Thomas Jefferson, Antislavery Man?

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

People disappoint us. I think everyone probably wants, at least a little bit, some kind of saintly mouthpiece for their views. We want a pure vessel beyond reproach to illustrate wrongs we see and how to right them. Then, we imagine, the basic decency of humanity will win out. The scales will fall from our enemies’ eyes and they will come over to our side. With everyone together, we could fix things. It wouldn’t take any compromises or half measures; we could really get it done. We could begin the world anew.

I’ve thought about that idea frequently in the last few weeks. It appeals to our sense of fairness. We like to think that everyone, deep down, really thinks and feels and has values more or less like our own. It can take hard work, especially if we don’t have a personal stake in an issue, to resist the notion’s seduction. No one wants relishes perpetual anger and we rightly worry about the potential of a well-cultivated hatred. I see at least two problems with this approach. Firstly, other people do not always share our values. Human beings really do have deep, fundamental, and often irreconcilable differences. Often for one party to win, another party must lose.

We can try to manage those contradictions, but often the compromises we make do nothing more than postpone the conflict. They may even help ensure it. The Armistice’s Fugitive Slave Act got the South little, but gave antislavery men in the North a great issue with which to appeal to less concerned neighbors. Four years later, the KansasNebraska Act purported, again, to settle all controversy over slavery once and for all and so ignited a firestorm of new controversy. Dred Scott, the work of a conscientiously moderate, Unionist court trying to manage the same resolution, did much the same. In more recent times, some Americans did not find the sight of police dogs and fire hoses set on civil rights activists all that horrifying. Quite the opposite, they saw the movement getting what it deserved. More, of course, simply didn’t care one way or another. That put them in the same party as the others, since they would do nothing to stop it but might make excuses and certainly tolerated it.

I wrote all of that so I could write about Thomas Jefferson. The other problem with the idea of a saintly, pure spokesperson comes in the fact that the world does not produce saints. People have flaws and blind spots. They care about some things more than others. Did Thomas Jefferson, as Salmon P. Chase would have us believe, really oppose slavery? He talked a good game, but words come easy. He freed very few of his own slaves. He introduced very moderate, very conditional, very limited antislavery legislation that did little to disturb slavery where it already existed, and then scurried back from it at the first sign of serious opposition. He advised Edward Coles to keep silent, work only in secret, keep his slaves, and keep living in enslaved Virginia. When Virginia made manumission easier in the late 1700s, many Virginians freed their slaves. Jefferson freed only two in his lifetime, despite complaining to Coles years later that the law made manumission much harder then. Other men of his class did much more, swelling the number of free blacks in Virginia.

Does that sound like an antislavery man? It depends on what one means by the term. I do think Jefferson had serious, sincere qualms about slavery and thought it, on some level, bad for white and black alike. He probably thought it much worse for whites and certainly thought blacks an inferior sort of humanity that could positively benefit from bondage. If having some personal sentiment against it makes you an antislavery person, Jefferson qualifies.

But Jefferson’s personal sentiments rarely drove him into any conflict with proslavery men. Quite the opposite, he rarely found occasion to stay in a fight with them. Late in life, he encouraged Edward Coles to do the same. I don’t think that’s good enough. Jefferson’s feelings against slavery might do him some credit, but ultimately they didn’t amount to much.  His actions and words align on that point. Jefferson may have opposed slavery in his heart and wanted it, someday, ended, but he did precious little to make that happen and encouraged others to do less. When Coles asked him to take a stand, Jefferson took one that looked not to slavery’s end but to its perpetuation. Freedom would inevitably come, Jefferson thought, but best it come quarter to never.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend of mine has a saying. I forget the exact words, but it goes something to the effect of this: One should not try to schedule the liberation of another. Jefferson would, and he would always schedule it for “later”. Many white men did. Freedom later meant, of course, slavery now. Writing in a different context, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the essential problem here:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

A. Phillip Randolph

A. Phillip Randolph

Slavery, or segregation, now meant perpetuating the injustices. Righting wrongs can require revolutions, if not always violent ones. The March on Washington happened fifty years and two days ago. I neglected the anniversary, but here’s A. Phillip Randolph speaking there:

We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education, all forms of education. We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits—for we are the worst victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.

With something as deeply baked into society as racism, removing injustice requires more than taking away the most visible forms. Part of grappling with our past and present inequities involves owning up to how our notions of justice, of how things ought to be, cooked in the same sauce of injustice. Our ideas and our personal behaviors have to change along with our laws. I think that Jefferson, and many men like him, knew that. Abolition could, at least potentially, turn into a widespread social revolution. That scared them, as it should have. We can say that revolution needed to happen and the sooner the better, but of course we have nothing to lose. We don’t own a hundred slaves and a Virginia plantation. But we have our own unfinished revolutions, many entwined deeply with the successes and failures of those long ago.

The Slave State of Illinois, Addendum

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I forgot to point it out in my previous posts (1, 2, 3, 4), but you can read the entire Jefferson-Coles correspondence online.

Coles’ first letter to Jefferson: July 31, 1814

Jeffferson’s answer: August 25, 1814

And Coles’ second letter: September 26, 1814

The two men had written each other before, but Coles never wrote him again.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Four

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Previous parts: 12, 3)

Aged Thomas Jefferson (seventy-one, with twelve years yet to live) let young Edward Coles (twenty-eight) down in 1814. Dolly Madison’s cousin and her husband’s personal secretary did not take the disappointment well. The Sage of Monticello pleaded that a man of his age simply could not get involved in new political movements, but Coles pointed out that the other revolutionary polymath, Ben Franklin, stirred himself easily at that age. Franklin turned seventy-one in 1777, while ambassador to France. The next year he secured the French alliance that Jefferson had celebrated. He stayed in France until 1785, then returned home the year he turned seventy-nine. Two years later, the gouty octogenarian attended the constitutional convention. Once home in Pennsylvania, he took up the causes of abolition and integration, freeing the two slaves he owned. Franklin published abolitionist essays the very year he died. And Thomas Jefferson, with his plantation and his slaves, begged off on account of his advanced years? Not everyone ages with equal grace, but Coles did not ask much more of Jefferson than some writing. His correspondence proved that much still within the Sage of Monticello’s powers.

Jefferson always found the time not quite ripe for emancipation and, just coincidentally, also preferred that any effort to build a movement for it spread very slowly and secretly. He probably did mean for them to eventually succeed, but he treasured the gifts slavery gave him in the form of his life and respectability as a Virginia planter more than his principles about liberty. Coles had enough of those excuses, as modern readers do. Jefferson could and did write eloquently, if anonymously, about the evils of slavery. He at least implicitly indicted himself in those writings. But Jefferson would make only the most timid attempts at reducing slavery where it already existed, and retreated swiftly from those. His personal sentiment rarely translated into real policy, but often led him to oppose limits on slavery.

Coles fretted far less about all that and turned mostly idle sentiment into constructive action. He and his seventeen slaves decamped for Illinois in 1819, the year after it attained statehood. He toured the area twice previously with an eye to good areas to buy land. While going down the Ohio, Coles gathered up his slaves, freed them, and promised each family 160 acres of good land on the Mississippi. Furthermore, Coles settled down nearby and helped them establish themselves. He freed more slaves by the time he turned thirty-three than Jefferson would in all his eighty-three years.

Coles, as a man of property known to the powerful in Washington, rose quickly in Illinois and stood for governor in 1822. The four-way race included two openly proslavery candidates. Had slavery’s supporters united behind one of them, Coles would have lost handily. Their division let him slip through with 2,845 votes to 2,687 for the runner-up, a margin of only 158 votes of 8,606 cast. Coles’ foes swept the southern, and southern-settled, part of the state while he carried the north. A few years earlier, Coles probably would have lost handily, even if his opponents failed to unite. After the War of 1812, vigorous Yankee immigrants finally flooded into the state as everyone expected them to do back in 1787. We should not, however, consider them all abolitionists of Coles’ stripe. Far more wanted the land for themselves and saw slavery as something that would disgust black-hating whites and keep them away, leaving it all to a bunch of white slaveholders who would lord it over their poorer white neighbors.

The victory of 1822 came, as silver linings often do, with a cloud attached. The same election that made Coles Illinois’ second governor gave him a proslavery majority in the legislature. When he came up with plans to revise the slave code and reduce kidnappings of free blacks, they rejected each notion in turn and moved for a referendum to authorize a new constitution where they could excise Illinois ban on slavery. That vote required a two-thirds majority, which they got in the state Senate but lost in the House by a single vote. The proslavery men promptly ousted the holdout, replaced him with one of their own, and carried the motion and began their celebrations.

The referendum came in 1824 and drew a crowd. Only 4,532 Illinoisans voted for president that year, but 11,612 voted on whether or not to rewrite their constitution to permit slavery. The final tally came in 6,640 for the status quo, still quite far from freedom, and 4,972 for slavery. Illinois squeaked by. Slaveholders learned their lesson. The rush of slaves that came into Illinois between 1810 and 1820 reversed, slowly. The apprenticeship system remained for decades yet and restrictions on free blacks endured still longer, but the state narrowly avoided becoming another Kentucky or Missouri. As most immigrants to new territories and states came from the territories and states immediately adjacent, an enslaved Illinois might have meant an enslaved Iowa and Wisconsin and a very different nineteenth century America.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Three

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Parts One and Two.)

Land speculators could not get Congress to enslave Illinois, but Southern settlers brought some slaves anyway. The territorial legislature obliged them by allowing slavery in all but name in an apprentice system, by allowing almost free import of slaves, and by adopting laws to make life difficult for free black people in the name of keeping enslaved black people as property and the territory otherwise as white as possible. With Missouri’s successes, and the riches they brought, just across the river, why not turn Illinois into a slave state in name as well as fact?

After 1818, statehood freed Illinois from the Northwest Ordinance that required the old pretenses. The local slaveholders could enslave Illinois and no one would gainsay them…except other Illinoisans. Not all of them wanted slavery in their new state and they had a leader in Edward Coles, an antislavery man from Virginia. Coles does not loom large in histories of the early Republic, but the man had connections. He served as James Madison’s personal secretary. His brother Isaac had done the same for Madison, and for Jefferson before him. While working in Washington, Coles decided to write to another Virginia antislavery man, Thomas Jefferson.

Coles learned his antislavery politics at William and Mary, but like Jefferson he spent some time hiding them. He knew he stood to inherit slaves if he said nothing and those whom Coles inherited, he could free. His father’s death in 1808 brought him a large plantation and twelve slaves. Coles promptly told his family of his intentions and found them not best pleased by the notion. Freeing slaves in Virginia would also require considerable legal effort, so Coles delayed. He put his plantation up for sale but kept the slaves and kept his plan for them secret. In 1810, Coles joined the Madison administration. But Coles did not give up his dream. He finally wrote to the Sage of Monticello on July 31, 1814.

Coles opened by apologizing for taking up the great man’s time, especially with such a thorny issue as gradual emancipation, but

My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery. This difficult task could be less exceptionably, and more successfully performed by the revered Fathers of all our political and social blessings, than by any succeeding statesmen; and would seem to come with peculiar propriety and force from those whose valor wisdom and virtue have done so much in meliorating the condition of mankind. And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, from your known philosophical and enlarged view of subjects, and from the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life, preeminently distinguished, as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your Country, as in being throughout honored with the most important trusts by your fellow-citizens, whose confidence and love you have carried with you into the shades of old age and retirement. In the calm of this retirement you might, most beneficially to society, and with much addition to your own fame, avail yourself of that love and confidence to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author, and on which we bottomed our right to resist oppression, and establish our freedom and independence.

We can free the slaves. We need only a sainted founding father, now retired and so immune to the political dangers such a plan would present to the career of a younger Virginian. The genius of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, can make it so. People trust Thomas Jefferson. They know he’s a rock-solid American patriot. If he led, others would follow.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Still, Coles understood how much he asked of a member of Virginia society. He told Jefferson that his convictions against slavery ran so deep that he aimed to leave quit Virginia for good, leaving behind friends and family, and free all slaves who came into his possession. But if Edward Coles could do that, surely Thomas Jefferson, secure in his retirement, could risk some social ostracism?

Jefferson answered back, on August 25, with a history of his own antislavery efforts and how the Revolution and then politics kept him too busy to gauge if opinion had changed in abolition’s favor since then. Since his retirement, no one has reached out to him about ending slavery so he thought the time not yet ripe. But now he had such a person at hand. Would he help?

This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.

And what should Coles, a slaveholder, do until the time finally did prove right?

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

Stay in Virginia, young Coles. Keep your slaves too. Treat them well and whisper abolition in secret. Then, someday, it will surely come. Old Jefferson will remember you in his prayers, but he has only those to give. Coles thought better in his September 26 response:

Your time of life I had not considered as an obstacle to the undertaking. Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.

With, one presumes, all the help Jefferson’s prayers could give, Edward Coles took his slaves west to Illinois.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Two

Despite the pleas of land speculators, Congress would not budge on opening the Northwest Territory to slavery. Neither would Congress stir itself to pass laws seizing and freeing slaves already present. The territorial legislatures did not have the power to introduce it, so far as this non-lawyer can tell. They owed their existence to the same law which prohibited it and could not violate their own organic laws. They might, however, have the power to throw it out.

While slaveholders did not flood into Illinois in a great deluge, creating a South Carolina on the Mississippi, the ambiguity of the situation created enough of a window for the more adventurous ones to come just as they came to similar terrain and climes just across the Ohio and Mississippi. The census found them and their human property in 1800 and every ten years thereafter through 1840.

Illinois by the Numbers, 1800-1860 (Click image for a larger version)

Illinois by the Numbers, 1800-1860 (Click image for a larger version)

The owners of 107 slaves took the chance on Illinois before it had a territorial legislature. Their slaves amounted to 4.25% of the total population, right between New York’s 3.52% and New Jersey’s 5.88% in the same census. From that, one might conclude that Illinois had an embryonic, but healthy slave society. Maybe some sections of the state did, but a decade more brought only 61 more slaves into the territory. The small numbers made that into a 63.69% increase, but at the same time the free black population came in at more than eight times the previous total. The white population, not limited by the heavy social and legal constraints placed on all black people, grew even faster.

But then 1820 shows the slave population ballooning out to 917. The greater increase in the white population meant that they constituted a smaller proportion of the states’ totals, but in just a decade Illinois blacks went from 78.49% free to 66.74% enslaved. What happened?

Popular sovereignty, not yet called that and never explicitly adopted, rode into the gap left by Congressional indifference. The slaveholders willing to risk Illinois wanted some security and the legislature gave it in the form of an apprenticeship system that amounted to slavery in all but name. The legislature followed the example of Ohio and Indiana in passing laws that forbade the immigration of free blacks. In December, 1813, the territory gave free blacks fifteen days’ notice to vacate the state or suffer 39 lashes. Other laws required them to hold certificates proving their freedom. Unfortunates who did not register and get their certificate, and have it on them when stopped, the law declared runaways. The sheriff would hold them and advertise their presence. If no owner appeared, the “runaway” would go on up for auction as an indentured servant for a year.

So far as slaves went, the territory permitted non-residents to rent their slaves out to residents in Illinois for up to a year without the slave receiving freedom at the end of the term. This the territory justified under the claim that, among other things, white men could not make salt. It amounted to virtually open importation of slaves, so long as a resident could find a convenient slaveholder with a few to spare and, if necessary, a willingness to rotate them out of the territory every year or so.

Statehood came in 1818, with the apprentice system of slave codes in place. Illinois outlawed slavery in its constitution and kept right on practicing it with the serial numbers filed off. That year freed the state from the Northwest Ordinance for good and soon after the Missouri Compromise opened that state to slavery, making Illinois a stop on the road to slavery’s new west. Some Illinoisans wished that more would stay and settle their own state. More wished they could get in on the riches that slavery brought to Missouri and so a movement grew to establish slavery outright and openly in the Land of Lincoln.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part One

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Historical accounts can never match the complexity of historical reality. If they could, we would just turn on our TVs and watch the live broadcast from 1860. The act of interpretation always requires selecting some facts to highlight and others to neglect. Imparting the information to others requires more of the same, often with a special focus on charismatic events most likely to interest an otherwise disinterested audience. To some degree those events overlap with the events that historians highlight for one another, due to the fact that historians start out as laypeople and don’t turn into weird alien creatures somewhere along the way, however much the latter prospect excites this writer.

What events to exclude or downplay depends on a historian’s training, interests, the accessibility and quality of primary sources, and many other variables. Among those others, to some degree one has to ration complexity. Even with infinite space, one would not have infinite time to write about it all. That can mean that facts inconvenient to one’s current purposes or interpretation get ignored. That process can mean that one omits or distorts historical facts in the service of outside goals, as Salmon Chase and Stephen Douglas both did in their respective histories (The Appeal’s History Lesson: (123456) of slavery and the law. Practicing historians can do the same, of course, but they also have a wide plethora of side stories and less notable events that simply don’t have the same relevance as the larger narratives and issues. This post concerns one of those.

I grew up learning, as I suspect most American schoolchildren do, that Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance permanently excluded slavery in all its forms from the Northwest Territory. It stands out as the very first national antislavery legislation and set the nation on a path to eliminate the institution entirely that just, somehow, got tangled up and lost between 1787 and 1860. The Ordinance did come first, true enough. Its prohibition on slavery looks very thorough too:

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

That language came back every time the territories covered changed, all the way up through the act that authorized territorial government for Wisconsin. David Wilmot used it in the 1840s. It certainly applied to Illinois, and given the man from Illinois who freed the slaves, one can get the impression that Illinois had a singularly free history. Yes, other free states existed but how can you beat the Land of Lincoln?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Rather easily, since Illinois used to have slaves. Stephen Douglas knew it in 1854. Chase probably knew but preferred to forget it. Illinois acquired its slaves by two methods. Some slaves already lived in the territory, largely the property of French traders who had lived and worked in the region for decades. While Congress passed the Ordinance and thus theoretically prohibited slavery, it declined to pass any laws to deprive those traders or anybody else who already lived on the territory of their human property. Those slaves don’t quite fit into the usual American narrative. Their distinctive history contrasts with the other slaves who came to Illinois, brought by American owners from elsewhere in the United States. That story repeated itself often as new slave territories and new slave states grew up.

Land speculators bet their banks on Americans flooding across the Appalachians into the west. They could buy it up for pennies an acre and sell it for astronomical profits in short order. With the British prohibitions gone, the land-hungry citizens of the new Republic who had chafed under those restrictions just had to go west.  Vigorous, industrious Yankees would make everyone rich. Being a Yankee meant just that, after all. Southerners took their time and conceded haste to the North.

The opposite transpired. Vigorous southerners, with their slavery, exploded across modern Kentucky (then western Virginia), Alabama, and Mississippi. Yankees dithered and trickled in little by little. That meant a lot of money left floating in real estate that might not rise in price after all when just across the Ohio other speculators made their fortunes. Illinois, which stretched as far south as Richmond, had the same climate as adjacent Missouri (then French Louisiana), and Kentucky. It could grow the same staple crops and might prove as profitable as the then-enslaved Hudson valley. Concluding that bold Southerners would come and buy up the land, if only they could have secure slavery upon it, land speculators pleaded with Congress for a decade to repeal Article Six and let slavery bloom. Far from climate barring slavery, contra Douglas, the speculators insisted that the law alone barred with climate endorsed. Later experience with Missouri, where no law barred slavery, proved them right.

Congress refused to give the land speculators what they wanted, explicitly introducing slavery to Illinois and the rest of the Midwest. Likewise it refused to do what some antislavery men wanted and pass laws to free the slaves already there. That left matters by default in the hands of the body Stephen Douglas preferred resolve them: the territorial legislature.

Douglas Defends Himself, Part One

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Salmon P. Chase asked for a week’s delay on consideration of the KansasNebraska Act so the Senate could read the thing. He also privately worried that Stephen Douglas meant to slip something wild and radical through before the northern public could wake up and make its displeasure known. Certainly Douglas’ ever-changing bill and the frequent private conferences that preceded those changes, whether with F Street, Archibald Dixon, or even the final meeting with Franklin Pierce, could not inspire confidence. Douglas yielded to Chase’s request and then read the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, written the day before Chase asked for more time. He took that as a base betrayal of trust even on top of the Appeal’s accusations about his motives.

The Little Giant came out swinging when debate opened on January 30, 1854. So many Representatives came to see the fireworks that the House lacked a quorum. I’ve dealt with some of his response in prior posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and important considerations), but he said more that deserves attention. Douglas began with a masterpiece of finely crafted pious hypocrisy. The Appeal

bears date Sunday, January 22, 1854. Thus it appears that, on the holy Sabbath, while other Senators were engaged in attending divine worship, these Abolition confederates were assembled in secret conclave, plotting by wheat means they should deceive the people of the United States, and prostrate the character of a brother Senators. This was done on the Sabbath day, and by a set of politicians, to advantage their own political and ambitious purposes, in the name of our holy religion.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

True enough, Chase and the others met on Sunday and he wrote the Appeal then. The same Sunday, Stephen Douglas went up to the White House and got Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, to pull Pierce away from observing that same Sabbath, to twist his arm until he committed to supporting Douglas’s final bill. While the Appeal’s religious language, much of which I’ve skipped over, left its authors open to charges of impiety the Little Giant had the wrong man if he thought Salmon P. Chase ignored his religious obligations. Chase grew up with his uncle Philander, an Episcopalian bishop despite the name that leaves us smirking or scratching our heads. He rarely missed a Sunday. Douglas, by contrast, rarely found a pew.

The insult probably stung Chase, but Douglas had more than that to say. Chase would have the nation believe that the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery. Douglas retorted that whatever the law said, it did not:

You prohibited slavery there by law, but you did not exclude it in fact. Illinois was a part of the northwest territory. With the exception of a few French and white settlements, it was a vast wilderness, filled with hostile savages, when the ordinance of 1787 was adopted. Yes, sir, when Illinois was organized into a territorial government it established and protected slavery, and maintained it in spite of your ordinance, and in defiance of its express prohibition. It is a curious fact, that so long as Congress said the territory of Illinois should not have slavery, she actually had it; and on the very day when you withdrew your congressional prohibition, the people of Illinois, of their own free will and accord, provided for a system of emancipation.

Douglas had the right of it. Despite what Chase said, and what most of us probably learn in school, the Northwest Ordinance did not effectively ban slavery from its jurisdiction. The Land of Lincoln once kept slaves.

On Douglas’ Concessions and Convictions

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I have some more to say about Douglas’ defense of himself, but before I do that I want to step back for a moment and make a point in the name of fairness. I have probably not emphasized enough that, while Stephen Douglas desperately wanted a Nebraska territorial bill he did not personally prefer the version he ended up with. He would take it; he wanted the bill that badly. But each concession took him further from his first preference. One does not, after all, need to make round after round of concessions to others in order to bring a bill closer to what one wanted in the first place. One concedes some things that one does not want, or at least doesn’t care about, to get others which one does want.

Douglas, as late as March of 1853, wanted a free Nebraska. He understood the Missouri Compromise to apply unchanged and unchallenged by any legislation between 1820 and 1853, the Armistice measures included. Unlike Atchison, Calhoun, or the rest of the proslavery extremists, the Little Giant did not build up a long record of griping about the Missouri Compromise. That did not make him an angel. Allen Nevins describes his record on the subject in Ordeal of the Union:

Beyond a doubt [Douglas] partly underestimated the force of Northern indignation, and partly despised it whatever its intensity.

He underestimated it because, feeling himself no moral repugnance to slavery, he could not imagine other men’s anger at the idea of its admission to a domain hitherto inviolate. His biographers have found in all his speeches and letters only one or two statements intimating a dislike of slavery. A hundred can be found which show that, as he once said, he did not care whether it was voted up or down. He remarked on one occasion: “Slavery may be very essential in one climate, and totally useless in another. If i were a citizen of Louisiana, I would vote for retaining and maintaining slavery, because I believe the good of that people would require it.” He said again: “We in Illinois tried slavery while we were a Territory, and found it was not profitable; and hence we turned philanthropists and abolished it.” And on still another occasion: “Whenever a territory has a climate, soil, and productions making it the interest of the inhabitants to encourage slave property, they will pass a slave code and give it encouragement. Whenever the climate, soil, and productions preclude the possibility of slavery being profitable, they will not permit it. You come right back to the principle of dollars and cents.”

Those hunting for humanitarian sentiment here will come home empty-handed. Douglas, like virtually all white American men of his time, viewed black people as strictly inferior to whites. To him, that meant no sensible fuss could come from how whites chose to dispose of them and their enslavement did not present any difficulties to the principles of white republicanism. Self government and popular sovereignty belonged to white men, period. He believed passionately in those causes, but only within those limits. Though our sympathies with the cause of the free soil men and abolitionists can make it hard to admit, most of them probably agreed. Slavery, to them, threatened white republicanism and white futures. That it subjected black people to incredible cruelty moved rather few white Americans indeed.

All that said, the same indifference to slavery that led Douglas to accept concessions he knew would put him through political difficulties and cause great controversy also meant he didn’t go out of his way, contra Chase, to expand the institution. He didn’t want his railroad promotions and white settlement plans bound up in slavery, but F Street insisted. Then Archibald Dixon and Phillip Phillips made them demand more and Douglas, wanting the bill and not caring about the slavery, had to follow them out on increasingly thin ice.

Then the Little Giant had to stand up in the Senate and defend all of this. I let the thread of his defense against Chase and the Appeal drop to avoid a series of confusing point-counterpoint posts, but intend to return to it. Douglas did defend himself and he certainly expressed some genuine convictions of his along the way, but he also had to defend words he did not write as his own and concessions he did not welcome as sensible, even moderate measures. And Chase impugned his character, which got his blood up and made it personal.

The Appeal: Schemes of the Accomplished Architect of Ruin

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

If Stephen Douglas would use the Kansas-Nebraska Act to sell out the white yeoman farmers who had the vast plains promised to them by a sacred pledge, what else did he mean to do? Salmon P. Chase turned Douglas’ own obsession back on him. If he really thought it the destiny of the white race to spread and fill the continent, why would he give it all away to a tiny number of white slaveholders and vast hordes of their black slaves? This bespoke not just indifference to the private futures of white men, but also to the future of white republican government:

It is of immense consequence, also, to scrutinize the geographical character of this project. We beg you, fellow-citizens, to observe that it will sever the East from the West of the United States by a wide slaveholding belt of country, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to British North America. It is a bold scheme against American liberty, worthy of an accomplished architect of ruin.

Sometimes I wish politicians still talked like this. Accomplished Architect of Ruin sounds like the name of a Chinese supervillain, if probably one with a past full of Yellow Peril stories that would make us cringe. But I digress. Chase continues:

Texas is already slaveholding, and occupies the Gulf region from the Sabine to the Rio Grande, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Red river. North of the Red river, and extending between Texas and Arkansas, to the parallel of 36°30′, lies the Indian territory, about equal in extent to the latter State, in which slavery was not prohibited by the act of 1820. From 36°30′ to the boundary line between our own country and the British possessions, stretching from west to east through more than eleven degrees of longitude, and from south to north through more than twelve degrees of latitude, extends the great Territory, the fate of which is now to be determined by the American Congress. Thus you see, fellow-citizens, that the first operation of the proposed permission of slavery in Nebraska will be to stay the progress of the free States westward, and to cut of the free States of the Pacific from the free States of the Atlantic. It is hoped, doubtless, by compelling the whole commerce and the whole travel between East and West to pass for hundreds of miles through a slaveholding region, in the heart of the continent, and by the influence of a Federal Government, controlled by the slave power, to extinguish freedom and establish slavery in the States and Territories of the Pacific, and thus permanently subjugate the whole country to the yoke of a slaveholding despotism. Shall a plot against humanity and democracy so monstrous, and so dangerous to the interests of liberty throughout the world, be permitted to succeed?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas, Accomplished Architect of Ruin

Remember that nineteenth century Americans often saw their nation is the one flickering candle of freedom, all alone in a world full of ancient monarchies. This sounds bombastic to us, with good reason, but men of the time really did see the American system as inherently fragile and surrounded by enemies. Frequent threats to the Union only reinforced that, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Stephen Douglas would subvert the Republic from within, leaving all free men prostrate before the Slave Power. Thus:

We entreat you to be mindful of that fundamental maxim of Democracy-EQUAL RIGHTS AND EXACT JUSTICE FOR ALL MEN. Do not submit to become agents in extending legalized oppression and systematized injustice over a vast Territory yet exempt from these terrible evils.

We implore Christians and Christian ministers to interpose. Their divine religion requires them to behold in every man a brother, and to labor for the advancement and regeneration of the human race.

Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the States, none can be urged for its extension into Territories where it doe snot exist, and where that extension involves the repeal of ancient law, and the violation of solemn compact. Let all protest, earnestly and emphatically, by correspondence, through the press, by memorials, by resolutions of public meetings and legislative bodies, and in whatever other mode may seem expedient against this enormous crime.

For ourselves, we shall resist it by speech and vote, and with all the abilities which God has given  us. Even if overcome in the impending struggle, we shall not submit. We shall go home to our constituents, erect anew the standard of freedom, and call on the people to come to the rescue of the country from the domination of slavery. We will not despair; for the cause of human freedom is the cause of God.

The Appeal: Threatening White Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase built the Appeal of the Independent Democrats around his antislavery politics, spending the majority of his text on a legal history of slavery restriction. (Previously detailed: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) But the way he did so bears noting. While Chase saw slavery in itself as an evil, he did not simply write a manifesto that declared it so, accused Stephen Douglas of expanding it, and then rested on his laurels. More white northerners cared about slavery in 1854, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the fugitive rescues and their aftermath. But the Battle of Christiana and all the rest had aroused the white North in contradictory ways.

It bears repeating that nineteenth century Americans saw their system of government as fragile and easily subverted, the lone outpost of real freedom in a world trod by the tyrant’s boot. Many thought that the rest of the world had it out for the United States. The kind of lawlessness that prompted abolitionists to hide and help fugitive slaves could be just as much a threat to the security and stability of the American system of laws as any lynch mob. So even as more white northerners became sympathetic to antislavery appeals, so more could become less tolerant of the same. Those threatened, every bit as much as any southerner screaming for secession, to break the Union and leave its broken body for despotic vultures to pick clean.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Chase knew all that. Instead of focusing on the evils of slavery qua slavery, he zeroed in on the threat to free, white institutions. Douglas did not become the American Judas for his nefarious plot to make the lives of more black people worse. A more saintly North might care about that, but we feel our own slights most deeply. Having laid out his case that Douglas broke historical faith, and adding as a coda that the South reneged on its own end of the Missouri Compromise right at the time when it had secured slavery everywhere that law allowed it, Chase turned abstract objections and ethereal pacts into practical causes that much more of the white North could rally around:

What will be the effect of this measure, should it unhappily become a law, upon the proposed Pacific railroad? We have already said that two of the principal routes, the central and northern, traverse this Territory. If slavery be allowed there, the settlement and cultivation of the country must be greatly retarded. Inducements to the immigration of free laborers will be almost destroyed. The enhanced cost of construction, and the diminished expectation of profitable returns, will present almost insuperable obstacles to building the road at all; while, even if made, the difficulty and expense of keeping it up, in a country from which the energetic and intelligent masses will be virtually excluded, will greatly impair its usefulness and value.

From the rich lands of this large Territory, also, patriotic statesmen have anticipated that a free, industrious, and enlightened population will extract abundant treasures of individual and public wealth. There, it has been expected, freedom-loving emigrants from Europe, and energetic and intelligent laborers from our own land, will find homes of comfort and fields of useful enterprise. If the bill shall become a law, all such expectations will turn to grievous disappointment. The blight of slavery will cover the land. The homestead law, should Congress enact one, will be worthless there. Freeman, unless pressed by a hard and cruel necessity, will not, and should not, work beside slaves. labor cannot be respected where any class of laborers is held in abject bondage.

Free white America: Stephen Douglas will steal your future.  He will take the plains from you and if you go there, he will see you debased and degraded, made into a kind of almost slave yourself by the inevitable logic of the slave system. Instead of your posterity and dreams of prosperous independence, Stephen Douglas will turn the boundless West into a prison where you could only go in great desperation to eek out a few scraps under the lash, figurative and perhaps literal, of the Slave Power. If he could do that to the West, what would the Little Giant see done to the North? To the nation as a whole?