The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part One

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Having laid out the stakes on KansasNebraska, Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase pressed on to a history lesson. According to Chase, Douglas, F Street, and Franklin Pierce’s White House would do more than just give over the vast plains to slavery and thus bar them to white yeoman farmers and immigrants. They would break historical faith to do so, betraying laws and institutions as ancient as any in the United States. Almost literally, Chase (born January 13, 1808) accused Douglas (born April 23, 1814) of breaking the faith of their fathers. While Free Soil men might know in their bones that Douglas and the rest of the Kansas-Nebraska party meant all of that, Chase wrote the Appeal for a broad audience and so took pains to place himself firmly in an antislavery tradition as old as the Republic:

The original settled policy of the United States, clearly indicated by the Jefferson proviso of 1784, and by the ordinance of 1787, was non-extension of slavery.

I had to look up the 1784 reference. In 1784, Virginia set itself the task of writing a new constitution. Jefferson penned a very gradual emancipation amendment for it. Slaves born after 1800, then sixteen years hence, might after a term of years have their freedom. I have this from William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. Freehling does not say, unless I’ve missed it in the end notes, how many years later slaves could hope for their freedom under that amendment, but Jefferson elsewhere preferred twenty-one years. The Sage of Monticello, forty-one years young, Jefferson had the brash courage of youth: he put someone else up to introducing his amendment and discreetly seconded it. When his spokesman received Virginia’s opprobrium as a traitor to his country, Jefferson dodged the worst of it. His reputation might never have recovered, had he come forward as the true author.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I should say that Chase probably did not refer to that incident. But the episode provides an interesting contrast for the one he probably did mean. Still in the full flower of his youthful exuberance, in the very same year Jefferson did something far more astonishing than suggest maybe freeing a few slaves thirty-seven years hence. On March 1, 1784, Jefferson proposed to the Confederation Congress that the states relinquish their claims on lands west of the Appalachians to the Confederation government. Those territories would then in time join the Confederation as new states. Jefferson suggested a ban on slavery in all the new territories from the Great Lakes all the way down to Mississippi. If adopted, his plan would have made Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi all into states as free as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan.

Or so went the plan. The cotton boom would still have demanded the extension of slavery and doubtless Jefferson would then have advised repealing the ban at the first sign of resistance. He always took pains to yield to slaveholder objections. But Jefferson’s vision might have briefly come to pass. He found a lone Southern supporter and had the North on his side…except for one sick New Jersey delegate who stayed home when it came up for a vote.

Jefferson ultimately got half a loaf in 1787. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, kept slavery from the future Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It did not, however, remove any slaves already there. Words pledged the Northwest Territory to freedom but the facts on the ground included a fair bit of residual slavery. Years later, John Brown would claim that seeing a slave whipped in modern Ohio set him against the institution.

Jefferson’s half a loaf, the free half of the West north of the Ohio, sits comfortably in Chase’s narrative. He and his fellows could cast himself as Jefferson men carrying on Jeffersonian traditions. Most Americans learn about the Northwest Ordinance, slavery ban and all, in school. My school, and I imagine many others, neglect the Southwest Ordinance. That law covered the Southwest Territory, modern Tennessee. The hallowed prose, from Jefferson’s pen and repeated all the way up through the Wilmot Proviso, that

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

appeared nowhere in the Southwest Ordinance. Every other part of the Northwest Ordinance carried over, including a legal obligation for residents to return fugitive slaves to their owners.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If the founders intended to contain and confine slavery, as Chase insisted, Douglas rightly noted they chose rather strange methods. Douglas noted the Southwest Ordinance passing without the language of its Northwest counterpart, permitting slavery. In 1798, the founders forgot their supposed principles again by enacting another slavery-permitting clone of the Northwest Ordinance for Mississippi. So Douglas answered back:

you find upon the statute-books under Washington and the early Presidents, provisions of law showing that in the southwestern territories the right to hold slaves was clearly implied or recognized, while in the northwest territories it was prohibited. The only conclusion that can be fairly and honestly drawn from that legislation is, that it was the policy of the fathers of the Republic to prescribe a line of demarkation [sic] between free territories and slaveholding territories by a natural or a geographical line, being sure to make that line correspond, as near as might be, to the laws of climate, of production, and probably of all those other causes that would control the institution and make it either desirable or undesirable to the people inhabiting the respective territories.

Chase and his fellow Jefferson Men seized the sage of Monticello as a totem, but they got the Virginia slaveholder along with the conflicted, cautious, procrastinating antislavery man.

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