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Preamble to the Civil War: Slavery, Resistance, and Reform

Updated on March 25, 2014

Separation of White Classes

As all whites looked around with dollar signs in their eyes, the less wealthy were resentful of the elite planters. They were dependent on planters, and even hired themselves out for work, or took low wage jobs sealing their labels as inferior to the elites (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 300). The elites controlled politics because voting and representation was tied to wealth and land ownership, silencing the voices of the poor whites. And although the poor whites were great in number, they too had their own classes within their general label. Some followed church ways, married and had children, others turned to crime and working alongside free blacks and reduced their status in ‘moral’ white’s eyes (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 300). This superior view and labeling system undid their greatest opportunity of binding together as one to force change more quickly. Ball involved were seeking higher statuses, more money, and stepping on those a degree below in attempts to get there. As the removal of Indians freed up land, non-slaveholding whites tended their own crops and a class of yeoman emerged and attempted to execute their rights in politics (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 302).

While whites struggled for equality, fairness, and a greater sense of freedom and wealth, so did the slaves. They saw around them the breaking down of classes between whites; they saw the struggles and the changes surrounding the outlawing of slave import of 1808. They were exposed to free blacks, disgruntled non-slave holding whites, literature published by anti-slavery northerners and they heard their churches speak of freedom and salvation. It planted a seed of hope to be watered with resistance, and resist they did.

The South Struggles with Slavery

The Constitution’s ban of future import of slaves was a large factor in the increase in demand and prices of slaves. The invention of the Cotton Gin and textile factories permitted the expansion of slavery (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 275). As planters focused on increasing their wealth, numerous changes were also threatening it. As the North’s population increased, the South’s representation in congress was reduced, thus the pro-slavery voice was at less than half in congress (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 275) As the US acquired new territory and Missouri won a slave state approval with a contingency that no states north of it would be permitted to be the same, slaves were shipped west to expand cotton, coupled with slavery import being illegal, the population of slaves was spread out, families were destroyed, but slaves were also now exposed to free blacks and northerners in industrial factories who vocally opposed slavery and threatened to encourage slave resistance. Heated debates between North and South regarding slavery ensued. Increased slave prices and the demand for more affordable younger slaves, and rewards for runaway slaves increased (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 295). While the slave frenzy progressed, the increased slave prices made it impossible for many to own or purchase slaves, thereby cutting them off from a slice of the wealthy planter pie. Merchants suffered from the maritime trade decrease after the war of 1812 and their income decreased, as resentment increased. A more distinct line was drawn between white classes, and the expansion west also drew lines between house and field slaves and their perspective of the ease of their lives or lack thereof.

Slave Assimilation and Resistance

As slaves prayed alongside whites, and were active in the Evangelical movement, a new set of standards were set for those involved: proper behavior, moral expectations, and consequences within their own race (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 307). Just as the whites resentment grew for each degree of wealthier whites than them, so did the resentment slaves had for their owners for their abuse, their breaking up of their families, their cruel and harsh conditions and their freedom quashing lifestyles. Resistance took many forms, from poor work, laziness, breaking tools, harming livestock, poisoning owners, and running away (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 308). As shown in the chart below, during the late 1700’s most of the runaways were in the age range sought during the frenzied internal slave trade; some young, most between 20 and 50 years old as the cut-off date approached of 1808, more slaves escaped, and more advertisements were made for their capture and return. Some were listed with scars or branding made by owners to identify their runaways. William and Hannah were young but missing front teeth, some came with their families avoiding the tearing apart the internal slave trade perpetuated upon them. This behavior was culminated with the gradual emancipation of slaves as groups raised funds to send freed slaves back to Africa, wills were drafted to free slaves upon the death of owners, and the establishment of the American Colonization Society of 1816 which received private donations to fund the emancipation of slaves (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 309). In 1830 the Nation of Liberia was established on the West Coast of Africa to receive the freed prisoners, and many northern states spoke out by officially abolishing slavery as well. Hopes, dreams, and actualization of freedom was being birthed, and patience was running thin for slaves because even though anti-slavery advocates spoke against slavery, they did not speak out against the skewed rights afforded to freed slaves including denial of voting rights, the right to testify in court, equal access to public schools, and the continued oppression of freed blacks through low paying jobs and racial abuse (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 311). Two-faced these advocates couldn’t deny that free blacks threatened their livelihood with job competition so although forcing them to wear actual shackles was against their moral fibers; holding them down with invisible shackles of reduced rights was acceptable. Thus the freedom the slaves sought would only be a shadow of it, and that was enough to fuel their own participation in the expediting of emancipation by any means.

Snapshot of Runaway Records

David Walker's Appeal to Colored Citizens of the World


Northern Free Blacks Speak Out

Northern free blacks spoke out. In 1826 the Massachusetts General Colored Association was established and David Walker published an Appeal to Colored Citizens of the World calling for action to obtain freedom stating they were being denied inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 311). Nat Turner a slave headed an uprising in Virginia killing over 60 white women men and children. Just as previous revolts spawned a backlash, so did the uprisings. After executing Nat Turner and his accomplices, slaves were randomly killed, their heads posted along roads as warnings, grips were tightened on slaves, as well as free blacks (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 312). Teaching slaves to read was outlawed in the South to prevent their inspiration in reading Northern literature inspiring thoughts of freedom, black preaching and church involvement was outlawed or curtailed, and black gun rights were outlawed. Messages were being sent by the elite to the growing population of blacks who threatened the life of comfort the planters had attained through the hands of the slaves. The chart below also depicts less runaways reported after Nat Turner’s revolt. Although each of the distinct classes hated each other, they were interdependent on each other, from the south dependent on the North to purchase their goods, and the planters dependent on the slaves for work, the yeoman dependent on the working whites to purchase their crops or work in their fields, and the working whites dependent on the planters and higher classes for work, and finally the slaves upon their masters for food and shelter, they essentially needed each other in the state they existed. But that would soon change, the state, that is.

As slaves began to run away, owners began to scar or mark them for easier identification in runaway slave publications as William and Hannah show with missing teeth at a young age, branding on breasts and burns. As slaves resented their owners, and non-planters resented the wealthy and competed with free blacks for jobs, slavery became paramount to the elite’s success and as expansion westward ensued, so did the resistance

Slavery Expands Westward

Texas was taken from Mexico in 1836 and declared a slave state and rich families bought land and slaves at low prices after the Panic of 1837. Capitalizing on the low prices they were able to obtain land and slaves for, they built extravagant mansions and the white man took a step higher on his holier than thou pedestal exerting control over blacks, his wife, and his sexual rendezvous (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 431). After Nat’s rebellion, revolts were rare and white settlements were up, along with the population, and most slavery resistance was minute through laziness and feigned illness. Running away was still an option and many slaves chose Florida where the Seminoles resided. Curiously, the destination of Florida was not listed as a suspected runaway refuge in the chart. It was during the Seminole War of 1835 that fugitive slaves banding with the Seminoles displayed their threat and ability to fight. White Planters seeing the threat allowed a treaty which sent the blacks west, separating them from their Allies and lessening the chances of war on whites (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 439).

Following laws were introduced in Virginia requiring free blacks to demonstrate good character for residence adding to the invisible shackles that accompanied their hard earned freedom, and working whites displayed resistance to the cheapened wages and competition these free blacks created by jumping them and driving them away (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 443). Even freedom had its punishments for the free blacks.

Non slave holding attained victory as their conflicts with richer whites regarding political representation, taxes, debt, and rights to land and voting fueled their court filings in the 1840’s and 50’s and property qualifications were eliminated as voting qualifications (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 447). This victory showed what strength the non-slaveholding whites had when working together, however their diversity and judgment upon one another prevented them from benefiting from the opportunity of power in numbers

Westward Expansion of Slave States


Expansion Risks

1.New Territory

2. Slaves exposed to new people, new ideas, and renewed desires for family and freedom.

3. Although Planters had the power of politics; slaves and poor whites had the true power in numbers and common goals

4. The North was not finished fighting against slavery and the expansion fueled the fires

Westward Expansion and Weary Whites

However, as the planters expanded westward, removed most Indians, and developed a pro-slavery ideology through laws and publications, they could not rest easy upon their backs in the luxurious beds provided to them by free and low paying labor. Their greed took them into new territory as it did their slaves who were exposed to new people, new ideas, and renewed desires for family and freedom. Although Planters had the power of politics, slaves and poor whites had the true power in numbers and common goals, but their separation in classes and diversified lives blinded them to an earlier victory.

Native American Resistance

Cherokee Resistance

Just as King Cotton threatened the lives and families of slaves, yeoman, and working whites, so it did to the American Indians. Cotton expansion moved into the 25 million acres they occupied and some were forced west or placed on reservations and some assimilated to white ways for peace (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 282). The assimilation also created a new class of interracial Indians as they married and bore children with white blood causing disturbance within the Indian society because partial white men could hold political power and they attempted to instill white power over their own kind resulting in reduced female statuses and projected white power upon Indians which led to a resistance (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 284). After fighting ended with a Treaty of Fort Jackson transferring 14 million acres of Alabama to government control, Indians were again driven west. In 1827 the Cherokees drafted their own constitution and faced a backlash of removal. Instead of fighting they turned to the US Courts because they were subject to US law. They argued they were a sovereign nation and that afforded them US protection. Chief Justice Marshall in The Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia ruled they were indeed separate but still dependent on the nation and thus had no place in the court system and deemed them as federal wards, and a year later in Worcester vs. Georgia Marshall ruled they were a domestic dependent nation with power only in their territorial bounds (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 286). On the heels of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, whites seized the rulings opportunities afforded and forced the Indians west in exchange for their land, removing threats perceived by whites. The Cherokees refused and were forced by Federal Troops along the trail of tears in Oklahoma, losing one fourth of the members on the 800 mile trek. As the Indian’s peaceful and civil attempts to gain British loyalty during the revolution proved, their attempts at civil court pleas also proved the US was not interested in civilized behavior, at least not with anyone not white.

The North Manufactures the Future

As technology provided a platform to launch productivity far greater than manual labor, water powered spinning machines, looms, reapers, sewing machines, transportation and communication gave birth to labor demands, new professions and immigrants desiring a better life. These new inventions and opportunities provided economic success but also a greater reliance on wage workers in the North (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 338). The first immigrants to cause a stir were hungry Irish fleeing from the potato famine destroying their country (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 337). Although over four million immigrants coming to the US between 1840 and 1859 provided opportunities to lower wages and increase national wealth the economic landscape transformed into battle grounds for ‘native’ Americans against immigrants due to new employment competition (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 384).

The Irish were given unskilled, low paying, temporary jobs and decaying housing (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 211). Considered equals with Blacks due to not only their immigrant status but also their Roman Catholic loyalty, the Irish felt the majority of the sting of prejudice.

Germans were skilled craft workers taking residence in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, the very places the Irish were causing more discord (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 391).

The resentment grew for immigrant workers filling the demand for labor lowering wages, and in the 1840’s, a national movement ensued, an army of anti-immigrant writers, educators, ministers, and politicians purposely overlooked the efforts and contributions of immigrant workers, undermining them with their silence (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 404). “Native” Americans blamed their woes on immigrants, assuming the position, but not the perspective of how American Indians must have felt when the “native” Americans settled on their lands. The fact that the Irish were Roman Catholic only fueled the thickening lines between “natives” and immigrants. As Protestants advocated a constant perfection of the human, Catholicism advocated sin from birth; unable to change the destiny which they were bound to it sent a message of a complacent lifestyle of acceptance and sin.

In 1844 a bloody battle ensued when nativist rallies were occurring when shots came from an Irish firehouse shedding the blood of 13 Americans resulting in a full scale riot of burning and looting Irish establishments, homes, and churches (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 406). A decade later in Brooklyn, fall elections resulted in the Irish mob beating an election official to death (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 407).

The competition for jobs fueled the resentment toward immigrants and the Irishmen were forced to the bottom of the wage ladder and free blacks were even preferred in their docile nature over Irishmen viewed as rough and rowdy and positions were even posted stating the same (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 407). As a result Irishmen took out their anger and aggression on free black the same as “natives” took out their anger on immigrants. A never ending and unseen cycle of blame and resentment fueled the fire of class distinction. In 1842 Irish attacked blacks in Pennsylvania who competed for jobs, and in 1853 armed blacks replaced Irishmen on the Erie railroad and in 1855 Irish and black fought in New York (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 408).

Reformists Take Action

In the 1850’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic societies formed in National organizations and formed new political parties referred to as the American Party (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 405). They attempted to disenfranchise the immigrants with literacy tests.

Tired of the violence, anger, resentment, and inequality; reformists wanted change. Nativists begrudged immigrants, and oppressed women in wages and voice, immigrants loathed blacks who were considered more preferred in work, Protestants opposed Catholics; it was a time of turmoil conducive for change. Radical reformists formed new communities with collective ownership and property cooperation and equal pay (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 411). An Oneida compound formed communities with complex marriages approved by members and communally raised children; free of male domination which lasted four decades (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 412). Although these communities escaped violence and constant envy, they were not economically sound, and did not sweep the nation and make a change for anyone other than the small fraction of people involved.

Curiously enough, the ‘nativists’ took the role of the Indians as they faced new populations and never stopped to consider the pain and uprooting they caused others as they fought for their own survival with thoughts of ‘ours’ and ‘they’, just like the Indians had. In fact, not much has changed since the Europeans immigration to the United States. We still have diversity but with bitter lines drawn between class, race and gender riddled with prejudice and inequality. Although we may have less inequality, it still thrives, driven by greed and resentment, masked in shades of civility; the embers still burn.

Oneida Perfectionists


The Second Great Awakening

Like most major changes, the Second Great Awakening was spawned by a need for change. As internal slave trade caused conflict between the North and South, and advancements in technologies shifted focus to manufacturing, immigration caused competition and low wages, and people fell into both economic and mental depressions, they turned to behavior considered immoral and others were cast aside in thick bold lines of class distinction. The Second Great Awakening, like the First after the revolution, gave hope and spiritual revival. Beginning in Kentucky and spreading into cities, and small towns, Protestant Evangelicals embraced democratic thought, social inclusiveness and the utmost important message that anyone can change their behavior and avoid damnation (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 366). Class distinctions and disparities shaped the activism and evangelists spread messages to convert others. In the face of depraved behavior of prostitution, alcoholism, theft and gambling, the Second Great Awakening aimed to convert and educate others, provide personal examples of how to live, raise morals and increase self-discipline and widen social divisions (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 367). When evangelists summed their reform intent they stated “To the universal reformation of the world we stand committed” and in this they meant through education, preaching, leading by example, holding revivals, networking with voluntary organizations, and spreading the word through religious education that they would help transform and perfect the nation by changing the way they lived (Brown, Clark, Hewitt, & Jafee, 2008, p. 367). Although the movement took hold, the Great Panic of 1837 led to a depression and wiped out organized labor forces, more and more people were unemployed and the trenches of class division slowly filled with the Second Great Awakening deepened along with the resentment of the wealthy.

The Second Great Awakening



As unrest, resentment, reformists, and revivals ensued, so did the fires of change. Thus, we have viewed the preamble to the Civil War. It was inevitable.


Brown, J., Clark, C., Hewitt, N., & Jafee, D. (2008). Who Built America. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

University of Massachusetts Lowell Library. (n.d.). UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS LOWELL LIBRARIES. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from CENTER FOR LOWELL HISTORY:


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