A City Divided: Debates over Slavery in Antebellum Pittsburgh



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Although much attention has been paid to the influence of southern slavery on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War, far less has been spent analyzing the complexities of how northern communities in the antebellum period addressed questions over the peculiar institution. Northerners were not simply opposed, or perhaps ambivalent, to slavery during this period. Rather, individuals and groups had various responses when confronted with the institution. This study attempts to shed new light on the various reactions to slavery from one antebellum city: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Antebellum Pittsburgh provides an excellent case study for examining diverse northern reactions to slavery, as well as how those reactions developed and changed over time. The presence of various groups, each with their own unique responses when presented with questions over slavery, allows the city to act as a microcosm for the diverse antebellum North. Pittsburgh was home to many prominent white abolitionists and a free black community, both of which contributed significantly to the western operations of the state’s Underground Railroad. Additionally, the city’s geographical location, on the forks of the Ohio River, promoted southern trade. This left many businessmen and entrepreneurs in the growing industrial city sympathetic to the struggles of southern slaveholders. Each of these groups provides a unique component to a larger, more complex, story of slavery in early America.

A large quantity of primary and secondary sources demonstrates the diverse reactions to slavery in antebellum Pittsburgh, yet each fails to fit these perspectives into a larger context. To date, no major work seeks to examine these diverse voices in the Pittsburgh area nor analyzes the complex societies within which they collectively existed. This research project is an attempt to do just that. By analyzing the writings of prominent individuals in Pittsburgh, as well as speeches, newspapers, and court cases, a more coherent understanding of the community and their reactions to slavery are outlined. Although this thesis examines slavery debates in only one community, the complexities of reactions and the existence of various groups can, in some ways, reflect the northern half of the antebellum American nation.



African Americans, Allegheny City, Allegheny County, Antebellum United States, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Slavery, Underground Railroad