Andrew Horatio Reeder, Franklin Pierce’s choice for governor of the new Territory of Kansas, arrived in October. He found a land that the law allowed white Americans to settle from the very end of May. But nobody had surveyed any land to let them make their settlements legal and defend them against claim jumpers. Nor did the new frontier have an elaborate police force to maintain some level of order. The frontier did have, however, militant bands of proslavery (at least on paper) filibusters, Border Ruffians, and the like facing down similiarly militant bands of antislavery (also on paper) settlers, Jayhawkers, pauper abolitionist Hessians, and other tools of the Emigrant Aid Societies. Both sides had their own newspapers up and running. With threats of violence emanating regularly from over the line in Missouri, completely aside those from distant Washington, disinterested settlers had every reason to pick a slavery side and stick to it.
Reeder had broad powers to establish the initial territorial government. He could order up a census, establish a provisional capital, draw electoral districts, and hold elections for the territorial legislature. Until that legislature sat, Reeder could use his vast powers as he wished and shape the developing institutions to suit his preferences. Reasonable observers at the time might have expected him to do all he could to make Kansas a slave territory. He owed his position to Pierce administration patronage. He declared that if he could have afforded one, he would have taken a slave to Kansas. Reeder came to the office with no previous experience, so naturally one would expect a party hack or someone easily controlled by party hacks.
Reeder has a mess on his hands, where any action he took could have explosive consequences. But did serving his patrons mean making Kansas into slave territory? That would please the southern Democracy. Did it mean keeping it free? That would please northern antislavery men, including some Democrats. Did it mean giving popular sovereignty a fair shake, without regard to the eventual outcome? That would please Stephen Douglas and potentially defuse the situation by establishing that his pet doctrine really could work as a moderate sectional compromise. Reeder apparently preferred the last option.
He hit problems right off. The House ordered up a committee to study what happened in Kansas, gathering testimony and eventually ordering up a report which opened with the central fact of the entire Kansas dispute:
It cannot be doubted that if its condition as a free Territory had been left undisturbed by Congress, its settlement would have been rapid, peaceful, and prosperous. […] by this time it would have been admitted into the Union as a free state, without the least sectional excitement. […] The Testimony clearly shows that before the proposition to repeal the Missouri compromise was introduced into Congress, the people of western Missouri appeared indifferent to the prohibition of slavery in the Territory, and neither asked nor desired its repeal.
Different constructions were put upon the organic law. It was contended by one party that the right to hold slaves in the Territory existed, and neither the people nor the territorial legislature could prohibit slavery: that power was alone possessed by the people when they were authorized to form a State government. It was contended that the removal of the restriction virtually established slavery in the Territory. This claim was urged by many prominent men in western Missouri, who actively engaged in the affairs of the Territory. Every movement, of whatever character, which tended to establish free institutions, was regarded as an interference with their rights.
Did the repeal mean that? Did the Missouri men have the right reading of the Kansas-Nebraska Act? If they did, what did that mean for popular sovereignty? A neutral path which pleased them would have to result in a slave territory with a single, narrow window when a constitutional convention could work abolition. Reeder had hardly any room to stake out neutrality at all. He must take up the cause of Slave Power, at least until the state constitutional convention, or they would see him as an enemy. The question had to have an answer and Reeder had to give it, but any answer meant taking a side.
The men of the Missouri frontier desperately wanted Kansas, some for land, some for slavery, and some for a mix of both. Congress threw open the doors and invited everybody in with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but no civilian government waited on the ground to see to an orderly settlement. This could only invite trouble, but to further complicate things no survey of the available lands yet existed. The government in Washington or a future government in Kansas couldn’t tell the land-hungry settlers from either section just what lands they could have. Some territory still belonged to the Indians, at least for a time. Some did not. Where did one end and the other begin?
In the absence of the land survey and clear boundaries to the remaining reservations, not an inch of Kansas stood open to legal purchase. The way things ought to work, those surveys would find their way to a federal land office somewhere in the territory. People would go out and look around, decide what land they wanted, and either file a claim for it via preemption or buy it outright. Preemption worked a bit like homesteading. One went to the land and improved it, increasing its value and the value of adjacent land. If a citizen or somewhere in the process of becoming one, the settler thus earned the right to buy the land at a set minimum price. Poorer settlers could thus establish their claims and then work the land to help meet the subsidized price.
With no legal means to resolve their disputes over prized land, settlers would naturally resort to deciding things by who had the most friends or shot the straightest. No other means existed until the land office received the first surveys in January, 1855. Even without slavery inflaming sectional tensions and inspiring partisan bands to contend over the territory, this just asked for trouble. Land disputes invited settlers to court powerful friends, whether well-heeled Yankees or a United States Senator.
The United States Senator in question, David Rice Atchison, saw himself as just the man to resolve matters. He had helped make Kansas open for slavery. He and his cohorts founded the Platte County Self-Defense Association, of late embarrassments. If anybody could take charge and serve at least as the figurehead for proslavery settlers and slavery-indifferent but anti-Yankee settlers alike, he could.
Anyone in Kansas who got on the wrong side of one of Atchison’s clients would naturally incline toward the Emigrant Aid Society’s patronage, whether they cared much for Eli Thayer’s antislavery politics or not. If one can’t blame the Missouri men for feeling a bit betrayed and overwhelmed by conniving outsiders with their deep pockets, then one can hardly blame their opposites for increasingly aligning otherwise. Atchison gave them plenty of reasons. His lieutenant, B.F. Stringfellow threatened violence and lawlessness. One might think a senator above such things, especially if he intended to participate himself, but Atchison had no such scruples. According to the testimony of Dr. G. A. Cutler to the House committee appointed to investigate Kansas affairs, Atchison appeared in Kansas in March of 1855. He came with eighty well-armed men and gave a brief speech including these words:
We came to vote, and we are going to vote, or kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.
The insecurity of slavery in the Border South stimulated many extreme measures to defend it, including the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The presence of so many whites, so few blacks, and so many outsiders made the hard-nosed, violent ways that the Lower South constructed white solidarity harder to exercise and more likely to backfire. Thus Kansas became a test case for whether or not Border South slavery could endure.
I intended to follow immediately along on that thread today, but have lately taken up Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I picked up a very cheap Barnes & Noble edition some time ago and it finally reached the top of my pile. Born in Maryland, Douglass lived under the Border State slavery regime. In the course of telling his own story, he tells many others about how his fellow slaves suffered. I read one of those just today and it struck me as a good way to turn things back, at least for a moment, from a story about the future of white settlement in Kansas and the implications it had for the white man’s Union to a story of how white Americans suppressed the agency and stole the lives of black Americans.
Douglass wrote about an overseer, the aptly named Austin Gore, who excelled at his job. He could turn anything a slave did into a sign of insubordination and would readily answer that with the lash.
Mr. Gore was a grave man, and, though a young man, he indulged in no jokes, said no funny words, seldom smiled. His words were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words. Overseers will sometimes indulge in a witty word, even with slaves; not so with Mr. Gore. He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well. When he whipped, he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences. he did nothing reluctantly, no matter how disagreeable; always at his post, never inconsistent. He never promised but to fulfil.
Leaving aside Gore’s exact job, he sounds like a model employee. People at the time didn’t have to set aside the job to make that call, since they knew full well that they wanted someone to manage slaves. Manage them, Gore did:
His savage barbarity was equalled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but a few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. the second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.
Gore did not own Demby. He belonged to Gore’s boss. Thus he had to answer for destruction of property. That didn’t bother Gore in the slightest. He told his employer
that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slave would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.
Gore kept his job and his reputation spread. He knew his business. So did the 545 other Maryland men who listed their profession as overseer on the 1850 census. More would do the job for themselves and thus might tell the census that they farmed or planted. Over in Missouri, the same census found only 64 overseers. Maryland had a few counties that looked like bits of the Lower South, more than half enslaved. Missouri’s most enslaved county, Howard, could only manage 5,886 slaves out of 15,946 people, 36.91%.
Small wonder that Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest felt so vulnerable. Even Maryland, with half its black population free, could produced better slavery numbers than Missouri could. They might have already lost their home state, so best secure the one next door. Otherwise they might find black Americans voting, with their feet or otherwise.
Initially, Southerners from farther afield than Kansas did not have great hopes for planting slavery there. They felt bound by honor to support the Missouri slaveholders in their quest for security, but few believed that Kansas would turn into the next Kentucky, let alone the next Arkansas or Mississippi. It sat so far north, exposed even more than Missouri, and on the edge of the great American desert. What man in his right mind thought that plantation agriculture could take hold there?
The Missouri slaveholders thought so, but they had firsthand experience. As other southerners came into Kansas, they learned that the Missouri men had the right of it. If plantations could profit in the Missouri valley just over the line, they could profit just as well in Kansas. Even where the Missouri did not reach, Kansas had other rivers of similar promise. More appealing still, over in Missouri they had worked the land for a generation. Most of the Kansas land that drew the eye remained untouched forest. Desert nothing, Kansas offered up lands with as much potential as those in any border state.
That revelation had mixed effects on the wider South. It meant that more southerners might come, both wealthy men on their second or third plantation and small farmers hoping to strike it big. That could only please the slaveholders of the Missouri frontier, as those settlers would vote accordingly. It would shore up southern support for their cause on the national stage, pushing it from a periphery issue only of concern to Missourians closer to the central interest of the white South in preserving slavery in an increasingly hostile Union.
But seeing more genuine potential in Kansas also linked its fate much more closely to that of the border states. Already too chilly for cotton or sugar, those states made do with the smaller profits of hemp and tobacco. Their slaves drained away to more southerly climes and Yankee free labor came in. They all stood exposed, easy prey for slave stealing abolitionists and all too easy for slaves to steal themselves from. If southerners could not make a go of Kansas, that did not just augur poorly for Missouri’s slavery. What would it say about Kentucky’s slavery? Maryland’s? Delaware’s? What about Virginia? All of them seemed to be moving in a generally northward direction. The doom of Kansas would foretell the doom of the entire Border South. The more southerners saw of Kansas, the more reasonable B.F. Stringfellow’s dire warnings about a wave of abolition overthrowing the south sounded and the more tolerable his and Atchison’s antics seemed.
Slaveholders could endure as a minority, but it took some doing. They could appeal to white racial solidarity. By making black people slaves, they made all white men equals. They could appeal to racial survival, for surely enslaved blacks would rise up if freed and destroy civilization. But both appeals weakened as the number of black people around to frighten the whites shrank, and the border states had the whitest populations in the South. The hard sell could work better, intimidating antislavery whites into silence. State constitutions rigged to subvert democracy by granting extra influence to slaveholding minorities helped too. If all else failed, violence could play its role.
Even the most starry-eyed Missouri slaveholder probably did not expect to build and maintain a slaveholding majority in Kansas, but if they could get in at the ground floor and rig the system for slavery then they might hold on indefinitely. It had worked in Missouri so far. It had even worked in tiny Delaware, where free blacks greatly outnumbered their enslaved brethren. A little subversion of the white man’s democracy worked at home. Why not next door? If it continued working elsewhere, it could in Kansas. If it failed in Kansas, then it must eventually fail elsewhere.
Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.
All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.
One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.
The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.
All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.
But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.
Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.
Gentle readers, we have almost finished with Stringfellow’s pamphlet. I could certainly extract more meaning from it, but I think I’ve captured the high points. Much of what remains involves a reiteration of past points. But Stringfellow, after listening the benefits of slavery to the black and white man, comes around to consider just how wonderfully white women benefit as well. In so doing, he expresses some exceptionally horrific ideas. I will reach them in full toward the end of the post. If any of you find discussion of sexual violence especially traumatic, please don’t ruin your day here.
Slavery, Stringfellow asserted
ennobles woman. Relieved by the slave from the abject toil, the servile condition to which the white woman is so often subjected by necessity where negro slavery does not exist, and which strip her of woman’s greatest charm, modesty; which make of her the rude drudging, despised servant of a harsh master; the white woman becomes, as she is fitted to be, not the slave, but the queen of her house, fit mate for a sovereign.
Virtuous, modest, sensitive, retiring, her only ambition to merit the love of her husband, her only pride to point to her children and say, “these are my jewels”; worshipped in her sphere, her gentle sway undisputed, the white woman in the slave-holding States needs no conventions to give her, her rights. Whether she be the mistress of a mansion, or the humble tenant of a cabin, to her the seat of honour is ever accorded — at home or abroad, every son of the south deems himself her champion.
Women, as decent, reasonable, male person knew very well, had only one rightful use: as help-meets to their husbands. Slavery permitted white women that role by taking from them many toils which they had to endure in the free states. But slavery gave them more than just occasion to fulfill their divinely ordained role. It saved them from far worse horrors:
Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.
So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.
Providing black women as slaves to white men gave them someone acceptable to rape, thus sparing the virtue of white womanhood. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow wrote that for public consumption. He had it published. It came out as the official manifesto of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. The members approved it. They all knew very well what the words meant and accepted them as a statement of their principles for anybody in the nation to read. They might not like to talk about rape, but they accepted that it happened and preferred it happen to slaves.
Abolitionists damned the whole South as a great brothel, filled to the brim with degenerate masters forcing themselves on their human property. After pages of carefully answering antislavery arguments, Stringfellow comes up dry. He says it himself: “we love the white woman so much.” Just them. Nothing of the sort should befall a white woman.
I can think of no better answer to this than that Sojourner Truth gave in other circumstances a few years before:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ar’n’t I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ar’n’t I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?
I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
The wonders of slavery that Stringfellow laid out in Negro-Slavery, No Evil. revolved mostly around economics. That does make them sound especially cynical, but we should remember that Stringfellow had in mind critics who made economic arguments against slavery. Answering them would necessarily involve recourse to census figures and sectional comparisons. The morality of slavery hangs around the margins and occasionally takes center stage, but even then Stringfellow largely defends it by means of nineteenth century social science. He spends some time with the Bible, but his defense involves comparing the condition of slaves and whites between the sections and finding the South better off.
From all of that, excepting the Biblical exegesis, one might think Stringfellow had a mind of metal and wheels. The grew up in a time and place that tuned that machinery a bit far from our preferences, but his argument runs mostly on facts and figures. Twenty-nine pages into the pamphlet, Stringfellow finally gives his softer side a fuller display:
But there are effects procured by negro slavery, which are not exhibited in the census, can not be set down in figures, of far more importance than the acquisition of wealth, as mere increase of population. These are, its tendency to elevate the character of the white race, to give to that race a more exalted tone of moral sentiment; and in a republic of vital importance is its influence in giving to the white race a higher, holier, more stern and unyielding love of liberty; in making the white race emphatically a race of Sovereigns, fit members of a free government.
Calhoun said similar things, but Stringfellow did not reach back to old Calhoun in his grave. He had a dustier grave in mind and exhumed no less than Edmund Burke, the father of anglo-american conservatism. Burke never held slaves, but he had offered some rhetorical support to the American independence movement.
“There is however a circumstance attending these southern colonies, which fully counterbalance this difference and makes the spirit of liberty still more high, and haughty, than in those to the Eastward. It is, that in Virginia and the Carolines, there is a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom to them is not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks among them like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I can not alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly and with an higher and more stubborn spirit attached to liberty than those to the northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic Ancestors; such in our day were the Poles; and such will ever be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”
Burke said all that, and more, back in 1775. The idea that slavery makes people more jealous of their freedom naturally follows, just as wars and other calamities inspire us to appreciate our good fortune if we don’t suffer from them. In a slave society, every free person has an example of how their lives could run much worse in front of them day in and day out.
Stringfellow expanded on the point:
History attest the truth of every word uttered by him. Not only does the institution of slavery elevate the character of the master, and where the master is free render his devotion to liberty a high and holy feeling, fortify it and render it invincible, but, where, as in our country, the slave is of a different race, marked and set apart by his colour, it elevates the character not only of the master, the actual owner of slaves, but of all who wear the colour of the freeman. With us, colour, not money marks the class: black is the badge of slavery; white the colour of the freeman: and the white man, however poor, whatever be his occupation, feels himself a sovereign. Though his estate be but an empty title, he will not disgrace his station by stooping for moneys’ sake to become the slave of another: he will treat with others as his equals, exchange his labour for their money, not honoured by their service, but reciprocating the favour of equal to equal. His class respects him, with the jealousy of rank will stand by him, and for the sake of their order will sustain him.
Love of liberty and civic virtue trickled down from the prosperous slaveholder to the poor white, flowing through the color of their skin. Whatever his woes, the poor white man could imagine that his race ennobled him and made him just as good as the rich man. He would not and never could become a slave, but may with good luck win the ability to hold slaves and have that power over them. Even without the material prosperity, he participated together with the slaveholder in the social and economic system that set them both infinitely above the slaves.
To hear Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow of the Platte County Self-Defense Association tell it, slavery had God’s approval. It uplifted people black and white alike. It produced more churches with more seats in the pews. It created more homes and fewer homeless. It produced a faster growing native population. It even led to less income inequality. It even, Stringfellow finally came around to saying outright, made for great fortunes:
The poor worn out slave-holding States, have in fact $417,523,392, more wealth than New England with all its boasted prosperity!
This is result is the more extraordinary because it reverses again all our experience. Since the days or Tyre and Sidon, commerce and manufactures have been regarded as sources of greater wealth, agriculture of least profit. In Europe tariffs are made to protect the farmer; commerce and manufactures are able to protect themselves. With us on the contrary, the farmers are not only richer than the trader, the merchant, the manufacturer, but tariffs are enacted to protect the latter — Agriculture not only protects itself, but carries on its shoulders commerce and manufactures. In despite of oppressive legislation, we find these agricultural, slave-holding States, in wealth, far in advance of New England, with its unequalled commerce, its unrivalled manufactures.
Slavery did not just bring all these social goods. It brought them in a handy package that invited you to come get rich. Step right up, by your slaves, put them to work, and watch them bleed money.
Stringfellow had it right that slavery produced great fortunes. If Southerners as a whole really had thrown their money away on slave property, they would soon have stopped or run out of money to throw away. They got returns on their investment, even if the nature of the market meant that often they ran cash poor. But Stringfellow got it wrong on the tariffs. Antebellum tariffs protected American cotton. They sustained virtually the entire American sugar industry. The New England manufacturer and the Carolina cotton magnate both reaped the benefits.
That said, Stringfellow got ahead of an obvious objection:
But we will be told that in this estimate we include our slaves that they should not be counted its property, but rated as persons, entitled to a share!
So Stringfellow ran the numbers counting slaves as both property of their masters and people entitled to a share of the wealth. The South still came out ahead. He declined, however, to take the wealth held as slave property out of the numbers and keep the slaves as legitimate stakeholders in the question. One might suspect deception here, or at least some kind of strategic omission, but the 1850 census lacked a line item for the value of slave property. It didn’t even track the names of enslaved individuals, though for the first time it did aspire to get the full names of every free person. Finding the value of all the slaves in a state would take more doing than just looking it up like Stringfellow could the number of churches or the blind. Modern economic historians have done the work, but Stringfellow might simply have lacked the tools.
According to Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, everybody benefited from slavery. The Bible endorsed it. Enslaved black people behaved better than free black people. Slavery led to more and larger churches to give a greater portion of the population, blacks included, access to religion. Slavery produced more homes and fewer homeless. Slavery produced a more fruitful native population, multiplying at a greater rate than Northern whites did. Even the slaves multiplied faster. Given all these spectacular advantages, the abolitionists had to have something gone wrong in their heads to damn it.
Slavery may have brought great wealth to whites, which also didn’t harm its appeal, but Stringfellow had some honest misgivings about great wealth:
That country, which has greatest wealth, is not necessarily the happiest or most prosperous. On the contrary, excessive wealth too often brings in its train vice and degradation. Real happiness is rather to be found where wealth is distributed; where each is above want, all are able to live free from the harassing exactions of poverty. This is it, which has ever presented the striking contrast between town and country; which has so fully warranted men in regarding towns as “sores on the body politic,” has given rise to the adage “God made the country, man made the town.” In the latter, great wealth gathered in the hands of the few, the toiling millions struggling for bread; the one class is corrupted by luxury, the other debased by destitution. In the country it is the reverse: there though there be no excessive wealth, there is no poverty: fortune is distributed, if not with exact equality, yet in such fair proportions, that none can oppress another, with neither luxury nor idleness to corrupt, nor want nor oppression to tempt and degrade, the people are happy, virtuous and prosperous.
While in New England, we admit there are more overgrown fortunes, more towns, more seeming wealth and prosperity, in (that distributed wealth, which marks real prosperity, in exemption from poverty with its ills, we assert that the slaveholding States are far in advance. Of necessity, a slaveholding people must mainly be an agricultural people. Among such, whatever wealth there be, must be better distributed than among the inhabitants of the cities: there must be fewer paupers. The census proves this.
Slavery makes for better societies because it forces a more equitable distribution of wealth. Returning to the census figures, Stringfellow proves he operates on more than bare assertion:
New England, with all her boasted prosperity, has nearly double 135 per cent. more paupers than these Southern States, which abolitionists would represent as impoverished by slavery. In New England, the land of thrift, 1 in 81 is a pauper, while in these Southern States there is but 1 in 191.
These numbers do not include the slaves who legally owned nothing in the comparison, of course.
The Yankee might answer back that Stringfellow found in the census poor immigrants. He would have none of it. Those immigrants built the North’s railroads and canals. They worked in its factories. They created the very wealth which abolitionists boasted of in damning slavery as economically backward. Furthermore, even if one did neglect the immigrants the census told a similar story about native-born northern paupers:
New England has of her sons almost double the number, nearly 70 per cent. more paupers than these impoverished slaveholding States.
Northern whites further advertised the greatness of free labor through the larger proportion of them counted by the census as blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill. Something went badly wrong to bring all this about and Stringfellow held freedom responsible.
Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, lieutenant of David Rice Atchison and spokesman for the Platte County Self-Defense Association defended slavery on religious grounds. He went to the 1850 census to find proof that it benefited the slaves, finding there that free blacks suffered all manner of difficulty their enslaved counterparts did not. Then he proceeded to note that slavery brought benefits to the white race in the form of more churches per person. They built those churches for less and to accommodate more than did the holier than thou New England abolitionists, a clear win for slave labor. Furthermore, the slaveholding states built solid, orthodox churches not given to heretical doctrines like Adventism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, or Universalism. One might add Abolitionism to the list, as Stringfellow surely intended his readers to do.
The benefits to whites did not end at the church door:
We find in the census the first great test of the superior condition of our own over other countries, is in the larger proportion of our dwellings, to our families. It needs no argument to show that country the happiest which has most homes for its people. Not only is their physical condition, their mere comfort promoted, but there is nothing which more certainly conduces to health and good morals. The watchful care of the home circle, the cheerful happy fireside, preserve not alone the body from disease, but the mind, the heart from corruption and vice. We turn then to the census, and compare the homes and families of New England with the homes and families of these old slave States.
Me., N. H., Vt., Mass., R. I., Conn., 518,532 Families. 447, 789 Dwellings. Md., Va., N. Ca., S. Ca., Georgia, 506,868 Families. 496,369 Dwellings.
With equal population, New England has 11,564 more families, these Southern States 48,580 more dwellings! New England has 70,743 families without a home! In New England, the land whose “homes” the abolitionists delight to praise, one in every seven of the families is homeless! while in these Southern States but one family of fifty-two is without a home. Taking the average of the number composing a family, and New England has 373,700 of its population thrown upon the world, who have no place for a home!
Not only can those Yankees not church themselves properly, they can’t even manage regular houses. If they do so well without slavery, then why do so many of them lack a roof over their heads? Even with all those big cities, New England comes up short to the plain folk of the south with their humble cabins and opulent plantation houses.
One might argue back that Stringfellow neglects population growth. The North did grow faster than the South and one can’t expect new houses to just pop up on the occasion of every birth. Stringfellow anticipated that and had an answer: The North did not, in fact, grow faster than the South.
Anybody looking at the population aggregates in the census knows otherwise, but Stringfellow zeroes in on natural increase. His measure of the health of society depends on the growth rate of people adding to the population by the hallowed tradition of childbirth. Immigration does not count, as immigrants come from different environments. Their condition has to do with where they came from as well as their current residence. Taking the immigrants out of the equation, Stringfellow finds
With equal population, with 11,564 more families, New England has 16,535 less annual births: the natural increase by birth being 27 per cent. greater in the Southern States than in New England! Estimating the number of families, the proper mode of estimating natural increase, and these Southern States increase by birth more than 29 per cent faster than New England. Here again we find the laws of nature vanquished; the rule reversed: the North, instead of supplying population to the South, is far behind in natural increase.
Those figures include South Carolina and Georgia in the South, two states that many nineteenth century Americans saw as downright toxic, malarial swamps entirely unfit for the white race to inhabit and toil within. Only black people could work safely in such disease-haunted lands.