Stringfellow, his Platte County Self-Defense Association compatriots, and American whites in general had a wide panoply of legal means to control American blacks. Their edicts ran through slave codes in the South and various state laws in the North that enforced forms of segregation, reserved voting to white men alone, even barred all blacks from some states, and otherwise comfortably situated white supremacy at the heart of the body politic. Stringfellow’s northern neighbors could have told him a thing or two about how to manage blacks in the absence of slavery.
But the stability and security of slavery did not rest on the control of blacks alone. That same control had to extend, if in sometimes more sophisticated and subtle ways, to poor whites who might otherwise use their vote to remove slavery and blacks alike from their presence. Stringfellow appreciated that risk and declared that the self-defense to which his association pledged itself included defense against giving those whites any such ideas. The association thus promised that it would not suffer the sun to set on any whites within its reach who took to antislavery agitation.
What did that mean for the rights of white men, enshrined in the Constitution? In one sense, it meant very little. In the nineteenth century, states had no obligation to extend any federal right whatsoever to their citizens. They could if they so wished, but could extend some or none and remove them just as freely. The familiar rights of modern Americans did not come slowly out from their paper tomb until the twentieth century.
All that said, Americans of the time still believed they had rights and took the exercise of them seriously even if they lacked the full legal superstructure that we would expect. That extended, in some ways, even to the oligarchs riding high on brutally oppressive slave societies. Some things, Americans just ought not to do.
Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.
We believe in your rights as Americans. We believe in the rule of law. But as no law yet forbids expressing abolitionist ideas, we must take the law into our own hands. Your right to speak does not trump our right to hold slaves.
This speaks to the essential trade-off between slavery and freedom, as understood by many nineteenth century Americans. Black slavery required not just the subjugation of blacks, but also the compromise of white freedom. The slaveholders would take that trade, accepting less freedom for a class of whites in order to secure no freedom for blacks and the freedom to hold slaves for themselves.
Antislavery whites perceived the exchange just the same way: preserving slavery meant sacrificing white freedom. Nor did the trade appear to happen once, but rather it looked more and more as years went on that additional sacrifices would always come. Slavery, once tolerated under the Missouri Compromise, suddenly demanded all of the Mexican Cession. Then it demanded all the nation’s unorganized territory. What would it demand next? If they too must knuckle under to the despot in his plantation house to keep him in his slaves, then they wanted no part of his freedom to have them and would work if not to end it then at least to curtail its reach and power over their lives.
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