Lucien Holness, University of Maryland
MCEAS Consortium Fellow
Studies on slavery and abolition in Pennsylvania tend to place Philadelphia and its environs at the center of our understanding of state and national attitudes towards black freedom. However, this eastern focus is not representative of the rest of the state. I argue that southwestern Pennsylvania’s growing economic integration with western and southern markets placed many whites into greater contact with African Americans and slavery. This led to fears that interracial social relations, labor competition, and possible migration of blacks into the region would undermine the economic independence of these households, turning whites into a dependent and degraded class.
My dissertation shows that the roots of free labor ideology—a belief that emerged in the late 1840s that slavery (and for some whites, free blacks) should be prohibited from western territories in order to allow free white men to earn a living wage—can be traced to the 1780s when southwestern Pennsylvania was one of the first territories opened to westward expansion and where the place of blacks in society remained uncertain.
Alongside this nascent idea of free labor emerged an oppositional culture created by African Americans and their antislavery allies that was shaped by their worksites, institutions, and living conditions. This led to the formation of counter ideas about the west, black freedom, race, and citizenship. By shifting the center of antislavery politics and discussions about race from Philadelphia to southwestern Pennsylvania, this dissertation uncovers a political culture that was shaped by the East and West as well as the North and South. This had important political consequences, locally, statewide, and nationally in the fight against black bondage and for African American rights.