Racism and Inequality in the North Prior to the Civil War

Civil War States Mapby Bruce Gourley

From its earliest days, the colonial experience in the New World was infused with human inequality.

Theocratic colonies through both government institutions and establishment churches refused to allow freedom of conscience or religious liberty. Many poor whites were indentured servants and many blacks either indentured servants or slaves. White women were denied political, religious, economic and social equality.

Some minority and radical dissenting groups, such as Baptists, demanded freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all persons. If they were lucky, they were largely ignored. But in many instances they were beaten, whipped, jailed or otherwise persecuted for exercising freedom of conscience and advocating for religious liberty. The Rhode Island colony, founded by Baptist Roger Williams and the charter written by Baptist John Clarke, enacted freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all and thus became a refuge for Baptists and other dissenters — to the chagrin of the surrounding theocratic colonies.

declaration1776The United States of America’s founding in the late 18th century as an independent nation addressed equality, at least on paper. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence trumpeted in 1776. The same document held aloft “liberty” as “an inalienable right.”

However, the United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, did not treat all men equal. Instead, a slave (and all slaves were black, white slavery being illegal) was legally considered to be only 3/5ths of a human being (for purposes of counting population to determine electoral votes, as Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention demanded). Among the nation’s early presidents and government, civic and religious leaders were many slaveowners, men who enriched themselves off the forced labor of black persons whom they commonly deemed something less than fully human.

On the other hand, the new nation did allow freedom of conscience. And the First Amendment to the Constitution incorporated Baptists’ insistence on religious liberty for all and church state separation.

In addition, slavery, quickly falling out of favor in the Northern states, was abolished throughout in the North by 1804. A bold step forward, the outlawing of slavery signaled a recognition of human freedom as more important than any financial profit gained by slave labor — in theory. In reality, the industrial North increasingly relied on cotton produced by Southern slave labor, ensuring an economic entanglement with slavery that persisted until the Civil War.

cotton_pickingThe entire nation’s financial reliance upon slave labor firmly etched inequality upon the Northern landscape. As cotton became one of the nation’s leading cash crops by the 1830s and the number of slaves grew rapidly to accommodate the cotton market, there seemed no end in sight to the peculiar institution in the South.

At the same time, Northern inequality transcended race. Blacks and white women alike lacked the vote. In some instances, the races were legally segregated. Throughout the North, interracial marriages remained illegal. Married women could not legally own property, enter into contracts, or have a salary. In short, neither blacks nor white women experienced political, religious, economic and social equality.

Against the backdrop of the nation’s unfilled promise of equality, two freedom movements arose in the North in the early 19th century: a renewed abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement. Abolitionists sought to force the U.S. government to abolish slavery in the South, while women rights’ activists sought political reforms on such issues as prostitution, capital punishment, prisons, war and alcohol.

Grimke Sisters

Grimke Sisters

By the 1830s the two movements for equality found common ground on the issue of slavery. Among the early women’s voices for abolitionism were Angelina and Sarah Grimke (Southern by birth, they moved to the North), Harriet Wilson (African American) and Lucretia Mott (from an elite Boston family).

Many Northerners initially resisted calls for the abolishment of slavery, while few advocated for it. Some embraced the sending of free African Americans to Africa (colonization) as an alternative to emancipation and a measure to keep the races separate.

However, from the 1830s onward the abolition movement steadily grew, empowered by white and black advocates alike. Many religious groups in the North embraced abolitionism, including many Baptists. Abolitionism made enough inroads among Methodists of the North that white Methodists of the South separated and formed a pro-slavery convention in 1844. White Baptists of the South broke away from their Northern counterparts the following year.

Even so, Northern laws continued to treat blacks and white women as inferior to white men, and many whites in general viewed blacks as inferior.

While inequality in the forms of racism and sexism thus persisted, by the 1850s the women-empowered abolitionist movement grew strong enough to help birth a new political party, the Republican Party, established as an avowedly anti-slavery party. The “anti-slavery” position by this time meant one of two things: the resistance of the expansion of slavery outside the South (the Southern states were determined to take slavery into the Western states), or the abolition of the practice altogether. The Republican Party platform was anti-expansion, seasoned with much abolitionist sentiment. Woman’s suffrage, however, was not on the platform.

lincoln_1863novAbraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer, became the 1860 Republican presidential nominee. Personally abolitionist, he nonetheless did not view black persons as equals, and his political anti-slavery position was that of anti-expansion. For Southern white planters, however, anti-expansion equated with abolition.

The ten richest counties in the nation in 1860 were all in the South in fertile lands along the Mississippi River delta, the South Carolina coast and the Alabama black belt, regions where thousands of slaves toiled on enormous plantations. Thanks to the riches of slave-labor, most American millionaires were large-scale plantation owners.

The South’s elites, however, faced a problem. They already owned the most fertile land in the slave-owning states. Future growth in profits would have to be westward. If they were not allowed to expand slavery into the Western states, their profits would suffer. Abraham Lincoln — the “black president” the planters called him — was clearly an abolitionist, for by denying the expansion of slavery he would effectively make the practice unprofitable. Southern planters knew it was time to leave the Union and look southward to Latin America for the expansion of their slave empire.

The stage was thus set for secession and Civil War. South Carolina, the ideological center of the Southern slavocracy, seceded first in December 1860, with other Southern states quickly following and collectively establishing the Confederate States of America.

Lincoln played his cards well, however, allowing the South to fire the first shots on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter. Afterwards the North declared war on the treasonous Southern states, with Lincoln employing political leverage to rally as many Northerners as possible to fight to preserve the Union. Most who joined the Union Army in the early years of the war may not have been abolitionists, but many were effectively anti-expansion, convinced that the slavocracy needed to be contained in order to prevent slaveowners from eliminating more (white) wage jobs, including in the West. Few viewed blacks as equals, but then again few viewed their wives, sisters or mothers as equals, nor deserving of equal rights.

For the white South, the firing upon Fort Sumter signaled a triumph of white supremacy, a victory that in the South would transcend the loss of the war. The end of the war brought emancipation to the South, ending formal enslavement. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution collectively ensured legal equality for black citizens. However, white Southerners, essentially ignoring or exploiting federal laws, for another one hundred years kept blacks in servitude and poverty by means of isolation, fear, murder and terrorism.

For the white North, the attack upon Sumter set in motion a war that itself served in the years following to hasten the end of explicitly anti-black laws. Overcoming prejudices in the North, however, proved far more elusive. As expressed by Thomas L. Johnson, a former slave who journeyed north in August 1865 following the war, “I had not been there long before I found that there was almost as much prejudice against my race as in the South.” Legal protections, in short, could not ameliorate many Northern whites’ dislike of persons of color.

With emancipation secured and legal racial equality in place in the North, reformers’ attention was turned again, with renewed fervor, to women’s equality. Today, that journey has largely resulted in widespread gender equality in contemporary America.

Not so, however, with racial equality in contemporary America. South and North, legacies of the Civil War remain. Many white Southerners still claim allegiance to their “Southern heritage” (in reality, white supremacy and black subservience), while racial prejudices and inequalities are yet commonplace throughout the nation. While much progress has certainly been made since the Civil War, in 21st century America white citizens retain a wide advantage over black citizens economically, politically, culturally and socially. Bridging the gap between black and white, and thus fulfilling the equality ideals of our nation’s founding fathers, remains one of the greatest challenges facing the United States of America.


crucible_cw_2015_bookcover300hBaptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of gourley0604Faith and Freedom by Bruce T. Gourley (Macon, Ga.: Nurturing Faith, 2015) is a month-to-month summary of the online digital Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words project.

Originally appearing as a series of articles in Baptists Today, this volume includes updated articles plus an introductory essay on “The War Long Coming.”

The book is available in print and digital formats. Click here to buy your copy. Use discount code (AUTHOR15) to receive a discount of 15% of your purchase.

From the book:

Suspended precariously in the middle of this epic struggle is freedom itself. Yet only one God can prevail: either the creator of a new future envisioned by an enslaved people and their Northern allies, or the lord of a dark past to which white Southerners are fiercely devoted. For Baptists, the dividing line runs right through the Bible. Southern biblical conservatism is firmly rooted in America’s racist past, while a future of racial equality hinges upon a newer understanding of scriptural interpretation unfettered by the chains of biblical literalism.


diverging_loyaltiesDiverging Loyalties: Baptists in Middle Georgia During the Civil War by Bruce T. Gourley (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011) is an examination of the varying views of Baptists of Georgia regarding slavery and the Confederacy.

Click here to buy your copy.

Baptists in the South, rapidly rising to challenge Methodists numerically, helped align Southern religion with the South’s culture of white supremacy and black slavery. The birth of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, formed in order to preserve God’s eternal will of African slavery, signaled the inevitability of war.

During the war, Baptists in local church and associations responded to the Confederacy in a myriad of ways. Patterns of responses emerged and evolved as the war progressed, while differences between Southern and Primitive Baptists stood out.