The Radical Demands of Moderates

Lincoln on the day of the Cooper Union speech.

Lincoln on the day of the Cooper Union speech.

Threats of disunion, as the Georgia Platform shows, came not just from the fire-eaters but from Southern Unionists. They maintained their loyalty to the Union, but also made it clear that their loyalty to slavery came first. Should the Union endanger that paramount loyalty, not just in the South or in the territories, but in the North itself, the Unionists would throw in with the fire-eaters.

The Georgia platform anticipates Lincoln’s House Divided speech. For the convention and for Abe alike, the Union could not permanently endure half slave and half free. The free states must become party to the enforcement of slavery via James Mason’s new Fugitive Slave Act, on which Georgia hung its acceptance of Armistice and Union. Perhaps that would not make free states fully slave, but in serving as accessories to slavery right down to the ordinary person on the street, they could likewise no longer be fully free.

I’m reaching into their future again, but Lincoln grasped this dynamic’s persistence in later years as well, speaking in part of the same men who saved the Union in 1850:

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Antislavery opinion and action, however limited, simply could not continue whatsoever. More than that, though, the fact that the Fugitive Slave Act conscripted anyone around to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves entails a demand for more than silence. The South, if not every Southerner and every place equally, asked not Northern non-interference but required instead that the North join it and become Southern legally and, given the deep hold slavery had on Southern life, culturally as well. Sectional peace required Massachusetts abolitionists to join the John C. Calhoun fan club and learn to speak with a proper accent, at least when company came around.

We probably all want others to share our values. We may find it boring to no longer have anyone to disagree with, but I think most of us would hazard that boredom if we had the chance. That said, I have a lot of trouble reading a condition as intrusive and extensive as embodied in the new law as not really a modus vivendi for equal partners to coexist so much as a demand for eternal capitulation. Should enforcement of the law carry on with the thoroughness that the Georgia Platform seems to hope for, how would the “free” states differ from white belt areas of slave states like the future West Virginia? And the North must accept that or accept secession?

I write with the benefit of hindsight, but just reading the law and how the Georgia Platform treats it leaves little room to differ unless they had some mix of simply not caring one way or the other about slavery, preferring it to manage black people, preferring it to the threat of having black people near them, and expecting the mooting of the law through non-enforcement. To the best of my knowledge, the North contained plenty of people who believed some mix of those things. We can include men like David Wilmot and Abraham Lincoln among them, to some degree. Antislavery views did not entail, however strange it appears to us, any kind of racial egalitarianism or anti-racism. One could certainly hate and fear black people and still not think they deserved slavery, or oppose it only on the grounds that it posed a threat to the success of white people. David Wilmot did.

If imagining Southerners complexly requires giving them credit for some Unionism, even of they ended up with paramount loyalty to slavery, then imagining Northerners complexly requires we admit their own diverse priorities. For rather few of them did opposing slavery, even during the war, trump all other concerns. We might want better from them. I know that I do. I would much rather find modern anti-racist egalitarianism in the nineteenth century to both improve my estimation of figures I feel some personal political affinities with and more importantly for the obvious corollaries entailed in more enlightened ideas prevailing sooner in our history. But they lived when they lived, did what they did, and wrote and believed what they wrote and believed just like everyone else.

The Slave Power Conspiracy

Yesterday I described various setbacks to the antislavery movement over the course of the 1850s. Space did not permit also including much of how they understood these setbacks. (I try to keep these posts to about five hundred words.) But they saw writing on the wall just the same as their Southern adversaries did.

Accepting the nomination to run for Stephen Douglas’ senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln summed it up:

Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision [that the Constitution forbade the states outlawing slavery] is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

The next Dred Scott case had already come up through the New York courts, appealed by Virginian slaveholders who had their slaves freed under that state’s law. Given Taney’s firm commitment, on display in Dred Scott, to resolving the issue of slavery once and for all who could doubt the outcome of Lemmon vs. New York when it arrived on his docket in 1860?

These events all looked very much like a deliberate design, which the antislavery movement came to call the Slave Power Conspiracy. Though he did not use the name, Lincoln described it in the same speech:

But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen,—Stephen [Douglas], Franklin [Pierce], Roger [Taney], and James [Buchanan], for instance,—and we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortises exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few, not omitting even scaffolding—or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in—in such a case we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.

And of course, he told us where this must lead:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Traditionally historians have dismissed Lincoln’s fears as campaign rhetoric, but over the past few decades the trend, as with many trends in Civil War historiography, has greatly reversed. While I don’t think many would endorse the view that a conscious, deliberate conspiracy to turn free states slave existed, the outcome naturally follows from slaves being property and the Constitution’s guarantee of property rights. John C. Calhoun’s vision of an America where he could take his wagon, his horse, and his slave anywhere in the nation and be completely secure in his ownership of them all does look like where the Congress and Court aimed. In that America, a free state is a legal impossibility.