Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Abigail Fisher, and the Power of Normal

This past week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher argues that the university’s practice of using race as a tiebreaker between equally qualified applicants denied her admission to the school. The standard in these things requires proof, often to a remarkable degree. To get satisfaction in a racial discrimination case rarely requires less than a miracle, as the Court has routinely held that one must show discriminatory intent, not merely effect. A barely competent white supremacist can easily dodge that bullet, as long as the white hood stays at home during the trial.

Fisher didn’t have to prove anything at all to make it to the high court twice over. One might think Fisher studied hard and lost her spot to someone skilled at the in the receipt of brain trauma with incidental carrying of a football, surely the more critical factor in the making of a scholar. One might think she got very lucky and benefits from a sea change in the Court’s thinking about these issues. But it turns out that Fisher simply did not qualify:

Although one African-American and four Latino applicants with lower combined academic and personal achievement scores than Ms. Fisher’s were provisionally admitted, so were 42 white applicants whose scores were identical to or lower than hers. Similarly, 168 black and Latino students with academic and personal achievement profiles that were as good as, or better than, Ms. Fisher’s were also denied, according to the university.

Even if Ms. Fisher had received the highest possible personal achievement score, she wouldn’t have gotten an acceptance letter. As the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals observed in a careful opinion, if Ms. Fisher had been a minority applicant, she still would have been rejected.

Abigail Fisher didn’t have the grades and get kicked aside by the stereotypical unqualified minority student. She couldn’t cut it, period. That holds true unless, of course, one considers her white skin a sufficient credential in itself.

These cases have a tedious ritual to them. The Court long ago rejected the idea that minority applicants, having an entire culture built around denying them advance and exploiting them ceaselessly, deserve treatment that reflects the disabilities white America has gleefully inflicted upon them. Instead one must argue that diversity makes for a better educational environment. Maybe so, but better for whom and how? All-white environments might reduce the prevalence of white supremacy, but that in itself would suffice to mobilize at least a political party against their reduction. Had the issue come to us ex nihilo, white America would possibly manage a historical first in not letting it entirely reorient American politics. More likely it would prompt one of those epoch-defining realignments. If diverse environments improve the success of minority students, that only further damns them.

Just ask the justices. John Roberts said it himself:

What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?

Strictly read, one can only say that a black student brings no unique perspective to physics. You needn’t be black or white to understand the material and, barring some kind of nineteenth century theory about race and intelligence suddenly turning true, one shouldn’t expect anything else. Nor, of course, does having a black student sitting next to a white one make the white any better at physics. Endowed with the same range of abilities and living in the same universe, why would race matter? And if race doesn’t matter, then why should we have a special effort to ensure diversity?

We do all live in the same universe. We all share the same range of ability. One can’t argue with the facts, though hardly a decade passes without a high-profile attempt to revive racial pseudoscience. But turn Roberts’ question around. He assumes the norm of an all-white physics class, where the inclusion of black students requires justification. Nothing about it strikes him as remarkable. And why should it? Whites-only environments remain the norm for probably most of white America. Ask us to go into a business with a whites only sign on the door, most of us would refuse. Tell us that our neighborhood forbade black residents and we respond with horror. We don’t put up those signs or sign those covenants anymore, which proves our virtue.

Or we could look honestly at our lives. How many of us actually live in diverse neighborhoods? How many of us patronized a minority-owned business today? How many of us have diverse social circles? The few of you who have a hand up at this point have done me one better. My entire section of the state constitutes a large de facto white only establishment. The arrival of a black family meant that sheriff’s deputies attended the high school for weeks. Small town America treasures its horrors, but I wager that unless one goes out of one’s way most white Americans live lives governed by Jim Crow. We don’t think about how we don’t mix; it simply doesn’t happen. We have arranged these things so that they operate invisibly. For us.

Just as we invented whiteness to deprive others, we constructed our normal to do the same. We made the all-white everything the default and thus defined our way into seeing inclusion as a burden we must suffer. So construed it becomes fundamentally disruptive, a kind of pollution we must purge from our lives. Whether we say the words or not, we have the white power inertia built into the system. It wouldn’t do for the races to amalgamate.

Antonin Scalia eschewed even the customary fig leaves:

“There are—there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a … slower track school where they do well,” he said. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer.”

In other words, the University of Texas has too damned many blacks blacking it up. They can’t deserve to attend or they would anyway, he declares like a dim-witted alien who just crash landed and doesn’t know how to work a history book. If we can get them out, then the court has done the university a public service. It’ll help black Americans too. Scalia, the kind patriarch, knows that they need special discipline. They don’t have the potential of other races and require different handling.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

This should all sound familiar. If Scalia didn’t quite go full-on nineteenth century, he came close enough. So do the legions of others who would agree, even explicitly for the less sophisticated, that efforts to redress centuries of racial plunder seek only

to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Alexander Stephens laid out an American as well as a Confederate creed, ancient in its faith and orthodox in its practice:

With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.”

We don’t appeal to divine design quite the same way now, but the most ancient and popular theology entails no more than discovering the will of gods in the sum of all the things we would have done anyway. An architect, or rather many, did work in building our society, choosing materials with malice aforethought. We need not see the architect at work to recognize the edifice. We do it every day though carefully in terms of blind, impersonal operation rather than our racial animus, however unacknowledged. Doing that frees us from any pangs of conscience and leaves us assured of our own virtue, that most critical of concerns. How else could we enjoy the profits of stolen lives?

Abigail Fisher suffered a great wrong. Unqualified for admission into the University of Texas, she deserved it all the same. Can’t we see the whiteness of her skin? She earned that. She built it herself and the university stole it from her. It took from her the most precious thing she could have and treated her not like a person, but like a black person. They belong outside of universities just as whites belong within. If the Supreme Court looks poised to recognize that, as it has recognized black Americans don’t belong in polling places, then we can’t much wonder at the news. Its majority would only ratify decisions we made long ago and uphold every day. What could possibly be more normal? We put away the whites only signs, if only after great struggle and occasioning a tremendous political realignment, but we have carefully kept the whites only reality. Now, barely more than a generation removed from that, we increasingly choose to declare our whites only reality right and good in itself once more.

Should Fisher get her ruling, some will protest. Some will despair. But others will cheer it as a great advance toward racial justice and mean every word of it. They always do.

One Day in July with White Supremacist Jack Kelly

Seven score and ten years ago, almost the entire white South fought a war to save slavery. Only four slave states declined the crusade in the end, for the most part with significant internal divisions and a number of their white residents taking up the cause anyway. For generations thereafter, many of those white southerners mourned their dead and bitterly resented their loss. They might admire the tragic sacrifices of their friends, family, and hallowed ancestors. They might celebrate the valor of those men. They did both with the full knowledge that those same men fought to win rather than courageously lose. Like people the world over, they could cast themselves in the same place as those hallowed ancestors. Surely if they could help, then things would have gone differently.

Shelby Foote almost says it in Ken Burns documentary, in the course of quoting Faulkner:

William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.

One must understand that Foote means every white Southern boy. In that moment, with all things in the balance, all things seem possible. Maybe a single time traveling boy couldn’t change the outcome. Maybe legions of them would fare no better. To put oneself there makes one part of something grand, a participant in the noble struggle. He imagines a world that could have been. If his struggle fails, then he falls as a hero. He proves his manhood, his pride, and writes his own elegy in dreamed blood -his own, someone else’s, but never a slave’s- to the tragic passing of a noble age. At least by the twentieth century, and probably before, that white Southern boy would have had some white Yankee boys for company.

Foote doesn’t say all that goes into the dream. He knew, of course, but one no longer says such things openly. Now more of us imagine ourselves in blue. We have the luxury of pretending that if we lived then we would have the same values we do now and so of course we would fight to free the slaves. If we have traded one form of cheap virtue for another, then at least we traded up.

Or we hope we have. Some of us refuse to. Probably more of us lie about it, to others and to ourselves. Take, for example, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He declares himself, in the customary ritual of those about to prove otherwise, a proud Union partisan happy to hop in the time machine and go back to destroy slavery:

if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.

Good for him. But as these things do, he goes downhill from here.

Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.

Kelly can only acknowledge the evil of slavery if he can share the blame around. On the heels of admission, he reaches for exculpation. We all know the horrors of slavery, or so we imagine. Few receive much education on the subject, fewer still inquire on our own. We know we will find nothing pleasing there, but decline to test the proposition. Jack Kelly certainly didn’t. He wants to acknowledge slavery, but immediately move past it as though Americans enslaved in a brief, transient, incidental way rather than building a continental order centered on the deprivation of people they declared black for the exaltation of those deemed white.

He has some superficial facts. Other cultures did practice slavery, though race-based slavery seems to have developed specifically in the context of the Early Modern Atlantic. This at least distinguishes New World slavery from ancient slavery or Arabian slavery. Slavery in the United States has other distinguishing traits. Less involved with the dangerous processing of sugar and operating largely north of the favored habitats of tropical diseases, the United States developed a self-sustaining slave population. We usually did not kill slaves faster than births could replace them. Does that make white Americans virtuous, or should recognize that this achievement only appears ostensibly benign as it renders bondage all the more durable? Enslavers would reap lives for profit either way. The source of the harvest does matter and we should acknowledge how it differently shaped the Caribbean and the United states, but I don’t know that we should pat ourselves on the backs for coming out one way or the other on it.

Even if we might make such a decision, we would praise not the determination of people but geography. If one could turn a profit growing sugarcane in Virginia, Americans would have done it just as much as the British did in the West Indies. We know from the example of the Carolina lowcountry that American enslavers had no qualms about forcing slaves to toil in areas they understood as replete with lethal diseases.

Kelly will have none of that. He spreads the blame to everyone, parceling it out so finely that not enough adheres to any particular group for us to really notice.

The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.

He says it in so many words: slaves in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies had it comparably good. This might or might not withstand careful examination, but he clearly implies that we should take the mote of blame he has left we virtuous whites with and place it elsewhere. Kelly has suggestions:

Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.

This makes for a nice distraction: those bastard Romans might have enslaved my own ancestors. I don’t know that they did. The Italians and Spaniards in particular who enslaved Slavs generally collected them from the north shore of the Black Sea, while my Polish antecedents run closer to the Baltic. I lose track of them in the 1820s, so some remote relative might have lived further south and ended up in the belly of a slave ship. Kelly thinks this deeply significant, even though his column addresses American slavery. He still has blame to spread around, so as a good American he places it on the British. They must have somehow, by dark arts known only in the perfidious heart of Albion, forced innocent white Americans to buy the slaves off the ships to grow the tobacco and cotton and thereby reap profits from reaping lives.

By the way, Arabs also traded slaves. Those slaves even often had white skin, just as the Slavs did, which renders them especially significant. They constitute, we decided, an us rather than a them. We should consequently feel their suffering most keenly in our natural solipsism. We should remember it in our discussion of slavery in the United States. We should not draw any inferences from an American abandoning our customary parochialism to discuss the misdeeds of others in a piece that concerns itself, allegedly, with our own.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Once Kelly declares for the Union and abolition and shines the spotlight on any slaves save those the United States military emancipated, he comes at last to a unique trait of American slavery which makes it especially egregious. Even he cannot deny that

What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?

Kelly can only acknowledge white America’s great sin to highlight white America’s great nobility. Our white skin and our American residence made us so virtuous as to transmute slavery from lives stolen and children bought and sold, into a kind of heroic flaw. He would do to read how eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans squared the circle between whites-only freedom and slavery, but then he would have to learn how the latter shaped the former. Some Americans acknowledged the conflict, including the slave-owning, slave raping author of that famous line. Others, like the slave-owning Vice-President of the Confederacy, saw it and rejected Jefferson. Still more understood what many of the founding generation actually practiced, when not speaking idle words about universal rights: freedom flowed from slavery. By making the black man (women rarely entered into it, unless the slaveholder felt like coerced company that night) permanently and nigh-infinitely inferior to the white, the very contrast made whites feel freer. White skin established a floor on which one could sit and never sink, at least in pride. It put whites, no matter how poor, in solidarity together against blacks. We see the conflict now, with slavery gone, but the two merge easily enough again when one starts talking about the continued plunder of black America.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Jack Kelly gives us a perfect illustration of just that in himself. Lest one think that I unfairly dredge up the past to damn him, consider this:

Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.

Kelly wrote these words just a few days ago, in a 2015 with the internet and Civil Rights legislation, Black History Month and obscure blogs. Robert E. Lee wrote these in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, though hardly as famous as the then-obscure Virginian, made much the same argument two years prior. Where Lee adhered to a mix of Positive Good and Necessary Evil ideas to defend slavery, reaching the same end either way, Stringfellow had no time for such solipsistic fretting:

Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence

Kelly doesn’t say that slavery did no wrong to black Americans, but he made the argument that they came out better for it. Break a few lives, sell some children, rape some women, but it all works out in the end. After all, slavery brought Africans to America where they could bask in the glory of white virtue and have whatever scraps we in our magnanimity deigned to concede to them.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Don’t take my word for it. Have the argument straight from John C. Calhoun:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

We give and we give, our white nobility so staggering that it blinds even us to the fact:

It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.

We must, in fact, admit that we have become too noble for our own good. We must harden our hearts and take a good, long look at black America. There we see not the results of our plunder, but only the inherent vice of black skin:

The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.

We ended slavery and that instant everything magically became equal. It’s all done now and has been done for so long we might as well forget it, just as we forget our possibly-enslaved Slavic ancestors. No amount of difference can come down to white malice, as white skin makes you innocent. Only our great nobility leads us to think otherwise. Kelly asks us to believe that white and black Americans live on different planets, entirely devoid of interaction, so therefore any pathology exhibited by the latter cannot have come from the depredations of the former, or reasonable reaction to the same.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Kelly would have us direct our attention not at white racism, which he seems to understand as nothing more than a kind of personal dislike rather than a vast system of theft, rape, and murder, but to the fact that black Americans in their perfidy hate white Americans. They prey upon us, like the cunning slaves of old preyed on the consciences of their enslavers to escape whippings. I don’t know a word of Kelly’s piece that could not have easily come from the pen of a nineteenth century proslavery theorist, save only those that an enslaver would not know and the endorsement of the United States war effort alone. By implication, Kelly at least opposes new efforts to reduce the effects of structural racism upon black America. In referring to this predation upon the white conscience in continuous terms, Kelly further indicts not just new efforts or recent efforts at redress, but also those which white Americans have after agonizing struggle accepted with hesitance, halfheartedly and full of what he must construe as noble resentment.

I can only think of Samuel Cartwright:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Freedmen's Bureau cartoonKelly paints black Americans as sulky and dissatisfied. If they have a cause, it cannot come from white America. Therefore we must embark upon a new plan of discipline. They have taken advantage and we apparently show them what for. Black Americans have only themselves to blame, enriched in idleness by our too-keen consciences. If black American cannot feel the natural gratitude it owes to white America for the tremendous services rendered unto it, good and hard, then we can give them reminders. We can imagine they will learn no other way. Flesh, blood, and screams torn away by the lash only prove they never stop trying to turn our consciences in their favor.

I don’t know any way to say this except to say it outright: Jack Kelly is a white supremacist. If he doesn’t agree entirely with their methods of securing the power of the white race over then black, then he agrees wholeheartedly with their goals and endorses the chief thrust of their arguments. He sees African-Americans as fundamentally shiftless and conniving. Such faults somehow do not afflict white Americans, even though we speak the same language and have shared the same nation for centuries. What immunizes us, if not the same thing that afflicts them? We find virtue in whiteness by finding vice in blackness. White skin frees us because black skin enslaves them.

Jack Kelly has an editor at the Post-Gazette. He writes for them regularly, so I imagine he received pay for this column. His editor read the piece and signed off on its contents, deeming it fit to print and worthy of his readers’ attention. So have multitudes of other white Americans down the centuries. Their number has declined only through great struggle accompanied by numerous reverses as one means of plunder gives way to another, slightly more sophisticated means. We should take no pride in the fact that some people born with the same hue of skin as our own helped achieve the gains, unless we place great moral stock in our whiteness. We should remember that more took part in fighting, sabotaging, and ultimately rolling them back.

Whatever parts they cast themselves in, whatever uniforms they imagine wearing, Jack Kelly and the multitude like him put themselves into something far different from the armies of abolition. By word and deed they cloaked themselves in what passes for gray and imagine still that hot July day, a bit before one in the afternoon, when it all held in the balance. They know if they can get there, as they keep trying to do, they can make it all turn out differently this time. We make excuses, avoid the uncomfortable arguments, and let the old proslavery line go unchallenged. I’ve done it myself. But the path of least resistance does not lead to a blue uniform on top of Cemetery Ridge with Jeff Daniels for company. We have carefully arranged it so that white Americans find it easier to march across the field under fire. If our past deeds say something about us, then that one speaks most eloquently.

Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

When Lincoln and Douglas met at Springfield and Peoria, they debated the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln also made his return to political life and could have done worse than to do it by sharing a stage with and showing up one of the most famous, if also now infamous, men in the nation. But the two men met in the fall of 1854, an election year. Each spoke both for himself and for his party. Though Illinois had a Republican party, Lincoln kept away from them and announced himself still a Whig.

That year began with the reintroduction of a clean, Missouri Compromise affirming Nebraska bill that rapidly mutated through four versions into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed the House only thanks to Alexander Stephens’ firm whip hand. Just as the bill hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) affair erupted in Boston. All of this tumult merged with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement. Any one of those could have made for a wild election season. All three together generated a political firestorm of the kind rarely seen in American history.

Douglas, of course, wanted to see his fellow Democrats succeed. They had the Presidency. They had the Congress. During the Second Party System, they had governed the nation almost without interruption. The party might have its problems, and serious ones at that, but things generally worked out for it. The Democracy ran Washington. Then came 1854. Allen Nevins details the Democracy’s many reverses and the following relies heavily on his Ordeal of the Union.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, between strongly antislavery New England and the Border South, New York found the Democracy split and let a Whig, Myron H. Clark, slip into the governor’s mansion. Twenty-nine of the state’s districts elected an anti-Nebraska congressman.  Pennsylvania, home to James Buchanan and other politicians far more compromising than its other famous son, David Wilmot, delivered the Whig-Know-Nothing coalition a governor and control of the legislature. Pennsylvania’s House seats went twenty-one to four in favor of the anti-Nebraska men.

Up in New England, the news predictably came in more of the same. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts’ votes went to the Know-Nothing-Free Soil coalition. They had plenty of help from the Massachusetts Democracy, which passed what Nevins bluntly calls an asinine resolution proclaiming that Pierce and his administration “confirmed the fraternal feeling among the States.” What kind of families did they come from? Who could they possibly think they would fool? The Bay Sate went completely over to the anti-Nebraska bloc. It’s one-time possession, Maine, had been for the Democracy happily for years but now joined its parent in throwing the Nebraska men out of office.

John Hale

John Hale


The Northwest had no better news for Douglas. Salmon P. Chase’s Ohio gave the Democracy not a single House seat in its October elections. Indiana gave up only two in the same month. Just two years earlier, Ohio favored the Franklin Pierce 47.83% to 43.18 and Indiana 52.05% to 44.17%. Illinois soon followed, surrendering five of its nine House seats to anti-Nebraska candidates. The state legislature fell to the same deluge. Douglas’ fellow Illinois Democrat, James Shields, would soon find himself no longer a senator. Across the Mississippi, Iowa turned on the Democracy too, electing an anti-Nebraska governor who promised continual war against slavery’s expansion. Its anti-Nebraska legislature signaled that Douglas’ compatriot Augustus Caesar Dodge would soon join James Shields in the ex-senator club.

The 33rd Congress, which passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had 162 Democrats, 91 from free states and 67 from the slave states. The Democracy had never had a better showing. By the time the dust settled, the Democracy lost 4 (5.97%) slave state seats but held only 25 (27.47%) of their 91 free state seats, 66 (40.74%) down from two years earlier. Forty-four members of the Democracy’s northern wing voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A mere seven (15.90%) of them had jobs in the 34th Congress. Those who defied the party to vote against it, 48 in all, saw only 15 (31.25%) of their number kicked to the curb by angry voters.

The Democracy might have one more president to elect, and did regain control of the House when it put James Buchanan in the White House, but its days as the nation’s natural party of government had ended. From 1854 onward, the Democracy served as a southern party with a minority wing in the North almost completely at the mercy of the South’s proslavery politics. The party that once commanded majorities in both sections as a matter of course would not do anything of the sort again until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stephen Douglas had done to his own party what his successes in 1850 and subsequent increasing antislavery agitation had done to the Whigs, only with the sections switched.

Rescuing National Whiggery

A poster advertising the Know-Nothing presidential ticket in 1856.

A poster advertising the Know-Nothing presidential ticket in 1856.

If Puritanism could inspire men to fight against slavery and men to fight against those men, its big tent could also contain a movement that overlapped with both. Indeed, it could include a movement that drew the approval of many antislavery men. Those antislavery men thus did their best to avoid direct confrontation with that movement. If the two collided, voters might choose against antislavery. Conversely, if they chose for antislavery then the other movement might lose on ground where many antislavery men preferred it win through. They did not stop caring about other issues when they struck out against Kansas-Nebraska, even if they put stopping slavery at the top of their agenda.

This new movement did not include only Puritans, of course. Everyone in politics in the 1850s could remember a time when issues other than slavery dominated national discourse. Those issues never strained the Union, even if they provoked great controversy. The old political order, in both parties, depended on strategic silence over slavery. Both national parties could have wings in both sections and those wings could work as genuine partners in power, each needing the other but not dominating the other, and the business of the American people could progress. Except on slavery, men like William Seward and Alexander Stephens could see eye to eye and recognize in one another their common Whiggery. Naturally, plenty of politicians wanted the old days back. Whigs felt that urge very keenly indeed with their party falling apart in both sections.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore, Know-Nothing for President in 1856

The new movement offered the old days come again. Men of both sections could unite and push slavery out of the limelight while they contended with the new dire peril. The dawning crisis would reforge the Union, testing it and making it stronger. They came together as: Sons of ’76, Sons of Sires, the Druids, the Foresters, and entered politics as The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Delegates from thirteen states convened in New York to establish a national party on July 17, 1854, four days after the antislavery movement staged simultaneous state conventions in Vermont, Ohio, and Indiana. The Order made a Grand Council, to which state and local councils would answer. They ordained secret rituals. They would summon the faithful to meetings by sending out heart-shaped bits of paper, white normally but red in times of danger. They forswore all other parties and pledged never to vote for a Roman Catholic or foreign-born candidate. They also swore themselves to secrecy, promising to say only that they knew nothing if questioned. Horace Greeley promptly dubbed them the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings offered the southern Whigs everything they wanted. They could have a new party and so escape the stain of Whiggish antislavery. They would again have a northern wing they could trust. They could ride the movement back to full partnership in a national party which could check the Democracy and its increasingly radical proslavery tilt with the kind of national-minded policy that they had long preferred as Whigs. With genuine New England Puritans fretting as much over the corruption of the national community by alien influences as by domestic slavery, they could expect not only Yankee allies that would not dominate the party but instead share it with them and heed their council. If that Puritan enthusiasm also peeled off some antislavery men from the emerging Republican party and so diluted its power, so much the better.

Know-Nothing nativism could even stop the tide of immigration which had given the North such electoral advantages. Strict limits, even to the point of outright prohibition, would lock the borders of the United States and arrest the long and accelerating trend of immigrant-fueled growth that had so eclipsed the South in the House and made it into a permanent minority section. Given the press of time, the tide might even reverse and let the South regain lost ground. A ban on immigration would also answer the original sin against slavery, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, with an equal prohibition. If Thomas Jefferson could sign a law to stop unwilling black immigration in 1808, then a future Know-Nothing president could sign one to stop willing white immigration. No Democrat could offer the South that.

Kansas-Nebraska: The House Votes

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

The fight for Kansas-Nebraska, with the Missouri Compromise repeal, began in the Senate in January of 1854. It wore on through February and into March before the Senate finally adopted the bill with a lopsided 37-14 margin, with only two southern Senators voting against it. The House promptly buried the bill under fifty others in the face of Northern outrage not just from the usual free soil suspects, but also from sober state governments, immigrants, and Northern clergy. For the first time, antislavery men had a genuine mass movement on their hands. But Stephen Douglas would not accept defeat after coming so close. Nor would the radicals who forced him into the repeal. Amid strife that came very near to actual violence, Alexander Stephens applied whip and spur on top of the patronage that Franklin Pierce dispensed to build a majority and table bill after bill until at last Kansas-Nebraska reached the top of the House’s schedule on May 22, 1854.

Fifteen days of debate had not cooled any passions, but the vote at last came. By a majority of thirteen votes, 113-100, the House approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That put the law into action, but the House that voted for it had a 156 sitting Democrats for a hefty 66.67% majority. Of those Democrats, only 101 voted aye. The other twelve votes came from southern Whigs. Without them, the vote would have turned the other way. As one would expect, the vote came in highly sectional. Northern Democrats supported the bill 44-42. The southern Democracy lined up 57-2. All northern Whiggery followed Seward in voting against it. Once again, the South’s disciplined majority proved able to force through legislation the more divided national majority opposed.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The Democracy could call that a win. Once more it proved to the South that it best protected the interests of slavery. But with the weight of the party machinery behind the bill, with Alexander Stephens breaking parliamentary kneecaps, Franklin Pierce greasing palms with patronage, Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing standing in the wings brandishing blackjacks the Democracy still nearly lost the thing. That kind of victory augured poorly for the party’s future, especially with so many of its newspapers in open rebellion and its Northern wing badly divided. A party might expect some defections on a controversial bill, but having made it a test of party loyalty the Democracy would ordinarily expect a healthy majority still. It found out then just how far that loyalty went in the face of Kansas-Nebraska: miles and miles in the South but a majority barely wider than a razor in the North.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

And for what? Southerners knew that the bill they passed equivocated on slavery. The Missouri Compromise went into the dustbin of history, but a clear win for slavery did not replace it. A territorial government that could vote slavery in could also vote slavery out. Virginia’s John Singleton Millson, who joined Thomas Hart Benton as the lone southern Democrats who voted against the bill, cast his vote on those grounds. However much he wanted the unconstitutional Missouri Compromise done away with, the South accepted it because it also reserved to slavery new territories south of Missouri. Kansas-Nebraska did none of that. For all its exertions, the southern section won no guarantee, but only a potential win and a potential loss.

To enrage and unite the North undermined the South’s key advantage of unity in national politics. If the northern majority flexed its muscles on sectional lines as the South long had, the region had good reason to fear for the future of its central institution. A permanent majority could dictate almost any terms to a permanent minority, and the South risked bringing just that about in the name of securing only a chance at slavery in Kansas.

Kansas-Nebraska: The Fight in the House

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Stephen Douglas, with Franklin Pierce’s help, committed the Democracy to passing his KansasNebraska Act despite the House’s delaying tactics. They put the party machinery to work, twisting arms and greasing wheels with patronage. By May 8, Douglas thought he had a majority and opted to dig Kansas-Nebraska out of its legislative grave by bringing up and tabling all fifty bills ahead of it. That dragged on for fifteen days. The speeches meant probably even less in the House than they did in the Senate as the larger body inherently reduces the influence of each ordinary member, but each speech consumed time and every hour spent debating meant one less hour of the session spent voting on the bill. But they spoke anyway. Politicians must register their approval or disapproval and many men considered vital principles at stake.

Thomas Hart Benton, still convinced the agitation on slavery brought no good to either section, proceeded to burn all the bridges he might have taken to regain his Senate seat:

What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it! The question was settled and done with. There was not an inch square in the Union on which it could be raised without a breach of compromise.

Congressional non-interference, to which Douglas and others insisted they aspired, Congress had achieved in 1850. Between the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, the territorial acts for Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico, and California’s statehood, Congress completely settled the matter. Only by breaking past compacts could Congress interfere in slavery. So why did it need to pass this new law touching on slavery, if Congress wanted only to keep its hands off slavery?

Benton had the facts with him and for four hours held forth against the signature issue of his home state, knowing very well that the Missouri legislature would never send him back to the Senate after all of this. But Benton put a bullet into Andrew Jackson back in the day. He could take a frustrated ambition in the twilight of his life. Old Bullion got a bit more than that when his district declined to reelect him and then Missouri at large rejected him for governor in 1856.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (Former Whig, now Constitutional Unionist-GA)

Douglas himself took the floor on occasion. Georgia’s, and the Georgia Platform’s, Alexander Stephens served as the parliamentary manager and chief debater on his side. Gaunt and bloodless, Georgia planter cut a strange figure. He lacked the eloquence and wit that other politicians of his age reveled in. He replaced it with direct, cold, dry recitations of facts and logical dissections, like Mr. Spock by way of the nineteenth century. The cold exterior hid a bitter partisan who, in his own words, applied whip and spur to force Kansas-Nebraska through.

Stephens informed the House that the South never accepted the Missouri Compromise. Back in 1820 the sections did not have a meeting of the minds; the North plainly defeated the South and forced its will upon the section. When the North would not take that victory for enough in 1850 and extend the 36°30′ line to the Pacific, the South considered the treaty broken and itself free to reopen the issue. Each place should choose for itself, as 1820 and 1850 proved how poorly Congress chose. Furthermore, Stephens pressed, the North, with its immigrant-fattened population twice that of the South, would surely have every advantage in populating new territories. Did Northern men think their constituents too lazy to win such a slanted fight? The South essentially conceded fighting at a great disadvantage and the North would not even accept the contest then. What would it take?

Despite all the screws to which Pierce, Davis, Cushing, and Douglas put to the Northern Democracy, everyone knew they contended over a small number of votes. The tension running so high and a win at least conceivable for both sides, restraint went out the window. A group trying to run a filibuster openly taunted various Southerners. They returned the favor. At one point an angry crowd surrounded the ringleader, Ohio’s Lewis D. Campbell, weapons drawn. Others restrained a Virginia member from playing some chin music on him. The Speaker, Kentucky’s Linn Boyd, intervened just in time to order the arrest of the Virginian by the sergeant-at-arms and adjourn before someone could spill blood.

The Indifferent, Divided South

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (D-GA)

With the North rising so united against Kansas-Nebraska, speaking with something approaching a true sectional voice, one might expect the South to have done much the same in favor of the act. They might loathe its popular sovereignty provisions, but it would give them new slave states and wipe away the old loss and sectional indignity of the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban. In the present political climate, one might even expect that the North’s fury only increased Southern enthusiasm. Alexander Stephens declared something close to that, calling the South unanimously delighted.

If the South included only its congressional delegation, the Southerners that Stephens spent most of his time with, then the observation largely holds. The Southern papers largely paid Kansas-Nebraska little mind. The New Orleans papers expressed general indifference and suggested that if the bill died on the vine, the section would sleep untroubled. New Orleans always stood a bit apart from the rest of the South, but the Nashville Advertiser watched the storm in Washington with disinterest. In Stephens’ own Georgia, the Macon Messenger faced such general indifference that it published a story explaining the fact. The bill would probably bring the section no benefit, so naturally Southerners didn’t much care. What about Charleston, then? Surely the Carolina counter-revolutionaries came out in favor? Instead both Charleston papers reported the same disinterest.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

That did not mean the papers came out against the bill, of course. Virtually all of the Democratic papers supported it. The few Whig papers could go the other way, and some did, but by 1854 their opinions meant very little. That did not mean that the Southern people in general really just didn’t care. Rather they had a diversity of opinions. Some followed Bell and Houston in seeing the bill as premature and a needless sectional antagonism. The popular sovereignty language chafed many of more refined sentiment because a population that could vote slavery in could also vote it out. Outside of Missouri, where naturally a substantial population considered the bill relevant to their personal interests, the Kansas-Nebraska struggle involved a far away territory and far away people. Their fate need not intertwine with the fates of slaveholders in the Cotton Kingdom or around the Chesapeake.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Distance and indifference did not translate into hostility, except in novel cases. For most of the South, the fight for Kansas had an abstract tone. It involved high principles and the honor of the section. They had lived with the Missouri Compromise slight that barred slavery from the Great Plains. They could survive more of the same. But Kansas-Nebraska gave them the chance to remove the slight. Why would they exert themselves to oppose it? Precious few did. Instead, it appears the South at large read the bill as a kind of legal luxury, pleasant and welcome but not a matter of life and death.

Except for Missouri, of course. There the bill, in addition to touching directly on the state’s future as a slave state, bound tightly to the ongoing battle between David Rice Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, championing almost free St. Louis saw the defeat of the bill as one road or him to regain the Senate seat that had taken from him. Atchison saw himself as the guardian of Missouri’s future as a slave state. He and his proslavery constituents lived far up the Missouri valley, hard against Kansas, and they saw not just their society but their personal fortunes on the line. If Kansas went free, their slaves could easily run away. If it went slave, they could buy new land there and further enrich themselves.

F Street Demands Better

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

To appease the F Street proslavery crowd and get the Nebraska territory organized, Stephen Douglas agreed to do what most of them thought impossible all of a year before: repeal the Missouri Compromise. Famously indifferent to slavery and knowing he needed the support of the F Streeters to get his bill through, Douglas needed little persuading. He expected some backlash in the North for conceding to slavery land that a generation of tradition and the first great sectional settlement reserved for freedom, but he could weather that just as he’d weathered opposition to the Armistice measures. In time, he must have expected, antislavery objections would produce their own backlash and everything would settle back down.

But Douglas offered not a full, complete, explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Instead he duplicated the language of the Utah and New Mexico bills which neither excluded nor introduced slavery and neither endorsed nor repudiated popular sovereignty. He offered F Street only the legal guarantee that Congress would admit states carved out of the Nebraska territory with or without slavery, however they came before it. As Congress would have to vote again anyway when those future states asked for admission to the Union, that guarantee did not mean much. Everybody from Abraham Lincoln and William Seward to Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens agreed that a state could institute or abolish slavery as it willed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

As Douglas’ bill remained silent on slavery at the territorial stage, when the people who would eventually vote on whether or not the future states would allow it, how many slaveholders would really come? Would they take their expensive human property into a territory that might deprive them of it just a few years down the road and so force them to give it up at great loss or to hurry back across the state line with it? Slaves cost a lot of money to risk so casually. A Carolina lowcountry rice magnate might have hundreds and not miss a few, but the great slaveholders had little reason to move into Nebraska to begin with. Most future Nebraska slaveholders would probably come with few slaves who represented a far greater portion of their total wealth. A slave cost then something akin to what a house might cost to an ordinary American today. Who would risk losing that kind of asset on top of the usual risks of going to the frontier?

The F Streeters thought that even if some slaveholders would take that risk, they would not take it in great enough numbers to swing any future state or territorial votes their way. Douglas’ virtual repeal amounted to an empty promise that would leave the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery intact. F Street made its displeasure known in short order. A year later, Atchison claimed that Douglas’ bill broke promises the Little Giant made to him. In retaliation, he threatened to take from Douglas his cherished chair of the Committee on Territories, plant himself in the Little Giant’s place, and report out a bill that gave Bourbon Dave and the South everything they wanted.

The Weird Adventures of William Walker #4

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker’s first Nicaraguan adventure ended like his Mexican adventure did, with surrender to American authorities. But Walker’s ambitions no more died on May 1, 1857 when he surrendered in Nicaragua than they did when he quit his Republic of Sonora in May of 1854. The hero’s welcome New Orleans gave him soon gave way to a fundraising tour of the South, which proved quite happy to open its wallets to the gray-eyed man of destiny. How often could a multinational alliance really defeat him, anyway?

Walker took his new bankroll and invested it in the new expedition his backers intended, sailing from Mobile in November, 1857. With all the public fundraising and celebration of Walker across the South, even if he wished to leave quietly someone would have noticed. In fact, the United States Navy noticed, sailed after him, caught him, and escorted his expedition back to Mobile. Moving one state to the east didn’t spare Walker the fate of Narciso López’s first Cuban expedition.

This did not please the South. James McPherson sums up the reaction in Battle Cry of Freedom:

Southern newspapers erupted in denunciation of this naval “usurpation of power.” Alexander Stephens urged the court-martial of the commodore who had detailed Walker. Two dozen southern senators and congressmen echoed this sentiment in an extraordinary congressional debate. “A heavier blow was never struck at southern rights,” said a Tennessee representative, “than when Commodore Paulding perpetrated upon our people his high-handed outrage.” The government’s action proved that President Buchanan was just like other Yankees in wanting to “crush out the expansion of slavery to the South.”

I dug into the Congressional Globe on the strength of McPherson’s description of the debate and came out with a pile of speeches that I plan to explore in future posts.

Walker’s second trial for violating the Neutrality Act took place in New Orleans, and as with past filibusters the New Orleans jury proved unwilling to convict. Instead it hung 10-2 in May of 1858. He took the same lesson that López and Quitman had from their initial failures and set off on another fundraising trip. Southern pockets proved deep once more. and his appeals “to the mothers of Mississippi to bid their sons buckle on the armor of war, and battle for the institutions, for the honor of the Sunny South” met with eager response. They need only slip past the Navy and they could gain Nicaragua. If it fell so easily to Walker once, why not again?

Walker’s third Nicaragua expedition set out from Mobile in December, 1858. His ship struck a reef and landed on the bottom sixty miles short. Walker caught a ride back to Mobile from a British ship to the usual fanfare and promptly started rounding up another expedition. By this point, Walker looked like a four-time loser. Even after writing a book to promote himself, Walker could only gather ninety-seven men to join with him in Honduras for a new campaign. The Hondurans, who took part in expelling Walker from Nicaragua in the first place, proved unhappy to see him back.

As usual, Walker ran for a foreign authority to surrender himself to. This time he ended up in the hands of the Royal Navy. The captain he hoped would save him instead turned Walker over to the Hondurans. The gray-eyed man of destiny met that destiny in persons of a Honduran firing squad on September 12, 1860.