Anti-Slavery Dynamics in History

The The history of slavery in the United States is, from a humanitarian perspective, one of the most regrettable and heart-breaking periods belonging to the history of this relatively young nation, and continues to affect relations between whites and blacks (Peiss, K., 2001, ch. 5,Sexuality, Race, and Violence in Slavery and Freedom).  A more profound understanding of the history of the institution of racial slavery is complicated by constructions and consequences of gender, particularly manhood, and race, as well as their interconnectedness.

​ African Americans were enslaved predominantly in the southern United States from the 1600s until the 1800s, during which time the economic expansion of the country can be significantly attributable to the free forced labor of millions of black slaves.  Toward the end of slavery, in his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated in opposition of it, “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’”(Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865). White men owned the slaves and the large plantations they worked on, which existed mainly in the South and produced crops such as cotton and tobacco.  Some pro-slavery southerners believed that the Bible actually advocated slavery because it was supposedly the lot in life for inferior (i.e. black colored)

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people, just as animals have been put on Earth for our consumption, and that through the institution of slavery, blacks were afforded living conditions they could not have independently created for themselves and their families (“The Old South:  An American Tragedy”).  Slave owners did not necessarily, however, provide living conditions close to suitable for human beings.  Slaves had no political representation, no civil rights, were over-worked, underfed, sold and separated from their families, abused, mutilated, barred from an education, and otherwise degraded at the pleasure of the white male slave owners.

White men controlled virtually all aspects of economic, religious, educational, political, and social life in some way or another through ownership of land and property, including slaves, absolute dominance in governmental politics, and their position as head-of-household within their families.  The most powerful white men were an elite few and operated within a hegemonic definition of manhood, possessing significant power and control over other less economically advantaged white men, women, and slaves (Kimmel).  In fact, during the Civil War, a vast majority of confederate soldiers were not slaveholders and many felt they were fighting this unpopular war for the preservation of the wealthy and elite men.  The masculine ideal in the white majority culture could also be defined as a “normative” construction because strict standards of expected masculine behavior were upheld and included aggression, competition, social and political dominance, and a quest for wealth (Connell).  Black men, on the other hand, belonged to a subordinating type of masculinity and were not deemed to be real men.  The institution of slavery was a hegemonic (and heavily gendered) institution and those who were not                                                                                       white men in power were unfortunately excluded from social privileges and power, and belonged to subordinating categories, which in turn reaffirmed the power and control of white men and maintained their hegemonic masculinity in the country.

​African Americans, most of whom, were enslaved, were racially constructed as altogether inferior human beings, especially the men, just for having dark-colored skin, an unfortunate color as stated by Thomas Jefferson (“David Walker’s Appeal”, p. 12).  Blacks were represented in caricatures of black people, such as minstrel caricatures like the “Happy Sambo” and “Jim Crow” that, by their docile, laughing, and child-like appearance, seemed to indicate that slaves were happy with their lives on the plantations

(“Ethnic Notions”).  White people preferred to stereotype blacks with these discriminating images, rather than admit to the atrocities they were committing against

them.  Ironically, if blacks were actually of this persuasion, they would not have been capable of their enormous contribution to the prosperity of the plantations and overall economic development of the United States.  Other notorious portrayals of blacks were the “Pikaninnies”, the singing and dancing “Zip Coon”, and the “Mammy”, who was the antithesis of the dainty white woman because she was a matriarchal figure devoid of sexuality (“Ethnic Notions”).  On the contrary, by virtue of their skin color, whites were racially constructed as superior to blacks, and were thus, considered to be more intelligent, more civilized, and more deserving of life’s benefits, such as education, political representation, and comfortable living conditions.

​Many male slave owners espoused an ideology of paternalism when it came to their role on their plantations, and felt a sense of providing for their dependent wives and

children, as well as their slaves, however meager the provisions (“The Old South:  An American Tragedy”).  By necessity during the Civil War, most southern white men, including slave owners and managers, joined the Confederate Army and thereby transferred their domestic power to white women, to whom they relinquished their roles in maintaining order among the slaves (Faust).  This resulted in a domestic transformation on the plantations, but more broadly in the entire institution of slavery.  Many of the threats of violence slaves had experienced at the hands of the “paternalistic” slave owners left with the absence of the white men. Faust states in his article, “Called to fight for slavery on the battlefield, Confederate masters could not simultaneously defend it on the homefront.”  Some of the black slaves were observant of this and took advantage of this opportunity by being idle and defiant.  White women were perhaps not as effective as white men at maintaining social order among the slaves.  For example, Lizzie, in the Faust article, has a man talk to one of her slaves, Sam, because she can’t seem to control him, but later has a conversation with Sam in which she communicates her sympathies.  It probably helped Sam to become docile and apologetic about his rebellion because Lizzie accepted his remorsefulness and modified her approach to her new kinder position as the slave manager.  It could have seemed that women, according to the ideals of normative hegemonic masculinity at that time, were too soft and naïve for their new responsibility.  Their involvement did, however, permanently change social dynamics, including slavery.  Women, at least temporarily, moved from the margins to the forefront of domestic society, and in so doing, challenged white men’s position in society and white male supremacy.  A women’s rights movement was soon connected to abolitionist

and antislavery activism, while “Many abolitionists supported a radical women’s rights position, while antislavery politicians endorsed more limited reforms” (Pierson).  Women began to engage in public life and became involved in the antislavery movement, acting from “feminine” interests, such as their compassion and concern for enslaved women and children (Pierson).  Changes in the construction of gender and race would be and remain paramount to a reorganization of power in the patriarchal institutions of the United States.



World Book Encyclopedia, Online,

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865



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