In many ways, New York became the city we can recognize as our own during the years before the Civil War, a city of streetcars and pavement, of theaters and museums, of apartments, renters, and high-priced real estate. But the city's history with slavery entered its surprising second chapter in these years. This was a period marked by strong business ties to the South and an outspoken pro-slavery stance that affected the lives of New Yorkers black and white.
New York and the Cotton Kingdom
With the conclusion in 1815 of the long wars in Europe and between the United States and England which had so damaged American trade, the port of New York City surged to become the nation's unquestioned leader. On the one hand it became the depot for a flood of manufactured goods from Great Britain to be sold to trade-starved Americans. On the other hand, it combined its unrivalled access to capital and its excellent port to become America's leading marketer of southern-grown cotton to England. Cotton was by far the nation's most important agricultural export by the 1810s as it fed the mushrooming textile revolution in Great Britain and France.
As the South welcomed New York City's capital and merchants, the city rushed to accommodate the South's planters and their cotton. The city offered slaveholding visitors delightful opportunities to shop and socialize, but it also displayed its sympathy with the South through pro-slavery politics, an anti-black press, and even through the demeaning portrayal of black Americans in the popular minstrel shows. The young nation, fractured by the wars earlier in the century, now found common commerce to unite North and South in a way it never had before. "Cotton thread holds the Union together," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal in 1846. We have "patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets," he noted, but in practical terms, "cotton thread is the Union."
All looked bright for national growth and trade but for the hundreds of thousands of slaves forced to grow so much of the world's supply of cotton.
Looking for a Winning Strategy
Tremors over slavery began to stir New York City by the 1830s, emanating in part from slave-dependent England where by 1834 Parliament had abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies. This act inspired evangelical reformers in New York City such as Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Elizur Wright, and Joshua Leavitt who hoped they might spark a similar outcome in the United States. They allied closely with influential black activists, launched anti-slavery newspapers early in the decade, formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, dispatched anti-slavery orators and organizers throughout the region, and circulated hundreds of thousands of pieces of anti-slavery literature and petitions. Yet, rather than abolition, they ignited a riot in July 1834 as many of the city's denizens feared the impact abolitionism would have on relations with the South and the proper subordination of free blacks.
By 1835, black leaders assumed a more independent course. David Ruggles organized the New York Committee of Vigilance in 1835 to protect fugitives by boldly challenging their captors in court and in print. In 1837, Charles Ray and Samuel Cornish created the newspaper, The Colored American. James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, and Ray traveled and spoke indefatigably to overturn the state's provisions against black suffrage. Publicize, organize, and uplift—these were the new strategies of black activism in the 30s and 40s.
The novel methods of both black and white abolitionists had exposed legions of people to the wrongs of slavery and prejudice. By the 1850s, opposition to slavery had become common in much of the state as journalists, authors, and the Republicans adopted many of these techniques to raise doubts about slavery and the power of the South. Yet New York City itself continued its loyalty to the South by overwhelmingly supporting the pro-slavery Democratic Party.
Battles on the Home Front
As secession unfolded in the South in early 1861, it threatened the fragile détente that had existed in the 1850s between pro-southern forces in the city and those increasingly frustrated with southern brinksmanship. The city continued, nevertheless, to seek peace and even alliance with the South, fearing a collapse of the city's economy if ruptures with the South deepened. The bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor changed the minds of many. Incensed with this violation of a national fortress, most of the city rallied to the cause of the Union and looked forward to a quick suppression of southern hostilities. Rather than crumpling, New York City's economy flourished as it became the very arsenal for arming and feeding the North's army. Flush with bounties, tens of thousands of young men enlisted in the service. Black leaders like Smith campaigned tirelessly to make emancipation, equality for black troops, and black citizenship the war's mission.
But as the war dragged on with few Union victories and innumerable casualties, popular support lessened. Prices doubled, wages barely increased, and housing conditions remained deplorable in the city. The promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 seemed to make the war about freeing the slaves, alienating many in the still anti-black and pro-slavery city. Impoverished and desperate whites were pushed to the edge by the impending draft lottery. Fuelled by invective against blacks, the war, and Lincoln from leading Democratic politicians, thousands of them unleashed the murderous draft riots in early July 1863 which required sizable federal forces to quell. While the Democratic Party remained strong in the city after the riots, its stature diminished. The voice of blacks and Republicans gained a new vigor, epitomized by the thousands who turned out to salute black troops as they set off for the South in March 1864.
After the war, however, the old order of prejudice and proscription remained to be tackled once again. Over the course of the next five years, the monumental Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States, extended citizenship to all native-born and naturalized residents, and granted voting rights to any male citizen, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Attitudes toward slavery and the rights of American citizenship had been fundamentally changed by the war. At the same time, however, much of the North returned to established pre-war realities. In New York City, businessmen resumed a powerful role in the nation's cotton trade as the city became the economic capital of the Americas. And the city's Democratic politicians extended their control over municipal affairs with patronage jobs and a renewed appeal to anti-black bias.