The Border South’s Great Test

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Initially, Southerners from farther afield than Kansas did not have great hopes for planting slavery there. They felt bound by honor to support the Missouri slaveholders in their quest for security, but few believed that Kansas would turn into the next Kentucky, let alone the next Arkansas or Mississippi. It sat so far north, exposed even more than Missouri, and on the edge of the great American desert. What man in his right mind thought that plantation agriculture could take hold there?

The Missouri slaveholders thought so, but they had firsthand experience. As other southerners came into Kansas, they learned that the Missouri men had the right of it. If plantations could profit in the Missouri valley just over the line, they could profit just as well in Kansas. Even where the Missouri did not reach, Kansas had other rivers of similar promise. More appealing still, over in Missouri they had worked the land for a generation. Most of the Kansas land that drew the eye remained untouched forest. Desert nothing, Kansas offered up lands with as much potential as those in any border state.

That revelation had mixed effects on the wider South. It meant that more southerners might come, both wealthy men on their second or third plantation and small farmers hoping to strike it big. That could only please the slaveholders of the Missouri frontier, as those settlers would vote accordingly. It would shore up southern support for their cause on the national stage, pushing it from a periphery issue only of concern to Missourians closer to the central interest of the white South in preserving slavery in an increasingly hostile Union.

But seeing more genuine potential in Kansas also linked its fate much more closely to that of the border states. Already too chilly for cotton or sugar, those states made do with the smaller profits of hemp and tobacco. Their slaves drained away to more southerly climes and Yankee free labor came in. They all stood exposed, easy prey for slave stealing abolitionists and all too easy for slaves to steal themselves from. If southerners could not make a go of Kansas, that did not just augur poorly for Missouri’s slavery. What would it say about Kentucky’s slavery? Maryland’s? Delaware’s? What about Virginia? All of them seemed to be moving in a generally northward direction. The doom of Kansas would foretell the doom of the entire Border South. The more southerners saw of Kansas, the more reasonable B.F. Stringfellow’s dire warnings about a wave of abolition overthrowing the south sounded and the more tolerable his and Atchison’s antics seemed.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Slaveholders could endure as a minority, but it took some doing. They could appeal to white racial solidarity. By making black people slaves, they made all white men equals. They could appeal to racial survival, for surely enslaved blacks would rise up if freed and destroy civilization. But both appeals weakened as the number of black people around to frighten the whites shrank, and the border states had the whitest populations in the South. The hard sell could work better, intimidating antislavery whites into silence. State constitutions rigged to subvert democracy by granting extra influence to slaveholding minorities helped too. If all else failed, violence could play its role.

Even the most starry-eyed Missouri slaveholder probably did not expect to build and maintain a slaveholding majority in Kansas, but if they could get in at the ground floor and rig the system for slavery then they might hold on indefinitely. It had worked in Missouri so far. It had even worked in tiny Delaware, where free blacks greatly outnumbered their enslaved brethren. A little subversion of the white man’s democracy worked at home. Why not next door? If it continued working elsewhere, it could in Kansas. If it failed in Kansas, then it must eventually fail elsewhere.

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