North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States: 1790 – 1860 - Book Review

Leon Litwack’s book, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States: 1790 – 1860, is an examination of the treatment of African-Americans in northern states prior to the Civil War. The book demonstrates that freedom from slavery did not guarantee a status comparable to that of white citizens. Though slaves in the South faced more explicit deprivation of rights, “even the more subtle forms of twentieth-century racial discrimination had their antecedents in the antebellum North.” Northern whites and their political representatives actively discriminated against African-Americans because they believed that the two races were naturally unequal.

Litwack is careful not to overstate his case. Northern African-Americans had more rights than slaves, and many northern whites opposed slavery. That said, “most northern whites would maintain a careful distinction between granting Negroes legal protection. .and political and social equality.” Patterns of discrimination were not uniform among the different states but, in sum effect, the psychology of prejudice combined with legal measures to “restrict northern negroes in virtually every phase of existence.” This system undermined northern politicians who sought to regulate slavery at the Federal level. On the floor of the House of Representatives, one congressman from Virginia once demanded: “Go home and emancipate your free negroes. When you do that, we will listen to you with more patience.”

African-Americans in the North had little political recourse, as they were excluded from voting and participation in the court system. As suffrage expanded in the Jacksonian Era, it often came at the price of ensuring African-American exclusion. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont granted equal voting rights, but they only accounted for some six percent of the entire northern African-American population. Several northern states prohibited African-Americans from testifying against whites in court, and many more barred them from serving on juries. As a result, justice in northern states took on a “two-sided nature,” where sentencing for African-Americans was disproportionately harsher.

According to Litwack, political exclusion had profound psychological, social, and economic impacts. Segregated school systems weakened education and literacy, which had a dual effect of impending political mobilization and severely limiting African-Americans’ opportunities in the labor market. Relegating African-Americans to mostly menial jobs also meant that they could only afford to live in the poorest neighborhoods. Efforts to move into better homes, even when it could be afforded, aroused threats and even violence from white residents. “The vigorous exclusion of Negroes from white residential neighborhoods,” Litwack concludes, “escaped the ghetto virtually impossible.” In turn, economic and social exclusion made it very difficult for many African-Americans to feel much optimism towards a better future. In short, northern whites viewed blacks as inferior, and they developed a system to reinforce this notion.

Unlike the South, however, the North hosted a robust abolitionist movement, though prevailing racial prejudices undermined it. Some abolitionists made more of a cause of ending southern slavery than improving conditions of free blacks. Many of those who did advocate for northern blacks made a careful distinction between granting civil protections and promoting integration.

The Philadelphia antislavery society voted by only a very narrow margin to admit black members, but proclaimed that it was not their “object, or duty to encourage social intercourse between colored and white families.” Litwack also observes that “abolitionist literature contributed its share to the popular conception of the Negro, frequently referring to his meek, servile, comical, minstrel-like qualities.”

African-Americans openly participated in northern abolitionism, which was an unthinkable option in the South. “Negro abolitionism,” writes Litwack, “preceded by several years the appearance of [William Lloyd] Garrison and The Liberator.” Naturally, black abolitionist leaders felt frustrated by the fact that they were frequently marginalized by a movement that purported to help them. Others also saw a real liability in hitching the fate of emancipation to a white-dominated movement.

In his final analysis, Litwack takes an optimistic view of the divisions within abolitionism. While acknowledging the “factionalism, extreme partisanship, narrow class attitudes, prejudice, and even hypocrisy” of the movement, he argues that it “shared these weaknesses with nearly every organized social movement and political party in antebellum America.” “The fact that abolitionists did not allow these weaknesses to interfere materially with their struggle for civil rights is at least a tribute to their sincerity.”

Litwack broke new ground with this study, and his thesis is well supported. Though it may be unfair to ask that he achieve something different from his original aim, his work still leaves a reader to wonder about the origins and evolution of this system. A few other questions are also worth asking: what were the impacts of Dred Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson? Both cases, though significant in their shaping of American race relations, receive little attention from Litwack here. Most importantly, what was the relationship between northern systems of exclusion and southern slavery? Aside from weakening abolitionism, did they influence one another? In short, North of Slavery is an effective book because it provokes questions about its chosen topic and inspires further research.

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