The abolition of slavery in the Americas occured upon fits and starts. Slavery was an institution entrenched both in economic life and in the social fabric of essentially hierarchical societies. The commodities produced by slave labor, particularly sugar, cotton, and coffee, were crucial to the exopanding network of transatlantic trade.(1) In Brazil and Cuba slaveholding was also widespread in the cities and in some food-producing regions. Thus while the ideological transformations accompanying the growth of capitalism in Great Britain set the stage for a general critique of chattel slavery and championing of “free labor”, it took more than a changing intellectual climate to dislodge the institution.(2) Abolitionism took on its greatest force when it coincided with economic change and domestic social upheaval, and particularly when it became an element in the defining of new nations or new colonial relationships. (3)
The rising tide of nationalism caused some Latin Americans to question dreary racial concepts. To accept the European doctrines, they finally realized, would condemn Latin America perpetually to a secondary position.(10) The nationalists concluded that the doctrines were simply another means devised by the Europeans to humiliate and subjugate Latin America. In due course, the Latin Americans rejected the foriegn racist doctrines, and in doing so they took a major step toward freeing themselves from Europeans cultural domination. At that time attitudes toward the Latin Americans of African descent also underwent change.(11) As the first step, it was necessary to end slavery. The Spanish-speaking republics abolished it between 1821 and 1854.
The Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804 firghtened slaveholders throughout the Americas and had an important direct effect on the course of the Spanish American wars of independence.(12) After being thwarted in his initial revolutionary efforts, the “Liberator” Simon Bolivar went in 1815 to Jamaica and then to Haiti to seek assistance. President Alessandre Petion of Haiti insisted on a commitment to emancipation as a condition for support, and Bolivar made such a commitment. Opposition to slavery became an element in a new Spanish American ideal of citizenship, expanding the possibility of recruiting among slaves and other opposed to the power of slaveholders.(13) Material and strategic support from Petion gave Bolivar’s cause new life, but many of the leaders of the independent movement continued to temporize when faced with the choice between forthright abolitionism and the mobilization of slaves abd free people of color on the one hand, and the continued protection of property rights as a means for obtaining or retaining elite support on the other. (14) It was thus not surprising that antislavery commitments were ratified by some of the early republican congresses, such as that of the Republic of Gran Colombia at Cucuta in 1821, but encumbered with conditions and timetables that stalled the actual process of emancipation. The republicans in Peru were even more cautious, putting property rights and social stability first and not declaring emancipation, even as they sought to recruit among slaves and free people of color.(15)
Furthermore, it is important to note that the crucial demographic difference between North and South in the United States resulted from slavery itself. Ninety-five percent of the country’s balck people lived in the slave states, where blacks constituted one-third of the population in contrast to their 1 percent of the Northern population.(16) The implication of this for the economy and social structure of the two section, not to mention their ideologies and politics, are obvious and require little elaboration here. However there is a brief point worth emphasizing: many historians have maintained that Northerners were as committed to the white supremacy as Southerners. This may have been true, but the scale concern with this matter in the South was so much greater as to constitute a different order of magnitude and to contribute more than any factor to the difference between North and South.(17) And of course slavery was more than an institution of racial control. Its centrality to many aspects of life focused Southern politics almost exclusively on defense of the institution.(18) Thus, the South could not afford to oppose slavery, an institution being such a great part of themselves.
The inhumanity of the “peculiar institution” gradually caused antislavery societies to sprout forth in the United States. The first stirrings of the abolistionist sentiment occured at the time of the Revolution, especially among Quakers.(19) Because of the wide-spread loathing of blacks, some of the earliest abolistionist efforts focused on transporting the blacks bodily back to Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded for this purpose in 1817, and in 1822 the Republic of Liberia was established for former slaves.(20) In the 1830’s the abolitionist movement took on new energy and momentum, mounting to the proportions of a crusade. American abolitonists took heart in 1833 when their British counterparts unchained the slaves in the West Indies.(21) Most important, the religious spirit of the Second Great Awakening now inflamed the hearts of many abolitionists against the sin of slavery. However, antislavery sentiment was not unknown in the South, and in the 1820s antislavery societies were more numerous south of Mason and Dixon’s line than north of it.(22) But after about 1830 the voice of white southern abolitionism was silenced. In the last grasp of southern questiuoning of slavery, the Virginia legislature debated and eventually defeated various emancipation proposals in 1831-1832.(23) That debate marked a turning point. Thereafter all the slave states tightened their slave codes and moved to prohibit emancipation of any kind, voluntary or compensated. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 sent a wave of hysteria sweeping over the snowy cotton fields, and planters in growing numbers slept with pistols by their pillows.(24) Pro-slavery whites responded by launching a massive defense of slavery as a positive good. In doing so, they forgot their own section’s previous doubts about the morality of the “peculiar institution”. Slavery, they claimed, was supported by the authority of the Bible and the wisdom of Aristotle.(25) It was good for the Africans, who were lifted from the barbarism of the jungle and clothed with the blessing of Christian civilization. Slavemasters did indeed encourage blacks contained such passages as: (26)
Q: Who gave you a master and a mistress?
A: God gave them to me.
Q: Who says that you must obey them?
A: God says that I must.
On many plantations, especially those in the Old South of Virginia and Maryland, this argument had a certain plausibility. Southern whites were quick to contrast the “happy” lot of their “servants” with that of the overworked northern wage slaves, including sweated women and stunted children.(27) Thus, ironically, both the North and the South supported their cause on slavery with religion. This also happened elsewhere in the Americas such as Venezuela and Puerto Rico, where slavery was similarly crucial to the economy.
The difference between who supported slavery and who did not does not come from differences in ideology or religion as shown above. What counts more, as usual, are the political and economic aspect of the issue. Whereever harsh agriculture was needed such as in Southern United States or in Venezuela or Peru, slavery was supported as a necessity. Some people who opposed slavery were people who opposed it becuase it would generate political benefits, even though they did not care about the slavery issue at all. There was no answer to who was right and who was wrong, especially since religion (Christianity) was used by both sides to justify their stands. Although the issue of emancipation was brought up by those who morally opposed it (such as the Quakers in the United States), but was carried on by those who could afford to support it in a political sense. It demonstrates how the world is run by Machiavellianism, not ideology or religion.