A critical and underestimated part of the deep societal racism that lives on beneath the “post-racial” American surface—behind the selection of a black Supreme Court justice or the election of a black president or the removal of the Confederate flag or a Confederate war statue in a Southern city—is the steadfast refusal of our longtime white-majority nation to acknowledge that the multi-century history of slavery (the vicious racist and torture system the Confederacy fought to defend and preserve) is intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities today.
Nonetheless, during and immediately after the American Revolution, many individuals in both the North and the South took their revolutionary ideals seriously and concluded that slavery was unjust. They freed, or manumitted, their slaves. Yet each state decided for itself how to handle the issue. Northern states passed laws, or enacted judicial rulings, that either eliminated slavery immediately or put slavery on the road to gradual extinction. The story was different in the South. Because Southern states had a much deeper economic investment in slavery, they resisted any efforts to eliminate slavery within their boundaries. Although some (but not all) of the Southern states allowed individual owners to manumit their slaves if they chose, no Southern state passed legislation that ended slavery completely, either immediately or gradually. This divergence in approach was significant, as it began the time during which slavery would disappear from the North and become uniquely associated with the South. This moment was arguably the fork in the road that ultimately led the country to the sectional divisions that culminated in the coming of the Civil War.