What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.
But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.
Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.
The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.
Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.
But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.
Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.
The Know-Nothings had it going on. They made an impressive showing in the 1854 elections. They even took over Massachusetts, host to so much antislavery drama. Delaware’s Whiggery disbanded to join in the fun. If all the South did not have the North’s immigrant population to stir up nativist fears, then at least its border states and Louisiana did. Those could be the foundation of a new bisectional party, even if it did still tilt to the North. Would states that decided, as a Baltimore paper advised, to sideline slavery in favor of anti-immigrant fears even remain southern enough for it to matter? Stephen Douglas decided, even in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska, that he should worry more about the Know-Nothings than antislavery men. If the Know-Nothings could elect one of their own governor of a major southern state, he might have it right.
Virginians had that major southern state and an election coming up. Unlike half-free Maryland, Virginia still had a healthy slave system. It might also have some discontented people in its extreme west who did not much care for slavery, but aristocratic Virginian planters had bought them off before with incremental advances toward white egalitarianism. They had just done another round of that in 1850, finally giving all white men equal access to state government. Doing that also meant, of course, that the planters voted themselves considerable tax advantages. As a populous state with a healthy slave system, Virginia would be a great feather in the Know-Nothings’ cap.
To take the governor’s post and ring in the Know-Nothings glorious future, they chose an ex-Whig, Richmond lawyer Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. The very model of eighteenth century refinement, Flournoy disdained campaigning. He instructed his voters by letter and refused to make public appearances. He would not stage a circus and prostitute himself for the voting mobs; gentlemen did not do that kind of thing. It drove Virginia’s aging patriarchs wild.
Against Flournoy, the Democracy chose Henry Alexander Wise. A political shapeshifter of the highest caliber, Wise had been a Jacksonite enthusiast turned States Rights Whig before turning Democrat again. Back in 1850, he led the charge to empower poor whites, then switched back and led the charge to secure tax advantages for slavery. He mused that slavery might some day end, then attacked his foes for not defending it strongly enough. This did not endear him to Virginia’s patriarchs. Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first degree.”
Consistency did not much trouble mass politics, though. Wise had risen through the Virginia establishment by alloying eighteenth century ideals about hierarchy to nineteenth century populism. He would use popular appeal to achieve aristocratic goals, spreading the gospel that only age, sex, and race should separate men. Even a propertyless white man still had his skin endowing him with despotic power over every black person.
Wise tore across Virginia, covering three thousand miles in only four months. Every night, for as much as four hours, he screamed in the gaslight until he had only a whisper left. He stomped. He roused the rabble. He put on a show. Wise’s demagoguery could have come from an aristocrat’s worst nightmares. This all sounds like something one would expect of the nativists, playing up public fears. But if the Know-Nothings had unwashed hordes of Irish Catholics to keep them up at nights, then Henry Wise played to a different set of fears: those provoked by the Know-Nothings themselves.
In the summer and fall of 1854, the Know-Nothings racked up win after win. In Massachusetts, they commanded 63% of the vote, elected all the state senators and all but two of the state representatives. That amounted to not just a win, but an amazing landslide. If they could co-opt Massachusetts, then the antislavery furor over Kansas-Nebraska might truly pass away. To the Bay State, they added a 40% showing in Pennsylvania. Even in New York, where Whiggery remained strong, they could pull in 25% of the vote. As the Whigs waned, the Know-Nothings waxed. They won more than fifty seats in the 34th Congress and caucused with the Opposition Party, a new conglomeration of anti-Nebraska, antislavery, and generally anti-Democrat (hence the name) men to control the House. They put one of their own, Nathaniel Banks, in the Speaker’s seat.
But could they cross the Mason-Dixon and become a national party? Delaware’s John Clayton thought so. Tennessee’s John Bell agreed, supporting a Know-Nothing for governor. The Know-Nothings seemed very much posed to make it happen, but they faced a strong demographic challenge. In 1850, the census counted 2,234,602 foreign-born people in the United States. That amounted to 11.50% of the national population. Only 313,312 of those people lived in the slave states. Almost a quarter of them, 24.45%, lived in Missouri alone. Louisiana provided another 68,233 foreign-born, for 21.78% of the South’s immigrants. Maryland (16.34%) and Kentucky (10.03%) rounded out the top four. Together they accounted for 72.40% of the South’s immigrant population.
An anti-immigrant party would have trouble building up a movement in states with few immigrants, and that included most of the South. Louisiana, with its sin city of New Orleans and dreams of a Caribbean empire, could look very northern. Few other places in the Lower South did. The Upper South could offer few additions to the list. Only in the border states did anti-immigrant fervor threaten to eclipse slavery and there we must at once exclude the South’s immigrant mecca of Missouri. David Rice Atchison’s state loved the Kansas-Nebraska act. The ongoing feud between Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton helped keep slavery front and center in the political consciousness, but even that conflict rose out of the inherent problem of securing slavery on its most exposed frontier. This left the other end of the northernmost South to flock to the nativist banner.
Flock Maryland, and John Clayton’s Delaware, did. By 1860, both had immigrants enough to outnumber their slaves. In Maryland, swelling numbers of immigrants almost matched shrinking numbers of slaves. William W. Freehling quotes the Baltimore Clipper:
Let all sectional disputes and all discussion of the slave question be laid aside. Our future should turn upon … whether natives or foreigners shall rule.
In Maryland and Delaware, white, native-born Americans could see an advantage in rolling back tides of immigration. They faced a real risk of losing control and thus had a real reason, on top of any abstract fears, to fight to keep what they saw as their birthright. Street gangs clashed in Baltimore almost daily. They had to do something and so elected a Know-Nothing mayor. The next year they took the Maryland legislature and elected its governor. Elsewhere, Know-Nothings soon took Delaware’s single seat in the House, six of Kentucky’s, three of Missouri’s, and even five of Tennessee’s.
Demographics certainly limited Know-Nothing appeal in the Lower South, but they might have a shot at Louisiana. Anti-Catholic credentials wouldn’t help much there, but anti-Irish credentials very well might. They would help themselves greatly if they could pick up Virginia, the perennial southern bellwether. A party that only functioned in the border states could not swing the South, but one competitive also in the Upper South and with a few outposts in the Cotton Kingdom very well could. Maybe the Know-Nothings did not need ironclad demographics on their side.
Missouri, at the exposed edge of the South with freedom on two sides and oddball demographics, disposed of its more atypical senator, Thomas Hart Benton, at the instigation of his nearly as atypical fellow senator, David Rice Atchison. For the moment, rather white, rather free, almost Northern Missouri cast its lot with the Lower South extremists. The apparent paradox of such a lightly enslaved state throwing in with the deeply enslaved states further south makes a certain amount of sense. Knowing Missouri slavery vulnerable, its advocates would naturally make themselves extremely vigilant and sensibly adopt the most extreme proslavery politics to deter their opponents and so both put themselves and their opposites on notice against hidden subversion like that which might hide behind Benton’s stand for silence on slavery.
But Benton’s almost free Missouri did not evaporate. He returned to Washington in 1853, representing St. Louis in the House. His supporters worked, without success, to repeal the Missouri legislature’s resolutions against him. But their efforts signaled that Benton had not closed the book on holding higher office again. Atchison would stand for reelection in 1855 and few things would please Old Bullion more than taking the seat of the man who took his away.
Benton and Atchison both favored a central route for the transcontinental railroad, and there the grudge match between them joins with the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality after a mere four years. With the demise of the southern route, disposed of by Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and Benton’s replacement Henry S. Geyer, any route chosen had to run through not Texas and organized New Mexico or Utah territory, but through Indian country. Per the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, whites could not settle there. They couldn’t even trade there without a special license. They could not buy or hold land. They could only pass through on their way to the coast. All of that had to change for the railroad’s construction and, deeply connected in the minds of nineteenth century Americans, for the white race to fulfill its destiny by filling the continent.
Douglas had worked on organizing Indian country as Nebraska Territory since he first entered the House. He didn’t care one way or the other about slavery. Douglas wanted his railroad, his profits, and the advancement of his race. But where Douglas in the House failed, Douglas in the Senate could succeed. In 1852, on his third try, the Little Giant submitted a bill to recruit a volunteer military force to build a series of forts across Indian country, string a telegraph line, and support itself through farming. After three years, each man in the force would get a section of land on the route. The law did not pass, says something about both Douglas’ ingenuity and how badly he wanted the land settled.
Douglas had good reason to think the time ripe. By the fall of 1853, two groups of whites had ignored the prohibitions of the Non-Intercourse Act and settled in the area. A group of Missourians settled around Fort Leavenworth, amid the very army charged under the law to evict them. To signal their enthusiasm, they elected a slaveholding Atchison man as their delegate to Congress. They had no authority to do any such thing, of course. Nor did the Iowans who settled across the river from Council Bluffs and elected a free soil man to send to Congress. Both groups stood in blatant defiance of the law, but like the filibusters they took what they wanted and dared Congress to make them give it back.
Missouri, just to look at the demographics, hardly seems like the place to draw slavery radicals. It lacked the thick black belts of the Lower South. At its most enslaved, it could just barely match the figures for a typical Upper South state in the confines of three counties. In a state like that, one would expect a politician like Thomas Hart Benton. The Constitution, however, grants each state two senators. Since 1844, Missouri had sent David Rice Atchison to Washington alongside Benton. Both men had counties named after them, Atchison’s (1.79% enslaved) in the Platte Purchase area of northeast Missouri and Benton’s (9.17% enslaved) near the center of the state.
More people probably know Atchison from a popular myth than from his actual history. Suffice it to say that he never served as President, not even for the one day claimed. Atchison himself never thought so. But he did sleep through most of March 4, 1849. Atchison put in long hours and late nights for several days before polishing off the work of the previous Congress and, in all likelihood, a considerable amount of alcohol. Bourbon Dave liked his drink. He had both to sleep off that Sunday.
At first Benton and Atchison worked well together. Both men wanted Texas, but Benton didn’t mind if it came in free or a section of it got sliced off and made free. Atchison wanted it to save it from a conspiracy by the British to emancipate the Lone Star Republic. Benton denied, rightly so, that any such conspiracy existed. He also pointed to the excitement proslavery elements had for adding a new frontier to slavery the chief obstacle to Northern support for the annexation. If Atchison and his fellows just quieted down, they could get a new slave state or two at the small cost of a new free state or two carved from the same land, filled up by yeoman farmers not repulsed by so much din about the glories of bondage.
To Atchison, who rarely found a bit of proslavery paranoia he could resist and set about casting himself as Calhoun’s disciple, Benton spoke rank treason. What could he mean, except that slavery made lepers out of its practitioners? What kind of Southern man could think such a thing? And what did it say about the North that Benton must really speak for, if it found slaveholders so toxic that it could not abide their presence?
Atchison had his own Missouri, in the west section of the state along the Missouri river. There he kept his own plantation in Clay County (26.54% enslaved) and for a time represented Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in land disputes. Once he and Benton split, they stayed split. Benton’s support of the Wilmot Proviso and Taylor’s No Territory plan made him plenty of enemies in Missouri, and not just in Atchison’s gray belt counties. Bourbon Dave assembled a the bipartisan movement for Missouri’s anti-Benton resolutions and held his fellow Democrat’s feet to the fire.
The man who put a bullet in Andrew Jackson did not back down and took to Missouri’s dusty roads at age 68 in 1849. He rode into the heart of Missouri’s not-so-black belts, Bourbon Dave’s country, and there Old Bullion mounted stump and stage to confront proslavery hysteria. Nothing that so alarmed slavery interests amounted to a genuine threat, not even the Wilmot Proviso. The North scorned abolitionists nearly so much as the South did. Bourbon Dave and his confederates wanted not security for slavery and slavery’s future, but secretly intended to break the Union for its own sake. Benton owned slaves and did not fear for his property, not in Missouri or anywhere else. Atchison and his ilk caused most of the Northern hostility toward slaveholding with their ceaseless agitation. Better they settle down and be silent on the subject. Be silent and let the tide of white immigrants fill Missouri and the West.
But what did Benton, personally, think about slavery? He opposed its expansion. Had Missouri entered the Union free, he would oppose slavery coming there. He would see it kept where it then rested and not expanded at all. Didn’t they understand that proslavery campaigns only discouraged white settlement and kept Missouri smaller than it could be? A decade later, an Illinois lawyer would run for president on a very similar platform.
Benton insisted it would take slow centuries to naturally end slavery, but Atchison and his supporters heard abolitionism. If whites flooded in and all Missouri looked more like St. Louis, would Old Bullion remain silent then? Or would he embrace a social revolution, pushing measures to sell slaves South until the institution withered on the vine? Come 1850, Benton’s party threw in with the Whigs and replaced him with Henry S. Geyer. Atypical Missouri proved, at least in that moment, quite typical indeed.
To go with its demographic oddities, the Missouri that might fill with white settlers and free itself from slavery had an oddity for a Senator. Thomas Hart Benton, born on March 14, 1782, started life in North Carolina. He went off to study law at North Carolina College. Though Benton had the good judgment to pick well-heeled parents, cash belonging to his fellow students somehow ended up in his pockets. Benton admitted taking the money and decamped in disgrace to find his fortune in the new frontier just over the mountains: Tennessee.
In Tennessee, Benton earned a reputation as a tough frontiersman and bought a sizable patch of land he turned into a plantation. Along the way he also finished his law degree and spent some time in the state Senate. Benton’s bear hunting and dueling ways brought him to the notice of another rough frontier sort, Andrew Jackson. The two men took a shine to one another and when the War of 1812 came, Jackson made Benton his aide-de-camp and a lieutenant colonel. Then he sent Benton off to Washington to lobby the War Department, quite the opposite of the job Benton wanted.
Then two men found themselves in a bar together. Benton’s younger brother clashed with one of Old Hickory’s friends. Sufficiently lubricated, Benton and Jackson got involved. Benton spoke up. The general challenged him. Benton accepted and in short order both men fired. Jackson did violence to Benton’s sleeve, shooting a hole through it. Benton shot Old Hickory in the arm, walked up and seized the general’s sword, and broke it in front of him. Jackson bled enough to soak two mattresses. Benton, knowing full well that in shooting Mr. Tennessee he also shot dead his hopes of a political career in the state, picked up and relocated a second time.
Across the Mississippi, Benton found his new home in St. Louis. There he worked as a lawyer and fought more duels. When not shooting people, Benton made enough of a name for himself in Missouri’s small pond to win election as one of its first senators in 1821. Missouri elected him again and again, for a total of five terms. No other senator served so long, not even Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. In Washington, Benton stood by the Democratic party when it formed. One supposes that if Jackson demanded too much for him, Benton reserved the right to shoot him a few more times. Old Bullion certainly let the Senate know he could carry a grudge and hate with the best of them. They called him Big Bully Bottom Benton. Big Bully shot dead a man who called him a puppy.
At any rate, Benton proved a stalwart Jacksonian. To him, the government had a duty to fight against banks and paper money in order to secure a continental paradise for all white men. The Jackson administration taught him a very un-Southern lesson in where to find his other enemies: From Calhoun and the Nullifiers, Benton learned that slavery agitators would break the union if they could. Their every contrived crisis, from the tariff to the gag rule to Texas and Wilmot served that aim. They would bury the white man’s paradise in the grave of sectional strife.
None of that made Benton an abolitionist. He wanted all of Texas, with or without slavery but best if some of it turned free soil. He did not inveigh against slavery, but preached silence on the subject. It would go away on its own and Northern agitators produced much sound and fury but little substantial threat to the insitution. Furthermore, the North policed them quite thoroughly and kept them to the political fringes. Many Northerners saw him as a lone American voice in an increasingly disunionist South. To the South, especially to Missouri’s slaveholders, Benton often looked like a secret free soiler.
When the Missouri legislature passed resolutions against his heterodoxy in 1849, Benton eased off his enthusiasm for slicing up Texas. Then they demanded he stand with the South behind Calhoun’s Southern Address. Old Bullion the Big Bully cherished his principles and hatreds too much to knuckle under to the architect of his woes and refused.
Looking at Missouri’s 1850 census returns down to the county level yesterday got me wondering just how many different Missouris lurked behind the numbers. I decided to cut a few out and see what appeared.
It would not do to take this too far. I made no effort to geographically consolidate these states within a state, ensure they had sensible borders, or had anything else in common save for their demographics. Listing here should not imply some kind of secessionist, or even merely dissenting, movement from establishment Missouri or Southern politics. The point of the exercise is to tease out contours in the state’s demographics and liken them to peers and other, similar situations in a broader context.
I began with the most obvious sectioning: the Missouri counties that had about the same number of slaves or fewer, proportionately, as Delaware in 1850. The first state’s three counties together held 2,290 slaves in that census, for 2.50% of the state population of 91,532. Delaware in Missouri includes twenty counties with a total population of 40,428 people and 603 slaves. That works out to 5.91% of the state’s total population, 6.72% of its white population, and 0.71% of its black population. It has less than half the population of the real Delaware and while 11.25% of Delaware’s black population lived as slaves, 93.93% of Delaware in Missouri’s black population did. To white eyes, Delaware in Missouri must have looked pretty free. Its 39 free blacks knew otherwise.
Still, one could read Delaware in Missouri’s demographics as an omen of the future. Few people lived there, but in 1850 Missouri still had frontiers left in it just waiting for free white settlement to drive the enslaved percentage down, form an indifferent and vaguely antislavery bloc, and grow the state to freedom. Thomas Hart Benton certainly thought so, and he had thirty years of statewide politics under his belt to back him up.
Delaware would not take compensated emancipation even when Lincoln offered it, so perhaps we should not look there for demographic signs of incipient emancipation even if the state is such an oddity in the South. The last two states to emancipate before the Civil War, New York and New Jersey, might make for better benchmarks. In 1790, both still had slave codes on the books. New York held 21,193 slaves (6.23%) and New Jersey held 11,423 (6.20%). If they could emancipate with so few, then in principle Missouri could too. James Tallmadge certainly thought so in 1820 when he ignited the Missouri controversy by putting an amendment for gradual emancipation into the act admitting Missouri as a state.
Taking New York’s 1790 benchmark of 6.23% enslaved, we come up with more than forty counties. Together, they have 36.49% of the state’s population, 40.00% of its white population, 62.18% of its free black population, and 12.34% of its slave population. Once more, a vast majority (86.88%) of its black population live as slaves. New York enslaved 81.91% of its black population in 1790 and still managed to emancipate in 1799. More than a third of the Show Me State’s residents live in New York in Missouri and 1790 New York proved that a state with its degree of slavery could emancipate. Benton’s vision of a free Missouri does seem near at hand here, and in a section of the state with enough people that we can’t dismiss it as a remote aberration like we could Delaware in Missouri.
Thomas Hart Benton thought his Missouri home a Western state, not a Southern state. Nor did he count his preferred transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis as a Southern route. Roughly midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Benton needed only show a map to support the claim. Missouri had slavery and so belongs in the South, but not quite in the same part of the South as the Carolina Lowcountry, Mississippi Delta, or Alabama river bottoms. Like the rest of the Border States, its demography ran somewhere between North and South.
I have previously looked at demographics on the level of states and sections, but Benton’s position seems like as good a chance as any to narrow the focus and look just within a particular state. The University of Virgina’s historical census browser supplied the raw data, down to the level of individual counties. It differs somewhere from the state aggregates I took directly from Census Department summaries, but across the whole state that adds up to less than a one percent discrepancy. That could come from human error on my part, especially considering the amount of numbers typed into a spreadsheet in quick succession, but I think it’s close enough to make fair comparisons in any event.
For context, the Sixth Census found the United States 13.82% enslaved, with a typical variance of up to 29.67% enslaved. Taking out the almost absolutely free North and just counting the South puts those numbers at 33.15% enslaved, with a typical range from 19.35% to 46.95%. How does Missouri measure up? It enslaved 12.88% of its population, including some of Benton’s own human property. That brings it in well below Southern norms. That low percent enslaved still meant bondage for 97.09% of its black population, though. One does not find another Delaware (2.50% enslaved and that amounting to only 11.25% of its black population) or Maryland (15.50% enslaved, 54.74% of its black population) beside the Mississippi and astride the Missouri. But nor does one find another South Carolina (57.59% enslaved, 97.73% of its black population) or Mississippi (51.09% and 99.70%, respectively).
But a place as big as Missouri, until the admission of Texas the biggest state in the Union, can hide a lot of diversity inside it. Fortunately the census has breakdowns by county. A county in most states probably does not seem like a big deal to most modern Americans. But in 1850 the telegraph didn’t even reach California from the East Coast. Nor, of course, did rail link the two. Most people moved by foot or by horse over roads we might barely recognize as such. Poorer, slower communication and transportation made for a much bigger world where the nature of small numbers and isolated populations could generate a lot of heterogeneous areas in a space we would call quite confined.
Due to the large size of the spreadsheet, I had to split it in two. Sorry about that.
Missouri’s hundred counties do not disappoint. The most enslaved, Howard, weighs in at 35.01% enslaved. While that makes Howard nearly thrice as enslaved as the state average, it hardly casts a shadow over South Carolina and Mississippi. It would hardly stand out in Virginia (33.24%) or North Carolina (33.20%). If we call a black belt county a county where half or more of the population live as slaves, Howard doesn’t fit even after it exceeds the national norms. Lafayette and Saline counties join it in enslaving more than 30% of their populations, but all three have more Upper South than black belt in their demographics. Only fourteen other counties exceed South’s lower bound of 19.35% and qualify as typically enslaved.
But Missouri at least includes a kind of Upper South. Did it also have a sort of Lower North? Not quite, as in 1850 the North had 262 slaves total, mostly in New Jersey, but all of those states outlawed slavery decades earlier even if gradual emancipation meant they still had residual slaves waiting for freedom and the occasional superannuated slaves born too early to benefit from the laws. As Missouri still had legal slavery, Delaware makes for a better benchmark. The first state had 2,290 slaves in 1850, just 2.50% of its population. Of its black population, 88.75% lived free. Twenty of Missouri’s counties came in below Delaware’s benchmark.
It appears then that we have two Missouris. One, including the Delawares and other very lightly enslaved places, looks very much like Benton’s vision. It includes much of the state’s land and its demographics do not differ all that much from states on the edge of emancipation decades earlier and a few degrees further North. But the other Missouri looks more like the Upper South. Down the Missouri valley, profitable plantations grew hemp and tobacco like those in Virginia and North Carolina. Standing there in 1850, with Indian country on the edge of organization and opening to white settlement so near, both measures Benton favored, the future must have looked very promising for slavery indeed.
The Senate finally ratified a land deal for a southern transcontinental railroad, but by then the fall of the Rusk bill ended hope of using that land for the foreseeable future. That meant good news for Northern route proponent Stephen Douglas and his Illinois real estate portfolio. If he could deliver the railroad, it would boost his national reputation and position him to contend for the White House in 1856. It could even mend a Democratic party increasingly at war with itself and withering in the North, if to a much lesser degree, as the Whigs withered in the South. As a truly national project, the railroad might even yet slip the noose of slavery and stay an issue that the two sections could agree upon.
The dispute over where to build the railroad had a sectional character, but that dispute could play second fiddle to disputes over what individual states and which groups of land speculators and railroad executives got rich. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri illustrates the point: he preferred a railroad that started west from his St. Louis home. Such a route crossed the South, but only in its most contested borderland where chilly Missouri with its small number of slaves and ephemeral black belts, far too white to count as anything like that further south, full of tobacco and hemp instead of cotton of sugar, had not just a single northern border with slavery but rather two: across the Mississippi to the east sat Stephen Douglas’ and Abraham Lincoln’s free Illinois, to the north sat free Iowa. To the west lay Indian country, closed by the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834. Only to the south did Missouri have an extensive border with a fellow slave state, Arkansas
Benton’s St. Louis, thanks to waves of white settlement, had only a 1% enslaved population. In 1860, the deepest of its black belt counties, Howard on the Missouri River, weighed in at only 36.91% enslaved. That might sound downright horrific to us, but Lower South black belts routinely exceeded 50% enslaved. Missouri, like the rest of the Border States, looked like something different from both the Cotton Kingdom and the Lower North. Benton liked it that way and thought of his Missouri as part of the West, not the South. Though he owned slaves, he condemned the institution as evil. He saw a future for a Missouri where slavery withered away, drawing white settlement that in time would turn it into a new Illinois. The threat to that future came not from abolitionists, but hysterical Calhounites drooling at the thought of breaking the Union.
So why not run a railroad through Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri? It would enrich his interests, draw white settlement to advance his vision of the state’s future, and came close enough that Douglas’ Chicago could easily run lines to connect with the new road to the Pacific. Call it a central route, neither so far south as New Orleans nor so far north as Chicago, but running straight through the nation’s middle.
All the Congress had to do was authorize a territory government for the Indian country to Missouri’s west, extinguish Indian title, and invite white settlers to rush in. Better still for Benton and antislavery interests, the Missouri Compromise permitted Missouri and Missouri alone of all the territory Thomas Jefferson bought from France to practice slavery north of that state’s southern border. Free soil would encircle Missouri on three sides. A generation hallowed the Missouri Compromise as the first great sectional settlement and in all the controversy since, its paper rampart had never let slavery slip in. No sectional controversy could erupt over that, unlike territory in the Southwest that came into the United States with its future uncertain. The men of 1820 made the final settlement here. Old Bullion (so called for his opposition to banks and paper money) offered a simple compromise route that would keep the rail free from slavery agitation, for or against.
With foreknowledge of the war to come, our attention naturally focuses on figures and ideas prominent in that later struggle. They did, after all, carry off a civil war that killed upwards of six hundred thousand people barely a decade after the Armistice. Naturally one tends to think of the ringleaders and prominent figures in the Confederacy as representatives of the South in the years prior. Likewise, one tends to think of the politics of the antebellum Southern radicals as the politics of the leading confederates as well. Political calculation, if nothing else, seems predestined to put filibusters, nullifiers, expansionists, and secession conspirators all together in the same bed. Whatever one’s personal opinions, one should not lightly frustrate the interests of a significant number of one’s constituents. One might pay that cost in elections lost.
But people in the past had all the complexities of people today. They did not owe fealty to some historian’s model of a Southern politician. Jefferson Davis would defend William Walker against Hiram Paulding, but William W. Freehling quotes his anti-filibustering bona fides in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant:
Jefferson Davis, for example, expected the United States to control the entire hemisphere “in the remote future.” Yet he noted that we had always “obtained territory … fairly, honorably, and peaceably.” We must be able to “invite the world to scrutinize our example of representative liberty.” Likewise, the Aberdeen (Mississippi) Sunny South demanded “annexation” be consistent “with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.
Little separates either of those positions, however tolerant of Walker, from Buchanan’s condemnation of filibustering. Davis might not have turned up his nose at a failed Walker, but the goal of filibustering always amounted to handing over a new land and then daring the mother country to refuse it. Would the United States really give back Cuba, Nicaragua, or another piece of Mexico when a filibuster handed it over? John Tyler and James Polk hardly did so.
Freehling goes on to note that Southern congressmen voted 52-20 to condemn Paulding’s arrest. New Orleans juries could look at the majority and imagine the section behind them when they acquitted the Quitmans and Walkers of the world, but those twenty votes in favor of the arrest amounted to 27.78% of their caucus. Some of the South stood with the filibusters and some did not.
Why? Some certainly had scruples about international law. Some had to fret over how uncontrolled filibusters could embroil the nation in dangerous conflicts, circumventing domestic politics just as they did foreign. But what if Walker kept Nicaragua and no one came? If no Southerners relocated, bringing slaves with them, how long would an American Nicaragua remain a slave state? Every state that had slavery and abolished it first had rather few slaves. A Nicaragua with only a tiny slave presence could come into the Union as another Delaware and soon abandon the South by transforming itself into another New Jersey. The Lower South worried endlessly that Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky and Missouri would jump ship for those reasons.
Adding an enslaved Nicaragua might give a temporary respite that foreshadowed greater calamities. The Border States and Upper South already sent a tide of slave exports down into the Lower South. Opening up a vast new land for slavery could mean a great acceleration of those exports, bringing those old slave states on the Chesapeake and Ohio past the tipping point where they emancipated. The outcome of a successful filibuster might not mean simply gaining one new slave state, it might mean instead gaining one new free state, or gaining one new slave state at the expense of losing as many as three or four.