In colonial North America, slavery had existed in both the northern and southern provinces of what would eventually become the United States. But bondage had never been central to the more northerly colonies’ economies, and by the time of the Revolution they had already embarked upon a course of economic and social development that differed markedly—and increasingly from the South’s. The virulent strain of anti-black racism that justified slavery still throve there and consigned African Americans to second-class status, denying them in most places not only the right to vote but also equal access to the courts, public schools, public accommodations, housing, and jobs.
But while racism remained very much alive and well in the North, enthusiasm for bound labor did not. Merchants, bankers, and manufacturers in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, and elsewhere were happy to sell goods and services and to lend money to southern slaveholders. But they did not try to run their own operations with bound labor. An economy based on a combination of small farms, lively internal commerce, and growing urban and manufacturing sectors seemed more compatible with self-employment and the hiring of legally free wage laborers than it did with slavery.
In the North just as in the South, economic development blazed a trail for culture. As middle-class northerners embraced their region’s distinctive social order, they came to view personal autonomy and the ownership of one’s own body as the essential pillars of a good society. As early as the 1780s, the outright ownership of one human being by another came to appear economically backward, morally repugnant, and politically poisonous. By the end of the 1850s, as one South Carolinian complained, even conservative-minded northerners were “conscientiously convinced that slavery in principle is wrong and that the institution is evil.” As those sentiments grew and spread, the first casualty was what remained of slavery in the northern states. Within a few decades following the Revolution, every one of them had either outlawed it outright or set legal mechanisms in motion that would do away with slavery over the course of time.