Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

James Madison

James Madison

Thomas Fleming gave the waiting world two roads clear of the American Civil War. The first, compensated emancipation, probably makes sense to most people who hear of it. The state buys all the slaves and sets them free, thus directly eliminating slavery. The second road, dispersion or diffusion, lacks the intuitive virtue of the first. Fleming explains:

James Madison’s remarkable intellect had created most of our Constitution. Watching the New England states, then New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania pass laws gradually abolishing slavery with no backlash from the white population or outbreak of violence from the freed slaves, Madison noted that in all these states slaves and slaveowners were a distinct minority of the population. No one paid the owners anything to free their supposed property. The slaves were emancipated by a majority vote of a state’s population or its legislature.

Madison concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.

Fleming sets Madison’s “remarkable intellect” against Thomas Jefferson’s famously poor political judgment, which included banning slavery in the Northwest Territory. In doing so, he strikes at the root of the difficulty with the dispersion argument. Proponents ask their audiences, then and now, to believe that the production of slave states without limit will weaken slavery and ease it toward abolition. In other words, the nation should have thrown the commonwealth, every particle of dirt from the Appalachians to the Pacific, wide open to slavery. By the production of at least a score of new slave states, slavery would somehow melt away despite the obviously dramatic boost this would give to the always powerful proslavery interest within the United States government.

Maybe James Madison could believe that. He had, as Fleming rightly notes, the example of the New England and Mid-Atlantic emancipations. In each case, marginal slave systems unable to reorient all of white society around themselves ended without great turmoil. Any new state would by definition lack a large population, yet have plenty of cheap land freshly stolen from the Indians and ripe for white exploitation. The labor shortage would promote the establishment and growth of slavery, inducing enslavers to import the enslaved from older states just as labor shortages in the Chesapeake and Caribbean had once prompted the same transport across the Atlantic. That northern enslavers frequently sold their human property South in advance of the scheduled date of emancipation, often in defiance of the law, further proved the point.

But the facts soon leave the diffusionists behind. They identified a dynamic that would pull slaves to new territories and away from old, but all the way back to the first census we know that the whole of the North then had only 40,000 slaves to move. This came to just over two percent of the total population. While an impressive number, more than the entire population of the county in which I live, it pales next to the South’s 657,000. That came to a third of the Southern population and about the same as my Congressional district, or significantly more than the state of Wyoming. It ought to go without saying that removing the greater portion of third of the population that the South enslaved would take more doing, if one could do it at all.

Furthermore, diffusion assumes a sort of antislavery asymmetry between the sources of slave supply and the slave demand generated by newly opened frontiers. The new states must have enough enslavers ready to move in with or import slaves to significantly exceed the capacity of the states supplying the slaves to produce new slaves. Given American optimism about the frontier, that assumption must have come easily. While the comparatively massive slave population of the South might make us a bit skeptical, at the time Americans imagined the whole continent available for their future use. Surely that could drain away the slaves.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Or could it? The Northwest Ordinance did bar slavery from part of the continent, but south of the Ohio no such ban existed. Here virgin frontiers full of whites hungry for slaves and the money they could wring from enslaved lives beckoned. Furthermore, that frontier held land well-suited to the most lucrative crop available to Americans: cotton. Indeed, it held most of the land well-suited to that crop. If the Old Southwest came in short of all North America for making dispersion dreams come true, then it still provided a nigh-ideal test case. All the land of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and then Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas ought to suffice in draining away at least enough slaves to make a dent.

Yet we don’t observe any significant reduction in proslavery fervor or in the slave populations along the Atlantic. Quite the opposite, even the dispersionists’ Virginia home seems more committed to slavery in perpetuity in the late Antebellum than in earlier decades. And why should the Upper South get rid of slavery? Tobacco had seen better days, true enough, but the chillier reaches north of the Cotton Kingdom had discovered a new cash crop which proved adequately profitable: slaves. While many of those slaves went to satisfy demand on the frontier, just as dispersionists hoped, the demographics don’t lie. Virginia had more slaves in 1860 than ever before, not less. It transpired that, whatever wistful dreams enslavers had about their states growing whiter, they still found profit the more congenial of their principles. Increasing the demand for slaves beyond what their local labor market dictated could both induce them to keep an enslaved population around for breeding purposes and encourage others to get into the business. Thus we see dispersion not shifting slavery, but simply expanding it. The same holds true in South Carolina, where losing out in the demographic race to younger states meant not a reduced commitment to slavery but rather an intensification of an already deep preference for the institution.

For that matter, even if dispersion had shifted slavery that didn’t necessarily point to an end of slavery. North American only goes so far. By the dispersionists own logic, concentration of slavery breeds commitment to slavery and renders emancipation impossible. Eventually the United States would have run out of land to steal, or found the rest taken up by empires that could win a war against it. Those empires might not permit slavery, and indeed both of the country’s continental neighbors came around to that position. With the frontier run out, slavery must concentrate and produce a polity committed to its perpetuation. The only road open to diffuse slavery away then would involve expanding it back into marginal areas and, ultimately, places that had freed themselves of bondage.

James Madison might not have lived long enough to settle in his mind that diffusion would not work, but Thomas Fleming has no excuse for pushing such an old, clearly discredited argument. Americans tried the experiment and got more slavery more enthusiastically embraced, not less. Nobody kept the demographics secret. They, and the Upper South’s embrace of slave cultivation as well as cultivation by the enslaved, feature prominently in more than a half century of scholarship. Fleming can’t have missed that, unless he chose not to burden himself with the laborious task of cracking a book on the subject. He may, if he so wishes, unburden himself. Novelists can write what they like with the understanding, shared between author and audience, that they produce fiction.

Fleming did not present himself as a making things up in the service of an entertaining story or offering up contemporary arguments as intellectual curiosities. All through his essay he seems entirely in earnest, understanding himself and expecting readers to understand him as a competent historian commenting on a subject of his study. His arguments concern history and use historical reasoning; they deserve that charity to the best of my admittedly amateur’s ability to provide it. Perhaps in his work on the Revolutionary era, which seems the main focus of his study, fares rather better under such scrutiny. I lack the familiarity both with his work and with the subject in general to comment upon them. I fear, however, that Fleming’s two roads represent the high point of his essay. It gets worse.

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2 comments on “Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

  1. Al Mackey says:

    Because nothing leads to the extinction of something like making sure it’s everywhere. 😉

    We have more handguns all over the place than at any other time in our history. I suppose Mr. Fleming thinks handguns are just about to disappear.

    • It might have lead to the extinction of abolitionists, given how slave societies policed themselves. If the rest of the piece is a good indicator, that might be the outcome Fleming really prefers.

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