The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.


Taking an online course

Today I learned, via Kevin Levin, that Columbia is offering an online course in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Eric Foner will teach it. One can audit for free. Eric Foner! Free!


I have never done this online course thing before. I don’t know if I’ll care for it or what it will entail, aside watching videos, reading, and taking quizzes. But trying shall cost me nothing and I might gain much. I don’t anticipate that it will slow the pace of blogging, but it may. If so, I’ll try to give advance notice. I like to keep regular about these things.

The Slaver’s Lexicon (with insight from @Ed_Baptist)

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I’ve had this post hiding in the back of my skull for a while, possibly as far back as when I read Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume One. As I’ve yet to drink deeply from the fire hose of slavery historiography, I held off on writing it. Even after The Economist affair it sat quiet in some corner of my mind. But Kevin Levin turned over that stone with this post. He quotes Baptist’s book, which sounds still better every time I hear about it, on the nature of slavery:

Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)

The authors of slave narratives sometimes refer to stealing themselves. In comments, Kevin quotes Frederick Douglass on the matter:

I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.

Douglass certainly did that. He took another man’s property without permission by running away. But we seldom use that phrasing. I know that I have in the past, but rarely. More often we speak in terms of runaways. Children run away, but we know that they should be at home if everything has gone right. Livestock runs away. Trains and cars run away. In each case, we view these runaways as deviations from the natural order. Even saying someone has a runaway imagination carries with it at least a mild reproof. They’ve gotten carried away and abandoned good sense. Furthermore, each scenario implies a need for correction. Someone must stop, corral, find, or secure the runaway object or person.

Douglass famously made himself a fugitive. Fugitives have broken the law, making them criminals, but go a step farther still: They run from justice. They have not just done wrong, but even more completely isolated themselves from orthodox society by fleeing its corrective apparatus. Before advances in criminal justice, the common law made fugitives into outlaws and encouraged ordinary people who saw them to execute them at will. Though sanctioned by law and thus not technically lynching, such an execution might look much the same.

We take our cue on the latter from the fugitive slave act in labeling slaves that stole themselves, of course. People called them that at the time and it generally makes sense to use period terms rather than anachronisms. But in calling slaves who steal themselves runaways and fugitives, don’t we to some measure conceal the reality of slavery? The language suggests, even if we don’t intend it to, that a slave belongs to his or her master in the correct order of things. That may not raise problems when we characterize the views of slaveholders; we need not share someone’s views in order to report them.

But do we really stop with that language when we stop characterizing the views of slaveholders and switch to a more general voice? I don’t think that most of us do, myself included. We inherit the biases of our sources, which have a long history of privileging the master’s perspective over the slave. The last few generations of historians have made tremendous gains in reversing that trend, but these things often move slowly. Only in the last few years have we seen Hollywood move away from a faithfully Lost Cause depiction of slavery and the Confederacy. Defenses of slavery as something ultimately good for African-Americans remain current in some corners of American thought. One of them reached some fame this past year:

“And because they [Black Americans, though Bundy prefers the term ‘negro’] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Freedmen's Bureau cartoon

A cartoon attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for encouraging idleness

Less freedom than under slavery. Past generations didn’t even bother with the act, skipping right to simply calling black people lazy as the slaveholders did, even if they sometimes cloaked it in a scientific guise. Crude racism goes a long way toward accounting for this, but there are other human foibles at work. I suspect that most people flinch from a full-bore examination of the horrors of slavery. They don’t make for easy reading and lack the obvious immediacy that present day horrors have, even if we still live in the world they made. Looking away tends to preserve one’s impression of the peculiar institution as wrong in some vague, general sense rather than having a firm command of what it entailed that made it so wrong. This runs the risk of making slavery into a fairly venal sin, like cutting in line or using coarse language. By giving ourselves the luxury of obscurity we more easily inherit the language and attitudes of the very people and practices that otherwise condemn.

Changing the language will not change the reality, but it can help change our perception of reality. That might necessitate some kind of action. At the very least it raises one’s consciousness of the real, hard facts. This probably explains why most of us, myself included, don’t change our language.

The Election Returns

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We’ve run out of districts and so concluded examining the testimony of witnesses to the Howard Committee regarding the Kansas legislature election of March 30, 1855. What did all of this come down to? Obviously, everywhere except in the Seventeenth District, proslavery forces came over from Missouri and voted, often in very large numbers relative to the number of qualified voters in the district. They came armed. They threatened violence. They carried out some of those threats, to the point of attacking free-State men, taking others hostage, and storming polling places. They would not even let known proslavery Kansans choose their own tickets, but instead imposed their choices upon Kansas. David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and companies numbering in the thousands organized by their self-defense associations and blue lodges, and funded by well-heeled Missourian slaveholders trespassed so clearly and imperiously on the right of white men to their republic and self-government that they even alienated some of their fellow travelers.

The Howard Committee told the House

Of the 2,905 voters named in the census rolls, 831 are found on the poll-books. Some of the settlers were prevented from attending the election by the distance of their homes from the polls, but the real majority were deterred by the  open avowal that large bodies of armed Missourians would be at the polls to vote, and by the fact that they did so appear and control the election. The same causes deterred the free-State settlers from running candidates in several districts, and in others induced the candidates to withdraw.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

But did that matter? The Missourians won no friends when they came and stole the election for delegate, but by stealing it for John Whitfield, they only delivered the outcome that the Kansans themselves apparently preferred to the degree they cared at all. Working backwards from their testimony, surviving poll books (The sets for the Second and Eighth Districts had gone missing.), and the census rolls, the Committee reported

If the election had been confined to the actual settlers, undeterred by the presence of non-residents, or the knowledge that they would be present in numbers sufficient to outvote them, the testimony indicates that the council would have been composed of seven in favor of making Kansas a free State, elected from the 1st, 2nd, 3d, 4th, and 6th council districts. The result of the 8th and 10th, electing three members, would have been doubtful, and the 5th, 7th, and 9th would have elected three pro-slavery members.

The KansasNebraska Act set the size of the territorial council, which it had in the place of a Senate, at thirteen. Even giving the proslavery side every dubious district this would leave a council with a seven to six majority in favor of a free Kansas. That one vote majority might not have instantly abolished slavery and appropriated funds for secret abolitionist militias to invade Missouri and steal its slaves, perhaps with a few elections since they came across anyway, but even the worst case outcome makes for at least a slight antislavery victory.

The territory also had a House of Representatives with twenty-six seats:

Under like circumstances the House of Representatives would have been composed of fourteen members in favor of making Kansas a free State, elected from the 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th districts.

The results in the 12th and 14th representative districts, electing five members, would have been doubtful; and the 1st, 6th, 11th, and 15th districts would have elected seven pro-slavery members.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

That makes fourteen free state members to, repeating the previous generosity and giving every disputed seat to the proslavery side, twelve proslavery representatives. Again the free state party has at least a small majority, at absolute worst, and perhaps a more substantial one. Stealing the territorial delegate election annoyed Kansans, outraged them over the principle of self-government, and set them against the Missourians to some degree, but John Wilkins Whitfield would not shape the territory from his post in Washington. The legislature right there in Kansas clearly would and they had not chosen it. The Missourians took that task for themselves and delivered this verdict:

By the election as conducted, the pro-slavery candidates in every district but the 8th representative district received a majority of the votes; and several of them, both in the council and house, did not “reside in” and were not “inhabitants of” the district for which they were elected, as required by the organic law.

Injury alone would not suffice. Virtual unanimity in the legislature elected by their fraudulent votes did not suffice. The Missourians did not rest until they added the customary insult in the persons not only of illegal voters, but blatantly illegal officeholders. So much for Stephen Douglas’ hopes for popular sovereignty.

The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.

The Eighteenth District, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1 and 2

Maybe Arnet Groomes took David Rice Atchison’s missing knife and display of weaponry as just a bit of absentmindedness. Given the former senator also misplaced his army, he cuts a bit of a bumbling figure here. Possibly Groomes took Atchison’s remaining knives and guns as good reason not to make trouble. He might have just thought that if it came to a fight, he could handle Bourbon Dave and company. Regardless, he let them stay the night. The next day, they had a chat about Atchison’s purpose, revealing just what one would expect:

He said John Bold had sent for him to come up above, as there were persons coming over there all the time to take the polls. I asked what he was taking so many men up there for; and one of them said, I do not know which one, that they were going up there to guard the polls, and not let certain persons vote.

Like people actually living in Kansas that wouldn’t vote proslavery? Atchison of course meant to deter or drown out their votes, but Groomes introduces a new wrinkle distinct from the usual dreams of hordes of Emigrant Aid Society pauper mercenaries come to Kansas on false pretenses. In cross-examination, Groomes raised this interesting claim:

I judged, from what General Atchison said, that the persons referred to by John Boler were coming over form Iowa, but I do not know as that was so.

Most of the scholarship on Kansas matters focuses, for obvious reasons, on the Missourians. But I know Iowa served as a sometime base and haven for John Brown later on and recall a review of a recent book, Lowell J. Soike’s Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War, about the involvement of Iowa and Iowans. I haven’t read it, alas.

I don’t think we should take Bold/Boler’s comment entirely at face value, but some men might very well have come in from Iowa to counteract the Missourians. They hardly made their efforts a secret and spent any surprise they could have hoped for back when they needlessly stole the election for territorial delegate to Congress. Etcheson reports later on that Iowan college students chipped in to buy guns for Kansas free staters. It wouldn’t stretch credibility much to imagine earlier involvement, though the Howard Committee doesn’t seem to have inquired about such things, understandably given the scale of Missourian operations.

Groomes did make it to the election himself, if in the Fourteenth District (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), where

I saw one illegal vote given , and I objected to it very strongly. It was a man by the name of Charles Gilmor; when I objected, Colonel Craig was sitting in place of one of the judges or clerks who was gone to dinner I supposed. I objected to Cary Whitehead, one of the judges. They took the vote, and said I had no right to object. I asked them to swear him, and they said they had no right to swear him.

The Eighteenth District, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

We first met David Rice Atchison as Missouri’s senator. Unlike that state’s other long-serving man in he Senate, Thomas Hart Benton, Atchison took a firm proslavery position. This eventually alienated him from Benton, who preferred studied silence on slavery, and the two men went from cooperation to bitter enmity that culminated in Atchison and his supporters in the Missouri legislature joining forces with the Whigs to oust Benton from his seat. Benton had served Missouri in the Senate for as long as Missouri had a seat in that body and promptly came back to Washington to occupy a seat in the House.

Atchison celebrated his triumph by abandoning his customary opposition to organizing the territory west of his plantation home on the Missouri frontier. When Stephen Douglas got together an eleventh-hour attempt to organize that land in the spring of 1853, going so far as to ask the Senate to vote then and there and debate later so he could get the bill passed before its session expired. The session ran out all the same, but Atchison had changed his stripes. He cited inevitability and the impossibility of repealing the Missouri Compromise, but also that he may have had a few too many drinks.

Then Atchison went home and got an earful. They supported a proslavery man and they expected him to stay that way. Under no circumstances could Atchison remain proslavery if he would accept a den of slave-stealing abolitionists next door to their plantation homes. Bourbon Dave got right with slavery and went back to Washington demanding concessions from Douglas, which eventually culminated in a Kansas-Nebraska Act that struck down the Missouri Compromise Atchison considered a permanent fixture of American law just a year before.

Atchison’s exertions in Washington, and then back on the Missouri frontier resulted in the loss of his Senate seat, tying his future tightly to that of slavery in Kansas. If he could show that he’d won Missouri’s slavery the security its practitioners craved, then they might take him back in a few years. They had, ever all, elected a man with similar proslavery credentials to fill his spot. So Atchison found himself at the head of an army of 1,100 men in March of 1855. They swept through the Fourteenth District (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), where they set aside the local proslavery ticket for one of their own and Atchison loudly proclaimed that his men would vote or

kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

They voted and moved on, coming to the Eighteenth District. It seems there that Atchison saw no cause to repeat his murderous threats. He did, however, misplace his army. I don’t know quite how, as armies and car keys don’t have much in common, but stranger things have happened. A week before the election, he appeared on the doorstep of Arnet Groomes:

General David R. Atchison stopped with me to stay over night. A partner of Mr. Johnson, of Platte City, a General Dorris, introduced me to General Atchison. One of them asked to stay, and I refused; he said he had a company of men and had lost them, and wanted to stay all night. I said I was not fixed to do so. He said he would let his horses stay in the lot without anything to eat, and he would lay down on his blanket. I then said he could get down, and I would let him have what little I could.

How the mighty had fallen. A year ago, David Rice Atchison and his friends had control over the Senate. Now he had to beg to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere.

Groomes relented and let them into his house. Atchison and his companion quizzed him: had he seen their missing army? No, but he had passed through St. Joseph and seen them start into Kansas. They told him that they had asked around and nobody seemed to know where their wagons had gone.

Then Atchison did something that might have been innocent, but comes off decidedly creepy:

General Atchison took me with a candle to look in his blankets for a Bowie knife he said he had lost, and while he was looking for that I saw the handles of two or three Bowie knives and some revolvers. They were not on his person, but in his blankets, and he said he had lost one of his Bowie knives. I turned away when I saw that, as I was surprised to see a man with more than one knife or pistol.

I don’t know if Atchison genuinely lost a knife and wanted help finding it or not, but a stranger taking his host out in the dark and showing him a little arsenal like that has a strong hint of menace. Without using the words, Atchison let Groomes know that he could handle himself and came ready for trouble if Groomes offered it. This to a man who just opened his house to strangers.

The Eighteenth District, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

New readers, I’ve spent the last while digging through the 1856 Howard Report, commissioned by the House of Representatives to find out just what had gone wrong with the Kansas Territory since the KansasNebraska Act opened it to white settlement and, after thirty years of reserving it to freedom, also giving its settlers the chance to make it into a slave territory and thereafter a slave state. Since Kansas sat immediately adjacent to Missouri’s most enslaved region, and the slaveholders there feared that their own state slowly inclined more toward abolition, they took affirmative steps to ensure that actual Kansans did not have a decisive role in guiding their territory’s future. They organized in secret societies and crossed the border in great numbers, armed and ready to fight, to dominate Kansas’ elections. Occasionally they did fight, once to the point of trying to tear down a polling place, but more often terrorist threats and intimidation prevailed…at least so far as the legislative election of March 30, 1855 went.

The Eighteenth District did not benefit from thick white settlement in time for the election. D.H. Baker testified that he knew of only seventeen or eighteen settlers present. But a smaller voting population meant only fewer Missourians needed to fix the election.

Some persons there told me they were from Missouri, looking for claims, and had a camp about two miles off, but I was not in it. They told me there were about sixty of them. All I saw there were armed with shot guns, bowie knives, and pistols. I should think about forty voted. They said they came to hunt claims and vote. Some said they had taken claims, but I do not know as I have seen a man of them since.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

They intended to take claims. I have treated these nonce claims with skepticism in the past. By the letter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and governor Andrew Reeder’s instructions to the judges of election, a claim did not convey residence. That said, I learned from Nichole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era that as a practical matter staking a claim usually counted as sufficient evidence of intent to settle and intent justified voting. Had the Missourians made their claims in good faith, they would have had fair reason to cite typical frontier norms in resisting judges who followed Reeder’s instructions and demanded they show actual residence. Of course much relies on their having made the claims in good faith. Few did so.

Baker estimated that forty of the Missourians voted, which more than sufficed to carry an election boasting no more than sixty votes in all. Those numbers made the use of violence or threats unnecessary. Baker saw none. Everyone voted and went off. The presentation of arms, however, could serve as intimidation all the same. The Missourians all came packing and Baker clearly appreciates the unspoken threat. He remarks

A great many who go out on the prairie carry arms, and a good many do not. I came down here without any. All of them [the Missourians] had arms.

The frontier had its dangers and many Americans did go about armed to meet them, or just to give themselves some greater measure of psychological security. But Baker felt comfortable traveling across a considerably more violent Kansas a year after the election unarmed. The incongruity of the armed Missourian band forms a conspicuous contrast.

Did Stephen Douglas really tell a Chicago audience to go to hell?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Before I get into the usual, I want to offer a warm welcome to any new readers coming here courtesy of Ophelia Benson’s kind sharing of my posts about The Economist. Most of my writing concerns past injustices, if often those which often have relevance to us today. That naturally requires a fair bit of crawling through historical sources as well as using the work of historians. I do not count myself properly among the latter as I lack the usual training and credentials. I do aspire to accuracy, fairness, and to educate myself and others. I don’t know about others, but I’ve learned a great deal since I started this project. Please keep all this in mind when reading my posts and don’t hesitate to offer corrections, points not considered, or questions, or any other constructive feedback.

Also, as this post concerns correcting a past error of mine and trying to explore how it came about, new readers should know that usually my posts run more toward narrative and analysis than chasing a single quotation across multiple out of print books. I’m not always this boring.

That said, I must depart the Territory of Kansas and its incipient struggle over slavery in the early spring of 1855 and wind back the clock to September 1, 1854, just over one hundred and sixty years ago. Some time back, I wrote a post about Stephen Douglas holding a mass meeting in Chicago on the heels of his abolition of the Missouri Compromise in the KansasNebraska Act. By opening land previously reserved for free white men to settle to slavery, he won himself exactly as many friends among the free white men of the North as one might expect.

Douglas expected to have a tame meeting which would pass resolutions lauding him, or at least mollify his critics. The crowd did not oblige and instead heckled him mercilessly. Douglas lost his temper and began insulting them. Finally he concluded with this:

It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church and you may go to hell!

I made sure to share the story with all of my friends. The thought of a nineteenth century statesman losing his temper in public and telling critics to go to hell frankly tickles me. I got it from Allen Nevins’ The Ordeal of the Union, Volume Two: A House Dividing. He gave a citation, but I took him at his word.

It appears that I ought not have done so. Nichole Etcheson begins Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era with a brief recapping of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and reaction to its passage. She references Douglas’s rally:

On his return to the west, Douglas was unable to make himself heard among his own constituents. For two hours, hecklers in a Chicago crowd shouted him down as he attempted to speak. He finally gave up.

Recognizing the event, I dug into Etcheson’s endnotes to see if she mentioned Douglas’ behavior in more detail there. Etcheson knew the story but has bad news for those of us, herself included, entertained by the anecdote:

Alas, the delightful story that Douglas ended his attempts by informing the audience “It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church, and you may go to hell” appears to be a myth. Douglas actually finished speaking before midnight on a Friday evening.

Etcheson cites Rawley’s Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War. I don’t have Rawley to check, though his book sounds quite interesting and had I known about it a few weeks ago I might have gotten a copy. I do, however, have Nevins’ citations that I can look through. For the “go to hell” line he lists the Chicago Tribune of September 2. The Tribune has that issue scanned and online, if not in the best quality. Reading through it one sees how heavily Nevins depended upon the text. He follows its narrative very closely, hitting all the same high points. Nevins’ account runs on pages 337 and 338 if anybody has the book and wants to follow along. But the Tribune has nothing about that final line.

Obviously Nevins did not get the line from the Tribune. He also cites Milton’s Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless Warfirst printed in 1934 and last in 1963. This puts it in that frustrating vintage of books still within copyright but not likely to see reprinting. Occasionally universities digitize them anyway, but I had no luck finding Milton. I did find a review that described the book as very laudatory to Douglas, going so far as to claim that had he won the 1860 election he would have prevented the Civil War.

With Milton in unavailable, I have just Nevins’ final citation to work with, Allen Johnson’s Stephen A. Douglas from 1908. As the copyright on that work expired decades ago, Project Gutenberg has it:

At a quarter past eight, Douglas began to address the people. He was greeted with hisses. He paused until these had subsided. But no sooner did he begin again than bedlam broke loose. For over two hours he wrestled with the mob, appealing to their sense of fairness; but he could not gain a hearing. Finally, for the first time in his career, he was forced to admit defeat. Drawing his watch from his pocket and observing that the hour was late, he shouted, in an interval of comparative quiet, “It is now Sunday morning—I’ll go to church, and you may go to Hell!” At the imminent risk of his life, he went to his carriage and was driven through the crowds to his hotel.

Johnson’s admiration for Douglas comes across even in this brief passage, where he casts the crowd as clearly in the wrong and Douglas as nothing more than a calm voice of reason pushed too far. But the fact that he admired Douglas doesn’t mean Johnson just invented the line. He cites the September 6 New York Times. The Times archives live behind a paywall so I can’t get to them, but given the Tribune’s writer had things direct from the scene and published the very next day, and it had no reason to whitewash Douglas’ behavior on the matter, I give its version priority.

Thus, Gentle Readers, as best I can determine from the sources on hand Etcheson has the right of it and I told you a story that didn’t happen. Stephen Douglas did not tell his audience to go to hell. Nevins, Johnson, and I all appear to have had it wrong. Sorry.

A scene of slaveholder brutality #economistbookreviews

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, I’m sorry for this post. I read this passage years ago and it stuck with me ever since for the obvious reasons, but I don’t think I ever shared it. The content that follows can easily ruin one’s day. But in light of The Economist’s denial of the centrality of cruelty to slave production, I can’t continue letting it go. What follows is a period description of the whipping of a slave girl. It’s violent, graphic, and somewhat sexualized. It also includes the slaveholder’s favorite racial epithet. I hope we are all somewhat sensitive to these things, but if you are the kind of person who will suffer great personal trauma in reading it then I beg you to skip the post.

I take as my text William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. Therein he quotes Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park. Olmstead  toured the South and wrote a book of his observations:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

This is the history that The Economist wants to minimize and, ultimately, ignore. And keep in mind that Olmstead saw what his hosts felt comfortable displaying to a Yankee visitor.