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America has just recently fought its first major war with the superpower of its day, and was struggling to keep itself together. Many of the colonies, united in their hatred of Britain, now have to contend with working together to maintain the new nation. Without their common enemy, internal rivalries begin siphoning to the surface and threaten to tear the union apart.

The founding fathers have many issues to contend with, such as the economy, internal strife, and states rights vs federal rights. On top of that, they needed to worry about a inevitable attempt at the re-conquest of Britain. Issues such as slavery and women's rights were deeply controversial at the time and may have started a civil war 100 years too early without giving the union the time to form itself. Therefore, the three-fifths compromise was enacted to appease the south, and allow their interests to dominate congress until the 1860s.

Although many founders opposed slavery, and took steps on an individual level to oppose it, they largely avoided making bold and decisive measures against it to achieve the bigger goal of securing the new state for the long term. Outside of federally banning the importation of foreign slaves, their track record is ambiguous on the issue.

How could the founders have done more to address slavery without tearing the union apart?

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    $\begingroup$ "Women's rights" were not "deeply controversial": they were unheard of in the Anglo-Saxon world. You may be confusing the early U.S.A. with the Germanies or the French republic, where women did indeed have some rights. And the founders of the U.S.A. could hardly do anything more than they did in re slavery, given that the federal government was initially set up to be very weak and had control over a very small budget; they simply did not have the funds to compensate slave owners, and outright nationalization of the slaves would had a clear potential to be extremely counterproductive. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 24 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ Actually there were women who fought for their rights in colonial America. This isn't a very comprehensive site, but it lists a few. sutori.com/story/… $\endgroup$ – Cyn Jan 24 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ I'd be less concerned with the Civil War and more concerned with the collapse of the economy. Horrific as it is, cheap labor is the bedrock for most large economic systems. Though post-Civil War labor was not necessarily more expensive. Not writing up an answer because I don't have all this info at my fingertips and it would be a ton of research. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Jan 24 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ "On top of that, they needed to worry about a inevitable attempt at the re-conquest of Britain" they wanted to reconquer Britain? I didn't know they'd already conquered it :) $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Jan 24 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ (a) You don't understand the 3/5 compromise - it was NOT to appease the South. it was to guarantee the South - which had slaves at least 2:1 to whites - DIDN'T have overwhelming power held in a voting oligarchy. (b) Some founding fathers were against slavery, some owned slaves. (c) This issue is incredibly complex, whole books have been written about woulda/coulda/shoulda for 200 years. VTC OT:TB. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 26 at 0:19
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It would pretty much need to be an economic incentive for people to choose cheap white labor over slavery. My best guess on how this would work, is increased emphasis on agrarian economy, limiting the growth of cities and industrial centers. This could also mean outlawing slavery and the African slave trade, incorporation of natives as citizens to serve as cheap workers on the fields, as well as high amounts of immigration, that would put the hiring costs and wages of plentiful white or even Asian settlers as preferable to have been shipping over slaves from Africa. Though, what’s not to say those people wouldn’t start smaller peasant revolts as a result of low wages and bad treatment.

Just generally, there needs to be an economic reason to prefer hiring settlers or running your own farms, better implementation of agricultural research to boost the amount of crops grown per farmer, and probably a moral or religious belief within the American people that doing it yourself and with your community would be preferable to buying people to do it for you.

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    $\begingroup$ An emphasis on the agrarian economy would most likely increase the presence of slavery, as most slaves were used in harvesting and cultivating crops in colonial america, rather than free peoples, who tended to congregate towards the cities. That is why most slaves would head north in those days, since the south's economy was more geared towards agriculture than the north, so there was a higher demand for slaves in those states. $\endgroup$ – Bewilderer Jan 24 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ One reason there were few Native slaves in America was because they wouldn't stand for it. So the colonial powers just wiped them out instead (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not). Asian immigrants doesn't work because America was not yet very far west. Later, yes. Asian immigrants built the railroads, for example. And there were whites in indentured servitude in this era. As part of a prison sentence or to pay for passage. But that didn't last forever and their children did not inherit their status. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Jan 25 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ The major reason for few Native American slaves was that, well, they were native. If they walked off the plantation they wouldn't have to go very far to find people who not only would be likely to know them, they could very well be friends or relatives, and being native they were at home. African slaves would be stuck some place they didn't know, surrounded by people they didn't know and, as outsiders themselves, wouldn't necessarily be inclined to help. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 21 at 22:08
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We ended slavery in Brazil without a civil war. Many laws were enacted that, when taken as a whole, basically ended slavery. One law was freedom to slaves above 60. Other was freedom to the children of slaves, a third was forbidding slave importation. These three laws, together, would end slavery given enough time, as the number of slaves would go down naturally. Also these laws weren't enacted all at the same time but separated by many yars. There was no need to formally free all slaves, there would be no slaves alive by the 1930s and, when the emperor enacted the law that freed the slaves the landowners toppled him a year later. At least a civil war like the US had was averted.

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I have thought a great deal about this subject, especially since my own mixed-race background would be profoundly affected by a change in US history. I probably would not even exist had things gone differently (but life may have been better for the people who did come to exist in this new world, so losing me might be worth it. ;) )! This is what I think:

Had the Framers sat down and worked out a compromise - for instance, "The importation of slaves ends at the beginning of the next year. In 25 years, slavery becomes completely illegal, and ALL slaves must be freed, so figure out how to make the transition between now and then" - the Civil War could have been avoided. 25 years is an arbitrary amount of time; it could have been more or less. The important point is that they could have put a sunset date on the institution. And, perhaps, the Federal Gov't could have offered incentives or something to help make the transition easier. In any case, a compromise could have been made that allowed the US to ease into the freeing of the slaves without so much cultural or economic shock, and which would have avoided the bloodshed of the Civil War, AND the unraveling of vital parts of the American system (which has never been right since).

Just as important, the history of virulent, institutional racism that existed for so long in this country, and from which we've only really begun to emerge in the last 50 or so years, could have been avoided, as it was in Britain. Manumission in Britain was voluntary, because the entire society turned against the institution of slavery, without coercion or bloodshed, and viewed it as immoral. Because of this, when slaves in Britain were freed, there was little resentment toward them. And there was no resentment toward the government for forcing the slave-owners to free them at the point of a gun. (It's interesting to note, as well, that slavery was the primary reason the British and the French refused to side with the South, for whom they had much sympathy otherwise, during the Civil War, and that is what allowed the North to win). In the US, however, There was tremendous resentment around the whole issue, not least because it all (unfortunately) became bound up with the important idea of State's Rights and individual property rights. All of that crystallized into the racism that has plagued the US in so many different ways for so long. Simply compromising and allowing the institution of slavery to die out over time would possibly have avoided all of this, and arguably, would have made modern America a less contentious place.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid that you are arguing by means of hand-waving. "And, perhaps, the Federal Gov't could have offered incentives or something to help make the transition easier." OK. How? Just suggesting that, "perhaps" the relatively weak Federal government "could have" done something is the worst sort of "oh, I can't be bothered to actually think about the issue" argument. Make a proposal and be prepared to identify it, but don't imply that you'll leave everybody else to fill in the details for you. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Feb 21 at 22:05
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If instead of extermination the native American population were exploited as no-rights work force, African slaves would not be that abundant. This is somewhat the same story as colonisation in Africa and Asia itself.

Not a nice picture, but the slave trade was hard to come by.

If the founders were a bit more ruthless, seeing the native Americans as "cattle" to be exploited, there still might be some African slaves.

And a liberation movement would be more likely, if only because of any elementary sense of native rights.

This is somewhat what happened in South America, where slave trade was less invasive, maybe thanks to the exploitation of the native population.

Now this all is not very acceptable/palatable, and certainly not be shared by many readers. I also have my doubts.

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The problem is that the framers did compromise. They created a three/fifths compromise that gave Southern white property owners extra powerful votes. Why would the South give a greater compromise? Or what would the North have given in return? It's easy enough to think of compromises that would have worked if the South had agreed. But why would the South agree?

They already

  1. Gained population for seats at three fifths of their slave population.
  2. Faced potential restrictions on the importation of slaves after 1808. Importation was banned after 1808 as a result.

Yet slavery continued for more than fifty years after that. Slavery ended when the South refused any possibility of compromise and started a war.

Things like children not being born slaves could have had perverse consequences. For example, who would feed the children? Not the slaves, who often had no money. The plantation owners would no longer gain value from the children of slaves, so many would not bother feeding the children.

I actually think that you'd be better off the other way. Let the South and North separate immediately. The Southern capital would have been in Virginia. The Northern in Philadelphia or New York City. Let the abolitionists in the North help escaped slaves. Then they wouldn't have had to have had continued compromises as they expanded to the west. States could have chosen to join either the North or the South. The North was richer with a greater population, so most states might have preferred the North (in actual history, they held up states that wanted to join the North so as to allow time for the South to find states of its own).

A lot of what I personally find most repellent about the compromises that were actually made was that they continued to go the South's way. Things like the Dred Scott decision. That was in 1857. A split would have fixed the ongoing problem. The North would have been able to be better that way. In actual history, the South used its influence to maintain its influence. That was the result of the three fifths compromise. Any other such compromise would have likely given too much to the South.

The problem is that the South had too much influence and very little of the compromises went against them. People in the North were required to help recover escaped slaves. If the North had been a separate country, that wouldn't have been so. There would have been more support for escaped slaves. The South would have needed to spend more resources on keeping their slaves. And slave owners couldn't have taken slaves north without risking losing them.

Separate, the two countries could still have had a common defense agreement. They just wouldn't have also had a common government. Perhaps that might persist to today. Or they might have united in the late nineteenth century, after the McCarthy cotton gin made slavery non-profitable and world opinion swung away.

A separation avoids the Civil War, and it allows the North to be more abolitionist. Note that the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was passed by a Southern president. So they might still have passed it. Either then or under international pressure once the United Kingdom banned slavery.

Of course, a separation also risks that slavery would have lasted longer. Without the join, there would have been less reason for the South to have compromised. Perhaps they would have stayed as they were longer. Or they might have faced a blockade earlier due to international opposition to slavery. Slavery was an internal question in history. But if there were two countries, it would have been an international question.

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  • $\begingroup$ The cotton gin massively increased the profitability of cotton and therefore the demand for slaves as manual labor and was invented in the late 18th century. I'm not sure what invention you are referring to that would have made slavery non-profitable in the late 19th century. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Feb 22 at 20:40

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