Immigrant America, 1850

Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz

All of yesterday’s talk about the immigrant vote could benefit from some particulars so I resolved to find them. I hoped that the 1850 census would, as the 1860 census does, not just list immigrant populations but also break them down by their nation of origin. So late Wednesday night I went to the census bureau website in hopes of getting the state by state tabulations and found myself thwarted by the October 2013 federal government shutdown. Thanks for that, House Republicans. My inconvenience does not compare to the problems the shutdown caused for federal employees, contract workers dependent on federal grants, scientists relying on those same grants, or just about anyone else’s difficulty, of course. I did get the data the next day, at which point I discovered that the scans of the census tables for 1850 do not match the quality of those for 1860. Back to the University of Virginia’s census browser I went.

I hoped to find in 1850 a plethora of data and went to work with dreams of getting the total white male population, subtracting out those below 21, and treating that as a fair approximation of the number of voters in each state. Then I could pull out from that the foreign-born, and ideally just the German, population of voting age. That would not give me a perfect count of the size of their vote, but would get something closer to the set of all possible German-American voters for the Democrats to alienate with Kansas-Nebraska. Unfortunately the census of 1850 lacks that level of detail. I could only find the total foreign-born population for each state. As that includes men and women alike and none of those women could vote at the time, it would not compare apples to apples with the total white male population. However, the census did give me the total white population and the total foreign-born population. But proceeding with the knowledge that the figures only get us a general indicator, the census yields ample pertinent facts.

In 1850, the census found 2,234,602 (11.50%) foreign-born people out of a white population of 19,429,185. That doesn’t sound like very much. The nation had more slaves. The immigrants could become at least notionally equal citizens before the eyes of the law, of course, but less than 12% hardly seems like a decisive percentage for future elections. The national totals do not reveal the sectional and state-level complexities. Drilling down one level and looking at sectional aggregates tells a more complicated story.

Immigration in the North

Immigration in the North

The foreign-born 11.50% did not spread themselves out evenly. Fully 85.98% lived in the North, 655,955 (29.35% of the national total) in New York alone. Fitting the stereotype, everybody came in through New York. It housed 34.14% of the North’s immigrant population. The second runner-up in the North, Pennsylvania, could muster only 303,417 (15.79% of the North’s total and 13.58% of the nation’s.) But look at it from the point of view of a politician standing for office in New York: Would you want to alienate 21.52% of the population that counts come election time? In Pennsylvania, you risk losing 13.44%. In Wisconsin, you fear the wrath of a whopping 36.25%.

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

Down South, however, the foreign-born count for only 5.07% of the population. The most immigrant-heavy state, Louisiana, can match New York fairly close at 26.71% foreign born. But Louisiana’s exception proves the rule. Nowhere else in the South can one find a state more than Missouri’s 12.94% foreign-born. In absolute numbers, the Show Me state beats Louisiana thanks to its higher population. Other states with high numbers of foreign-born, for the South, include half-free Maryland (12.25%) and frontier Texas (11.48%). Everywhere else clocks in below eight percent.

Clearly, Southern politicians have much less to fear from the wrath of immigrants. This leads to a natural political calculus: Southern men, especially Lower South men, could generally pursue a course that alienated large numbers of immigrants without it greatly impacting their political future. Northern Democrats had no such similar luxury. Even in Southern states with large numbers of immigrants, the competing interest of expanding slavery and, especially for Missouri, powerful local imperatives, could further soften the blow. Why not enrage the Germans? Only the Northern Democracy would pay the price.

Of course down the road, those immigrants would end up in Union armies. Latter-day pretend Confederates sometimes call them Lincoln’s socialist mercenaries. At least one German revolutionary turned Union general, Carl Schurz, observed the Kansas-Nebraska debates from the gallery. Allen Nevins quotes him on the spectacle:

I had seen the slave power officially represented by some of its foremost champions-overbearing, defiant, dictatorial. … I had seen in alliance with the slave power, not only far-reaching material interests and a sincere but easily intimidated conservatism, but a selfish party spirit and an artful and unscrupulous demagogy making a tremendous effort to obfuscate the moral sense of the North. I had seen standing against this tremendous array of forces a small handful of anti-slavery men faithfully fighting the battle of freedom and civilization. I saw the decisive contest rapidly approaching.

Losing the Immigrant Vote

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren

In an era where raising the most money best ensures winning the most votes and election and corruption thus often merge into the same process we can easily forget just how parties worked just a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren created the first real party machine in New York for the Democracy. The machine ran on loyalty to the party and to its leaders, rewarding that loyalty with patronage. Every civil service office went up for grabs every four years and lucrative government contracts went to supporters as a matter of course. Contributing to campaigns, then and now, involved personal investment with an expected return. The president could appoint every single postmaster in the country but picking so many people for such a minor post generally took too much time and effort. Instead the president would farm the selection out to party machines at the state level. Those state level machines had their own subordinate, usually, machines at the local level in major cities or centered around powerful constituencies.

To some degree this went on before Van Buren, but he perfected the system and made it national when he and Andrew Jackson went to Washington in 1831. Before then, changes in power usually meant little turnover. Jackson dismissed nearly ten percent of the federal government’s employees. The raucous celebration that accompanied his swearing in, where an unruly and drunken mob stormed the White House party and the president had to leave through a window, neglects that many of those men came looking for offices. They made investments in the Democracy, after all. Time for the Democracy to pay up.

One can’t help but be struck by the corruption inherent in all of this. The United States did not stand out from other governments of the time. You could literally buy offices in the British civil service, and commissions in the Royal Navy and British Army, in the same era. But with all the corruption going in one can miss what rarely came out: ideology. You bought into the Democracy for your own interests and advancement, not out of abstract idealism. Joining did not mean you favored particular policies. It meant that you voted the right way, sometimes early and often. It definitely meant you did that if you won elected office, unless you had a very good excuse, many friends, or a powerful patron to support and defend you. If you ran a newspaper, buying into the Democracy meant that you hewed to its editorial line and produced its propaganda. The notion that a newspaper man should aspire to objectivity and fairness hails from a later era indeed, after most places had turned into one paper towns.

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson's spoils system

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson’s spoils system

The lack of an official ideology, beyond “vote our way”, made the Democracy into a cosmopolitan party very adept at handling internal disagreement, which thus weathered the division over slavery better than the Whigs had, until now. That cosmopolitan approach gave the Democracy a great advantage in the North: new immigrants.

Fresh off the boat, these Americans on the make had no jobs. They often had no friends and nobody local they could prevail on to help them get started. They naturally inclined toward others who came from the same places in Europe and shared a language, religion, and common culture to help them out. The Democracy patronized the natural associations that resulted, helping immigrants find jobs, housing, and helped them on their way to citizenship and voting. When they voted, the immigrants in turn had every reason to favor the Democracy.

Those immigrants did not come from slave societies. Many saw free blacks in the North as competition that helped keep labor prices down and thus keep them poor. Opening the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, essentially all of the nation left for those immigrants or their children to occupy, meant to them flooding it with black competitors. There the story of the northern cities would surely replay itself. Enraged by the prospect of losing their American dreams, the German migration that began after the revolutions of 1848 failed began to break away from the Democracy. Thousands flocked to anti-Nebraska meetings. The German language newspapers could only manage cool indifference to the act at their most generous. One of the nation’s most numerous and growing immigrant groups, a key to the Democracy’s future in a more diverse United States, prepared to desert.

The Senate’s Democrats knew all of that. They knew that Germans did not much like slavery or black people anywhere near them or where they aimed to go in the future. If popular sovereignty played out, Germans would vote against slavery. So would the British immigrants. In response they floated an amendment to exclude non-citizens from the territories. These new and future Democrats, who the party so courted and who had in turn faithfully supported it, found themselves rewarded as well as the old Northern Democrats: with a direct repudiation of the social contract that the party relied upon.

The Antislavery Mass Movement

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

While the Democracy split in three parts when the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, came up for a vote, two of those three parts voted for the bill in the end. We should not discount the difference between Northwestern democrats who voted for the bill in the name of popular sovereignty even if they hated the repeal and those Southern democrats who voted for the opposite reasons. That said, the third part of the Democracy deserves some attention too.

As one would imagine, antislavery men lined up to denounce Kansas-Nebraska. The usual suspects from 1850 could do no less. However much we might admire them for their consistent antislavery politics, no one expected Salmon Chase or Charles Sumner to change their minds and vote for the bill. But in the North, Kansas-Nebraska changed the minds of conservative businessmen who had always before deplored antislavery agitation. Horace Greeley reported that in New York, the businessmen rose against the bill, then the tradesmen, and they drew the clergy along.

Many of these anti-Nebraska men had stood for compromise and Union in 1850. They voted for Franklin Pierce and his finality platform. They, with their commercial ties to the South, had before found ample cause to give the section concession after concession. Their banks held Southern mortgages. They accepted slaves as collateral for Southern loans. They built and owned the ships that carried Southern cotton to Europe and returned full of European luxuries. They damned abolitionists as fanatical troublemakers. But they did not vote for this. They voted for the status quo that the Democracy promised. It suited them commercially, personally, and probably in large part ideologically.  If the Democracy of 1854 proposed to undo the good work of the Democracy of 1850, they would not stand idly by.

Allen Nevins gives pages of examples, beginning on page 125 of volume two of Ordeal of the Union:

  • In Boston, Faneuil Hall held three thousand solid Compromise of 1850 Democrats, convened to denounce and oppose the bill.
  • In New York, the head of the Mechanics’ Bank and a collection of respectable, conservative Democrats rallied against Kansas-Nebraska. So did a young Samuel J. Tilden, sacrificing many friendships in the party to do so.
  • Cleveland’s citizens resolved that the Nebraska bill horrified all Ohio and wrote to the Greeley’s paper that any Congressman who cared vote for Douglas’ bill would be run out of the state. In Cincinnati, on the other end of the state and within sight of the South, a thousand “unquestioned and adamantine” Democrats agreed.
  • Four hundred Chicagoans, led by a former mayor who led rallies for Douglas in 1850 denounced the bill. One of Douglas’ friends addressed their meeting, calling himself an Old Hunker Democrat as he did. When loyal Douglas men tried to organize a counter meeting, the drew a crowd that declared their support for the Little Giant in all things but Nebraska. In Quincy, foes of the bill took over a pro-Douglas meeting and passed resolutions damning him.

These men once fell over themselves to declare how much they hated abolitionists and supported the rights of the South. But the South had its rights and now demanded more, at the expense of the North’s rights. The partition of the West back in 1820 saved the Union and promised both sections a future beyond the Mississippi. This could not stand and they resolved to fight and went beyond public meetings and resolutions to do it. From late January of 1854, these men assembled fundraising apparatuses, circulated petitions, and reached out to other groups of like mind in different places.  This went beyond protest; they consciously constructed a political movement and self-consciously cast themselves as latter-day committees of correspondence. They would rouse the North against Stephen Douglas and his monstrous bill literally selling their future and their rights as white men to slavery. The future of their Republic hung in the balance.

For maybe the first time, a large portion of the white North agreed with free soilers and abolitionists that the slave power, working behind closed doors, schemed nefariously to subvert the nation. The Accomplished Architect, it appeared, had devised his own ruin.

Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.

Burying the Bill

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever Sam Houston (123456), John Bell (123456789), Salmon P. Chase (1,2345678910), Charles Sumner, or William Seward said against it, the KansasNebraska bill passed the Senate. Usually when slavery stepped into the limelight, getting bills through the Senate took more doing so one might think that Stephen Douglas had smooth sailing from the vote on the morning of March 4 over to Franklin Pierce’s desk. But the repeal of the Missouri Compromise turned the law from one that first proposed to open up land for new free states into a bill that opened land for new slave states. southern opposition, so powerful in the Senate, had successfully transformed a clean and relatively uncontroversial bill into the proslavery cause of the moment. Southern senators, save for Bell and Houston, lined up to vote for the valentine they wrote themselves.

That same dynamic worked the other way in the House, with its northern majority. The same passions that drove the Senate debate played out here. Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats had the signatures of representatives on it and those men, if signing only for themselves, expressed broad fears in doing so. Fears about the slavepower, with its undue influence on national events thanks to the Senate and the 3/5 Compromise, combined smoothly with the fact that Douglas persisted in claiming that the nation abandoned the Missouri Compromise in 1850. The North as a whole had never done any such thing. Stephen Douglas himself knew that it hadn’t, but kept up the story. That could only make him look more suspect of secret plans. What really went on when Douglas went to F Street? Or to the White House? With the benefit of distance, we can see that Douglas engaged in relatively ordinary political horse trading but at the time and with the nation’s future very much in doubt, he had to look like an Accomplished Architect of Ruin.

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

And this from a Congress the North seated on a status quo platform? What happened to the finality of the Compromise acts? With northerners already chafing under the Fugitive Slave Act and the ways it forced them to compromise their democratic institutions in the name of slavery, they now had to accept yet more? While asked to swallow all of this, the North also had to deal with the spectacle of repeated attempts to steal Cuba (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Nicaragua (1, 2, 3), and James Gadsden’s expedition to buy enough land from Mexico for still more slave states (1, 2, 3). If Kansas went for slavery, then with it and Missouri as a firewall New Mexico and Utah would soon adopt the institution. Gadsden’s newly purchased land would inevitably become a new slave state or states. From North of the Ohio river and the Mason-Dixon line, it looked very much like the South had commenced an open campaign to pack the Congress with slave states, undo the hard-fought status quo, and abolish free soil. If they took Kansas and Nebraska, why not Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, or Indiana?

If the South declared war on freedom, the North would fight. Northerners by and large had accepted a nation half free and half slave. Only a hated minority of abolitionists proposed uprooting slavery in states where it already existed. Now southern men would not give them the same courtesy. Few northern men would stand for that. They would not lightly sell their future or surrender their freedom to a band of slaveholding aristocrats, who would degrade their labor by putting it in competition with slave labor.

The northern majority in the House knew that.  On March 21, 1854, the House referred the Senate’s bill to committee. Normally it would go to the Committee on Territories, but the House referred it to the Committee of the Whole and buried it under a pile of other bills in the hope that it would never come to a vote. Maybe they could ride this all out.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.

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.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Eight

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Having floated his plan to redraw the Missouri Compromise line a bit further north, so both sections could have a state or two added in time, Tennessee’s John Bell took aim at men who considered themselves the great humanitarians of the age. They wrote and spoke endlessly about the evils of slavery. Their scruples, however, vanished when it came to depriving Indians of land:

Several honorable Senators have spoken strongly and eloquently of the duty of observing sacredly and inviolably all the obligations attaching to a certain compact, or understanding, entered into many years ago between the two great sections of the Union; and some of them, in their appeals to the people upon the subject, denounce any violation of that understanding as dishonorable. Yet when it is proposed to violate the public faith plighted to the feeble Indian tribes on the frontier, not a word is interposed to save the honor of the country. We hear no appeal appeal to the sympathy or the justice of the country on their behalf. While the Senate Chamber rings with stirring appeals upon the subject of the wrongs of the African, the wrongs of the Indian are passed by in silence! No memorials are presented in his behalf. Yet, are not these Indians, men? Are they not our brethren, of the human race, like the African? Are they not born with the same equality of rights -inalienable as those of the African or the white man?

Bell had a point. The Appeal focused on the evil of giving land that rightly belonged to white men over to slaves and their masters. Depriving Indians did not enter into it. But then one would not hear John Bell go on about the relief of his African slaves either. Depriving Indians did not enter into that either.  When it came to his own property and his own institutions, Bell found plenty of room for distinction. He means to call free soilers and antislavery men hypocrites, not to set a standard for his own behavior. If pressed, he could probably give any number of reasons why black Americans deserved and even benefited from slavery and like reasons why it did not suit American Indians.

The situations look similar to us and touch on many of the same issues, but we should resist the temptation to view them as identical. Both involve great injustice sanctified by the racism of the time. Both involve many atrocities, large and small. Both contributed powerfully to the development of the United States. Both forced population transfer and slavery look to us like the acts of one of the great twentieth century touchstones of evil: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. But not all crimes against humanity are the same, even if they all horrify us. Population transfer, or ethnic cleansing to give it the name popular when I attended high school, involves a great deal of suffering and can certainly reach the level of attempted genocide. Bell himself saw that, and welcomed it, as the eventual fate of the American Indian.

But ethnic cleansing doesn’t usually involve slavery. Though white Americans did at times enslave Indians, either by name or in everything but name, they did not do so on the same scale as they did imported Africans. Nor did they engage in concerted, large-scale campaigns to wipe black Americans out or exile them to remote corners of the continent where they could die quietly. The colonization movement tried to exile them back to Africa, a continent they saw as foreign as any white American did, but never became the dominant strategy for solving white America’s African problem. The two situations overlap, and involve many horrors of similar gravity, but do also substantively differ.

In saying that, one invites the question of which party had it worse? Who wins the Oppression Olympics and thus deserves the fullest attention of our conscience. I have thought so myself. Separation does imply morally meaningful distinctions. One might call separate inherently unequal, following the logic of Brown. But on further consideration, understanding the past requires us to accept these distinctions where they existed. White Americans treated black Americans and American Indians very differently even if it treated both very horribly. We should not let our understandable and, I think, laudable desire to condemn both to blind us to the facts.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Seven

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6)

After reassuring Stephen Douglas that he meant no offense in speculating about the Little Giant’s big dreams, Tennessee’s John Bell set himself on the real issue at stake. He might care about not giving the United States a reputation for breaking treaties, about not giving away all the public land in the nation, and about not opening new land for settlement before the land already opened to whites had filled up. They all seem like reasonable concerns for a man of his time and persuasion. Sam Houston (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) shared most of them just as credibly. But like Houston, Bell ultimately came around to the elephant in the corner: repealing the Missouri Compromise.

Bell started by regretting that he had to. He avoided the topic last session, when Douglas tried to hurry through a repeal-free Nebraska bill at the eleventh hour. Now another eleventh hour had come, just a year later, and John Bell would stay silent no longer. He never wanted to reopen discussion of slavery in the west, but Salmon P. Chase had wrestled slavery back into the limelight.

The nation at the time of the Missouri Compromise (via Wikimedia Commons)

The nation at the time of the Missouri Compromise (via Wikimedia Commons)

Indian removal, Bell told the Senate, succeeded in avoiding sectional tensions because it split the territory given away to Indians in perpetuity equally. The South lost land west of Arkansas that could have made a state or two. The North lost land west of Missouri that could have made a state or two. Since each section lost equal territory, pledged to slavery for the South and freedom for the North, neither side came off at a disadvantage.

Any map will tell you that the South actually conceded more of the Louisiana Purchase land than the North did. Bell had to know that. But he had a point in that both sides had, in principle, surrendered land explicitly reserved for them. The curious fact that they gave up on it in the very act of reserving it to their sections didn’t change that and the notion fits neatly alongside the compromise’s actual goal of keeping the Senate equally divided between slave and free states. By opening up the Indian territory for white settlement, the question of whether the Missouri Compromise should stand naturally arose.

It so happened, Bell told the Senate, that while all the land given up by North and South alike belonged to the Indians forever, Indians had mostly come to the section of it west of Arkansas, essentially modern Oklahoma minus the panhandle. Stephen Douglas’ bill did not propose to organize that territory. Bell could concede that oversight, since so many Indians did live there. Nobody forced them to settle there instead of further north. It just happened.

So what should the Senate do with the less-settled northern reaches of the Indian country if it would not leave that land to the Indians?

if this territory is not to remain Indian territory, equal justice to the South would seem to require that such guarantees should be voluntarily conceded by the North as would secure to the South the formation of a slave State, should the country turn out to be adapted to slave labor, as an equivalent for the loss of one south of the line of the Missouri compromise. And if the experiment should show that the country presented no adequate inducement to the introduction of slave labor, and it should become a free State, then the South could not complain if the North should profit by those circumstances which now seem to demand that the territory should change its destination, and become the possession and abode of the white instead of the red man.

In other words, the Senate should replace the Missouri Compromise with nothing less than the Missouri Compromise all over again, but moving the compromise line northward. Maybe it would run from Missouri’s northern border this time around. As a compromise, that had some potential. It fit with the historical norms. It would not give over all the white North’s future lands to slavery. Maybe in other times it could have worked, but Dixon, Phillips, and F Street had offered the South the whole loaf. Bell’s eleventh hour concession prize might have kept the North from the outrage that ensued and passed with fewer fireworks, but it came too late for any of that.

Or it might have come still to naught, as Bell left open the chance for a state given over to the South to turn free if its residents wanted. Exactly that did happen in the end, if not quite the way Bell intended.