Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America

By Desmond S. King; Rogers M. Smith | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
“That is the last speech he will ever make”
The Antebellum Racial Alliances

Nations are born in mixtures of bloodshed and violence, bitterness and idealism, intergroup rivalries and ideological struggles, hatreds and alliances. To this pungent alchemy of founding impulses, Americans added race. Beliefs about race and institutions implementing those beliefs have been elemental in American politics ever since.1 These ideas and institutions have long spurred Americans into competing political alliances with differences over racial policies at their centers.


RACIAL ALLIANCES AND ANTEBELLUM AMERICA

Even before there was a Constitution, there were pro-slavery and anti-slavery alliances in the not-so-United States. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence, which embedded the rhetoric of human equality and inalienable rights into American political culture, still sought to justify tribal subjugation (by denouncing “merciless Indian Savages”) and to avoid criticism of chattel slavery (by editing out Jefferson’s language attacking the slave trade).2 Because during the Revolution, Virginia governor Lord Dunmore offered freedom to slaves who would join His Majesty’s forces, and because free blacks and white Quakers demanded that the revolutionaries live up to their proclamations of equal rights and liberties, northern states during and following the Revolution either banned slavery or adopted gradual emancipation statutes, beginning with Vermont in 1777. Middle states loosened restrictions on manumission and even taxed slave trading. The Confederation Congress also banned slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1787, with southern support.3

But in the South, there were many who deplored any suggestion that they should begin to move toward the end of their own reliance on slave labor. Consequently, the new nation quickly exhibited both anti-slavery and pro-slavery spokesmen, sometimes organized into groups, who controlled various governing institutions in the different states and who were represented in national

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