The “Peculiar Institution”

Slavery–most of us cringe at the thought of it. But if we take a moment to think about it, without slavery, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened. America’s economy definitely would not have prospered, especially at first. The Civil War would not have been fought. The United States also would probably not be one of the most recognized countries in the world.

Slavery had existed in America since the 17th century, and became ingrained within the country. Trading cash crops such as tobacco allowed the country to thrive economically, and this would not have been possible if not for slavery. Slavery was a cheap source of necessary labor, and the profit that the plantation owners gained boosted America’s economy.

Things started to change, of course, when the most of the North went through the Industrial Revolution. Although the region’s economy had been primarily based on industry before, they were much more intently focused on manufacturing now. Northerners realized that they didn’t have much of a need for slavery. At the same time, because of the cotton gin, slavery in the South, which had slowly been dying off, was once again revived. This started to cause tensions between the two regions, as most of the anti-slavery efforts came from the North.

There was also political tensions, because, after all, people in general always want to be more powerful than their rivals. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person; therefore, slavery affected a state’s representation in Congress. There was also a balance between slave and free states, so whenever a new territory was added to the United States, there was always the issue of whether a state would be a free or slave state. Popular sovereignty, the ability of the states’ people to decide whether or not to have slavery, helped with delaying having to deal with the issue outright. Of course, sometimes it became messy, as seen in Kansas when people started killing each other.

Sadly, no one in American history up until that point had really wanted to address the problems that slavery caused, or even slavery itself. The Constitution had made no mention of it, except for the Three-Fifths Compromise. The Missouri Compromise worked for a while, but was broken by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for popular sovereignty and ultimately just delayed a war or other form of bloody conflict. The Dred Scott decision addressed it, but declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and basically said that slaves would always be slaves, because they were someone’s private property. This, of course, was contradictory to the free-state idea and led to many angry free-state Northerners and abolitionists..

Inevitably, slavery led to political and economic tensions, which led to war, pitting Americans against each other in the bloodiest battle in American history. In fact, there were more casualties from the Civil War than there were in both World Wars combined; one in four soldiers never came home. Despite the casualties, we also remember the outcomes of the war: the end of slavery, as well as a stronger, more united country.


Bailey, Thomas Andrew, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.

“Civil War Casualties.” Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.<>.


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