Slavery had been on the decline in the Western Hemisphere during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It had been abolished in Haiti in 1791 and Canada in 1793. And as Latin America countries gained their independence from Spain during the early nineteenth century, they abolished slavery: Argentina in 1813; Peru in 1821; Chile, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, and Venezuela in 1823; Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in 1824. Mexican revolutionaries proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1810 and slavery was officially abolished there in 1829, although the practice continued illegally in the area of Mexico that became Texas. Britain abolished slavery in her colonies during the 1830’s.
But slavery still thrived during the mid-nineteenth century in Brazil, by far the largest holder of slaves in the New World, and in Cuba. And slavery expanded in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Central America after 1850 in the midst of a boom in those countries in the growing and processing of rubber. Various forms of involuntary servitude were also widely practiced in India, China and the Middle East throughout the nineteenth century. When the South seceded from the Union in 1860-1861, slavery was still a going concern in the United States and elsewhere in the world and might have gone on further and farther but for the consequences of the Civil War.
The abolition of slavery in the United States had a profound effect on the history of slavery in the world. If slavery had not been abolished here during the 1860’s, the United States would have emerged during the late nineteenth century as the world’s largest economy, the world’s largest and leading democracy and the world’s leading slave-holding country. The power and prestige of the United States could have given the institution of slavery a legitimacy and impetus that could have carried the institution into and through the twentieth century.
It cannot be assumed that the development of democracy in the United States during the twentieth century, including the right to vote for women, would somehow have led to the end of slavery. Slavery has existed alongside democracy in several societies in the world, including ancient Athens as well as the early United States. It has even been argued that the emergence of democracy in both of those societies was a product of slavery. Slaves performed the societies’ demeaning tasks which enabled the free men to associate with each other on the relatively equal terms necessary for democracy.
Nor can it be assumed that the industrialization of the North during the late nineteenth century was incompatible with slavery in the South. The industrialization of the North during the early nineteenth century had been perfectly compatible with slavery in the South and even depended to some extent on slavery. Southern slaves produced cheap cotton that was manufactured into cloth and clothes by free northern workers. This sort of division of labor could have continued. It also seems likely that slaves could have been used as factory labor in an industrializing South and, given the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision which seemed to have opened the whole country to slavery, possibly even in the North.
Nor, finally, can it be assumed that the refinement of morals and manners that has occurred in the United States during the twentieth century would have somehow produced an environment incompatible with the continuance of slavery. Americans and people elsewhere have been all too able to compartmentalize separately their high-tone feelings and their low-life prejudices. I am reminded, although it is an extreme case, of the Commandant of Auschwitz who was able to record the noblest thoughts about his family, friends and flowers in his diary alongside statistics and comments about his day’s work exterminating human beings.
There were thirty-four states in the United States in 1860 of which fifteen were slave states. It takes the support of three-quarters of the states to approve a Constitutional Amendment. Thirteen southern slave states seceded to form the Confederate States of America. In their absence, anti-slavery northerners mustered enough votes in Congress and among the remaining states to ratify the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. When the Confederacy lost the war, the Confederate states were required to ratify the 13th Amendment as a condition of their regaining their rights and powers as members of the Union.
The bottom line is that if slaveholders in the South had not made what was for them a disastrous blunder in seceding from the Union in 1860-1861, the votes in Congress and among the states to abolish slavery would not have been there during the late nineteenth century and might still not be there today. There are fifty states today and the negative votes of fifteen slave states would still be more than enough to squelch an amendment to abolish slavery. In any case, the United States would almost certainly have entered the twentieth century as the world’s leading superpower with slavery as a thriving institution in an otherwise democratizing society. And might still be today.
Note: This issue is discussed at greater length with citations and quotations in the chapter entitled “Choice #9: The Coming of the Civil War: Why Didn’t the North Secede and Why Did the South?” of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).