Firstly, a note: This is a genuine question born of real curiosity, and not an attempt to belittle either the modern socialist cause or the difficulties faced by non-Caucasians in the pre-Abolition (or the post-Abolition) era.

I came upon the socialist theory of racism, which states that racism is a natural consequence of slavery, not the other way around. I was and am intrigued by the theory. It seems to me that one of the possible implications of the theory is the abolition of slavery must have been in essence chiefly a radical new labour policy. This does somewhat make sense to me; if it was a declaration of the equality of races, the Proclamation would also have announced desegregation and other Civil Rights measures, wouldn't it?

So my question is, was the Abolition of Slavery in the United States perceived and advertised as an effort to improve race relations or an improvement to labour laws?

  • 1
    It was both. There were economic reasons and also moral reasons.
    – Alex
    Apr 8, 2016 at 4:35
  • 2
    If you look at slavery throughout history, you'll find numerous examples where there were no particular racial or ethnic differences between slaves & masters. (E.g. the Islamic world, Greece & Rome, ancient China, where it was reportedly common for poor people to sell one or more children...) Indeed, the (mostly) New World institution of African slavery is the only one I can think of that was justified by racial differences.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 8, 2016 at 5:15
  • Perceived and advertised by whom? Anti-slavery forces were a coalition of partners with aligned, but not identical interests, similar to the Baptist Bootlegger coalition.
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2016 at 15:01
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    I disagree with the closure votes. While there may be (are) answers which are opinions/opinionated, it seems to me that with a minor bit of research one should be able to back up an answer with yes (and here are examples) or no (and here are examples of how it was market for populist consumption.)
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 8, 2016 at 16:56
  • 2
    The Abolition "card" also gave the Union the moral high ground. Britain was inclined to support the South, with the cotton trade in mind, but was wrong-footed by appearing to support slavery which she had abolished in her Dominions.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 8, 2016 at 22:15

3 Answers 3


So my question is, was the Abolition of Slavery in the United States perceived and advertised as an effort to improve race relations or an improvement to labour laws?

Others have given sociopolitical answers, let me give a brief economic one. The ultimate reason for slavery's actual abolition was, at least according to the economic history, an economic incompatibility between the plantation system of the South and the rapidly industrializing North.

Machinery was proving to be more efficient than basic labor in most fields and plantation farming was a system that existed because those who benefitted from it (rich plantation owners) perpetuated it. Of course, slave labor was more profitable than free labor, that goes without saying, but the contrast with the free labor system of the North furthered the image of a 'divided house.'

The divisions in the American psyche, and the nation, can be attributed to several factors, most notably the strong sense of individualism and states' rights which most Southerners held. The election of Lincoln provided an impetus for the secession itself. Lincoln's association with the radical Republicans and Northern abolitionist thought was too much of a challenge to the rigid social structures of antebellum South.

Ultimately it was the South's resistance to the North in principle that motivated President Lincoln to attack. It is very possible, that, had the South accepted a President Lincoln and remained with the Union, that abolition would have been delayed significantly. (Lincoln did not actively campaign against slavery, though was generally opposed to the idea of it.)

But, as the war continued, slavery became increasingly associated with Southern society, and consequently the Emancipation Proclamation can be seen as much of a war document as a document issued out of moral considerations. And in fact President Lincoln's authority was derived from its status as a war measure.

But race relations were most certainly not a consideration in the abolitionist movement. Not even abolitionists saw blacks as equals, nor would they for a very long time in American history. Some advocated for the relocation of freed slaves back to Africa, most notably leading to the foundation of Liberia. The Union, during the war, haughtily waged a moral war that ultimately was developed to support the war cause, not vice versa. Northerners of the time held as racist views of blacks, and in the decades to come, the powerful system of de facto segregation would be as effective as the de jure segregation of the South.

Rather, it was a moral wrong- that was the principle argument. And as for labour laws, these were actually in the process of being formed in the nineteenth century, but in fact the abolition of slavery, because of the longstanding tradition of separatism between "white labor" and "black labor" in American history, followed a completely independent track.

Now, to the socialist theory of racism, as you call it. Racist attitudes have pervaded the human psyche for far longer than chattel slavery in America became common. The in-group versus out-group mentality is well documented among humans, and appears to be more biologically rooted. (Anecdotally, it would actually be interesting to see how the past half-century, and in future centuries, human neurobiology changes with the dramatic social changes that have come and probably will continue to come.)

On the other hand, however, there is no debate as to whether slavery aggravated prior racisms, specifically in the American stream of thought. The association of black persons with the "peculiar institution," has affected American history ever since, from Jim Crow, to high incarceration rates and the dissolution of the black family.

  • 1
    This answer would be improved by sources.
    – MCW
    Apr 9, 2016 at 12:21
  • 2
    @MarkC.Wallace right I completely agree, I'll try and add them in as soon as I get some time Apr 9, 2016 at 12:27
  • Thank you! This answer seems the most correct, and is certainly the most detailed. Apr 9, 2016 at 13:55
  • "Not even abolitionists saw blacks as equals". The hyperlink for this is broken. Aug 12, 2017 at 15:35


Reasons given for advocating the abolition of slavery usually were:

1) Slavery was a form of theft and totally wrong, unethical, evil and against the will of God.

2) slavery was bad for all white people except for the few actual slave owners. It enabled the slave owners to dominate, oppress, and impoverish the white southerners without their objecting because poor white southerners were deluded and tricked into considering themselves members of the master race and thus feeling proud. The "slave Power" hoped to extend that domination into the rest of the country and oppress, degrade, impoverish and down trod the white people of other sections.

No doubt many free whites feared that expansion of slave labor into mining and manufacturing could cause their wages to decrease. So improving labor laws (which basically didn't exist yet in the 1860s) was one argument in favor of abolition of slavery.

Improving race relations by removing the reason for slave revolts was a minor argument for abolition of slavery.

  • As for #2, if you look at the original Republican platform, you will find a surprisingly sophisticated argument about the labor market distortions caused by the presence of large amounts of unpaid slave labor.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 8, 2016 at 10:36
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    It would be wonderful if you could find some examples, or sources confirming "usually were"...
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 8, 2016 at 16:53
  • I think that this too is a very good answer, and I would upvote but I only have 14 reputation points. Apr 9, 2016 at 13:52

Hardly! I can't put my hand on it now, but I wrote an undergraduate paper on the genesis of US slavery, where I referenced the first documented sale of "Negros" in the American colonies in, I think, 1690. It was fairly obvious from this that it was their difference (perceived as "barbarian", "childlike" and of course non-Christian etc) that made their enslavement acceptable, at least to some, though not to all. Racism made slavery "respectable" - not the other way round.

As a PS, I think the idea of "race relations" is an anachronism in the 19th century - and not just in the US. The British looked down on just about everyone who wasn't British!

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