Posted: September 20th, 2022

Why did Northerners largely ignore the issue of slavery in the Antebellum period?

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Instructions Warning: The reading / activity for this week is an exploration of racism in the 19th Century. As such, some of the material is most certainly offensive. I have made an attempt here to treat this issue in the most sensitive way possible. Please reach out to me with any concerns. Introduction: Surveys of American history often gloss over this topic. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the end of American slavery told something like this: “The North was anti-slavery, and so the Civil War decided the issue. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and freed all of the slaves.” I’ve heard this over and over as a history teacher, and I feel like part of my job is to clarify this gross oversimplification. I think that one of the more fascinating ways to do this is to examine how Northerners saw slavery in the Antebellum period. Northern textile mills thrived off of the cheap cotton that the South supplied; indeed, the Northern economy boomed on human bondage. Roark, et. al., state that “mob violence erupted in northern cities with regularity when abolitionist speakers came to town.” Indeed, abolitionists were seen as dangerous radicals. To give an example from the Civil War, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many Union regiments threatened to desert the army because they were not fighting the war for the purposes of slave liberation. Northerners, like most people in the 19th Century, were fairly racist. What follows is an exploration of prominent ideas regarding slavery in the Antebellum Period. Question for this discussion: Why did Northerners largely ignore the issue of slavery in the Antebellum period? How did the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin help to change that perception? Readings / Instructions for this discussion: 1) View the 4 Minute Video clip on the impact of the Cotton Gin and the relationship of the North and South regarding slavery: 2) Access The website explores slavery and media in American culture. This discussion uses blackface minstrel songs as an historical source to explore some of the images of slaves that were commonplace in Antebellum America. They were particularly popular in northern towns and cities. A significant part of their appeal for northern audiences was that these troupes claimed to present a genuine picture of slave life in the American South. The authenticity of their portrayals can be judged by the fact that the most famous minstrel composer of the era, Stephen Foster, was born just outside of Pittsburgh and visited the South only once during his lifetime. Activity 1: Enter the website and select browse mode. Then click on the box titled “Minstrel Shows” and go to the “Gallery of Images.” This page features a sampling of illustrations that adorned the covers of minstrel song sheets. These song sheets were published and marketed to the public for use in the home and parlor. Read the lyrics to Old Color’d Gentleman and Old Uncle Ned. Activity 2: In browse mode, click on “Illustrations” in the central box. This brings you to a page with links to illustrations from the different editions of the novel. Select “The Illustrated Edition (1853).” While the first edition contained only seven illustrations, this version of the novel featured over 100 specially-commissioned drawings. View: “Tom’s Writing Lesson” (found in the left-hand column, 4th from the top), “Haley with Slave Children” (left-hand column, 7th from the top), “Eva and Tom Reading the Bible” (left-hand column, 27th from the bottom), and “Tom’s Final Beating (left-hand column, 6th from the bottom).

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