlers that in small numbers the "child-like" ex-slaves could be kept docile and easily ruled. The explosive growth of the number of Afrikans held prisoner within the slave system, and the resultant eruptions of Afrikan struggles in all spheres of life, blew this settler illusion away.

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 marked a decisive point in the politics of both settler and slave. The news from Santo Domingo that Afrikan prisoners had risen and successfully set up a new nation electrified the entire Western Hemisphere. When it became undeniably true that Afrikan people's armies, under the leadership of a 50-yearold former field hand, had in protracted war out-maneuvered and out-fought the professional armies of the Old European Powers, the relevancy of the lesson to Amerika was intense. Intense.

“Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedouret” by Kimathi Donkor

“Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedouret” by Kimathi Donkor

The effect of Haiti's great victory was felt immediately. Haitian slaves forcibly evacuated from that island with their French masters helped spread the word that Revolution and Independence were possible. The new Haitian Republic proudly offered citizenship to any Indians and Afrikans who wanted it, and thousands of free Afrikans emigrated. This great breakthrough stimulated rebellion and the vision of national liberation among the oppressed, while hardening the resolve of settler society to defend their hegemony with the most violent and naked terror.

The Virginia insurrection led by Gabriel some nine years later, in which thousands of Afrikans were involved, as well as that of Nat Turner in 1831, caused discussions within the Virginia legislature on ending slavery. The 1831 uprising, in which sixty settlers died, so terrified them that public rallies were held in Western Virginia to demand an all-white Virginia. Virginia's Governor Floyd publicly endorsed the total removal of all Afrikans out of the State. (5) If such proposals could be entertained in the heartland of the slave system, we can imagine how popular that must have been among settlers in the Northern States.

The problem facing the settlers was not limited to potential uprisings on the plantations. Everywhere Afrikan prisoners were pressing beyond the colonial boundaries set for them. The situation became more acute as the developing capitalist economy created trends of urbanization and industrialization. In the early 1800s the Afrikan population of many cities was rising faster thanthat of Euro-Amerikans. In 1820 Afrikans comprised at least 25% of the total population of Washington, Louisville, Baltimore, and St. Louis; at least 50% of the total population in New Orleans, Richmond, Mobile, and Savannah. The percentage of whites owning slaves was higher in the cities than it was in the countryside. In cities such as Louisville, Charleston, and Richmond, some 65 - 75% of all Euro-Amerikan families owned Afrikan slaves. And the commerce and industry of these cities brought together and educated masses of Afrikan colonial proletarians - in the textile mills, mines, ironworks, docks, railroads, tobacco factories, and so on. (6)

In such concentrations, Afrikans bent and often broke the bars surrounding them. Increasingly, more and more slaves were no longer under tight control. Illegal grog shops (white-owned, of course) and informal clubs flourished on the back streets. Restrictions on even the daily movements of many slaves faltered in the urban crowds.

Contemporary white travelers often wrote of how alarmed they were when visiting Southern cities at the large numbers of Afrikans on the streets. One historian writes of New Orleans: "It was not unusual for slaves to gather on street corners at night, for example, where they challenged whites to attempt to pass ... nor was it safe to accost them, as many went armed with knives and pistols in flagrant defiance of all the precautions of the Black Code." (7) A Louisville newspaper editorial complained in 1835 that "Negroes scarcely realize the fact that they are slaves ... insolent, intractable..." (8)

It was natural in these urban concentrations that slave escapes (prison breaks) became increasingly common. The Afrikan communities in the cities were also human forests, partially opaque to the eye of the settler, in which escapees from the plantations quietly sought refuge. During one 16 month period in the 1850s the New Orleans settler police arrested 982 "runaway slaves" - a number equal to approximately 7% of the city's slave population. In 1837 the Baltimore settler police arrested almost 300 Afrikans as proven or suspected escapees - a number equal to over 9% of that city's slave population. (9)

And, of course, these are just those who were caught. Many others evaded the settler law enforcement apparatus. Frederick Douglass, we remember, had been a carpenter and shipyard worker in Baltimore before escaping Northward to pursue his agitation. At least 100,000 slaves did escape to the North and Canada during these years.

Nor should it be forgotten that some of the largest armed insurrections and conspiracies of the period involved the urban proletariat. The Gabriel uprising of 1800 was based on the Richmond proletariat (Gabriel himself was a blacksmith, and most of his lieutenants were other skilled workers). So many Afrikans were involved in that planned uprising that one Southern newspaper declared that prosecutions had to be halted lest it bankrupt the Richmond capitalists by causing "the annihilation of the Blacks in this part of the country." (10)

The Charleston conspiracy of 1822, led by Denmark Vesey (a free carpenter), was an organization of urban proletarians - stevedores, millers, lumberyard workers, blacksmiths, etc. Similarly, the great conspiracy of 1856 was organized among coal mine, mill, and factory workers across Kentucky and Tennessee. In its failure, some 65 Afrikans were killed at Senator Bell's iron works alone. It was particularly alarming to the settlers that those Afrikans who had been given the advantages of urban living, and who had skilled positions, just used their relative mobility to strike at the colonial system all the more effectively. (11)

From among the ranks of free Afrikans outside the South came courageous organizers, who moved through the South like guerrillas leading their brethren to freedom. And not just a few exceptional leaders, such as Harriet Tubman; in 1860 we know that five hundred Underground organizers went into the South from Canada alone. On the plantations the Afrikan masses resisted in a conscious, political culture. A letter from a Charleston, SC plantation owner in 1844 tells how all the slaves in the area secretly celebrated every August 1st - the anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies. (12)

Abolishing slavery was the commonly proposed answer to this increasing instability in the colonial system. The settler bourgeoisie, however, which had immense capital tied up in slaves, could hardly be expected to take such a step willingly. One immediate response in the 1830s was to break up the Afrikan communities in the cities. In the wake of the Vesey conspiracy, for instance, the Charleston City Council urged that the number of male Afrikans in the city "be greatly diminished." (13) And they were.

Throughout the South much of the Afrikan population was gradually shipped back to the plantations, declining year after year until the Civil War. In New Orleans the drop was from 50% to 15% of the city population; in St. Louis from 25% to only 2% of the city population. (14) The needs of the new industrial economy were far less important to the bourgeoisie than breaking up the dangerous concentrations of oppressed, and regaining a safe, Euro-Amerikan physical domination over the key urban centers.

One Northern writer traveling through the South noted in 1859 that the Afrikans had been learning too much in the cities: "This has alarmed their masters, and they are sending them off, as fast as possible, to the plantations where, as in a tomb, no sight or sound of knowledge can reach them." (15) In addition to the physical restrictions, the mass terror, etc. that we all know were imposed, it is important to see that settler Amerika reacted to the growing consciousness of Afrikans by attempting to isolate and physically break up the oppressed communities. It is a measure of how strongly the threat of Revolution was rising in the Afrikan nation that the settlers had to restructure their society in response. The relative backwardness of the Southern economy was an expression of the living contradictions of the slave system.

2. Slavery vs. Settlerism

Slavery had become an obstacle to both the continued growth of settler society and the interests of the Euro-Amerikan bourgeoisie. It was not that slavery was unprofitable itself. It was, worker for worker, much more profitable than white wage-labor. Afrikan slaves in industry cost the capitalists less than one-third the wages of white workingmen. Even when slaves were rented from another capitalist, the savings in the factory or mine were still considerable. For example, in the 1830s almost one third of the workers at the U.S. Navy shipyard at Norfolk were Afrikans, rented at only two-thirds the cost of white wage-labor. (16)

But the Amerikan capitalists needed to greatly expand their labor force. While the planters believed that importing new millions of Afrikan slaves would most profitably meet this need, it was clear that this would only add fuel to the fires of the already insurrectionary Afrikan colony. Profit had to be seen not in the squeezing of a few more dollars on a short-term, individual basis, but in terms of the needs of an entire Empire and its future. And it was not just the demand for labor alone that outmoded the slave system.

Capitalism needed giant armies of settlers, waves and waves of new European shock - troops to help conquer and hold new territory, to develop it for the bourgeoisie, and garrison it against the oppressed. The Mississippi Valley, the Plains, the Northern territories of Mexico, the Pacific West - a whole continent of land and resources awaited, that could only be held by millions of loyal settlers. After Haiti, it was increasingly obvious that a "thin, white line" of a few soldiers, administrators, and planters could not safely hold down whole oppressed nations. Only the weight of masses of oppressors could provide the Euro-Amerikan bourgeoisie with the Empire they desired. This was a fundamental element in the antagonistic, but symbiotic, relationship of the white masses to their rulers.

The slave system had committed the fatal sin of restricting the white population, while massing great numbers of Afrikans. In the 1860 Census we can see the disparity of the settler populations of North and South. Excluding the border States of Delaware and Maryland, the slave States had a median population density of a bare 18 whites per sq. mile. The most heavily populated of the slave States - Kentucky - had a population of only 31 whites per sq. mile. In sharp contrast, Northern States such as Ohio, New Jersey, and Massachusetts had populations of 59, 81, and 158 whites per sq. mile respectively. (17) This disparity was not only large, but was qualitatively significant for the future of the Euro-Amerikan Empire.

It is no surprise that the planter bourgeoisie viewed society far differently than did the New York banker or Massachusetts mill owner. The thought of an Amerika crowded with millions and millions of poverty-stricken European laborers, all sharing citizenship with their mansion-dwelling brothers, horrified the planter elite. They viewed themselves as the founders of a future Amerika that would become a great civilization akin to Greece and Rome, a Slave Empire led by the necessarily small elite of aristocratic slave-owners.

These retrogressive dreams had definite shape in plans for expansion of the "Slave Power" far beyond the South. After all, if the Spanish Empire had used armies of Indian slaves to mine the gold, silver, and copper of Peru and Mexico, why could not the Southern planter bourgeoisie colonize the great minefields of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and California, with millions of Afrikan helots sending the great mineral wealth of the West back to Richmond and New Orleans? These superprofits might finance a new World Empire, just as they once did for semi-feudal Spain.

Why could not the plantation system be extended - not just to Texas, but to swallow up the West, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America? If masses of Afrikans already sweated so profitably in the factories, mills, and mines of Birmingham and Richmond, why couldn't the industrial process be an integral part of a new Slave Empire that would bestride the world (as Rome once did Europe and North Afrika)?

The planter capitalists who tantalized themselves with these bloody dreams had little use for great numbers of penniless European immigrants piling up on their doorstep. While Northerners saw the increasing dangers of a slave economy, with its mounting, captive armies of Afrikans, the planters saw the same dangers in importing a white proletariat. The creation of such an underclass would inevitably, they thought, divide white society, since the privileged life of settlerism could only stretch so far. Or in other words, too many whites meant an inevitable squabble over dividing up the loot.

In 1836 Thomas R. Dew of William & Mary College warned his Northern cousins that importing Europeans who were meant to stay poor could only lead to class war:

Between the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the laborer ... When these things shall come - when the millions, who are always under the pressure of poverty, and sometimes on the verge of starvation, shall form your numerical majority, (as is the case now in the old countries of the world) and universal suffrage shall throw the political power into their lands, can you expect that they will regard as sacred the tenure by which you hold your property? (18)

These were prophetic words, but in any case the deadlock between these two factions of the settler bourgeoisie meant that both sides carried out their separate policies during the first half of the 1800s. While the merchant and industrial capitalists of the North recruited the dispossessed of Europe, the Southern planters fought to expand the "Slave Power." Edmund Ruffin the famous Virginia planter, smugly boasted that: "One of the greatest benefits of the institution of African slavery to the Southern States is its effect in keeping away from our territory, and directing to the North and Northwest, the hordes of immigrants now flowing from Europe." (19) Such is the blindness of doomed classes.


  1. Hofstadter, op. cit., p. 4. (citation here)
  2. Ottley, op. cit., p. 57.
  3. See: Ronald T. Takaki, Iron Cages (NY, 1979), pp. 42-45 (citation here); Winthrop D. Jordan, op. cit., pp. 429-440. (citation here)
  4. Takaki, op. cit., p. 44. (citation here)
  5. Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee (NY, 1975), pp. 135-136. (citation here)
  6. Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities (NY, 1964), pp. 1-27. (citation here)
  7. J.G. Tregle, Jr. "Early New Orleans Society: A Reappraisal." Journal of Southern History, Feb. 1952, p. 34. (citation here)
  8. Slavery in the Cities op. cit., p. 245. (citation here)
  9. ibid., p. 219. (citation here)
  10. Ottley, p. 83.
  11. Robert S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (NY, 1975), p. 88 (citation here); Herbert Aptheker, To Be Free (NY, 1969), p. 73. (citation here)
  12. ibid.
  13. Wade, Slavery in the Cities op. cit., p. 235. (citation here)
  14. ibid., pp. 16-19. (citation here)
  15. ibid., p. 264 (citation here)
  16. Starobin, op. cit., pp. 157-160. (citation here)
  17. Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (NY, 1965), p. 163. (citation here)
  18. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (NY, 1950), p. 243. (citation here)
  19. Genovese, op. cit., p. 231. (citation here)