Historical Context: Slavery in a Capitalist World

Why were the South's political leaders so worried about whether slavery would be permitted in the West when geography and climate made it unlikely that slavery would ever prosper in the area? The answer lies in the South's growing awareness of its minority status in the Union, of the elimination of slavery in many other areas of the Western Hemisphere, and of the decline of slavery in the upper South.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, slave labor was becoming an exception in the world. During the early years of the 19th century, Spain's newly independent New World colonies abolished slavery. Then in 1833, Britain emancipated its slaves in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guiana, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Tobago, Grenada, Montserrat, and other possessions in the Caribbean. A decade and a half later, France abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies. By 1850, New World slavery was confined to Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, a small number of Dutch colonies, and the American South.

British slave emancipation in the Caribbean was followed by an intensified campaign to eradicate the international slave trade. In areas like Brazil and Cuba, slavery could not long survive once the slave trade was cut off because the slave populations of these countries had a skewed sex ratio and were unable to naturally reproduce their numbers. Only in the American South could slavery survive without the Atlantic slave trade.

Exacerbating Southern fears about slavery's future was a sharp decline in slavery in the upper South. Between 1830 and 1860, the proportion of slaves in Missouri's population fell from 18 to 10 percent; in Kentucky from 24 to 19 percent; in Maryland from 23 to 13 percent. The South's leaders feared that in the future the upper South would soon become a region of free labor.

Within the region itself, slave ownership was increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Abolitionists were stigmatizing the South as out of step with the times. Many of the South's leading politicians feared that these criticisms of slavery would weaken lower-class white support for slavery.

Some white Southerners called for the reopening the African slave trade. These people believed that non-slaveholding Southerners would only support slavery if they believed they had a chance of owning slaves themselves. But for most Southern leaders, the best way to demonstrate slavery's viability was through westward expansion.