With abolitionist sentiment growing in the North, Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 observation that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” underscored the dire need for the United States to settle its slavery question. Here, blacks on a South Carolina plantation are pictured outside slave cabins. (Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)
When The Atlantic debuted in November 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision—declaring that slaves were not and could never become citizens, and also that Congress lacked the authority to outlaw slavery in federal territories—had been handed down just eight months earlier, and violence raged in Kansas over the question of popular sovereignty.
The magazine’s first broadside against the South’s “peculiar institution” appeared the following month, written by the author and anti-slavery activist Edmund Quincy, of a prominent Boston political family. Articulating a perspective common among Northern abolitionists, Quincy characterized the South as morally bankrupt and culturally and economically backward, and urged Northerners to take a decisive stand against slavery’s territorial and political encroachments.—Sage Stossel
|An artistic rendering by Henry Louis Stephens, a well-known illustrator of the era, depicts a family at a slave auction in the process of being separated (Library of Congress)|
With all the means and materials of wealth, the South is poor. With every advantage for gathering strength and self-reliance, it is weak and dependent.—Why this difference between the [North and the South]?
The why is not far to seek. It is to be found in the reward which Labor bestows on those that pay it due reverence in the one case, and the punishment it inflicts on those offering it outrage and insult in the other … A man in fetters cannot do the task-work that one whose limbs are unshackled looks upon as a pastime … Hence the difference so often noticed between tracts lying side by side, separated only by a river or an imaginary line; on one side of which, thrift and comfort and gathering wealth, growing villages, smiling farms, convenient habitations, school-houses, and churches make the landscape beautiful; while on the other, slovenly husbandry, dilapidated mansions, sordid huts, perilous wastes, horrible roads, the rare spire, and rarer village school betray all the nakedness of the land …