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Did The North Have Slaves Too?

So often the argument is raised that “the North had slaves too!” This is almost always a knee-jerk reaction by someone claiming to defend the South from a perceived accusation of racism. But did the North really have slaves? That all depends upon which definition of “The North” is used.

1788 woodcut showing the Union being built by a hand from a cloud.
1788 woodcut showing the Union being built by a hand from a cloud.

Because of the Civil War, the “North” has been defined as those states who remained part of the United States. The South, in turn, was those which seceded. While that seems like a fairly simple way to split things up, it’s hardly as cut and dry as that. In actuality, it’s a redefinition.

The Mason-Dixon Line Dividing North and South

In a broad sense, the Civil War wasn’t actually a war that pitted the South against the North. More accurately, most of the slave-states attempted to secede, leaving behind all of the free-states and a few remaining slave-states. Missouri, for example, was a slave-state that did not fully secede, but operated under two separate governments. Virginia, which did secede, was eventually cleft in two with West Virginia joining the rest of the free states. Kentucky tried to remain neutral, but ended up remaining loyal to the United States, even though in the post-war, the state identified much more with the Confederacy. 1For instance, Kentucky has 68 Civil War monuments, only twelve of which memorialize the United States forces. Contrast that with the fact that out of the roughly 125,000 Kentuckians who fought, 100,000 sided with the Union.

Still, if we take the war-time division of North and South at face value, we’re left with four loyal slave states: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. In this respect, the North (that is, the side that fought against the Confederacy during the Civil War) had slaves. All but Delaware provided regiments for both the Confederate and United States Armies.

However, the delineation between the North and South existed long before 1861. In fact, it existed even prior to the founding of the nation, when there was a distinction between the Northern and Southern colonies. This de facto line was surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence. This line ran east and west, marking the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, (before jutting south to form Delaware’s western border). At that time, slavery was legal throughout the colonies and played no role in this division, but that would slowly change when Pennsylvania outlawed slavery in 1780. 2It should be noted that while part of Delaware extends north of the Pennsylvania border, it is still considered to be south of the Mason-Dixon Line, even though it’s actually to the east of it. And while south Jersey is technically below that same line, the state is still considered to be north of it. Such is the dilemma with imaginary lines denoting real things.

Map showing the North, South and Great West.
Map showing the North, South and Great West.

Prior to the founding, though slavery was legal in every colony, it was much more prevalent in the more southerly colonies. In 1770, slaves made up but 2% of the population of both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, while they consisted of 42% of Virginia’s and 61% of South Carolina’s. Even Maryland’s slaves made up 32% of that state’s total personage. 3Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005) 90.

During the debates in 1787’s Constitutional Convention, generally speaking, those in the more southerly states, like Charles Pinkney from South Carolina, argued in favor of the Atlantic slave trade, while those like New Hampshire’s John Langon, debated against it. The trade was allowed to continue when all of the states south of Mason & Dixon’s line, save Delaware, were joined by Connecticut and New Jersey. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and the First State voted against it, and Massachusetts abstained. 4James Madison, sec., “Wednesday, August 22nd” Journal of the Constitutional Convention ed. E.H. Scott (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1893) 578-586.

Mason-Dixon Line Marker, Zora, Adams County, PA.
Mason-Dixon Line Marker, Zora, Adams County, PA.

While this political question certainly divided North and South, states such as Connecticut and New Jersey seem like anomalies. To an extent, they were, but it should be noted that at this time, both had slave populations at 6% – higher than their other northerly neighbors. However, Delaware, who voted against the slave trade, was around 15%. Still, the states with the largest percentage of slave populations were both from the more southerly regions and voted in favor of the slave trade, with a bit of help from their more northerly friends-with-benefits. 5According to the 1790 Census records, which can be found in “Statistics of Slaves” as prepared by the United States Census, as a PDF here.

The Problem with Population

Slave population, while important to note, is simply not an accurate representation of the direction in which a particular state was heading in relation to abolition. A state’s view and status concerning the abolition of slavery was the deciding factor for determining whether it was a free or slave-state.

Pennsylvania, for example, held 3,700 slaves in 1790, but had begun their very gradual process of emancipation ten years before. In 1799, when New York began their process, they held nearly 21,000 slaves. In fact, by 1804, all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line had technically abolished slavery, even though there were well over 36,000 slaves throughout those northern states. 6Again, see “Statistics of Slaves” p133, especially.

Columbia seated at desk at the front of a classroom with members of Congress seated on each side of the room divided by the Mason-Dixon line, the North on the left and the South on the right; there is fighting among those in the foreground, others are studying the Constitution.
Columbia seated at desk at the front of a classroom with members of Congress seated on each side of the room divided by the Mason-Dixon line, the North on the left and the South on the right; there is fighting among those in the foreground, others are studying the Constitution.

Free States vs. Slave States

The question really isn’t just what was a Northern state and Southern state, but what was a free state and what was a slave state. A “free state,” as it was used in the antebellum era, was not a state where slavery did not exist, but was a state where a law providing for the gradual abolition of slavery existed. It is from that, along with basic geography, where the terms “North” and “South” were defined.

This is proven by the historical use of the terms “free states” and “slave states” as far back at 1814, when slaves still populated the states deemed as both “free” and “north”. Both terms were used by British travel writer, Joshua Steele, in describing the differences between north and south. He labeled the North as the “free-states” and the South as the “slave-states.” But in 1814, though New England’s slave population was around 300, New York’s, New Jersey’s and Pennsylvania’s were still around 25,000. By that time, the only states which were truly free of slaves were Massachusetts and Vermont. Certainly Steel wasn’t referring to just those two states. 7Joshua Steel, Mitigation of Slavery (London: R and A Taylor, Shoe-Lane, 1814) 322.

This leads us towards a more historical definition of North and South. The “North” was made up of “free states” above the Mason-Dixon Line. The “South” was made up of “slave states” below the line. In other words, states above the line who had passed legislation seeing to the eventual abolition of slavery were The North – free states. Those that did not, were The South – slave states.

Winfield Scott (left) as a turkey and Democrat Franklin Pierce (right) as a gamecock. The two face each other from opposite sides of "Mason & Dixon's Line."
Winfield Scott (left) as a turkey and Democrat Franklin Pierce (right) as a gamecock. The two face each other from opposite sides of “Mason & Dixon’s Line.”

What About the Mid-West?

This definition held true all the way until secession, despite the addition of other free and slave states. When Ohio and Indiana were admitted into the Union in 1803 and 1816, slavery was already outlawed within its borders. This fit well into the definition, though neither were really seen as part of The North. When Illinois joined the Union in 1818, slavery was still legal and would remain so for decades. This led abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator to state in 1840 that “Illinois is, to all intents and purposes, a slaveholding state.”

Though north of the Ohio River (and north of the Mason-Dixon Line, if it were extended forever west), Illinois was not, according to the abolitionists, part of the North, even though it was admitted as a free state along side Mississippi to counter the electoral effect of that Southern slave state.

These states and territories – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, were collectively known as The Great West, as coined by Ewing in 1836 during a Senate debate over the Cumberland Road. 8Gales & Seaton’s Register of Debates in Congress Vol. XII (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1836) 624. This name had caught on, as by the next year John Mason Peck was calling it such in his New Guide for Emigrants to the West. 9John Mason Peck, New Guide for Emigrants to the West (Boston: Gould, Kendall & Lincoln, 1837) vii.

Two decades prior to the Civil War, all of the states making up the Great West had passed laws abolishing slavery (and most outlawing a free black population all together). Territories such as Iowa and Minnesota were hardly considered at all through most of the period leading up to the Civil War, though both were admitted as free states to offset Florida and Texas.

Two scenes showing the differing perceptions of Franklin Pierce's stand on the issue of slavery in 1852, as viewed by the North and South. The cartoon is divided vertically by "Mason & Dixon's Line."
Two scenes showing the differing perceptions of Franklin Pierce’s stand on the issue of slavery in 1852, as viewed by the North and South. The cartoon is divided vertically by “Mason & Dixon’s Line.”

Through all of United States history prior to the Civil War, this definition held true. All states above the Mason-Dixon Line were considered to be part of The North. Those west of Pennsylvania, but north of the Ohio River were known as the Great West, or just the West. All states below the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River were The South. The North was made up solely of free states with abolition laws on their books, and the South was made up of slave states with no such laws. The West – that is, the mid-western states above the Ohio river – gradually became accepted as part of the North, though it wouldn’t be until the Civil War that this was solidified. 10Since Illinois was admitted as a free-state, it was considered as such by pretty well everyone but the Abolitionists. They began their process of abolition in 1825 and finally made it law by 1848.

The South included both the slave states of Delaware and Maryland. Likewise, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri were all considered part of The South (though often, with the exception of Tennessee, were also classified as the Border States). And so only the states that outlawed slavery were considered to be part of the pre-Civil War North. This all changed with secession. While every state that seceded was from The South, some Southern states continued to remain loyal to the United States.

It was not until 1861, when Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri voted not to secede from the United States, that slavery was in The North – the war-era North. Between the early 1800s and the Civil War, that was not the case.

Rather than simply exclaiming supposed factoids as “the North had slaves too!” perhaps it would be more productive to actually understand how the terms “North” and “South” were understood in the years leading up to the Civil War.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.