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Modern Voices
Eric Foner on slavery
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Q: How did the institution of slavery affect the country as a whole?
Eric Foner

A: By the 1830's, what we call the Age of Jackson, slavery was really entrenched in many ways: in the economy and politics and the whole social life of the American nation. We often don't quite realize how powerful an institution it was, and how its ramifications affected the North as well as the South. By that time, the North had all abolished slavery. The northern states were deeply embedded in the slave system.

Just to give you a couple of examples, cotton was by far the major export crop of the United States. It dwarfed anything else produced by the United States and sold abroad. In other words, it was the major earner of foreign exchange, of foreign money for this developing country. And the cotton was shipped by northern ships, and it was financed by northern insurance companies. The cotton trade was the basis of shipbuilding, of shipping, maritime enterprise, banking, insurance, all these enterprises in the North, as well as the early factories which will be developing in this period, transforming the cotton into textiles. So there were many thousands or hundreds of thousands of northerners whose livelihoods depended directly on slavery, by virtue of the power of the economic importance of cotton.

Slavery was an immense political power in the country, as well as an economic power. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave the slave South far greater representation in Congress, and a far larger number of electoral votes, than their white population really would have been entitled to. So the South really had an iron grip on the federal government, down to the middle of the 19th century.
Eric Foner
Professor of History
Columbia University

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