Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

NYC Was Not A Haven for Abolitionists

YC was a hotbed of Abolitionist ferver, right? Wrong. True, we had Henry Ward Beecher, packing thousands weekly into Brooklyn Heights's Plymouth Church (dubbed the Grand Central Depot of the Underground Railroad) to hear his tyrades and donate money for rifles to be sent to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas (in boxes labeled "Bibles"). And we contributed some fierce soldiers to the Civil War. But although slavery was illegal in NY since the 1820s, that did not mean that everyone here was gung-ho to fight a war to end the practice in other states, as the Civil War Draft Riots demonstrated so shockingly. Why?

The primary reason was a fear of unemployment, chiefly amongst the largely uneducated immigrants. If slavery were ended, they feared, thousands of freed blacks would come to the northern cities looking for work, competing with them for jobs. Of course, this did not happen right after the Civil War, but that constitutes hindsight. People act according to what they perceive their best interest to be at the time.

Another factor was the Bounty system. Middle and upper class New Yorkers could essentially buy their way out of military service. Just as working class kids resented the college boys with their student deferments during the Vietnam war, the poor Irish and German immigrants who could not afford to buy their way out of the Civil War were not thrilled by this arrangement. Beecher may have roared "Give me war, redder than blood and fiercer than fire!" but he didn't enlist.