In Search of a White Front

Native-born bond people were thus presented by the reopening supporters as being beyond the reach of small planters. According to a Louisiana revivalist, "The price of negroes has already reached that point which is beyond the means of small planters, and they cannot afford to invest their small amounts of spare capital in a species of property that may be swept away by the diseases of the climate — perhaps, the very next week after its purchase — and thus, in the loss of one negro fellow, a three years' saving is gone with him." Appeals were also made to the poor, those who would never be able to afford enslaved labor anyway. De Bow assured them:

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can in general be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave, to what owned a slave ten years ago. ... It is within the knowledge of the writer that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.

Southern slaveholders had become wary of the poor, who did not own slaves and thus had little economic stake in the system. Moreover, as the cost of purchasing enslaved labor increased dramatically, this group was hopelessly locked out of the market. Wealthy planters feared that the lower classes might support the Yankees, and so the revival propagandists tried to establish a solid white front across social classes. With more and cheaper Africans available, more people could have slaves, they argued, and the peculiar institution would thus have more supporters.

North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper begged to differ. He was the most famous southern abolitionist and a hard-core racist, the self-proclaimed voice of the "non-slaveholders of the South, farmers, mechanics and workingmen," who had been "hoodwinked, trifled and used by the 'slavocrats'". Helper believed that the South had "three odious classes of mankind; the slaves themselves, who are cowards; the slaveholders, who are tyrants; and the non-slaveholding slave-hirers, who are lickspittles." Leaving aside the lickspittles, there were, according to him, only 186,551 slaveholders in the country, and slavery that helped only them, to the detriment of the white worker, had to be abolished.

But his calculation was wrong. "Direct" slaveholders in the South numbered about 400,000 in 1860, but their families have to be taken into account. The spouse and the children were not counted as slave owners, yet they benefited from slavery just the same and had as much interest in the system as the holder. Thus, the 400,000 owners represented a population that numbered at the very least two million. Even though "only" 7 percent of Alabamians were actual owners, for example, 35 percent of the white population belonged to a slave-holding household. So did 49 percent of Mississippi whites, 46 percent of their counterparts in South Carolina, and 37 percent of Georgians. Slavery had also created jobs for white men such as overseers or slave catchers. So contrary to what Helper asserted, a large part of the population could thus, as the revivalists hoped, have a potential interest in the reopening of the international slave trade.

The growing immigration of Europeans also entered the revival debate. The vast majority chose the North and as a result increased not only its demographic weight, but also its political and economic power. If enslaved laborers were cheap, the advocates alleged, immigrants could buy them and they too would support slavery. Even the big planters, De Bow insisted, should support the revival because even if they saw their net worth drop as their native-born labor lost value, "the basis of slavery will be enlarged, and be brought to embrace in a direct and tangible interest, every member of the community, and its area at the same time be widened by the introduction of new States."

Finally, all revivalists agreed that banning the international slave trade on moral grounds made slavery itself look bad. Slavery was good and fair for all, including the enslaved, they maintained, and the banning of the international slave trade while the domestic slave trade was still legal not only did not make any sense, but it tarnished the slave system as a whole. By reviving it, the stain would be lifted from the institution.