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The antebellum period is generally considered to be the time between the War of 1812 and the civil war. The period is characterized by a gradual shift towards the Industrial Revolution in the North and thriving of cotton plantations in the South. Moreover, the annexation of new territory and western expansion has made Americans believe that the US government institutions are superior and they should be spread abroad. The sense of superiority of the American upper class has led to strong opposition from the working class and slave rebellions. Therefore, a failure to address the needs of the enslaved and free workers was the central reason for strikes and revolts.
Opposition from Slaves
Life of a slave in antebellum society was full of deprivations, exploitation, and harsh punishments. Most of the slaves were treated as animals that had to work every day from dusk until dawn disrespectful of their well-being and weather conditions. According to Douglass, the longest days were too short and the shortest nights were too long for his owner (2). When slaves felt ill, weak, and were unable to continue working, their masters would kick them or whip until to almost death (Douglass 1-2). Although some masters treated their slaves fairly, such people as Mr. Covey were proud to be a slave breaker (Douglass 6). Such behavior towards enslaved men and women made the tension grow and provoked many run-aways.
Another issue with slavery was sexual abuse of African American women. According to Jacobs, the fact that male slave owners often sexually harassed Negro women had hideous consequences on families (2). First, the abusive behavior of male masters made the female slaves objects of their mistresses’ hate and jealousy (Jacobs 2). Southern women often married men knowing that they were fathers of many young slaves and they had to accept that.
Second, such behavior caused trouble in slave families and made both females suffer from sexual abuse and their husbands admit the inability to save their wives from their masters. In short, sexual harassment made the tension grow and often led to revolts and fights between slaves and their owners.
Slave auction was one of the most barbaric institutions of the antebellum society that separated families and humiliated all the African Americans. According to Northup, before the auction, all the slaves were washed, fed, and dressed up to dance, sing, and play musical instruments (79). The participants of the auction touched the muscles of the slaves, made the “lots” walk, pick up heavy loads, and demonstrate their teeth (80). Moreover, the husbands were often bought separately from their wives and children. Therefore, humiliation and family separation became crucial issues for the growing discontent of the slave-owning system.
While such issues were typical for slave-owning society, and the system had to go away, ways for evolution rather than for revolution could be found. According to Cartwright, slaves would have no intention to run away or confront their masters “if treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night” (1). If the slaves were treated as human beings, the situation could have slowly evolved into the modern state without the civil war.
Opposition from Working Class
The working class also suffered from a similar situation, as people had to work for long hours in fabrics and factories. The employees had to work almost every day for thirteen-hour shifts, which made it impossible to have a steady mind and a healthy family (“Factory Tracts” 1). Moreover, the workers were underpaid and even both parents working could not guarantee the economic survival of the family (Boydston, para. 2). The situation led to a number of strikes, including Female Shoe and Textile Workers in Marblehead strike in 1860 (“The Bay State Strike” 1). In short, if the upper class could adequately address the matter with horrible conditions for the working class, they would avoid the negative consequences of the issue.
Additionally, the tension grew due to the unclear role of a woman in the antebellum society. On the one hand, women were expected to meet ideals of “true womanhood” or “domesticity” (Beecher, para. 1). They had to cook, clean the house, care for the children, and win everything with peace and love (Beecher, para. 5). On the other hand, sometimes women “scavenged the wharves and alley for abandoned or unguarded food, fuel, and clothing” (Boydston, para. 2). They also had to work to ensure the financial stability of the family. Consequently, women were not under constant pressure from family members and factories’ authorities, which resulted in an industrial disturbance.
While the antebellum era is thought of as a progressive time of western expansion and the industrial revolution, the alternative viewpoint describes the period as a constant struggle of the workers and slaves to improve their conditions. The feeling of superiority made the upper class fail to acknowledge the problems of the lower classes. Therefore, the matter led to constant fights, strikes, and revolts.
Beecher, Catherine. “An Essay on Slavery and Abolition with Reference to the Duty of American Females.” Godey’s Lady’s Book, vol. 40, 1850.
Boydston, Joanne. “Cult of True Womanhood.” Web.
Cartwright, Samuel. “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” Southern and Western States, vol. 11, 1851, pp. 1-3.
Douglass, Frederick. “Cowardice Departed, Bold Defiance Took its Place.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Anti-Slavery Office, 1845, pp. 1-8.
“Factory Tracts.” Factory Life as It Is. No. 1, 1845, pp. 1-4.
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Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston Press, 1861.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years A Slave. Narrative of Solomon, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841. Derby and Miller, 1853.
“The Bay State Strike. Movement among the Women. Acts and Proceedings of Employers and Workers.” New York Times. 1860.