Study Guide

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery Historical Context

By Frederick Douglass

Historical Context

Where Were You in 1852?

Ah, good, old 1852.

Hoop skirts were the height—excuse us, width—of fashion. Millard Fillmore was president, but hold onto your top hat because it was an election year and a leap year. Miners were panning for gold in California because the gold rush that started in 1849 was still going strong.

One of the big questions on everyone's mind was "what are we going to do about this slavery situation?"

And what a nasty situation it was. Slavery had existed in the American colonies, and later the United States, since the 1600s. Obviously, this wasn't the first instance of slavery in history, but what was unique about slavery in the United States was that by the late 1600s, it was clearly based on race.

Slaves in the United States, unlike slaves in a dozen other empires from the dawn of time, were all of a specific race rather than being of the same race as the dominant class or just a bunch of random people from a bunch of different places and races.

Slavery was on the rise in the United States at the same time that the Enlightenment was sweeping the world, and people were starting to realize that maybe we're all people and shouldn't be such jerks to each other. But guess what else was on the rise? An economy, particularly in the rural South, completely dependent on slave labor.

Guess who usually wins when economics and philosophy collide?

That's right: show us the money.

Cash and Rationalization

In order to keep slaves and at the same time convince themselves that they weren't really bad people, slave owners and those who supported slavery had to convince themselves that Africans weren't really people (at least not, you know, people people) and that, in fact, they were doing Africans a favor by bringing them to the United States and "civilizing" them and letting them work on their farms.

Yeah. There was a lot of disgusting rationalization going on.

So, in the 19th century, as slavery became even more important to the economy with the development of cotton as a cash crop, people started getting really obsessed with race and with proving that "the N**** race," as they called it, was inferior and thus should be enslaved.

Which brings us to the 1850s, an eventful decade in terms of the future of slavery in America. Eventually, all these events would lead to the American Civil War in 1861.

While the Founding Fathers hadn't outlawed slavery in the process of founding a new nation based on ideals of liberty (which, as Douglass notes, is crazy), slavery had been rolled back on a state-by-state basis. By 1852, the year Douglass gave "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery," the slave states were in the South and the free states were in the North.

As Douglass points out, white Northerners were maybe a little too proud and self-righteous about this and needed to seriously check their privilege because, uh, they were still benefiting from slavery and not doing a whole lot to stop it everywhere.

But the nation was rapidly expanding under Manifest Destiny, and every time a new state was added, there was a whole thing about whether it was going to be a slave state or a free state. This was a big deal because it affected how much representation slave states versus free states had in Congress.

The Decade That Changed America

In the 1850s, things were coming to a crisis. In 1850, Congress tried to avoid civil war with the Compromise of 1850, which, like most compromises, left no one happy. One of the bills in the Compromise of 1850 was a revised Fugitive Slave Act, which made it easier for slave owners to recover escaped slaves and put a real damper on that whole Underground Railroad thing.

Abolitionists weren't thrilled with this, and in 1852, the same year Douglass gave "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery," Harriet Beecher Stowe published the landmark anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in response.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act established popular sovereignty (or the popular vote) as the determining factor in whether new states would be slave states or free states. This led to "Bleeding Kansas," a minor war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. It was kind of like a dress rehearsal for the Civil War.

Then, in 1857, the Dred Scott decision ruled that slaves couldn't become free by moving to a free state and that Black people couldn't become citizens. It also ruled that the federal government didn't have the power to outlaw slavery in states and territories and that states had the right of self-determination. (This is where we get the thing about the Civil War being about "states' rights." It was, sure. It was about states' rights…to have slaves.)

In 1859, abolitionist John Brown and others were involved in the failed Harpers Ferry Raid, an unsuccessful attempt to start a slave uprising.

Finally, in 1861, decades of violence and unsuccessful compromises finally culminated in the American Civil War as the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April.