The Slave Power Conspiracy

Yesterday I described various setbacks to the antislavery movement over the course of the 1850s. Space did not permit also including much of how they understood these setbacks. (I try to keep these posts to about five hundred words.) But they saw writing on the wall just the same as their Southern adversaries did.

Accepting the nomination to run for Stephen Douglas’ senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln summed it up:

Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision [that the Constitution forbade the states outlawing slavery] is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

The next Dred Scott case had already come up through the New York courts, appealed by Virginian slaveholders who had their slaves freed under that state’s law. Given Taney’s firm commitment, on display in Dred Scott, to resolving the issue of slavery once and for all who could doubt the outcome of Lemmon vs. New York when it arrived on his docket in 1860?

These events all looked very much like a deliberate design, which the antislavery movement came to call the Slave Power Conspiracy. Though he did not use the name, Lincoln described it in the same speech:

But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen,—Stephen [Douglas], Franklin [Pierce], Roger [Taney], and James [Buchanan], for instance,—and we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortises exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few, not omitting even scaffolding—or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in—in such a case we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.

And of course, he told us where this must lead:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Traditionally historians have dismissed Lincoln’s fears as campaign rhetoric, but over the past few decades the trend, as with many trends in Civil War historiography, has greatly reversed. While I don’t think many would endorse the view that a conscious, deliberate conspiracy to turn free states slave existed, the outcome naturally follows from slaves being property and the Constitution’s guarantee of property rights. John C. Calhoun’s vision of an America where he could take his wagon, his horse, and his slave anywhere in the nation and be completely secure in his ownership of them all does look like where the Congress and Court aimed. In that America, a free state is a legal impossibility.

One comment on “The Slave Power Conspiracy

  1. grightnow says:

    It is a shame that slavery still exists. Capitalists’ job? But rhetoric from the Congress? Just sharing my share of the shame in slavery

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