In 1888, John F. Smith was commissioned by Library of Congress to create a map depicting his impression of slavery’s spread across the United States. Created decades after the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the map is obviously subject to over twenty years of historical interpretation and the experience of Reconstruction. Nevertheless, Smith’s map offers an interesting view on slavery’s spread and the roots of its decline. Viewed through the lens of history, this map can support the viewpoint that the destruction of slavery was not an initial aim of the United States Civil War.
This map depicts slavery and abolition as two trees. The tree of slavery is named as “God’s Curse Slavery” while the tree of abolition is called “God’s Blessing Liberty.” Framed in biblical terms, these two trees reach out across the United States. Close examination reveals the truck of the slavery tree as being initially larger than the abolition tree. However, the roots of the liberty tree are formed from the Bible. Viewing each trees’ westward movement as a timeline, one can interpolate the initial growth of slavery and its later fall.
Branches reach out from each tree. Predictably, the branches from the slavery tree reflect the horrors of the practice and detail such practices as the Fugitive Slave Law and the Missouri Compromise. On the other hand, the branches of the liberty tree reflect the more positive aspects of the American ideal. Concepts such as philanthropy, free speech, and justice grow from the abolition approach.
Over the growth of the two trees, however, one withers while the other prospers. In the causes of growth and death lies the significance of this map. The blessings of liberty flow from the biblical foundations of New England while the Emancipation Proclamation – portrayed as an ax – hastens the fall of slavery. Biblical values and the horrors of slavery are presented as polar opposites.
Significantly, this map reinforces the idea that the Civil War’s roots were not found in abolitionist causes. While Abraham Lincoln’s statements in his first inaugural address disassociate his goals from any desire to end the practice of slavery as a whole, by linking the destruction of slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation, this map furthers the concept that the Civil War was initially fought to preserve the Union rather than to end slavery. That the Emancipation Proclamation, and not succession or other any other event, formed the destruction of slavery makes this point as the Proclamation did not occur in the early years of the war.
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. – Abraham Lincoln.
Obviously given the reality that this map was created over twenty years after the end of the Civil War, hindsight is 20/20 and one cannot be blind to the fact that this map could be fashioned to promote specific points of view. But when combined with contemporaneous statements such as President Lincoln’s words during his first inaugural address, this 1888 map by John F. Smith helps highlight the basis of the destruction of slavery as an institution in the United States.