The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Two

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Part One.

Anthony Burns, born a Virginia slave, stole himself away to freedom in Boston in 1854. His owner found out where he had gone when Burns wrote his still enslaved family with the news. Under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that owner, Charles Suttle, went up to Boston to reclaim him. Happening the very same month as the Kansas-Nebraska Act narrowly passed the House and landed on Franklin Pierce’s desk, and in the very heart of abolitionism. The Burns case struck at the heart of the white North’s grievances with the South. Already incensed and building a popular movement against Kansas-Nebraska, it now brought back to mind the last great legislative affront to the section.

As the law provided, Burns’ owner had a federal marshal arrest him on his way home from work. The marshal did not declare to any passers-by that he had Burns as a fugitive slave, but maintained the fiction that he wanted Burns for robbery. They took other precautions too, knowing that abolitionists had a way of relieving courthouses of fugitive slave prisoners. The crowd that gathered around the courthouse found it chained shut and guarded against them.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Boston’s antislavery organizations had been through this before. They spirited away William & Ellen Craft to the United Kingdom. They took Shadrach Minkins from the courthouse. The Fugitive Slave Act provided for a commissioner to verify that the slave catchers had a right to seize the accused, or acted on behalf of those that did. Suttle had papers from a Virginia court testifying to his ownership. He had the law and the facts on his side. But Richard H. Dana, one of the founders of the Free Soil party and one of many who volunteered his services to help Shadrach Minkins back in 1851, took the case regardless. Dana, who worked with his black associate Robert Morris, convinced Loring to delay the hearing for a few days.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Dana got his delay on May 25, 1854. Boston’s abolitionists aimed to take advantage of it. They differed on how. The abolitionist movement had a strong pacifist streak, even in Boston. Should they use all the means available to them under the law to free Burns, or should they take him from the courthouse by force? The larger group preferred keeping within the law and met in Fanueil Hall on the night of May 27th. A group of thirty radicals met separately, electing Thomas Wentworth Higginson their leader. Higginson would go on to serve as a colonel in the first federally authorized black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. He had spent the previous few days distributing broadsides to rally public opposition to Burns’ arrest and stockpiling axes and other weaponry. A Higginson plant interrupted the Fanueil Hall meeting with the claim that a band of blacks intended to break Burns out that very night, and the peaceful abolitionists quickly adjourned. Two hundred of them joined the growing mob outside the courthouse, which swelled to two thousand.

Some of that mob got together a large beam to use as a battering ram and charged the courthouse doors. They burst in and a melee ensued between them and the federal marshals. The battle resulted in the death of James Batchelder, a twenty-four year old teamster serving as a temporary deputy. This technically made him the second federal marshal killed in the line of duty. Higginson received a saber cut to the chin. Ultimately the marshal and his men prevailed, driving the abolitionists out of the courthouse and arresting nine of them.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part One

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

The general furor in the North over the Fugitive Slave Act had cooled by 1854. They had lived with it for three years, four come September. It might please very few white northerners to do so, even if they loathed black people, but the sky had not fallen. After the initial round of high-profile rescues, life largely went back to normal. Compromise and Union men prevailed. Abolitionists might have gained a higher profile and more recruits from the controversy, but the Union still had more friends and the Union hung on the Compromise of 1850. That compromise, Georgia informed the North, rested on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

But if the Union hung on the Compromise, then what had the South done with Kansas-Nebraska but destroy it? With the help of the man who masterminded the compromise, no less! The North voted for Franklin Pierce and the Democracy as the Compromise party. They put through the final settlement on slavery in the territories. The North considered the matter entirely closed. Northern men no more voted for reopening the slavery issue than they voted for lawless, anarchic abolitionist mobs storming courthouses or shooting slave catchers.

The year of 1854 has a considerably more going on simultaneously than suits the convenience of writer or reader. Filibustering, the Gadsden Purchase, and Kansas-Nebraska all overlap. To make a coherent narrative the writer must take one at a time, but the people living the year experienced it all together. Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska act on May 30, 1854. By then, another story had joined the year’s busy calendar.

Anthony Burns, born in Virginia in 1834, turned twenty the day after Pierce signed the great plains over to slavery. He lived on the other side of the country as a slave, property of Charles F. Suttle. Suttle hired Burns and his other human property out. Working as a merchant, he didn’t need all the manpower he owned for his personal use. In 1852, Suttle had Burns hired out in Richmond. Burns convinced his overseer (Suttle himself lived in Alexandria.) to let him hire himself out. That let Burns keep some of the money and gave him a small measure of additional control over his life. Burns made friends with some Northern sailors who came to Richmond by way of the James River. With the friends and cash necessary, Burns slipped on a ship to Boston in February or March of 1854, as the Senate considered Kansas-Nebraska. He got a job working in a clothing store for abolitionist Lewis Hayden.

Burns came from a family of thirteen. As he essentially fell off the face of the Earth from their perspective, he wrote to let them know that he made it to the North, alive and well. That meant, of course, putting his location in writing and passing it through the mail. Burns sent the letter through Canada, hoping that would misdirect any pursuers. That proved insufficient, because custom dictated that slaves receiving letters had those letters delivered to their owners. The envelope might have fooled Suttle and his agent, William Brent, but they opened it and read the contents.

Armed with the knowledge that Burns had decamped to Boston, Suttle and Brent followed. On May 24, they had a federal marshal arrest Burns on his way home from work. Two days before, Alexander Stephens rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the House with those crucial thirteen votes. The North raged against Stephen Douglas, his act, and southern oathbreaking. To its outrages, it could add another, soon very public, fugitive slave capture in capital of abolitionism. Events in Boston naturally drew all eyes.

Three-Fifths for Kansas-Nebraska

James Tallmadge, Jr.

James Tallmadge, Jr.

The Southern radicals had their dream come true; they had at last slain the Missouri Compromise. If more moderate men worried that in doing so they aroused the North and united it as never before against slavery, they would just have to live with those worries. If the more passionate antislavery men secretly wondered in their hearts of chilly Kansas or Nebraska would ever suit slavery, they had similar doubts about its future in chilly Virginia and everywhere else outside the Cotton Kingdom. The South, the minority section, enforced its will on the majority through its disproportionate influence on the national party, the Democracy. It did so not over a fringe issue, or even one that Northern voters cared about but which competed with other similarly important issues. Instead, F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon pushed Stephen Douglas so far that the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act struck at the core of Northerner’s understanding of their future and the nature of the Union. How could they believe that the republic rested on the self-determination of white men when its machinery so clearly  sold away the future they held dear in a bargain they saw as clearly corrupt?

The House vote bears some revisiting. William W. Freehling breaks it down helpfully in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854:

The familiar majority then secured the latest and most notorious pro-southern law. Slaveholding states stood 71-11 for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and Northern Democrats voted 42-39 with the South. As usual, Lower North Democrats voted strongest the southern way, 28-17. Upper North Democrats voted 22-14 against Kansas-Nebraska, as did Northern Whigs-Freesoilers-Nativists, by a 50-0 count. In all, the free labor states opposed Douglas, 89-42. The Kansas-Nebraska bill passed, 113-100, even though two-thirds of the majority section voted nay, because even-eighths of the minority section and half the Northern Democrats voted aye.

All of that for thirteen votes. But for those thirteen, the South would have failed. The obvious sectional alignments, and divergences, tell a great deal of this story. Look how strongly the North opposed the vote, even before the anti-Nebraska majorities could purge their traitorous representatives. But another story hides in that thirteen vote margin.

Way back in 1783, under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress considered an amendment that would change how the Confederation assessed states for their taxes. The previous system considered the value of real estate and the new one would count population. That count would include slaves, which the South saw as double taxation. They would pay for their property, including slaves, and then also their population, including slaves. The amendment failed, but the idea came up again at the Philadelphia convention. By then the issue had changed to representation and the South very much wanted its slaves counted. The North, by contrast, pointed out that slaves only seemed to count as people when it granted it and advantage to slaveholders. The North, of course, had the same scruples reversed: slaves counted as people in order to bestow liabilities on others, but not to grant them advantages.

The infamous solution that the convention reached counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation and taxes levied on the states. The South could have more representatives in exchange for larger tax bills. This often gets described, with some justice, as the framers viewing slaves as only 3/5 human. But in one of history’s complexities, the 3/5 compromise, in all its infamy, also served as a very moderate anti-slavery measure. The slave power of the day wanted slaves to count as full people, greatly inflating the representation of slaveholding states.

The South had to settle for less, but its narrow advantage had a decisive role in American history. The seats conveyed by the three-fifths of the slave population denied John Adams a second term and put Thomas Jefferson into the White House in 1800. After him came two terms each of Madison and Monroe. Except for the Adams interregnum, a slaveholding Virginian aristocrat held the Presidency from April 30, 1789 (Congress met to count Washington’s electoral votes late and so delayed the beginning of his term by almost two months.) until March 4, 1825. That same narrow edge denied James Tallmadge, Jr.’s attempt to set Missouri on a path to freedom in 1820 and so required the Missouri Compromise. Those extra seats gave the Indian Removal Act its majority. In 1854, one man, one vote white egalitarianism would have given the South nineteen fewer seats in the House, ensuring the failure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The South’s extra seats had long been a sore point for Northerners. Why should slavery receive extra representation? The men in those seats did not represent the interests of the slaves, but rather their owners. Since Southerners could buy slaves, they could literally buy themselves extra votes in Congress. Once upon a time, the extra tax liability meant that at least the South paid for that privilege, but after 1800 Washington gave up collecting direct taxes from the states and made its revenues out of tariffs and land sales. Thus Tallmadge proposed setting Missouri on a road to freedom in 1820. If the North could not undo the South’s advantage, it could at least limit that advantage to as few states as possible and strike a blow against slavery as a bonus. But the South united against him just as it united for Douglas’ repeal of its own past work in 1854.

Kansas-Nebraska: The House Votes

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

The fight for Kansas-Nebraska, with the Missouri Compromise repeal, began in the Senate in January of 1854. It wore on through February and into March before the Senate finally adopted the bill with a lopsided 37-14 margin, with only two southern Senators voting against it. The House promptly buried the bill under fifty others in the face of Northern outrage not just from the usual free soil suspects, but also from sober state governments, immigrants, and Northern clergy. For the first time, antislavery men had a genuine mass movement on their hands. But Stephen Douglas would not accept defeat after coming so close. Nor would the radicals who forced him into the repeal. Amid strife that came very near to actual violence, Alexander Stephens applied whip and spur on top of the patronage that Franklin Pierce dispensed to build a majority and table bill after bill until at last Kansas-Nebraska reached the top of the House’s schedule on May 22, 1854.

Fifteen days of debate had not cooled any passions, but the vote at last came. By a majority of thirteen votes, 113-100, the House approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That put the law into action, but the House that voted for it had a 156 sitting Democrats for a hefty 66.67% majority. Of those Democrats, only 101 voted aye. The other twelve votes came from southern Whigs. Without them, the vote would have turned the other way. As one would expect, the vote came in highly sectional. Northern Democrats supported the bill 44-42. The southern Democracy lined up 57-2. All northern Whiggery followed Seward in voting against it. Once again, the South’s disciplined majority proved able to force through legislation the more divided national majority opposed.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The Democracy could call that a win. Once more it proved to the South that it best protected the interests of slavery. But with the weight of the party machinery behind the bill, with Alexander Stephens breaking parliamentary kneecaps, Franklin Pierce greasing palms with patronage, Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing standing in the wings brandishing blackjacks the Democracy still nearly lost the thing. That kind of victory augured poorly for the party’s future, especially with so many of its newspapers in open rebellion and its Northern wing badly divided. A party might expect some defections on a controversial bill, but having made it a test of party loyalty the Democracy would ordinarily expect a healthy majority still. It found out then just how far that loyalty went in the face of Kansas-Nebraska: miles and miles in the South but a majority barely wider than a razor in the North.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

And for what? Southerners knew that the bill they passed equivocated on slavery. The Missouri Compromise went into the dustbin of history, but a clear win for slavery did not replace it. A territorial government that could vote slavery in could also vote slavery out. Virginia’s John Singleton Millson, who joined Thomas Hart Benton as the lone southern Democrats who voted against the bill, cast his vote on those grounds. However much he wanted the unconstitutional Missouri Compromise done away with, the South accepted it because it also reserved to slavery new territories south of Missouri. Kansas-Nebraska did none of that. For all its exertions, the southern section won no guarantee, but only a potential win and a potential loss.

To enrage and unite the North undermined the South’s key advantage of unity in national politics. If the northern majority flexed its muscles on sectional lines as the South long had, the region had good reason to fear for the future of its central institution. A permanent majority could dictate almost any terms to a permanent minority, and the South risked bringing just that about in the name of securing only a chance at slavery in Kansas.

Kansas-Nebraska: The Fight in the House

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Stephen Douglas, with Franklin Pierce’s help, committed the Democracy to passing his KansasNebraska Act despite the House’s delaying tactics. They put the party machinery to work, twisting arms and greasing wheels with patronage. By May 8, Douglas thought he had a majority and opted to dig Kansas-Nebraska out of its legislative grave by bringing up and tabling all fifty bills ahead of it. That dragged on for fifteen days. The speeches meant probably even less in the House than they did in the Senate as the larger body inherently reduces the influence of each ordinary member, but each speech consumed time and every hour spent debating meant one less hour of the session spent voting on the bill. But they spoke anyway. Politicians must register their approval or disapproval and many men considered vital principles at stake.

Thomas Hart Benton, still convinced the agitation on slavery brought no good to either section, proceeded to burn all the bridges he might have taken to regain his Senate seat:

What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it! The question was settled and done with. There was not an inch square in the Union on which it could be raised without a breach of compromise.

Congressional non-interference, to which Douglas and others insisted they aspired, Congress had achieved in 1850. Between the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, the territorial acts for Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico, and California’s statehood, Congress completely settled the matter. Only by breaking past compacts could Congress interfere in slavery. So why did it need to pass this new law touching on slavery, if Congress wanted only to keep its hands off slavery?

Benton had the facts with him and for four hours held forth against the signature issue of his home state, knowing very well that the Missouri legislature would never send him back to the Senate after all of this. But Benton put a bullet into Andrew Jackson back in the day. He could take a frustrated ambition in the twilight of his life. Old Bullion got a bit more than that when his district declined to reelect him and then Missouri at large rejected him for governor in 1856.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (Former Whig, now Constitutional Unionist-GA)

Douglas himself took the floor on occasion. Georgia’s, and the Georgia Platform’s, Alexander Stephens served as the parliamentary manager and chief debater on his side. Gaunt and bloodless, Georgia planter cut a strange figure. He lacked the eloquence and wit that other politicians of his age reveled in. He replaced it with direct, cold, dry recitations of facts and logical dissections, like Mr. Spock by way of the nineteenth century. The cold exterior hid a bitter partisan who, in his own words, applied whip and spur to force Kansas-Nebraska through.

Stephens informed the House that the South never accepted the Missouri Compromise. Back in 1820 the sections did not have a meeting of the minds; the North plainly defeated the South and forced its will upon the section. When the North would not take that victory for enough in 1850 and extend the 36°30′ line to the Pacific, the South considered the treaty broken and itself free to reopen the issue. Each place should choose for itself, as 1820 and 1850 proved how poorly Congress chose. Furthermore, Stephens pressed, the North, with its immigrant-fattened population twice that of the South, would surely have every advantage in populating new territories. Did Northern men think their constituents too lazy to win such a slanted fight? The South essentially conceded fighting at a great disadvantage and the North would not even accept the contest then. What would it take?

Despite all the screws to which Pierce, Davis, Cushing, and Douglas put to the Northern Democracy, everyone knew they contended over a small number of votes. The tension running so high and a win at least conceivable for both sides, restraint went out the window. A group trying to run a filibuster openly taunted various Southerners. They returned the favor. At one point an angry crowd surrounded the ringleader, Ohio’s Lewis D. Campbell, weapons drawn. Others restrained a Virginia member from playing some chin music on him. The Speaker, Kentucky’s Linn Boyd, intervened just in time to order the arrest of the Virginian by the sergeant-at-arms and adjourn before someone could spill blood.

Exhuming the Bill

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The North united against Kansas-Nebraska. The South stood indifferent. The northern state legislatures could muster only one resolution in its favor, which Douglas’ supporters had to coerce out of his native Illinois. They managed many against it. State parties rebuked the national Democracy. Democratic newspapers turned against the bill. The northern clergy cast off their customary conservatism not for silent acquiescence but for outright opposition. Immigrants, a major Democratic constituency, condemned the bill. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Democracy did much to wreck its own coalition, but at the time men could still cling to the idea that this might work out. A heated storm erupted over the fugitive slave act, but four years later the customary white indifference to the plight of blacks and a conservative backlash had brought the North back from the days when abolitionists had gunfights with slave catchers. Maybe things would even, paradoxically, strengthen the party and with it the Union. This storm could also pass.

But how did it come about? Given such opposition, by the more populous section that controlled the House of Representatives, the nation still ended up with Kansas-Nebraska passing into law. The answer requires us to look to historical complexities again. The men of 1854 did not have history books that named them Northern Democrats who by definition opposed the bill. From the failure of many Northern states to pass pro-Nebraska resolutions, we can take that significant portions of those legislatures opposed it. That tells only a third of the story, though. The hardcore pro-Nebraska men did not have majorities. In some states, the anti-Nebraska men did. In others they did not and so rather than get their anti-Nebraska resolutions they could ensure only that no resolution went through.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

That silence probably suited most quite well. Whether they approved of Nebraska or opposed it, passing no resolution either way allowed them to sidestep the issue. Anti-Nebraska men could tell their supporters that no resolution approving of the act got past them. Pro-Nebraska men could tell their’s that no resolution against it got past them either. This could also keep them in the good graces of the national and state party machinery even during the division. They might not get the patronage rewards they hoped for by backing the winning side, but could also avoid the punishments that a party could mete out to disloyal members.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The House voted 110 to 95 to bury Kansas-Nebraska under fifty other bills on March 21, 1854. Passing it would require exhuming the bill and Stephen Douglas got out his shovel. He called on the Pierce administration, which put out the word in the Washington Union that supporters would find patronage jobs for their friends. Opponents, naturally, would find none. Pierce called Nebraska votes a test of party loyalty. If the issue failed, so did the Democracy. What Democrat wanted that? What Democrat wanted to give up patronage? Their palms needed as much greasing as anybody else’s. Most of the Cabinet went to work too, with Pierce’s sometime Prime Minister Jefferson Davis and Attorney-General Caleb Cushing twisted arms.

This must sound very corrupt. By modern standards, we can’t call it anything else. The Pierce administration literally bought votes by promising lucrative jobs and government contracts to friends and supporters of the voting politicians. The exact deals might not make the newspapers, but the general fact that the president dispensed patronage surprised no one. Politics in the mid-1800s simply worked this way. You rewarded your friends and clients. They in turn supported you in an arrangement that the classicists among them could argue went back to Rome. Both parties engaged in this kind of behavior at every level. Through the middle of May, the party machinery and human avarice ground away at a fierce anti-Nebraska minority.

Despite the mass movement, the opposition had only that minority. The bill could expect lopsided Southern support, even if it came without roaring enthusiasm. Alienated voters had not yet had the chance to throw pro-Nebraska men out. Even Democrats with doubts could take one for the team and hope they forgot by the next election, or even retire to a comfortable patronage posting after. Franklin Pierce would still be dispensing those until March of 1857.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.

The Indifferent, Divided South

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (D-GA)

With the North rising so united against Kansas-Nebraska, speaking with something approaching a true sectional voice, one might expect the South to have done much the same in favor of the act. They might loathe its popular sovereignty provisions, but it would give them new slave states and wipe away the old loss and sectional indignity of the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban. In the present political climate, one might even expect that the North’s fury only increased Southern enthusiasm. Alexander Stephens declared something close to that, calling the South unanimously delighted.

If the South included only its congressional delegation, the Southerners that Stephens spent most of his time with, then the observation largely holds. The Southern papers largely paid Kansas-Nebraska little mind. The New Orleans papers expressed general indifference and suggested that if the bill died on the vine, the section would sleep untroubled. New Orleans always stood a bit apart from the rest of the South, but the Nashville Advertiser watched the storm in Washington with disinterest. In Stephens’ own Georgia, the Macon Messenger faced such general indifference that it published a story explaining the fact. The bill would probably bring the section no benefit, so naturally Southerners didn’t much care. What about Charleston, then? Surely the Carolina counter-revolutionaries came out in favor? Instead both Charleston papers reported the same disinterest.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

That did not mean the papers came out against the bill, of course. Virtually all of the Democratic papers supported it. The few Whig papers could go the other way, and some did, but by 1854 their opinions meant very little. That did not mean that the Southern people in general really just didn’t care. Rather they had a diversity of opinions. Some followed Bell and Houston in seeing the bill as premature and a needless sectional antagonism. The popular sovereignty language chafed many of more refined sentiment because a population that could vote slavery in could also vote it out. Outside of Missouri, where naturally a substantial population considered the bill relevant to their personal interests, the Kansas-Nebraska struggle involved a far away territory and far away people. Their fate need not intertwine with the fates of slaveholders in the Cotton Kingdom or around the Chesapeake.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Distance and indifference did not translate into hostility, except in novel cases. For most of the South, the fight for Kansas had an abstract tone. It involved high principles and the honor of the section. They had lived with the Missouri Compromise slight that barred slavery from the Great Plains. They could survive more of the same. But Kansas-Nebraska gave them the chance to remove the slight. Why would they exert themselves to oppose it? Precious few did. Instead, it appears the South at large read the bill as a kind of legal luxury, pleasant and welcome but not a matter of life and death.

Except for Missouri, of course. There the bill, in addition to touching directly on the state’s future as a slave state, bound tightly to the ongoing battle between David Rice Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, championing almost free St. Louis saw the defeat of the bill as one road or him to regain the Senate seat that had taken from him. Atchison saw himself as the guardian of Missouri’s future as a slave state. He and his proslavery constituents lived far up the Missouri valley, hard against Kansas, and they saw not just their society but their personal fortunes on the line. If Kansas went free, their slaves could easily run away. If it went slave, they could buy new land there and further enrich themselves.

The Northern Clergy

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

With the KansasNebraska Act Stephen Douglas, and the Southern politicians who forced his hand from David Rice Atchison and Phillip Phillips to Archibald Dixon, stood poised to split the Democracy in three, unite the North against it, and generally put to rest the last vestiges of the old political order where both parties competed in both sections and neither much cared to speak about slavery. That might seem inevitable now. Events of 1850 strained the system badly, but given time it could potentially have recovered. Though he hardly set out to do so, Douglas ensured that no such recovery would happen. The North already had a final slavery settlement that it could live with and did not take kindly to the Little Giant, on behalf of slave power oligarchs, tossing it out.

If one went back in time and visited an anti-Nebraska meeting, one would have to work hard to miss the presence of the clergy. Previously, American men of the cloth generally took pains to avoid much comment on slavery. When they had, it often meant splitting their denominations in two. Like most Americans, most clergymen cared little about slavery. They came along tardy even to the anti-Nebraska movement, only arriving in great numbers when other conservative men already had. A few years prior, they largely acquiesced even to the Fugitive Slave Act.

I don’t write that to damn them any more than to praise them, but I confess a certain dislike of the account one usually gets of American churches. To hear some tell it, one could think that the day John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence the entire American ecclesiastical community united to sign their own declaration damning slavery, from which they never faltered. With some incidental help from white laypeople, and even more trivial help from black Americans, they slew the dragon of slavery. This view rightly acknowledges the role of various religious leaders in abolitionist circles, but it also turns all American clergy into stealth Quakers. That would have stunned most of them at the time. It would have scandalized the multitudes of Southern clergymen who, like their neighbors, believed slavery good and godly. Apparently when it comes to matters of religion, only the parts of the past we find laudatory deserve recognition.

The usual answer to the example of proslavery clergy involves citing the true meaning of Christianity. I have no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of American Christians today would condemn slavery if asked. Most certainly see it as a brutal, evil institution and so the antithesis of their faith. Those words come easily with slavery safely in the rear view mirror. We know for a fact that many Christians of the time thought quite differently. Their faith got along just fine with slavery. The Bible preached it, right up to the point of setting prices. Jesus never condemned it. Paul instructed slaves to faithfully serve their masters.

None of that means that modern Christians must go over and agree with nineteenth century proslavery clergymen. Rather we must admit that the true meaning of any religion does not present itself to us on a silver platter, plain as day. Divining it and then making judgments about what does and does not fit with the soul of one’s faith, however sincerely done, amounts to a devotional exercise. I do not think that historians have any particular expertise on this matter.

For my part, I see the question as beside the point. History concerns what happened and why, not who went to Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else. The Northern clergy had largely remained silent or preached acceptance in 1850. They did not in 1854. Though they took their time coming around to it, they joined the anti-Nebraska movement with petitions, editorials, sermons, and other acts of protest. They blessed anti-Nebraska meetings. In Douglas’ own Chicago, clergy of all faiths united to damn the bill. More than three thousand New England ministers signed a petition in the name of the Almighty against it. One Massachusetts clergyman condemned “aggression by our Southern masters.” Like the rest of the white North, they worried more about freedom for free white men than for black slaves.

In response to all of this, Douglas cried foul. The Nebraska bill involved politics, not faith. The clergy should go back to worrying about souls and let him worry about the Great Plains. Furthermore, he protested the unfairness of their speaking out on the one day of the week that secular men could not answer. The days of 1850 had not come again. Clergy who once, with little question of constitutional proprieties or their proper role, damned their abolitionist brethren found themselves suddenly on the same side. A year before, they called those same abolitionists dangerous revolutionaries.

We are not history’s heroes

George Washington as a Greek God

George Washington, ordinary person

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for inspiring this post.

I write about horrible things here, mostly revolving around slavery. I read about many others. A friend has told me that he doesn’t understand how I can take this stuff and not collapse into despair or give up the whole project in disgust. I suppose it’s a morbid hobby, but the structures and nuances of historical horrors fascinate me. They naturally magnify the normal inclinations of ordinary people to such a degree that you can really get into their heads and see how they saw the world and how each step naturally led to the next. My interests generally incline toward people we would call villains too; I’ve read more about slavery’s defenders than I have about its foes.

But dividing history up into heroes and villains has its problems. We can forget that people back then, like people now, did not see themselves as evil. They didn’t even see themselves as necessarily complicit in the misdeeds of others. The past, like the present, overflows with ordinary people doing and believing ordinary things given their time and situation. I write all of this because when we imagine ourselves, most of us probably don’t imagine an ordinary person. We may know on some level that even those of us who buck various trends in some ways still have that core of ordinariness within us.

Then we go and try to imagine ourselves in the past. Naturally we want to avoid the sorts that we loathe. After Kennedy caught a bullet in Dallas, people who voted for Nixon back in 1960 evaporated despite the close election. Who would admit to that? Likewise few people eagerly leaped up to confess their part in Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 after Watergate and the resignation. Those events remain in living memory, though I’ve noted over my own lifetime how Kennedy’s halo has dulled. Time and distance help with objectivity.

But the Kennedy assassination kindly sits at a single point in time. It happened and finished fairly neatly, conspiracy theorists aside, long ago and ultimately cost only two lives. While nobody rushes to cast themselves as the next Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, nor do we exert much effort casting ourselves as their opposites. When the subject shifts to slavery, suddenly everybody sees himself or herself as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, or even Nat Turner. Make slaves of us and we will rise up. Slavery in our country? Not on our watch! I’ve done it myself.

The vast majority of us, of course, would do just the opposite. If you grow up in that world, then you grow up with its injustices. You breathe them in the air. You hear all of power’s customary justifications for itself. Ordinary people do not, by and large, rise up and stand against the tide of their culture. We may not love it. We may find small ways to preserve our pride and dignity if we find ourselves slaves. But taking up a revolutionary course means taking on risk. We could imperil our property, our prospects for employment, our safety, even our lives. We could do the same with the lives of our loved ones.

In 1860, most of the white people among us would not care much about slavery unless we lived in the South. Those of us there would generally prefer it. Most who did dislike slavery would mostly care about how it threatened our fortunes than about how it impacted the slaves. And most slaves would not run away. It risked too much. You could get killed. You could end up sold away from your family and home. In a world with the roles reversed, most of the white people among us would pick the cotton. That makes us neither heroes nor villains. Rather our lives and actions come not from some mysterious black box but largely out of the societies and events that shape us.

I don’t know how to tell what role the Freedmen’s Patrol of 1854 who have been any more than I can tell what it would be in 2054. I can make guesses based on my personal background. I can point to what I see as the great moral issues of the day and declare myself of the party of angels. But so can the other people who live on the other side. The experiences and circumstances that shaped us this way might have shaped us another way in the past or been replaced by other experiences and circumstances that did much the same. We can call ourselves latter-day abolitionists, or Lincoln men. We could do the same the other way, but that’s harder and doesn’t let us trumpet the easy virtue of siding with the victorious past instead of the uncertain present or unknown future.

I don’t know how to fix that. We all want to think well of ourselves. It hampers our understanding of the past, reducing real lives to cheap morality plays and so robbing it of the ability to teach us what it can about how people convince themselves to embrace cruel injustices. Without that lesson, we find it much easier to do so ourselves. I try to imagine the ways in which future generations will condemn me for things I do every day and I think that helps…but then I would say so. By thinking of ways that I could do better, I also think of ways that I am, in some fractional way, better for thinking of ways I can improve than I otherwise would be. Step right up! Look at all the virtue I display right here, so much better and more exalted than mere lesser bloggers with their heads stuck up their navels only to halfway. FP goes for the whole skull!

Just like everyone else does.  I don’t know if this post has a real message to it or not, but the whole backwards self-congratulatory self-flagellation sometimes helps me keep an eye on my biases when discussing historical actors. This, of course, makes me better in my own mind at understanding them. Or it elaborately disguises and smuggles those biases right back into the world, but lets me absolve myself from them. I really don’t know. I try for the former, but we all excel at fooling ourselves. We know just what we want to hear. Ordinary people, after all, hardly deserve marble statues.