Prehistoric Pondering

Issues in the United States of America From the Early 1800s Leading Up to the Start of the Civil War, with an Analysis on North and South Labor Systems — Social Studies Bi-Weekly Reading and Essay Assignment

During the mid-1800s, the United States of America was grouped into “free” and “slave” states, loosely divided into the North and the South, respectively. Each state could send two senators to Congress, which had the power to pass laws. In 1818, there were 11 free states and 11 slave states: an equal amount, meaning balance in Congress. However, when Missouri wanted admission into the Union as a slave state, an uproar started. Missouri would tip the balance of power in Congress over to the slave states. Northerners protested, not because of slavery’s moral evils, but because they wanted political power. The solution was the Missouri Compromise, proposed by Senator Henry Clay, which allowed Missouri to enter as a slave state, and Maine (which had also applied for statehood) to enter as a free state. As part of the Missouri Compromise, Congress drew an imaginary line, called the Mason-Dixon line, at the southern border of Missouri at latitude 36° 30'N. With the exception of Missouri, slavery was banned north of the line and allowed south of it. For years following the Missouri Compromise, there was relative peace between the North and the South. However, when the Mexican War came in 1848, the issue over political and economic power was brought up again — new territories wanted admission into the Union, and the debate over their neutrality was aroused. Again, a compromise was proposed and passed — the Compromise of 1850 — through which a very tight agreement was passed by both sides, but left much to be wanted — the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, for example, left many northerners enraged, as they felt that they were part of the slavery system. In the decade that followed, a peaceful solution no longer became feasible. The issue over the contrast political and economic differences between the North and the South soon escalated to a peak in the Civil War, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. casualties on both sides. In the beginning, the war was fought less on the issue of slavery rather than on political and economic reasons — the Union had broken in half; it wanted to bring down the Confederate “rebels” and bring the country together. However, abolitionists and antislavery movements quickly made the “white man’s war” into a war to end slavery.

What I want to analyze is the question, “Is the North that much more humane than the South?” Is wage slavery that much better than chattel slavery? Are the differences between the two labor systems that fundamental, or is it a matter of degree? In English class, we’re reading the book Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. One of the characters is Bill Creighton, older brother of the protagonist, Jethro Creighton. The Creightons belong to a purist North community in Southern Illionois. Despite this, and the fact that all his other brothers are fighting for the North, Bill decides to fight for the South. What is his justification? To quote from the book: “I hate slavery … but I hate another slavery of people workin’ their lives away in dirty fact’ries fer a wage that kin scarce keep life in ’em; I hate secession, but at the same time I can’t see how a whole region kin be a able to live if their way of life is all of a sudden upset… [sic]” At first glance, the differences between North and South labor systems are as contrast as black and white: if you’re a common citizen in the North, you have the freedom to choose to work for this factory or not; if you’re a slave in the South, you have to work for your master, no matter what. Does that make the North the land of freedom and liberty? Back in the days of early industrialism, isn’t working for a factory, regardless the wage or working conditions, the only choice? You have to work to earn a living, otherwise you have no source of income to provide the necessities of life for yourself and your family, and the only working offer back in the early days of the industrialist North was towork in a smelly and dirty factory with a terrible wage and terrible working conditions. Back then, you either work for someone, or have someone work for you — comparable to the Master-Slave relationship. If you’re put into a hallway with a door on one end and a dead end on the other, isn’t opening the door the only choice? Isn’t that limiting your freedom? Is wage slavery comparable to chattel slavery in a way?

I’m not saying that payed wages isn’t an improvement over chattel slavery, or that wage slavery is as much an evil as chattel slavery is — I realize that everything at first is faced with problems, but gradually finds newer and better ways as it progresses. The Industrial Revolution brought forth an entirely new labor system, and as such was on extremely wobbly knees at first, leaving big gaps for improvement (underage labor is a good example). I am glad to say that working conditions and the labor system in general has improved since the 19th century.

Mr. Derfel, what do you think are the factors that allowed discrimination and segregation to continue among the African-American population, long after the official abolition of slavery by law? Even a century after the emancipation proclamation, African-Americans faced hardships because of who they are. Of course, racism and discrimination, whether public or private/ subconscious, cannot be completely cleansed from this Earth. Now, even after the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., African-Americans continue to be the ones shown on national media, charged with committing daily theft, murder, rape, and drugs — all this has created an intrinsic public mindset in the United States of “the black man”; the ragged sinister man with a gun in his back pocket, able to mug you at any time, to ambush you from an alley with the rest of his black mob.

Ithaca, NY
21 Juni 2006

Written for Mr. Derfel’s Social Studies class in my second year at Boynton Middle School. Mr. Barry Derfel was a brilliant teacher who nonchalantly proclaimed himself an anarchist to a class of bemused adolescents. He taught United States history in a truly gripping and stimulating way, and made every class a lively Freireian space of dialogic pedagogy.