The Proslavery Election Boycott

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Report told the House of Representatives that of the seven districts where Andrew Reeder, armed with evidence and formal complaints, set aside the elections of March 30, 1855 and ordered new ones, six districts conducted fair elections free from any border ruffian filibustering. Reeder’s action prompted strong objections on the proslavery side, which believed he had no power to cast out any election results. The integrity of those elections owed something to the scruples of Missourians, though not quite on the grounds that they’d subverted enough democracy for the season.

J.H. Day testified:

The candidates of the pro-slavery party considered that the governor had no right to set aside the election of the 30th of March, 1855, and order a new election; and they took but little interest, and left the people to do as they pleased about it. [...] I never heard the legality and fairness of that election questioned by any one, unless in this way-that the governor had no right to order it.

William H. Adams agreed:

We did not consider that election as a legal election, as the candidates had before been elected.

As did Amos Rees:

The slave party took no interest in it, thinking that Reeder had no right to set aside the former election, and took but little interest in it; and I may and may not have voted myself.

Lucian J. Eastin had it from the proslavery candidates themselves:

I heard one of the pro-slavery candidates say, on the morning of the election, that he was not a candidate, and this was the expression of all three of the candidates-that they did not recognize the right of Governor Reeder to set aside that election, and, therefore, they considered the election was invalid.

They did have at least a narrow legal point to stand on here, but one must admit also the obvious self-interest involved. The proslavery men won their election, by whatever means, and so had no reason to consent to any attempt to run it over again. If they won, they stood only to gain what they already had. If they lost, then by participation they gave legitimacy to taking their victory away. Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Day, Adams, Rees, and Eastin all testified to the view from the Leavenworth district, but the fact that the Howard Committee could find no one willing to testify that other districts saw any problems with the special election suggests strongly that the border ruffians in Missouri and proslavery Kansans alike, by and large, boycotted the election.

Their boycott did not greatly help the free state cause. Free-state men went from having zero seats in the legislature to picking up six of the contested districts. This still left the proslavery men with what Nichole Etcheson calls “an overwhelming majority.” The material available in the Howard Report doesn’t give me a clear enough picture of what the reconstituted legislature would have looked like with those six of seven contested districts going over to free soil men to offer an exact whip count. Some elected more than one member of the council or the house. Others overlapped with adjacent districts that did not have their returns set aside. The data surely exists and perhaps some historian has done the work down to the person. I started the project but soon realized that it would take more time than I presently have to give it.

The proslavery party did not exert themselves greatly because they saw Reeder’s special elections as illegal. Participation would also have legitimated any possible defeat. But it further seems clear that even if they lost all the special elections, the proslavery party would still have a commanding majority. If the free staters won a few seats instead of zero seats, how would it really matter in practical terms? In light of these concerns, I defer to Etcheson’s judgment and expertise.

Did Reeder have the power to set aside elections?

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

On the sixth of April, 1855, Andrew Reeder and his armed bodyguards faced off against an equally armed gang of proslavery men and announced to them that seven of the seventeen elections that the Missourians stole from Kansans would not stand. Instead, new elections would fill those seats. As widespread, flagrant fraud characterized both of Kansas’ previous elections, surely doing the same thing all over again would solve things. But what else could Reeder have done? He took precautions beforehand and appears sincere a year later in saying that he didn’t have the evidence at the time to set aside more elections than he did. He had no army on hand to stop Missourians at the border, nor an independent and sophisticated law enforcement apparatus to safeguard the polls.

Surprisingly, it seems that the third time delivered on the proverbial charm. The Howard Committee found no illegal voting in six of the districts that went back to the polls. Kansas improved its performance from one free election in eighteen to one in seven. That success, however, came with the fact that Reeder had not set aside the other elections. The Missourian border ruffians still had their way in those districts. Furthermore, by setting any elections aside Reeder exceeded the authority that the proslavery men thought vested in him. They thought that the legislature itself judged the qualifications of its members, not the territorial executive. Back in Washington, just that rule had held since the ratification of the Constitution.

A quick scan of the Kansas-Nebraska Act does not reveal any explicit authorization for Reeder to set aside elections. He did have powers related to elections, including calling them, drawing districts, and apportioning seats, but insofar as the results of those elections come under his power, I’ve found this:

the first election shall be held at such time and places, and be conducted in such manner, both as to the persons who shall superintend such election and the returns thereof, as the Governor shall appoint and direct


The persons having the highest number of legal votes in each of said council districts for members of the Council, shall be declared by the Governor to be duly elected to the Council; and the persons having the highest number of legal votes for the House of Representatives, shall be declared by the Governor to be duly elected members of said house: Provided, That in case two or more persons voted for shall have an equal number of votes, and in case a vacancy shall otherwise occur in either branch of the Legislative Assembly, the Governor shall order a new election

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act did specify who counted as a legal voter and required election by a majority of legal voters, but it did not clearly vest in Reeder the power to investigate illegal voting and set aside elections where it determined the outcome. Maybe Stephen Douglas and Phillip Phillips, with the approval of Atchison, his F Street cronies, and Archibald Dixon assumed that. The law did not, however, come out and say it. By the strictest, most parsimonious reading of the law, the governor’s power over elections expired with their conclusion. He could set out oaths, despite the Missourians’ claims, and require the swearing of voters, but possibly nothing more.

This does not make for a conclusive argument. Nor did the proslavery men take it up out of disinterested legal scholarship. They further did not burden themselves with contrary facts when it came to claiming that the Kansas-Nebraska Act authorized their cross-border voting. Even the more legally scrupulous often contented themselves with a fake claim or the argument that their presence that instant in Kansas counted as legal residence with intent to remain, conveniently ignoring then their conscious design to leave immediately after the election.

In this case, however, they appear to have really believed that Reeder had no such power. By setting aside elections, he had transgressed on their rights and stripped from them the essential power of white men in the white man’s democracy to elect their government to chart their future. Before now, they might have thought Reeder a secret abolitionist for his attempted neutrality. Now the governor had gone and proved it to any who still required proof. Kansas got at least some fair elections, but they came at the inevitable cost of further aggravating the proslavery party by taking away some of its late triumphs.

Contesting Andrew Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

We left Andrew Reeder setting aside elections in seven of the seventeen districts where illegal voting took place. The fourth of April deadline, coming so soon after the thirtieth of March elections, didn’t make for a great deal of time to gather the necessary ten witnesses, draw up papers, and deliver them in order to contest the outcomes. Given such a highly visible process and the threats of Missourians on the ground on election day, many Kansans probably chose the better part of valor regardless. A few testified that they did when the Howard Committee came through the next year.

Reeder’s testimony sheds light on both his choices:

About the time fixed as the return day for that election a majority of the persons returned as elected assembled at Shawnee Mission and Westport, and remained several days, holding private caucuses at both places. I had frequent conversations with them, and they strenuously denied my right to go behind the returns made by the judges of the election, or investigate in any way the legality of the election. A committee called upon me and presented a paper, signed by twenty-three or twenty-four of them, to the same effect. Threats of violence against my person and life were freely afloat in the community, and the same threats were reported to me as having been made by members elect in their private caucus.

Some context here: Westport and Shawnee Mission both form parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area today. Especially given the proximity, the fact that the proslavery men sometimes chose to hold their meetings in Missouri seems a tad unsubtle. One supposes that now and then they preferred to meet closer to home. The council of Kansas would had thirteen seats and the Kansas House twenty-six. Thus a petition signed by twenty-four members amounted to 60.54% of the whole legislature.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

At least the proslavery men behaved themselves. They had a peaceful dispute with Reeder over the extent of his legal authority which they would resolve, if necessary, by murdering him. This attitude toward dissent has a long pedigree, then and now, in American history. The white man’s democracy, in a slave state, included the freedom to do most anything you wanted to any black person you could afford or come up with a good excuse for, and quite nearly as much to any white man who dissented from slavery. That ended for the whites more often in their leaving town in a hurry, often after a violent attack, seizure, and disfiguring public humiliations like tar and feathering than outright death but one got the message all the same.

Reeder insisted that he simply did not have the information he needed to set aside the other elections in good conscience, though he had of course learned by the time he testified. He had no filings or facts put before him at the time, so they had to stand. Furthermore, he insisted that five days sufficed for a deadline as the farthest-flung settlements in Kansas took only three days to reach from his office. I believe him, but find it hard to set aside the influence of persistent death threats on his thinking. Maybe he had ice water in his veins, but few people put on a show of so much sangfroid without it taking a real psychological toll.

The governor took precautions. He got together a few friends to take with him to the meeting where he would announce his decision on the contested elections. They met on the sixth of April, 1855:

Upon one side of the room were arrayed the members elect, nearly if not quite all armed, and on the other side about fourteen of my friends, who, with myself, were also well armed.

Armed, mutually hostile bands of men in a room together to hear about the very thing that set them against one another. Sounds positively relaxing, doesn’t it? The expected violence scene from a western did not then erupt. The seven districts would have their new elections on May 22, 1855. Surely nothing would go wrong then.

Contesting the Elections

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Missourians stole the Kansas legislature from the Kansans, antislavery or otherwise. Andrew Reeder saw them coming. It would have been hard to miss them, in fact, considering he had himself talked with at least one future questionable voter. Nichole Etcheson relates this story from back in late 1854 in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Missouri men had come over to press for a quick legislative election so they could consolidate their early lead in settlement:

When Reeder quizzed the delegation’s leader, F. Gwinner, about his place of residence, Gwinner claimed to live on Salt Creek in Kansas Territory. “Do you live in a house?” Reeder asked. No, Gwinner demurred, he had no house but had located a claim. “I believe I have your residence in my pocket-book,” Reeder replied, pulling from his wallet a playing card marked “Gwinner’s Claim-Oct. 21, 1854. Like many other Missourians, Gwinner had marked his claim by nailing the card to a tree while continuing to live in Missouri. Reeder’s secretary had found the card while hunting. When Gwinner admitted owning the card, a three of diamonds, Reeder teased him, “Why your card was rather low-some fellow might have come along with the four of diamonds, and jumped your claim.” The governor and his guests enjoyed a good laugh and parted amicably.

Gwinner might have come to live in Kansas permanently before the election, of course. Reeder couldn’t then know for sure. At the time, one could laugh. Nobody had a gun drawn on them, a cabin stormed, or decapitation threatened yet. After the delegate election, things may not have seemed so funny. The March elections would have taken more humor still from the situation and subsequent events would have left only a grim residue for most Kansans of the day.

Reeder placed his hopes in appointing two free state to one proslavery judge of election in districts where he expected Missourians. The governor overestimated Missourian scruples. He testified:

an invading force from Missouri entered the Territory for the purpose of voting, which, although it had been openly threatened, far exceeded my anticipations.

A panel of election judges could hold against dozens of Missourians. I speculated, based on the testimony of William Barbee, that Reeder may not have found all the free staters he hoped to take those posts. Etcheson has a J.W. Reid informing a correspondent

I learn that a larger portion of the Judges are friendly to us, unknown to Reeder.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

She cites papers I don’t have access to so I can’t dig in and see if Reid named Barbee as a principal here, but it seems likely.

Even if Reeder had the judges he thought he had, the might hold against dozens of Missourians. Hundreds, in some cases north of a thousand, swept them easily aside. But Reeder had another weapon at his disposal. In his proclamation of the election he reserved right to set aside contested elections:

In case any persons shall desire to contest the election in any district of the Territory, they shall make a written statement, directed to the governor, setting forth the particular precinct or district they intend to contest, the candidates whose election they dispute, and the specific causes of complaint in the conduct or return of the said election; which complaint shall be signed by not less than ten qualified voters of the Territory, and with affidavit of one or more such voters to the truth of the facts set forth therein. Such written statement must be presented to the governor at his office on or before the fourth day of April, A.D. 1855; and if it shall appear that the result of the election in any council district might be changed by said contest, a day will be fixed for hearing the same.

That sounds simple enough. If problems arose, deliver notice to Reeder and he would look into things. But the elections took place on March 30th and one had only until April 4th to get together ten witnesses, draw up a document, and get it to Reeder. Testimony indicates that in some districts, Missourians lingered for a day or so after the election. Given their behavior during the election, few would leap to the chance to provoke them. Then one has to account for travel time in a relatively undeveloped territory and the difficulty one might have in gathering ten men willing to swear to Missourian malfeasance, a worryingly conspicuous task in sparsely populated areas where everyone might soon know one another by sight and quickly learned one another’s business. In some districts, Missourians threatened the lives of anybody who seemed likely to contest.

Reeder could have set aside all the elections, but between intimidation, poor infrastructure, and a tight deadline he received notices only from the First (“the words “by lawful resident voters” were stricken from the return”), Second (oath administered by an unauthorized person), Third (“material erasures from the printed form of the oath were purposely made”), Fourth (same as the Third), Seventh (judges not sworn at all), Eleventh (election held by voice vote rather than ballot), and Sixteenth Districts (“by lawful residents” stricken from the returns).

Although fraud and force in other districts was equally great as in these, yet, as the governor had no information in regard to them, he issued certificates according to the returns.

Out of seventeen districts with fraudulent outcomes, only those seven had their results set aside and new elections ordered.

First Impressions of Foner’s Class

I thought that I might comment on the online course experience from time to time.

Signing up proved painless. It appears sections shall see weekly release, each containing a lecture by Foner broken up into five to ten minute segments. These pretty clearly date to last year and come straight from his classroom, unlike the more scripted video of him talking to the camera about the class. After each section comes a question based on its content. They’re multiple choice questions geared more toward making you aware of how much attention you paid, rather than real tests. I would have liked it more to sit through the full hour or so of Foner in one go, but suppose I shall survive.

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen Foner deliver a talk. He does it well and with all the charm one would hope for. He told some good jokes. On the subject of his role as historical adviser in a Broadway flop about the Civil War, he noted that the critics objected to the music and the choreography, but nobody criticized it for historical inaccuracy.

The inclusion of images Foner showed the class, many of which one can also view on the course website, really helped. If you haven’t watched or listened to David Blight’s course it bears doing, but none of his materials make it into the video. You have to take his word for it or find them yourself.

The first lecture covered the usual introductory ground. I don’t know if I picked up much new from it, as expected from an introduction, but I always enjoy seeing historians drawing meaning out of sources and he did as great a job as one would expect dissecting a painting of a stump speech in Missouri.

On a shallow level, and fully aware of my own receding hairline, I also appreciated Foner’s comb over. For some reason I had also assigned him roughly the voice of a friend of mine from Virginia, which made the contrast with his actual New York accent.

After the first segment I looked into the readings and found that I’d have to buy the books. I expected something like that, though I held out some hope for online texts. I broke from my custom in the interests of economy (I just ordered Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told today as well.) and opted for ebooks. That option did not exist for Gienapp’s The Civil War And Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection so I will have to miss out on it for now. Fortunately nineteenth century documents of historical import appear online frequently. Unfortunately, the suggested readings work by page number rather than title. As a nice bonus, I already own Foner’s book on Lincoln and slavery. I may see about getting a copy of Gienapp before the end of the course, but it looks like it’s nearly out of print and pricey.

The terms of service include some language about not sharing content from the course. I don’t know if that would extend to the full reading list, but it may. Instead I’ll just note that it includes a book by David Brion Davis on slavery that I planned to read anyway, a survey of the 1850s that I had not heard of, and a promising-sounding book on counterrevolutionary ideology in South Carolina. …and I have a lot of reading to do in the next two weeks.

I opted not to participate in the discussion section, at least for now. I skimmed through it, but the interface left a bit to be desired and my antisocial habits won out. At the end came a quiz with more real content on it. I received nine out of ten because I misplaced an Oscar Wilde quote. Sorry about that, Gentle Readers.

The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.

Taking an online course

Today I learned, via Kevin Levin, that Columbia is offering an online course in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Eric Foner will teach it. One can audit for free. Eric Foner! Free!


I have never done this online course thing before. I don’t know if I’ll care for it or what it will entail, aside watching videos, reading, and taking quizzes. But trying shall cost me nothing and I might gain much. I don’t anticipate that it will slow the pace of blogging, but it may. If so, I’ll try to give advance notice. I like to keep regular about these things.

The Slaver’s Lexicon (with insight from @Ed_Baptist)

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I’ve had this post hiding in the back of my skull for a while, possibly as far back as when I read Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume One. As I’ve yet to drink deeply from the fire hose of slavery historiography, I held off on writing it. Even after The Economist affair it sat quiet in some corner of my mind. But Kevin Levin turned over that stone with this post. He quotes Baptist’s book, which sounds still better every time I hear about it, on the nature of slavery:

Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)

The authors of slave narratives sometimes refer to stealing themselves. In comments, Kevin quotes Frederick Douglass on the matter:

I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.

Douglass certainly did that. He took another man’s property without permission by running away. But we seldom use that phrasing. I know that I have in the past, but rarely. More often we speak in terms of runaways. Children run away, but we know that they should be at home if everything has gone right. Livestock runs away. Trains and cars run away. In each case, we view these runaways as deviations from the natural order. Even saying someone has a runaway imagination carries with it at least a mild reproof. They’ve gotten carried away and abandoned good sense. Furthermore, each scenario implies a need for correction. Someone must stop, corral, find, or secure the runaway object or person.

Douglass famously made himself a fugitive. Fugitives have broken the law, making them criminals, but go a step farther still: They run from justice. They have not just done wrong, but even more completely isolated themselves from orthodox society by fleeing its corrective apparatus. Before advances in criminal justice, the common law made fugitives into outlaws and encouraged ordinary people who saw them to execute them at will. Though sanctioned by law and thus not technically lynching, such an execution might look much the same.

We take our cue on the latter from the fugitive slave act in labeling slaves that stole themselves, of course. People called them that at the time and it generally makes sense to use period terms rather than anachronisms. But in calling slaves who steal themselves runaways and fugitives, don’t we to some measure conceal the reality of slavery? The language suggests, even if we don’t intend it to, that a slave belongs to his or her master in the correct order of things. That may not raise problems when we characterize the views of slaveholders; we need not share someone’s views in order to report them.

But do we really stop with that language when we stop characterizing the views of slaveholders and switch to a more general voice? I don’t think that most of us do, myself included. We inherit the biases of our sources, which have a long history of privileging the master’s perspective over the slave. The last few generations of historians have made tremendous gains in reversing that trend, but these things often move slowly. Only in the last few years have we seen Hollywood move away from a faithfully Lost Cause depiction of slavery and the Confederacy. Defenses of slavery as something ultimately good for African-Americans remain current in some corners of American thought. One of them reached some fame this past year:

“And because they [Black Americans, though Bundy prefers the term 'negro'] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Freedmen's Bureau cartoon

A cartoon attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for encouraging idleness

Less freedom than under slavery. Past generations didn’t even bother with the act, skipping right to simply calling black people lazy as the slaveholders did, even if they sometimes cloaked it in a scientific guise. Crude racism goes a long way toward accounting for this, but there are other human foibles at work. I suspect that most people flinch from a full-bore examination of the horrors of slavery. They don’t make for easy reading and lack the obvious immediacy that present day horrors have, even if we still live in the world they made. Looking away tends to preserve one’s impression of the peculiar institution as wrong in some vague, general sense rather than having a firm command of what it entailed that made it so wrong. This runs the risk of making slavery into a fairly venal sin, like cutting in line or using coarse language. By giving ourselves the luxury of obscurity we more easily inherit the language and attitudes of the very people and practices that otherwise condemn.

Changing the language will not change the reality, but it can help change our perception of reality. That might necessitate some kind of action. At the very least it raises one’s consciousness of the real, hard facts. This probably explains why most of us, myself included, don’t change our language.

The Election Returns

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We’ve run out of districts and so concluded examining the testimony of witnesses to the Howard Committee regarding the Kansas legislature election of March 30, 1855. What did all of this come down to? Obviously, everywhere except in the Seventeenth District, proslavery forces came over from Missouri and voted, often in very large numbers relative to the number of qualified voters in the district. They came armed. They threatened violence. They carried out some of those threats, to the point of attacking free-State men, taking others hostage, and storming polling places. They would not even let known proslavery Kansans choose their own tickets, but instead imposed their choices upon Kansas. David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and companies numbering in the thousands organized by their self-defense associations and blue lodges, and funded by well-heeled Missourian slaveholders trespassed so clearly and imperiously on the right of white men to their republic and self-government that they even alienated some of their fellow travelers.

The Howard Committee told the House

Of the 2,905 voters named in the census rolls, 831 are found on the poll-books. Some of the settlers were prevented from attending the election by the distance of their homes from the polls, but the real majority were deterred by the  open avowal that large bodies of armed Missourians would be at the polls to vote, and by the fact that they did so appear and control the election. The same causes deterred the free-State settlers from running candidates in several districts, and in others induced the candidates to withdraw.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

But did that matter? The Missourians won no friends when they came and stole the election for delegate, but by stealing it for John Whitfield, they only delivered the outcome that the Kansans themselves apparently preferred to the degree they cared at all. Working backwards from their testimony, surviving poll books (The sets for the Second and Eighth Districts had gone missing.), and the census rolls, the Committee reported

If the election had been confined to the actual settlers, undeterred by the presence of non-residents, or the knowledge that they would be present in numbers sufficient to outvote them, the testimony indicates that the council would have been composed of seven in favor of making Kansas a free State, elected from the 1st, 2nd, 3d, 4th, and 6th council districts. The result of the 8th and 10th, electing three members, would have been doubtful, and the 5th, 7th, and 9th would have elected three pro-slavery members.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act set the size of the territorial council, which it had in the place of a Senate, at thirteen. Even giving the proslavery side every dubious district this would leave a council with a seven to six majority in favor of a free Kansas. That one vote majority might not have instantly abolished slavery and appropriated funds for secret abolitionist militias to invade Missouri and steal its slaves, perhaps with a few elections since they came across anyway, but even the worst case outcome makes for at least a slight antislavery victory.

The territory also had a House of Representatives with twenty-six seats:

Under like circumstances the House of Representatives would have been composed of fourteen members in favor of making Kansas a free State, elected from the 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th districts.

The results in the 12th and 14th representative districts, electing five members, would have been doubtful; and the 1st, 6th, 11th, and 15th districts would have elected seven pro-slavery members.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

That makes fourteen free state members to, repeating the previous generosity and giving every disputed seat to the proslavery side, twelve proslavery representatives. Again the free state party has at least a small majority, at absolute worst, and perhaps a more substantial one. Stealing the territorial delegate election annoyed Kansans, outraged them over the principle of self-government, and set them against the Missourians to some degree, but John Wilkins Whitfield would not shape the territory from his post in Washington. The legislature right there in Kansas clearly would and they had not chosen it. The Missourians took that task for themselves and delivered this verdict:

By the election as conducted, the pro-slavery candidates in every district but the 8th representative district received a majority of the votes; and several of them, both in the council and house, did not “reside in” and were not “inhabitants of” the district for which they were elected, as required by the organic law.

Injury alone would not suffice. Virtual unanimity in the legislature elected by their fraudulent votes did not suffice. The Missourians did not rest until they added the customary insult in the persons not only of illegal voters, but blatantly illegal officeholders. So much for Stephen Douglas’ hopes for popular sovereignty.

The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.


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