Slavery in American Society, Essay Example
The nature of slavery itself is so complex and important that it is difficult to assess what role it played in the developing United States before the Civil War. Slavery is not a specific type of industry, trade, ideology, or class of people. It is not a practice or a commerce based on immediate need or a technology. At the same time, it is also composed of all these elements. More importantly, it was a type of personal rank that grossly contradicted everything the new country was meant to represent. It was a throwback to the Old World insisted upon by large portions of the New World. It was a mainstay of the economy, which then had enormous influences on the arrangement of society itself, and it increasingly set people against one another politically and socially. Consequently, when the ethics of slavery became a divisive issue that could no longer be negotiated or compromised, it was more than a sufficient force to tear the country in two.
In terms of only economics, slavery’s impact on the nation cannot be overestimated. This was an agricultural world, and slavery facilitated a form of labor that cannot be compared to any other in regard to enabling success. In the South especially, where cotton and tobacco farms were developing into massive sources of income for the region, slavery enabled personal wealth to reach extraordinary proportions. This in turn led to prosperity in other arenas; rich farmers and plantation owners are able to build extensively, as well as supply merchants around them. Great wealth generally feeds the surrounding community, and wealth at this level influenced virtually all commerce. Slavery allowed it to happen because slavery costs the slave-owner very little, and gives an enormous return.
If economics was the foundation, the roles of slavery in other arenas of society were affected. In the South, a unique culture was allowed to develop, one that mirrored ancient European aristocracies. Whites were permitted to perceive themselves as superior because an entire race was in place to support the concept, and this led to further stratifying of classes and social position. Once the element of the lowest form was in place, that of the slave, there was a foundation on which to build further levels of status. More exactly, slave-owners had the power and money to elevate themselves over other whites. Then, slavery’s role in social spheres also went to the other extreme, in polarizing huge numbers of citizens. People began to be identified by virtue of their feelings regarding it, because views on slavery clearly touched upon ethical, political, and religious beliefs. In both North and South, as well as between the two arenas, social life reflected gatherings of like-minded people because the issue was increasingly commanding everyone’s attention. Inevitably, popular feeling fuels political action, and party politics were soon centered on the issue as the great controversy to be settled.
Slavery, then, was both symbol and reason for the great division finally breaking apart the North and the South. It became something beyond the rights of a man to actually own another man; it became the ultimate determination of how much power an individual state could have in authorizing such liberties for its own citizens. Territories were eager to be granted statehood, as the growing nation wanted to solidify its presence. Slavery became, time and again, the deal-breaker. It was the test of how much autonomous power the federal government was willing to offer to the states, and how much power these states, new constructions that they were, could retain for themselves. It may be that no single issue has ever been so instrumental in shaping the formation of a country, and the reality remains that, after great violence and controversy, slavery served as the challenge too big to be incorporated into any kind of national doctrine. Vast economic, social, and political forces aside, slavery had to be addressed in a definitive way because the nature of it goes to what composes any government’s reason for being: the rights of all men and women. Slavery revealed that no nation could be divided and survive when a question profoundly going to the most basic issues of human relations is unresolved. Slavery tore the country into sectional unrest, and finally war, because no other subject is as rooted in the fundamental ethics upon which a nation must rely. Slavery was the ultimate proof that a country, if in disagreement about other issues, cannot be whole if it wavers on a basic principle.
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