The Clay Measures: Something for the North

To work as a compromise, Clay’s resolutions had to include something for each section. Clay needed to appease the Deep South, where Calhoun and even more radical politicians threatened secession, but that appeasement had to take a form that the North could stomach and vote for too. So Clay enlisted Daniel Webster and gave him two things to please Northern, antislavery voters.

Firstly, California would come in as a free state. Clay took this as a fait accompli. It had more people than Delaware or Florida. It needed government. Its convention rejected slavery unanimously. The 1850 census found 962 black people lived in California, all free. Furthermore, slaveholders do not move quickly if they want to take their property with them.  The Gold Rush brought not Charleston patricians or Alabama cotton magnates to California, but rather a great tide of small farmers and townspeople. If Congress rejected their convention’s decision on slavery and demanded a referendum, California would vote itself free yet again.

What could the South ask here, that Congress go in and impose slavery on the new state against the expressed will of its voters? That might please Calhoun, as Mr. States’ Rights rarely failed to find grounds for exceptions when the federal government acted in slavery’s material interest, but would surely inflame the North and hand the abolitionists the specter of Congress forcing slavery on future territories to crusade against.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

Second, Clay gave Webster the answer to more than a decade of abolitionist prayers. Ever since abolitionists began organizing in the North, they’d sent Congress petitions. As Congress enjoyed full control over the District of Columbia, these petitions asked that it abolish slavery there. In the 1840s, that amounted to a relatively moderate demand as it did not challenge in any state where it existed nor in any territory that might in the future become a state. The position that Congress had the power to enact abolition in the District stood comfortably in the mainstream.

But the District had slave states to either side and slaveholders always feared their slaves getting hold of abolitionist propaganda and from it ideas about freedom. (The Gag Rule Controversy of the 1830s centered on how Congress should deal with those petitions.) A free District would put free soil on the border of Virginia and thus expose that state to the kind of baleful antislavery influences that encouraged Delaware and Maryland, with their borders on free Pennsylvania, to break with the Slave Power bloc. The South could not risk the Old Dominion, its most populous state, becoming another inconstant Maryland. Nor did southern Maryland, home to many plantations and directly adjacent to the District, care much for its own slaves getting ideas.

Clay split the difference, offering abolition of the slave trade but not slavery itself. Southern office holders could still bring their slaves with them without fear of their achieving freedom, as Clay himself often did, and slaves could still pass through the District with traveling owners enjoying the same security, but Clay proposed closing down the huge slave market, one of the larger ones in the nation, that operated not three blocks from the Capitol.

Calling the place a market can obscure the truth of it. Owners came from far around to buy choice slaves, who the market could hold for some time in what amounted to a private jail. Then at regular intervals, interested parties would gather to question the slaves, check their teeth, examine their bodies, and generally do everything one would do when buying a horse. Even many Southerners found the slave trade, if not the slavery it fed, distasteful. It too easily pierced the charade of domestic, genteel patriarchal tranquility in which they preferred to cloak their institution. Even for the proslavery extreme, abolishing the trade alone in the District still permitted it directly across the Potomac in Arlington and over the line in Maryland for the convenience of residents.

Surely the Deep South could accept that in exchange for what Clay offered it.

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