Goode for Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

In defending Atchison, or castigating Blair, George Goode declared himself above and beyond party matters. He spoke as a statesman grappling with the great issue of the day. He declared himself neither for nor against Thomas Hart Benton. He would just stand to oppose what he saw lurking within the Bentonian arguments for silence on slavery and freedom in Kansas: the dark spirit of abolitionism. Goode laid it on a bit thick:

With the controversy between the Benton and anti-Benton parties, I do not presume to interfere. My purpose at present is to accept some of the implied issues as made by my colleague from St. Louis, (Mr. Blair,) and to discuss them with fairness, free from the bias of party, and solely with the view to elicit an expression or procure a demonstration of the feelings and opinions of this body on the great questions whether we shall maintain our present position, preserve our civil and social organization, the peace and quiet, the prosperity and happiness of our people, or whether we will jeopardize all these by countenancing and tolerating the action of those who would revolutionize our society, and change radically our social and political relations. This is the main issue and to this I shall mainly direct my remarks. I shall endeavor to avoid all mere party issues; the interest involved is above party.

Goode certainly thought a great deal of himself and enjoyed the sound of his own voice. My copy of his speech goes on for about twenty pages. But neither vice sets him apart from politicians then or now. While we might also roll our eyes at Goode’s claim to rise above party politics, when debating an election no less, he might have meant some of it. Atchison himself crossed party lines to protect slavery from Thomas Hart Benton by throwing his support to a Whig candidate for senator a few years prior. Within the South, even on its northwestern frontier, political success almost always required proving oneself safe for slavery.

Did that make the slavery question non-partisan? To the extent that all parties agreed, it surely did. Did that mean that white southerners of the time understood slavery as more than an issue, too grave to hazard at the ballot box? I don’t think one can read proslavery writings, even making generous allowances for hyperbole, and argue otherwise. For many southerners, slavery might include a political question, but rose above that into something more dear. For them, the question reached beyond policy into matters of basic existence. Would they have slavery, live, and prosper or would they face financial ruin and racial Armageddon?

We need not agree with them and endorse their opinions to understand that proslavery politicians, and the southerners who voted for them, really did believe this kind of thing. They faced an existential crisis. Subversion from within and antislavery pressure applied through the federal Union from without could some day kill them all. They lived under what they saw as a Sword of Damocles every bit as dire nuclear annihilation seemed at the height of the Cold War.

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