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Historical Document
Abolitionist Samuel J. May confronts a northern merchant

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From its beginnings, slavery was a northern institution. It was legal in many northern states until the early 19th century. Even during the antebellum period, when slavery was largely confined to the South, the institution retained a grip on the northern economy. Businessmen in New York, Massachusetts, and other states were involved in shipping slave-grown cotton, in insuring the shipments, in providing capital advances to southern planters, and in running the mills which produced cotton fabric. These ventures provided wealth for a few, and jobs and products for many more. A significant portion of the northern economy rested on slave grown cotton. This is one reason that most northerners were hostile to the abolitionist movement.

The attached document illustrates the conflict between Northern merchants and abolitionists. It is an excerpt from an 1869 book entitled Some Recollections of Our Anti-Slavery Conflict, by white abolitionist Samuel J. May. In it May describes a conversation he had with a northern merchant who called him outside during a meeting of the American Antislavery Society in May, 1835. The merchant told May, "We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates succeed in your endeavor to overthrow slavery." The institution, he said, was crucial to the northern economy, and its abolition would be disastrous. May's reply was immediate. "The sir,.... The Devil must preside over the affairs of the universe, and not God."

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Race-based legislation in the North

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