The Heart of Darkness

As we enter the final year of the Civil War sesquicentennial, debate continues over whether or not slavery was the primary cause of the conflict. Was the North fighting to free the slaves or to preserve the Union? Would the South really go to war over slavery with only 1.5% of the population owning slaves or was it fighting for state’s rights? An equally important question is why educated, deeply religious men and women allowed this heinous institution to thrive on our shores, justified it from the pulpit and crippled half a fledgling nation. There’s no shortage of material on the subject, but since its history is often skewed by revisionists, an unvarnished look is in order.

Africa sold its own people into bondage.

African slavers sold their own people into bondage.

Nearly as old as mankind, slavery flourished in almost every ancient civilization. It was embedded in Africa’s tribal economy and society long before Portuguese slavers came calling in the mid-15th century. Initially, the Portuguese kidnapped Africans, but soon found local chiefs eager to supply slaves by raiding neighboring villages. Quick to see profits, the Spanish, British, French, Dutch and others weighed into the ugly business, and when attempts to settle inland Africa met strong resistance, the flesh merchants leased coastal land to build forts doubling as slave markets. Tribal authorities continued their complicity, the most famous being the King of Dahomey who, in 1726, told Europeans if they built plantations in his kingdom, he would provide slave labor.

The South's sultry summers were ideal for cotton and sugar.

The South’s sultry summers were ideal for cotton and sugar.

Slavery came to the American colonies in 1619 when the Dutch unloaded nineteen Africans near Jamestown, Virginia. Sadly, it remained legal after American independence, despite the declaration that “all men are created equal.” As the young country expanded, regional differences soon emerged and deepened. While the North developed a diverse, largely industrial economy, due in part to shorter summers and colder winters, the steamy South took advantage of long growing seasons and became primarily agricultural. With no need for slave labor up north, the abolition movement prompted one state after another to outlaw the practice, and the great divide began in earnest. By the nineteenth century, as it sated Europe’s insatiable hunger for sugar, cotton and tobacco, the South was so saddled with slavery that manumission would have meant economic suicide. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” History had led the South into a calamitous, immoral trap.

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Abolitionists began early but it took a war to give them victory.


The balance of power between Slave and Free states vacillated continually as both pushed their agendas, especially in new western territories, but the sides were never clearly drawn. There were numerous abolitionist movements in the South, while many northerners endorsed slavery. (There was even a term, “copperhead,” for a northerner with southern sympathies.) Free Africans owned black slaves as early as the 1640s, and white slavery was also a reality. (See “Not a Black and/or White Issue.”) Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a wealthy South Carolina planter and slave owner, were celebrated abolitionists and the first female public speakers in America. Things were equally contradictory up north. Up until the Civil War, New York City remained home port to slave ships whose owners all but flaunted their illegality, and the city’s great wealth was so closely tied to southern cotton that the New York Herald warned citizens that choosing an abolitionist president would be “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” After the failure of one frantic political compromise after another, Abraham Lincoln was elected on a platform that included opposition to further “groping for middle ground between the right and the wrong.” His triumph prompted southern states to make good their threat of secession, and on December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first of eleven states to leave the Union. You know the rest.

Tragically, modern slavery thrives in a variety of guises.

Tragically, modern slavery thrives in a variety of guises.

It’s too simplistic to claim that the Civil War was American payment for the sins of Europe and Africa and those ancient civilizations before them. The real culprit is human greed. Slavery makes money, which is why it continues in Africa and masquerades as sex trafficking elsewhere in the world. There’s more than enough shame to go around.

Note: Slavery, black and white, is featured in my book, Still Time.


  1. Scott
    Jan 5, 2015

    This post comes at no better time. Our nation seems to be in the throes of rich vs middle class and poor. Many of the same themes involving economics and politics are replete in current events. This time around we have social media and unprecedented access to free speech. Still, it comes down to education. Thanks SO much for providing your insights through this medium.

  2. Liz
    Jan 12, 2015

    Once again you have provided your followers with a short piece that tackles a huge issue by discussing historical facts that we as a nation are still trying to deal with, the ripple effect having grown into tsunamic proportions. Marx was right — it is really all about economics. And I would add to that… education!

    Thanks, Michael, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

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