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?

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