Slavery in the North and South during the Revolution

By Olivia McGeehan

Prior to conducting extensive research on religion and the time period before and during the American Revolution, the term slavery held a broad meaning to me. A question that this class raised for me, that ultimately became my research topic, was what were the significant differences in slavery between the North and the South leading up to the American Revolution and during, and how did this relate to religion? It was difficult for me to narrow down this specific topic because I was so concerned with being able to have a question that would lead me to a correct answer. What I ended up realizing was that my question could not clearly be answered, and that is okay. I presumed that the differences between slavery in these two regions would be basic characteristics of slave life, such as what type of work the enslaved were doing and what conditions they were forced to survive under. This was the basis of my question, when in all actuality, the differences in slavery between these two places were much more significant than just the basic characteristics of slave life.

There is a deeper meaning behind slavery than what most of my generation perceives it to be, and the emotional difference between these two regions was emphasized in these articles. An interesting point to ruminate on as I began this project was Thomas Kidd’s statement that “The gap between [Thomas] Jefferson’s beliefs and his behavior [towards slavery] is indicative of the struggle of revolutionary Americans to grasp new implications of what they saw as an ancient truth: the common creation of mankind by God.” (Kidd, p.131) This led me to believe that the act of slavery in relation to religion could have been the source of conflict that led the North towards anti-slavery pressures while the South attempted to ignore the issue at hand all together. It was a time of conflict for the North, and a time of silence for the South. Although my preconceived knowledge on the subject of slavery had been a bit wrong, this ultimately led my research to be more profound.

Since the North and South are such broad regions, I decided to focus specifically on Boston and Charleston during the time leading up to the Revolution and during the Revolution. My research is based on a study of early American newspaper articles containing the words “religion” and “slavery” from 1764-1783. Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 2.57.11 PMFrom smallest to largest, this word cloud shows the words used the least to the words used the most in the articles that I chose to base my research around. Looking at my visualization, you can see that slavery, oppression, liberty, and religion are the most frequently used words in my articles. I predicted at the beginning of this project that slavery and oppression would be the most common words in my articles, but I assumed it would be for a very different reason than it actually is.

The first obstacle I faced during my research was the lack of articles in Charleston before the American Revolution. There was not a single article I could find regarding slavery and religion during 1764 to 1774. It is assumed that printing was not a huge thing in Charleston at the time, unlike in Boston, where I found an abundance of pre-Revolutionary articles in reference to my topic. Originally wanting to just focus on slavery in the years leading up to the Revolution, this led me to shift my topic from focusing on slavery in the North and the South during the years of 1764 through 1774 to focusing on the time period during the Revolution also. During the American Revolution (1774-1783), there was a much greater selection of newspapers for Charleston, and I was able to find a majority of my information in regard towards Charleston during this time period.

Slavery and oppression were discussed in the larger portion of my articles, but the distinct differences in how these two words were discussed was a significant finding. I will first discuss Charleston, a city in the South, where slavery was present in the harshest and most intense form. From previous history classes that I have taken, the strong correlation between the South and slavery was something that I had greatly been aware of. So why was I having such a difficult time gathering up enough articles from this place that actually discuss slavery in depth? Not much of what I could find in these Charleston articles went past the brief mention of the word “slave” or “slavery” in a sentence. This led me to wonder what the term slavery meant in early American newspapers in Charleston. Yes, there were a lot of articles with my key word slavery, but none of these articles were actually talking about slavery or the life of slaves in depth. Why was this? I could assume this is because it was painful and uncomfortable to talk about, or I can even think that this was a way of dehumanizing slaves. These two theories are very plausible, but the lack of information in these articles remained a roadblock for me to actually finding this answer. Slaves were simply not given a voice in Charleston, and this highlights just how bad conditions were in the South. I did not need to know the definition of slavery in Charleston to understand that conditions were unacceptable. Charleston outshined Boston in terms of enslaved population, which is ironic considering the lack of information I was able to dig up. Edmund S. Morgan greatly emphasized this contradiction when he stated “We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have insisted that slavery was something more than an exception, that one fifth of the American population at the time of the Revolution is too many people to be treated as an exception.” (Morgan, p.5) There were so many slaves present in Charleston during this time, yet they were not in the newspapers, they were not discussed in great detail and they were not given a voice to speak in printing. There was a disconnect in emotional empathy between slaves and the rest of the population, and this is where Boston differed greatly from Charleston.

The contrast between Charleston and Boston in regards to what I just discussed is important. The depth of slavery discussed in the Boston articles led me to find information that had proved my original thoughts wrong. An interesting aspect of the Northern culture during the most intense times of slavery is the amount of people who were interested in abolition. Going back to my visualization, one of the largest words is liberty, and ironically, it is connecting slavery and oppression. This is because in a majority of the Boston articles I found, liberty was discussed to a great extent when certain voices were arguing against slavery. While Charleston was dehumanizing slaves, Boston was concerned with the liberty of the slaves. This is so important because many people, myself included before this research, assume that slavery was horrible and present throughout the entire country during this time. I realized that slavery was almost non-existent in places like Boston in the North, and greatly present in places like Charleston in the South. A great portion of the population in the South was enslaved, and there was no attempted movement to abolish slavery. Boston gave slaves a voice and even though it might have been a slow movement of abolition, it greatly shows the differences that were present in the two places.

What slavery meant to these two places contrasted greatly, and even though I cannot clearly define what slavery meant to both Charleston and Boston, it can be proven that Boston was empathetic and upset with how evident slavery was in the nation, and Charleston barely even acknowledged to the public through printing that slave life was awful. So once again, I knew that slavery and oppression would be the most important words in my research, and this word cloud shows that. However, I did not know that these words were used in such opposite ways. In Boston, my articles stated to the people that slavery is not an act of liberty and religion, and that it is absolutely wrong. On the other hand, in Charleston, the word slavery came up frequently, but in random sentences discussing another topic that slavery was briefly mentioned in. There was no emphasis and there was no empathy towards slave life, simply because to the South, slaves were not deserving of a life and they were not deserving of a voice to be heard and talked about. They simply put it in the back of their minds and carried on with their every day lives and printing.


Further Reading

Morgan, Edmund S. “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” JAH, 1972.

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.


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