Bell’s Dissent, Part Nine

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

 

John Bell probably reached the most comfortable ground in his speech when he began railing against abolitionists. Those hypocrites wept for the slave, but never the Indian. Some of them genuinely did, opposing slavery for the harm it did to the slaves. But far more antislavery men opposed slavery because it threatened white self-government, white freedoms, and white futures out in the west. They had, as David Wilmot put it, “no morbid sympathy for the slave.”

Anyway, when he reached this point, Bell could reassert his Southern pedigree. He might stand, this once, against the South’s general interest as understood by a majority of its Senate caucus, but you could not call John Bell an abolitionist. Maybe you shouldn’t even call the abolitionists abolitionists. The British abolitionists, Bell said, had the right idea:

When the act for the abolition of slavery in the colonies was carried in the British Parliament in 1833, and the question of indemnity to the slaveholder came up, there was scarcely a dissenting voice raised against the propriety and justice of the proposition; and twenty millions of pounds sterling -one hundred millions of dollars- were promptly voted for that purpose. Whatever moral guilt, said the great leaders of the abolition movement, might attach to the slaveholder, the greatest share of the guilt and responsibility rested with the Government which encouraged and established slavery in the colonies.

You could not get a Salmon Chase or a William Garrison to sign on for compensated emancipation. Bell made the reasonable point that the United States allowed slavery and so had some responsibility for it. If those abolitionists hated it so much, why did they not get behind having Washington buy up the slaves and free them? They didn’t deserve to share a label with the British antislavery men.

Of course Bell had to overlook some convenient facts there. If the state bought up the slaves, it had to compel the owners to sell. What southern senator would vote for that? Even the ones who liked the idea of ridding themselves of slaves wanted to do so by colonization. Send them back to Africa and let America become lily-white. From the beginning of the colonization movement on down to Lincoln himself, they had the problem that most black people who could make the decision to go on their own did not want to go and those who could be forced to leave, the slaves, had owners who did not want to just throw away their investment. In fact, colonization sometimes drew passionate opposition from southern politicians who saw it as a means to weaken slavery to the point where, down the road a few years, it would create enough de facto free states to force a general abolition on them.

But, of course, Bell called the British abolitionists hypocrites too. They cared so much for freedom, until it came time to defend the slaveholding, slave trading Ottoman empire against the Russians in the Crimean War then raging. Bell neglected to mention that the Russians practiced slavery with great enthusiasm at the same time. They called it serfdom, but it had long ago taken on all the usual characteristics of slavery. So much for the general conscience of the civilized world, which some antislavery men proposed set slavery on a course for ruin. Even American abolitionists’ trans-Atlantic allies found it in themselves to approve of the Sultan’s slaving ways.

All of that made a good smokescreen. It might have even helped Bell keep his Senate seat, but he does let the mask slip and reveal his anxiety at standing apart from his section:

I now approach the consideration of another provision int his bill, which, in the opinion of many, possesses an importance paramount to all others; one that is held to be so important to the welfare of the country, and especially to the South, that some of my southern friends have expressed the opinion, in our private and friendly conferences, that a southern man who should fail to support it would be considered a traitor to the interests of the South; and that, under such circumstances, I should waive all scruples about the violation of treaties or compacts of any kind -all my objections to the bill, however important I may deem them. I take no exception to the morality of this view of duty; for if it can be shown that the principle of non-intervention incorporated in this bill will produce the happy consequences which its more ardent supporters content it will, though it may be a nice question in casuistry, a Senator may well consider it one of those cases of overpowering necessity and interest to the country to which all constitutional and other scruples and objections should yield.

If only it would work out, Bell could sign on. But popular sovereignty meant more agitation over slavery and the fact that one side or the other would prevail, making the other the loser bent on reversing that loss and preventing future reverses. Better to leave the matter untouched. Bell could have spoken for an entire generation of American politicians, but the nation had changed too much for the old settlements to hold. Speaking as he did on the eve of the Senate’s vote, he might have given one of the last true speeches of the antebellum era. Or, knowing how the vote would go, he might have only written its elegy.

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