An Insult for Every Section

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

I can’t go very long without talking about the Wilmot Proviso, even after the Compromise of 1850 left it dead in the water. That Armistice came about to resolve the questions about slavery in the nation’s future opened by the Mexican War and David Wilmot’s answer to them. But I have not to date touched on how the South understood the Proviso not just as a political act contrary to their interests and, perhaps, survival. Without an escape valve, the natural increase of slaves would make more and more of the Lower South into darker and darker black belts, leaving its white slaveholders in a more and more precarious position. That aspect of the Proviso comes out at fairly immediate reading.

But the South also took the proviso as a sort of personal insult. By banning slavery from the West and thus the nation’s future, as understood by nineteenth century Americans, the Proviso said not just that slavery should someday in the far future end (a belief held by a significant number of Southerners) or be quarantined to a certain section of America, but also inevitably passed judgment on slavery itself and so the cultural, social, and economic system by which the South operated. To them, the Proviso declared white Southerners fundamentally unclean and unworthy of a place in the America to come. That naturally led them to wonder of Wilmot also saw any place for them in the then-present America.

William W. Freehling gives the Southern reaction an able summary in Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854:

David Wilmot, censurer, called up that odious stream of word associations no Southerner could abide: immoral equals inferior equals slave equals “nigger” – equals necessity to combat such pilloring of southern equality. As Peter Daniel of Virginia, a Democrat and an associate judge of the United States Supreme Court, explained to Martin Van Buren, David Wilmot’s moral “pretention” was “fraught with dangers far greater than any that can flow from mere calculation of political influence or of [economic] profit.” Wilmot “pretends to an insulting exclusiveness or superiority on the one hand, and denounces a degraded inequality or inferiority on the other.” A Wilmot Proviso advocate “says in effect to the Southern man, Avaunt! you are not my equal and hence are to be excluded.” The question, reiterated by Joseph Mathews, governor of Mississippi, in his January 1848 inaugural address, is “whether citizens of the slave states are to be considered as equals.”

Having little to no sympathy for the cause of slaveholders, we can easily dismiss these words out of hand. Certainly the political dimensions of the issue allow us to grasp its import. But we should not rush to that dismissal. Instead, imagining them complexly permits us to understand that Southern reaction did not come from either personal grievances or political grievances, but from both together. A commentary, let alone a formal policy, on how little welcome one deserves, in the nation’s future strikes deep. If one can’t imagine it in itself, remove slavery and replace it with an issue near and dear to your own heart and value system.

James Mason, author of the insult to the North

James Mason, author of the insult to the North

As Freehling notes, the logic of slavery required Southerners to at least to some extent adopt a worldview where inequality meant mastery. All white men had equality, if more so in the Old Southwest than in more aristocratic Virginia or South Carolina. They knew it because they mastered black people, either individually or through participation in a culture that endorsed it as the apogee of freedom. If white men did not, in fact, enjoy equality they had only one social category into which they obviously fit: slaves.

That kind of insult could not go unanswered and so did not. But the Armistice’s answer preserved some shreds of Southern dignity at the expense of an insult to the culture and identity of the North: the Fugitive Slave Act. And via the Georgia Platform, that state and others officially and more Southerners informally pledged themselves to maintaining the Union only so long as that insult saw thorough application.

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