The Yankee Quarantine of Southern Blacks

Legendary financier J. P. Morgan once said: “A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.” His meaning is that our public explanation is a noble one whereas our real reason is self-serving. Any adult knows that the maxim applies to politicians, about whom Robert E. Lee said, “They are among the most difficult of all the insane to cure.” Careful examination reveals that antebellum Northern opposition to the expansion of slavery was really an effort to quarantine blacks—whether slave or free—in the South. Yankees did not want any new state to join the Union with anything more than a token black population.

Even though academic historians, who currently dominant historical interpretations, are loath to concede it: Each of the 22 states admitted after Texas Annexation in 1845—right up through Alaska and Hawaii—came into the Union with only tiny black populations. The one possible exception was West Virginia in 1863, which was actually stolen from Virginia by tricky Republican Party machinations.

Four states entered the Union in the decade before the War Between the States: California, Oregon, Minnesota and Kansas. Oregon’s constitution outlawed free blacks as residents as did Kansas in the first (Topeka) antislavery constitution in 1855. In California and Minnesota blacks were not permitted to vote or hold office. Blacks totaled about one percent of California’s population at statehood and constituted less than one-tenth of one percent of Minnesotans when the she gained statehood.

Moreover, Northern opposition to the migration of free blacks was not limited to the lands of the western territories. According to George Washington University history professor James Horton: “In many of the previously admitted midwestern states, there were important restrictions against the movement of free blacks. Indiana outlawed free blacks entirely. Ohio had strong restrictions against free blacks moving into the state.” Antebellum Northerners could make sure that future-America was as white as possible by making “sure that the West was as white as possible.” Since America’s future growth would come from the western territories, they could quarantine blacks into the South by keeping the territories primarily for whites.

In What Lincoln Believed: The Values of America’s Greatest President author Michael Lind writes the following excerpted and edited remarks:

For Lincoln the movement against the extension of slavery was half of a program to create a white West, the other half of which consisted of state laws designed to keep blacks out of Northern and Western states. For example, the Indiana territorial legislature outlawed black court testimony in cases involving whites (1803), blacks in the militia (1807) and black voting (1810). In 1815 an annual tax was imposed on all black men. The adjacent Illinois territory passed a bill in 1813 requiring every incoming black to leave. Failure to comply was punishable by 39 lashes, which could be repeated every fifteen days until the black offender left. Lincoln was well aware of such Black Laws and voted for them repeatedly in Illinois because he felt they were necessary to prevent racial integration.

Lincoln’s fellow Illinois Republican, Lyman Trumbull, shared Lincoln’s support for colonizing blacks abroad and declared only two years before the Civil War: “We, the Republican Party, are the white man’s party. We are for the free white man and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when negro slave labor is brought into competition with it.” Prominent Republican newspaperman, Horace Greeley, declared that if the Republicans won the 1860 election, then “all the unoccupied territory . . . shall be served for the benefit of the white Caucasian race—a thing that cannot be except through the exclusion of slavery.” Republican proponents of colonization, such as brothers Francis and Montgomery Blair, played up their plans to allay the fears of white voters . . . that the gradual end of slavery might produce a migration of free blacks out of the South to other parts of the country. The goal of denying the West to all blacks, free as well as slave, was made clear by some other Republicans, such as Iowa senator James Harlan in his speech “Shall the Territories by Africanized?”

Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot who first introduced a bill (in 1846) to require that the federal government ban slavery in the territories west of the Missouri River said: “I make no war upon the South,” nor upon slavery in the South. I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen. I would preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.”

In 1854 Abraham Lincoln said, “The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these [western] territories. We want them for the homes of free white people.” Lincoln’s famous 1858  “House Divided” speech was the appeal of a demagogue to unrealistic Northern fears that Southerners wanted to move slavery into the Northern states where it had already been proven to be uneconomical. Lincoln absurdly suggested the mythical Southern Slave Power Conspiracy wanted to transform all of the United States into slave states.

Three years before the Civil War, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State, William Seward, said: “By extending slavery Southerners resist the destiny. . . of the white races. The white man needs this continent to labor upon. . . He must and he will have it.” Although the same speech mentions a desire to free the salves, quoted Seward remarks show that his true purpose was to keep blacks quarantined in South and reserve the Western territories for whites. After the war he added: “The north has nothing to do with negroes. I have no more concern for them than Hottentots.”

The quarantining of blacks in the South is a paragon of the maxim that “Winners write the history.” The winner’s interpretation so dominants today’s atmosphere that Americans don’t even realize the anti-Southern bias they get with every breath. When an epiphany enables them to see that the noble sounding “no slaves in the territories” mantra of 1860 really meant “keep blacks out of the territories and the Northern states,” the true purpose of The War Between the States and Reconstruction becomes evident. It was mostly about keeping blacks quarantined in the South. In 1900 only 8% of blacks lived outside of the South, even though it was 35 years after they had been freed.  But if they had been truly set free it is doubtful that less than 10% would have diffused geographically into other region, particularly considering the better economic conditions outside the South. The truth is as conspicuous as cow patties on a snow bank to anyone willing to challenge the winner’s perspective.

About Philip Leigh

Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He is the author of U.S. Grant's Failed Presidency, Southern Reconstruction (2017), Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015), and Trading With the Enemy (2014). Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University. More from Philip Leigh

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