The Emancipation Question
A lively dialogue over the economics of slavery played out in newspapers and magazines on the eve of the Civil War
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
Papers in the South nurtured little sentiment for emancipation. In July the editor of the Register in Mobile even advocated the repeal of federal laws passed in 1808 that ended the African slave trade. Proslavery sentiment was a regular feature in DeBow’s Review, an agricultural journal published in New Orleans. In June 1859 the journal ran an article by noted Virginia agriculturist Edmund Ruffin about the effects on Southern farmers of the high prices for black slaves. Every step made to end slavery in Virginia, Ruffin declared, would “be more and more calamitous to the economical, social, and political interests of this commonwealth; and the complete consummation will be one of the greatest evils to the whole of the Southern States.” Ruffin believed that slavery was “one of our chief blessings, and that its removal, by any means whatever, would be an unmixed evil and a curse to the whole community.”
The views in DeBow’s stood in marked contrast to what appeared in the New York Times, but both publications agreed on one thing: slaves were expensive. On August 26 the Times listed the results of a slave auction that had taken place in Bowling Green, Missouri. “The prices were good,” an editorial writer reported. “A man verging upon three score brought about $800; a girl of six upwards of $500, and a girl of thirteen nearly $1,200.
“Such statements grate harshly on Northern ears, as well they may,” the editorialist continued. “An auction sale of human beings is a specially hideous spectacle when witnessed in a country which boasts of its freedom and civilization.” The writer acknowledged that such sales had once taken place in New York City. “Slavery must fall in the South as it has fallen in the North; but what state of society shall succeed Slavery in the South is a grave question, not to be determined by the rash and angry agitations of partisan politics.”
When war finally came, Edmund Ruffin helped usher it in. The agriculturist and Confederate “fire-eater” traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, as hostilities appeared imminent. On April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon took aim at the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter out in the harbor, a Southern artillery battery gave Ruffin the honor of firing one of the first shots of the Civil War.
Sewell died of his illness the following year. Ruffin survived the war, but on June 17, 1865, after hearing news of the Confederate defeat, he penned a note in which he lambasted “the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race,” and then killed himself with a pistol shot to the head.