American History

American History: Slavery in the South vs. Factory Workers in the North


There are numerous periods throughout history that can be defined by particular events and societal values singular to that specific era.  Similarly, there are also many events and social values throughout history that are circular in nature and repetitively appear in multiple historical periods.  The circular nature of history preserves many themes, values, beliefs, and customs that can be observed through the philosophies expressed by the economic structure and political/legal aspects prevalent within the society.  These similarities and differences can frequently be noted when various aspects unique to the period are analyzed, such as the influence Northern factory workers had on the perpetuation of slavery in the South.  Beginning with an examination of the historical contexts relative to the colonization of America, this discourse will examine the transition from a farming economy to an industrial society to provide a better understanding of the economic, political, and industrial aspects of slavery in the South vs. factory workers in the North.

Historical Contexts: American Colonization

Colonization of America was not only accomplished by the British explorers, but also by other European powers, such as France, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch, who explored and established colonies in this New World (Bowles 2011).  The settlers from each carried the cultural diversity of their homeland to America, which became a determining factor in what region they settled in as well as what commercial products each region developed to support the new settlers.   The terrain and abundance of natural resources additionally determined the types of commercial industries developed in each region.   The primary factors affecting commercial trade and agriculture in colonial America included: the quality of the soil, which determined if the land could be farmed, the skills of the settlers, coastal proximity or harbor access for marine commerce, and the abundance of natural resources such as lumber and animal fur, which contributed to their inventory for trade and commerce (Berkin, et al. 2008).  These aspects allowed many regions of colonial America to develop distinct commercial economies, such as the industrious trades of the North and the agricultural trades of the South, which propelled the colonies to independent economic structures.

The soil quality of many southern regions allowed those with farming skills to prosper and crops such as tobacco and cotton quickly became the staple produce of the settlements in areas such as Chesapeake, and, later, the Potomac, James River, and piedmont foothills (Berkin, et al. 2008, Bluestone 2012).   Planters in the lower Southern regions, particularly Georgia and South Carolina, grew crops such as rice along the Atlantic coast while other southern settlements became ranchers and raised livestock (Bluestone 2012).  The farmers and ranchers in the American south quickly became the primary suppliers of the majority of Great Britain’s agronomic exports.  However, the most important facet of this establishment was that nearly all of the laborers that produced the South’s agricultural goods were slaves, which became the backbone of Southern economy.

In the North, the Connecticut River Valley was the only region of New England that was agricultural since much of the region had rocky terrain (Bluestone 2012).  The remaining New England regions turned to development of lumber and fishing industries (Berkin, et al. 2008).  The inherent limitations presented geographically allowed the New England region to develop their main commercial product from the transportation of goods across the Atlantic Ocean as well as to and from the Caribbean (Bluestone 2012).  Through their timber production, the New Englanders also exported timber and dried fish to the West Indies, allowing this region to become tremendously profitable through extensive shipping networks with traders willing to transport diverse cargos (Berkin, et al. 2008, Bluestone 2012).

The middle Northern colonies, which were New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, became profitable through the fur trade (Berkin, et al. 2008).  The Dutch colony of New Netherland along the Hudson River established traded with Native Americans and English settlers (Bluestone 2012).  They Dutch settlers soon became so profitable that they were able to expand their trade and started a second colony along the Delaware River (Bluestone 2012).  However, settlers that made their homes far from the coast line suffered hardships not experienced in the larger colonies.  Only the coastal settlements enjoyed such profit and wealth, whereas the settlements further inland had to endure the scarcity of supplies since travel inland was limited to wagons or horses and the limitations of the terrain caused them to struggle to grow enough crops to feed their families (Berkin, et al. 2008).

The settlers had to deal with with supplanted Native Americans and these meetings were frequently violent.  The colonists in the Northern regions also lacked the labor resources needed to clear the large tracts of land necessary for farming, which resulted in recurrent shortages of food (Bluestone 2012).  They also lacked the resources to get the crops they were able to grow to market and no means to correct either problem (Berkin, et al. 2008). However, the middle colonies were able to become highly profitable in the fur trade due to the abundance of mammalian wildlife bearing plush, coveted furs and pelts.

The vast differences in the geographical attributes of the American colonies and their inherent ecological attributes were principal in determining what goods and services were produced in each colonial region.  Colonies in the New England territories became successful by capitalizing on the lumber shortage in England and other areas within their oceanic proximity (Berkin, et al. 2008).  Colonists in the South became planters that capitalized on the excellent soil quality of the region, which allowed them to diversify their crops, and they fully exploited the numerous fiscal benefits of the availability of cheap labor through the use of slaves and indentured servants (Bluestone 2012).  The middle colonies created a new market by expanding the fur trade.  Each colony was able to use of the talents of the settlers to develop and sustain a demand for their products.

From Farming to Factories: Economic Impact of Slavery

Communication and travel in the 18th century was more strenuous with limited options, especially if the other party was not nearby.  Segregation due to race, class, wealth, and many other aspects isolated the rich from the poor, whites from blacks and other races, and as a whole, America was very isolated from other nations.  Many towns and colonies in America were rural which entails a substantial degree of persisting social isolation (Davies 1962).  The technological advancements created during the first industrial revolution raised the standard of living for some, the rapid expansion led to overcrowded, unsanitary housing and poor working conditions in the larger cities, which is why many people preferred the cleaner, rural life.  Although these conditions improved after 1850, this led to an increase in the life expectancy of workers, facilitating the change from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial society  (Egerton 2011).  This expansion brought many material benefits and improvements, but it also brought many critical problems prevalent today, such as air, water, and land pollution (Carr 2004).

Nonetheless, whereas domestic industry presented many problems for merchants, machinery posed a myriad of solutions.  Merchants were able to produce a standard product in a timely manner for a fraction of the cost.  The explosion of the transportation industry through the development and manufacturing of trains, ships, and automobiles allowed merchants to distribute their product to a wider range of consumers.  The construction of railroad tracks determined the best places for farming based on the easy transportation of the goods.  The introduction of factories depersonalized the work relationship and made the work day tedious and monotonous.

The employment of children in these factories facilitated the creation of child labor laws to protect kids that were being maimed and killed while working in the factories for literally pennies a day (Bowles 2011).  Many employers believed in keeping their workers poor, illiterate, and isolated, while they became tremendously wealthy from the benefits of their employee’s hard work until the formation of trade unions.  The establishment of trade unions allowed workers to emerge from the isolation imposed by their employers, unite, and protest their low wages and horrible work conditions, freeing them from the oppressive isolation of their working environments.  Groups like the Luddites began attacking factories and destroying machines between 1811 and 1816, despite the fact that this crime was punishable by death (Braumoeller 2010).

Many middleclass people made fortunes and won political and educational benefits, which translated to an end to isolation that was not prevalent in poor communities due to ignorance, segregation, and illiteracy (Bowles 2011).  America’s new wealth improved many people’s way of life, thus increasing their life expectancies and their literacy allowed them to communicate better with those around them.  The improved condition of the working class increased the population, along with the immigration of workers from other industrialized countries.  The most successful industry of the United States was the shipbuilding industry and iron manufacturing and, by 1850, the U. S. was able to compete with Great Britain in the international market in iron manufacturing (Bowles 2011).  The agricultural, construction, and mining industries also expanded and the population grew with it.

Industrial Contexts of Slavery

In many ways after the divisiveness and devastation of the Civil War, the United States searched for order economically, politically, geographically, socially and racially. Some examples include the westward expansion of the nation, the reunification of a national political system in the North and South, the influx of immigrants, conflict with Native Americans, and an increase of racial segregation. As the Atlantic slave trade dwindled into nothingness in the nineteenth century, millions of European and Asian peoples that were either free or under contract immigrated to the labor-starved regions of the Spanish Caribbean, South America, the British West Indies, and North America (Guterl 2003). Southerners in the United States were economically, culturally, and socially connected to the global experience of emancipation and labor adjustment in the Americas (Guterl 2003).  Certainly the greatest impact the American conflict had on the Atlantic world and beyond lay in cotton production and manufacture. One economist has estimated that by spring 1861, perhaps 20 million people around the globe planted, cultivated, shipped, wove, and sold cotton. South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond famously boasted that nobody dared to wage war on “King Cotton,” British factories devoured 800 million pounds of cotton each year, and three-quarters of that arrived from the American South. In July of 1860, 1,298,093 bales of cotton were held at Liverpool, including 1,102,530 from America. Then, the number of bales arriving began to drop each month, and by the end of 1861, only 311,000 American bales reached Liverpool’s docks. London’s staid Economist fretted that by the next summer, “nearly every mill in England, Scotland, and Ireland will be stopped for actual want of the raw material” (Egerton 2011).

One of the greatest transformations the American city has undergone was the change from farming communities into bustling, industrial meccas, as initiated through the advent of the railroad.  Many small, agricultural towns that had not been previously listed on any maps seemed to suddenly bloom into thriving, lively cities crowded with people when they included a train station and the railroad quickly became “a symbol of American commercial and technological development” (Bowles, 2011, p.22).  The railroad changed the face of the nation by connecting diverse places and making settlement much easier than the previous method of covered stagecoach, which was dangerous, took a long time, and very hard since you were essentially exposed to the elements during the lengthy transit.  The railroad opened up the American frontier to all and made it easy for people to take advantage of governmental laws, like the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed Americans to purchase 160 acres land for just $1.25 per acre or take land for free if one of the “homesteaders” farmed it for a period of five years and the Timber Culture Act of 1873, which allowed for an additional 160 acres of land for free if settlers planted trees on at least one-quarter the land for a period of four years (Bowles, 2011). Although the government did not allow Asian immigrants to take advantage of these opportunities, African Americans were permitted to claim land in some states and provided the opportunity for black people to migrate to the western states where their freedom was generally more respected, than what they experienced in the southern states (Bowles, 2011).  This aspect of history reflects how the demographics of the nation changed and how the diversity of the population of the states was forever changed by the invention of the railroad.  This also determined many aspects of who became wealthy as land allowed people to become independent and forge their own destinies.

Legal/Political Aspects

America was colonized by immigrants from various countries worldwide and these colonists settled in different regions. However, each country had their own motives for sponsoring explorations to America.  The search for new shipping routes to Asia, and glorious tales of Marco Polo’s trip to Asia led Spain’s Christopher Columbus to make the historic journey that led him to the Caribbean Islands (Streich 2010).   Needing to establish new trade routes due to the unrest in the Middle East caused by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, European exploration of the Atlantic Ocean was propelled forward (Streich 2010).  The stage of American history following the Civil War is most commonly known as the Reconstruction period (Bowles, 2011).  This is primarily because the entire country was in the grips of a change that would shape the future of the entire nation.  Through this period of Reconstruction, the most important issue the nation needed to focus on was the state of social dissention amongst the diverse people.  Despite the attempts to bring the nation together as a solidified union through the convergence of the land as one state, the people remained divided and these divisions continued to grow.  It is my estimation that the social separation of the people, as demonstrated through racial, political, and economic division and discord, is and remains the most prominent area that America needed to address.

Although the north had won the war and succeeded in gaining control of the land in the coalescence of the southern states that had seceded from the Union prior to the war, the integration of the ex-slaves into the American economy and society was as elusive as the goal of finding roles for women, African Americans, and Native American Indians in the newly reconstructed America (Bowles, 2011).   The Republicans and Democrats were trying  to create a new national identity of the ‘American’  and a solid definition of ‘modern America’ by assimilating northerners, southerners, and westerners under one limited central government, but this was and still is an impossibility because the people remained divided in their views, goals, motives, agendas, and beliefs (Bowles, 2011).  The Republican-controlled central government was not unified, splitting into three camps of conservatives, moderates, and radicals, which eventually resulted in the assassination of President Lincoln and his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, assuming the presidency and control of the nation in 1865 (Bowles, 2011).  In further demonstration of the dis-unification of what was supposed to be one nation, passing of laws known as The Black Codes in southern state governments created legislation that restricted and controlled the lives of the former slaves (Bowles, 2011).  African Americans could not engage in work other than farming, could marry each other, but intermarriage between the races was outlawed, were prohibited from carrying guns, were restricted from travelling, and, worst of all, “if a freed slave did not perform work in accordance with these laws, they could be put in jail or “loaned” out for enforced work” (Bowles, 2011, p.6).

Although this was essentially a lawful form of slavery and clearly in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”, President Johnson supported The Black Codes, but members of Congress opposed them, another area of dissention within the United States (Bowles, 2011, p.7).   The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted in 1868, but was not ratified until 1870, and states, among other things, that all citizens were equal under the law, but the Constitution indicates that those held in bondage counted as “three-fifths” of a person, and this indication has never been changed to give those slaves inclusion within the law as a whole person to truly create equality within the nation (Bowles, 2011, p.7).


The circular nature of history preserves many themes, values, beliefs, and customs that can be observed through the philosophies expressed by the economic structure and political/legal aspects prevalent within the society.  These similarities and differences can frequently be noted when various aspects unique to the period are analyzed, such as the influence Northern factory workers had on the perpetuation of slavery in the South.  Both regions ushered in new ways of thinking and transformed the current status of society.  However, self-expression was emphasized above conformity in the North, which is indicative of present-day social trends.  Many of the factors that facilitated these social reforms are repetitive throughout history, such as oppression, racism, social discontent, and a desire to unify mankind with our natural environment.  The values prevalent in the North reflect many of the same values expressed currently, such as respect and appreciation for nature and our natural environment, human equality, utilizing reason and logic above irrational beliefs, superstitions, and dishonorable traditions. These social issues are reflected in the themes and content of the literature, music, and all other artistic forms produced during these turbulent, transitory periods.  The repetitive nature of the catalytic factors empowering the monumental trends in these regions that framed human history is indicative of the circular nature of historic events and the forces that drive them.


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