The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Two

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase recruited Thomas Jefferson as his tepid, always cautious ally in protesting the KansasNebraska Act. He wanted the Jefferson who kept slavery out of the Northwest Territory, including his Ohio home, but that Jefferson never damned slavery except in private or anonymously. He treasured the life slavery gave him with all its luxuries and privileges, even as he complained that the habits of mastery took their toll on the master’s character. Chase ignored that. Maybe he forgot in haste. Maybe he “forgot” to avoid having to water down his manifesto with an explanation of complexities that his audience might find offensive. When we make real people our heroes, we must grapple with their capacity for contradiction, for concessions we find abhorrent, and for the limits of their times and circumstances. Admitting Jefferson’s contradictions and his endless ability to yield his antislavery ideals in order to maintain his reputation as a loyal southerner would compromise that point and might rouse readers who believed in the heroic Jefferson against Chase.

Chase did not finish with Jefferson in 1787. He pressed on to the Louisiana Purchase:

In 1803, Louisiana was acquired by purchase from France. At that time there were some twenty five or thirty thousand slaves in this Territory, most of them within what is now the State of Louisiana; a few only, further north, on the west bank of the Mississippi. Congress, instead or providing for the abolition of slavery in this new Territory, permitted its continuance. In 1812 the State of Louisiana was organized and admitted into the Union with slavery.

In 1818, six years later, the inhabitants of the Territory of Missouri applied to Congress for authority to form a State constitution, and for admission into the Union. There were, at that time, in the whole territory acquired from France, outside of the State of Louisiana, not three thousand slaves.

There was no apology in the circumstances of the country for the continuance of slavery. The original national policy was against it, and not the less, the plain language of the treaty under which the territory had been acquired from France.

The national policy Chase refers to, of course, proved neither national nor a policy. The same men who barred slavery from the Northwest Territory permitted it in Tennessee and Mississippi. Thomas Jefferson tried to get a national policy through the Confederation Congress, but failed by a single vote. Even then, the entire Southern delegation save for one man voted against his plan. This sounds rather less like a national policy than a sectional one: areas adjacent to the South and settled chiefly by Southerners would have slavery.

But Chase’s citation of the Louisiana Treaty drew my eye. Did it really adopt a policy for the territory of abolition? I searched its text. The words “slave,” “slavery,” “abolition,” “emancipation,” and “manumission” do not appear at all. The word “free” appears once, in Article III:

The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and in the mean time they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and the Religion which they profess.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The same article includes the main substantive reference to private property, which at the time surely included resident slaves. Chase might argue that the slaves in Louisiana counted as inhabitants and so the treaty granted them “free enjoyment of their liberty” but that really stretches matters. The guarantees extended under the federal constitution very clearly did not include liberty for slaves in 1854, let alone 1803. If they did, every slave in the Union could have sued for freedom at will and expected to receive it. Some slaves did, but only if they had some exceptional grounds, like residence in a state that freed any slaves who came within its bounds for a period of time, on which to assert they deserved it. At the very least, Chase reaches far for his point. It looks very much like he dreamed it up. As understood at the time, private property in the United States included slaves. The treaty thus guarantees not abolition of slavery, but its continuance and security.

Douglas noticed. He cited the 1805 bill authorizing territorial government for Louisiana, which extended all of the Northwest Ordinance except its slavery ban to the new territory, just as it had to the Southwest Territory and Mississippi Territory. The Congress only extended the Northwest Ordinance’s slavery ban over territories that had already been under it up through 1820. When prior law did not reserve the land to freedom, Congress did not choose to free it later. If not by deliberate policy then at least by custom, the early Republic assumed slavery national and freedom reserved to locales set aside for it in 1787.

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