What Did Southerners Fear Would Be in Danger if Slavery Ended?
In the years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Southern whites feared the end of slavery. These fears were shared by plantation slave owners and white yeomen farmers alike. While the type of fears varied, they all shared a common thread of unabashed racism. In addition, most fears were rooted in a concern for social order and economic development.
1 Racial Mixing
One of the biggest fears articulated before and after the Civil War was the issue of racial mixing. Under slavery, the relationship between white masters and their black slaves created a hierarchical social structure in which sexual relations between the two groups were forbidden. Southern whites enjoyed an unquestioned position of superiority. Some Southerners worried that if slavery were abolished, the two groups would intermingle and form sexual relationships. This, they thought, would lead to the destruction of the white race's superior status in the South. In the years after emancipation, miscegenation laws and other social structures helped to preserve white superiority in the South, irrespective of the ' "free" status of blacks.
2 Competition with the Poor
Even poor, non-slave-owning whites saw danger in ending the institution of slavery. While considered to be inferior to their slave-owning counterparts, poor whites benefited implicitly from slavery. With blacks enslaved, poor whites faced little economic competition for ownership of land or for employment as labor. Free blacks, however, could compete against them for land and jobs, which would lessen the financial status of poor whites. In addition, the enslavement of blacks kept poor farmers from being the absolute lowest ranks of Southern society. Freeing the slaves jeopardized this social hierarchy, and so the poor tended to oppose ending slavery.
3 Plantation Economy
For large and small plantation owners, slavery supported their livelihood. In addition, this system formed the foundation of the Southern economy -- and many feared that its destruction would bring economic turmoil. By 1850, the Southern states were responsible for producing 80 percent of the world's cotton, and most of this was harvested by slaves. This was the engine of the Southern economy, and replacing unpaid slaves with paid labor was an unimaginable economic transformation that plantation owners feared.
4 Crime Wave
Before emancipation, Southern whites feared the activities of freed slaves, who did not have plantation servitude to occupy their time. Events like the Nat Turner slave revolt terrified Southern whites and led many to believe that freed slaves would bring anarchy and chaos to the region. Evidence of these fears came after the Civil War, when Southern legislatures rapidly enacted "Black Codes" to condemn the behaviors they anticipated from freed slaves. Vagrancy and unemployment were banned with severe punishment -- including imprisonment and hard labor -- so recently freed slaves were essentially forced into low-paid servitude. These same vagrancy laws were not applied to whites.