Southern Fears about the Armistice

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

As I said of the Armistice of 1850, neither section really assented to the compromise as such. Despite its genuine popularity with the moderate political establishment and with the moderate populace, both antislavery and proslavery diehards had plenty of reason to resent and reject the version of the Clay Measures that finally passed under Millard Fillmore’s pen. I’ve already written a bit about how the new Fugitive Slave Law turned an issue that did not touch the lives of many disinterested Northerners into one that conscripted potentially each and every one of them into a slave patrol entirely alien to their everyday experience. Resistance to the new law deserves more attention, but I think that the basics form part of the average American’s understanding of the situation and resonate strongly with our personal revulsion at slavery.

Instead let’s swing South by way of a Northerner. Salmon P. Chase, the Free Soil Senator from Ohio, told us that despite Douglas and Fillmore’s insistence that the Compromise drew the curtain on the era of sectional strife:

The question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.

History vindicated Chase, but and his opposite numbers. The four years of tumult that Douglas and Fillmore wanted to draw the curtain on began with the Wilmot Proviso, provoking furious Southern response from both fringe radicals like William Lowndes Yancey and no less an establishment radical than John C. Calhoun. Wilmot deserves some credit for striking the spark, but fairness does not permit us to assign him all of it. By trying to exclude slavery from the Mexican Cession, he offered his answer to a question the nation would have had to answer anyway. Whigs of both sections largely opposed the war that won it, to their cost in the South especially. Had Texas been left independent, the question could never have arisen.

From far enough South, the Armistice of 1850’s answer to that question looked disturbingly like the Wilmot Proviso. It gave no explicit guarantee of security for any slaves taken into the territories of New Mexico or Utah. Worse still, the Armistice excluded slavery from California. There on the Pacific Ocean stood a free state plunging far south of the Missouri Compromise line which Southerners would concede in the name of Union even if they believed Congress had no rightful power to draw it. Between it and Texas stood dubious territory where an owner might move his slaves and then find a free state around him in a few years.

More worrisome still, those dubious territories came out of the hide of a slave state. Texas and Texas bondholders could celebrate, but if Washington could compromise its way into dismembering a slave state what could it not compromise its way into? Already it abolished public trading in slaves in the District of Columbia. A half-free territory now existed between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. Would more islands of abolitionism soon spread from federal posts throughout the South? What would happen if slaves ran to them? If military posts turned free soil, did that not effectively banish slaveowners from the military? From federal service and its lucrative patronage posts entirely?

Would that leave those posts for abolitionists to occupy and use to spread their pamphlets and so give slaves ideas about freedom? How could white southerners sleep safe in their beds knowing that even as their native moderates celebrated they had paved the road to a future where a tide of rebelling slaves would burst into their homes and murder their wives and children? In black belts, where slaves vastly outnumbering whites, conveying anything less than absolute commitment to slavery must invite ruin such as befell slaveholding Haiti’s white population.

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