Thursday, February 26, 2015

The United States and Slavery

            The United States in the nineteenth century was still a new country struggling to show that becoming independent from England was the right path for them to take. While under the careful scrutiny of other world powers the United States needed to show the world that they were as powerful and as culturally renowned as the rest of the world. During this time, Reverend Sydney Smith said “under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a Slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture.” (Smith 6) Smith was telling the world that the United States policy on slavery was the same as the old governments of Europe, and therefore the United States didn’t share the same mentality as the new world order of freeing slaves. Even though Smith’s argument towards slavery was the same as how the rest of the world viewed the practice he had yet to realize how quickly the young country was changing and how the election of Abraham Lincoln would change the United States and their policies towards slavery. Regardless of what Smith believed the United States was already moving forward to abolish slavery all that was in their way was the beliefs of the Southern States and a Civil War that would divide the country in half. Smith’s judgments of the up and coming country were premature at the time, even if he thought that in criticizing the United States would make them change the laws of the new country he should have noted that the new country wouldn’t be on par with the rest of the world just yet. The abolishment of slavery and the American Civil war were two ways in which the United States moved away from Sydney Smith’s argument that the United States was the same as the old government establishments.

            Sydney Smith’s argument towards how the United States was determined to keep Africans enslaved was further proved by the United States stance during the War of 1812. The war was another battle in which the United States and Britain had to fight against one another almost as a residual aftereffect from the American Revolution. The two countries were still at odds over many different things such as territorial disputes and trading rights, amongst the long list of reasons for their dispute was the slave trade. In Matthew Mason’s article The Battle of the Slaveholding Liberators, Mason argues “The rhetoric of slavery pervaded American attacks on impressment. This was the single best example of how the topic entered the Anglo-American debate by a side route. Prowar Americans employed the language of slavery in part because its force matched their outrage at the seizure of their fellow citizens. Forced labor on the high seas presented a natural parallel to the Atlantic slave trade. Connecting slavery and impressment also gave prowar Americans a powerful tool with which to contest Britain's claims to be the defender of liberty.” (Mason 668) Mason argues that the United States used impressment to be able to argue that England was still proslavery and used the war to take slaves from the United States for their own use. Mason also argues that the United States would use war as a reason to try and keep slavery intact. Mason’s argument is on par with Smith’s argument about the United States and slavery but also argues that even those countries fighting against the United States and their stance on slavery were also acting in the same manner by taking slaves based on impressment because the British had told slaves fight against the United States as a part of their Navy.

            The presidential election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1960 would change the United States in a way that even Sydney Smith’s wouldn’t have been able to predict. The election divided the country in half because Lincoln was against slavery and much of the southern United States was pro-slavery. After Lincoln’s presidential win southern states began to secede from the Union and after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter the United States would wage war against one another. During his second Inaugural Address Lincoln took on the topic of slavery saying that “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow, the cause of the war.” (Lincoln 748) Lincoln’s powerful speech directly tapped into what was dividing the country and what the country needed to do in order to make the United States whole once again. Lincoln understood that they could no longer keep people enslaved and he also knew how the Civil War was taking its toll on the country and its people.
            Sydney Smith’s antagonizing argument towards the United States were premature for the new country, the abolishment of slavery and the American Civil war moved the country away from his words that the country was the same as the old governments of Europe. The country would still have problems moving away from the stigma of slavery, even if they took a step forward in uniting the union it would still take another hundred years before the country would completely put slavery behind itself. Sydney Smith’s words aren’t something that the people of the country dwelled on too much but he also doesn’t note that changing the way people are and how they grew up knowing the world takes a long time and with a young country it’s the same process. If Sydney Smith were alive now would his argument be different? Or would he still argue that the United States is the same as an old world dictator? Sometimes it’s the question that are asked years afterward that make people think about how others were treated 150 years in the past.


Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
       Shorter 8th ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 748-749. Print.

Mason, Matthew. "The Battle of the Slaveholding Liberators: Great Britain, the United States,
       and Slavery in the Early Nineteenth Century." The William and Mary
      Quarterly 59.3 (2002): 665-96. Accessed 2015.02.23. Web

Spiller, Robert E. “The Verdict of Sydney Smith.” American Literature 11 (1929). Duke UP. 3-
      13. Print