The Democracy’s Slavery Problem, Part Two

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Two weeks of consultation in Washington got Andrew Reeder nothing more than a promise that if Franklin Pierce dismissed him from the governorship of Kansas, he would claim Reeder’s shady real estate dealings as the reason. That concession looks perverse to us, but Pierce may have meant well by it. Nineteenth century politics involved corruption at least close to the point of self-parody. That Reeder used his post in an attempt to enrich himself may have painted him as a crooked character, but crooked characters might have enjoyed a brighter future in the Democracy of the 1850s than antislavery men. This spoke to the centrality of the slavery issue at the time, unlike past decades, but also to the deeper nature of the Democracy’s ideological commitments.

The antebellum Democracy upheld, per John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1860: states rights on the national level, limited government on the local level, popular control of all government, and resistance to projects of moral reform dictating choices to private individuals. These ideals, and others, did not demand an adherence to slavery. Nor did one necessarily have to read proslavery politics into them, even if the party’s heroes, Jefferson and Jackson, both owned slaves. The simple fact that black people, their lives and freedom, counted for precious little to most white Americans went a long way toward enabling slavery on its own. The Democracy’s ideology never demanded from the national party a full-bore defense of slavery as necessary or good. Attempts to require the national party to sign on to such a platform led, by design on the part of some of its proponents, directly to its split in 1860. If the Democracy had a specific ideological commitment to slavery, it may never have risen as a national party at all. Had it, in some strange world, managed both the proslavery platform and national political success, one struggles to imagine a homely nobody from Illinois taking up residence at the White House in 1861.

But Ashworth draws an important distinction here. While the Democracy did not adopt slavery qua slavery, each of its key ideals served to implicitly protect slavery. The party mainstream might have thought John C. Calhoun a dangerous crank. Those outside the hard core of proslavery southerners certainly chafed over the way in which that powerful, often the most powerful, faction exerted its influence. Despite these complaints, and dissenters of the David Wilmot and Salmon P. Chase stripes aside, the Democracy as a whole functioned as a proslavery institution. Each key point of Democratic ideology had its proslavery consequences, something Ashworth remarks “was no random effect.”

Thus limited government and state’s rights, if strictly adhered to, removed the threat to slavery from Washington and as a consequence from any potentially hostile northern majority that might be formed. The insistence upon individual autonomy in the moral sphere allowed Democrats to demand that individual white males be allowed to decide whether or not they should own black slaves without any legal coercion from government. The Democratic doctrine that all should be left undisturbed by government in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour was invaluable to slaveholders, since, as we have seen, it ignored the existence of the slave and simultaneously removed from view the inequalities generated by slaveholding.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

One could add that if states’ rights took threat to slavery from Washington off the table, then limited government in the states further removed it from state legislatures. Who then remained to enact emancipation? For some, this remained the purview of the Almighty. They may have genuinely believed it possible that divine intervention would remove slavery, and of course the slaves, but one doesn’t imagine them holding their breath waiting for it.

The result was that the Jeffersonian tradition operated not directly or explicitly to promote slavery but rather to disable antislavery. Slavery was an unrecognised or invisible underpinning, an unacknowledged condition of Jeffersonian and Democratic thought. In consequence, the northerner who had no interest in slavery but who accepted this creed was likely to end by defending southerners’ rights to hold their slaves, unmolested by the federal government and unchallenged by abolitionism. Such at any rate was the situation until the advent of the territorial question in the 1840s.

Even as slavery became the dominant issue, northern democrats often returned to this well. They grew up believing it. They bought into the party that preached it, wagering their futures, their fame, and their fortunes on its tenets. Franklin Pierce did not need the deep ideological underpinnings of the Democracy’s implicit proslavery agenda to refuse Andrew Reeder any help with the Missourians marauding about Kansas, stealing elections and lynching people. But his actions make more sense in light of them. So also do those of many Democrats, from Stephen Douglas on down, trying to navigate the increasing political confusion of the 1850s. Even a person who decided on the moral abhorrence of slavery could, through orthodox reading of the Democracy’s doctrines, adopt a strong position against opposing it in the political realm.

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