Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Six

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow defended slavery on religious and benevolent grounds. How could the abolitionists censure what the Bible endorsed and which so benefited the slaves? His claims reached farther than that, though. Stringfellow also insisted that slavery benefited the white race. At this point, a modern reader immediately thinks that of course whites benefited. The profits made with the theft of black labor flowed into white pockets. Surely Stringfellow meant not that whites benefited in a materialistic sense. One could not defend slavery just by saying how rich one got from it or how it funded fine civic projects.

Yet he did. Abolitionist and antislavery Americans of the age viewed slavery as an economically backwards, unproductive enterprise. It retarded progress and put a millstone around the nation’s neck. Nineteenth century Americans loved progress above most other concepts. Believing in America meant believing in progress. That progress could come through territorial expansion, the opening of new lands to white settlement, or technological development, but it all fed into the spirit of the time. They rode the railroad and telegraph into the future. Calling slavery a retrograde impediment to progress also called it unpatriotic and unwelcome in the future of iron and steel that seemed just around the corner.

Stringfellow would have none of that:

We have now the statistics furnished in the census: they are in reach of all; their truth can not be disputed, and we are now enabled to determine beyond controversy the effects of negro-slavery. The men of the north are peculiarly, a “calculating” people, accustomed to deal with facts and figures; and a large majority of them we believe disposed to be just, to listen to fair argument, to yield to the force of truth: to them we submit with confidence the startling evidence furnished by the census.

Listen up, Yankees. You like your numbers and B.F. Stringfellow has some numbers for you. Taking pains to make fair comparisons, he chose to weigh the statistics for the New England states against their similarly developed slaveholding peers: Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Going through the census, Stringfellow found

These five Southern States, with a free population of only 2,198 greater than the six New England States, have nearly double the number of churches, capable of accommodating a million more worshippers, at but little over half the cost!

Godly New England seems awfully disinterested in building houses of worship, even though it had more towns in which to situate them. The slaveholding states built more churches, for more people, for less money. They surely could not have done the last without the benefit of slave labor. The blood and sweat and toil of black slaves made for godly white men. And they even let the slaves worship with them, contrary to abolitionist claims that slaveholders kept back from their property the benefits of religion:

These Southern States contain a population, including slaves, of 720,410 more than New England: yet in New England there are 200,000 more who cannot find a seat in the house of God! These Southern churches can not only accommodate every man that could be crowded into the temples of New England, but would then give room to more than a million of slaves!

The picture grew even worse for New England when accounting for the fact that more than two hundred of its churches called themselves Unitarian or Universalist, and thus not really Christian at all. In all the South, the census found only eight such dens of heterodoxy.

Something about the northern air sent people to imagining dubious religious innovations in general:

Out of the census, we can point to Mormonism with its polygamy; Millerism, Spiritualism, as taking their birth, flourishing alone where abolitionists are found. The Stowes, and Beechers, with the Fanny Wrights, and Abby Folsoms, are to be found alone in that land which produced Joe Smith, Miller, the Misses Fox.

What is it which has thus reversed the condition of these people, set at naught all our experience; has converted the indolent thoughtless Southerner into the humble orthodox Christian; while the men of the north, the world over noted for religious enthusiasts, the sons of the Puritans, have fallen from their simple stern devotion, become setters up of strange doctrines?

The abolitionist movement did draw a great deal of support from Upstate New York’s Burned-Over District, known for its religious innovations. One can’t argue with those facts, though one need not share Stringfellow’s suspicion of new, novel religious ideas.


Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Five

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Stringfellow hammered the point that the census showed slaves as better off in terms of physical and mental health than free blacks, neglecting any difference in their ability to access what the nineteenth century had to offer in terms of social welfare for those so afflicted.  Stringfellow pressed on from there. He had the Bible on his side. He had the census. But he had still more statistics to advance his thesis that slavery benefited the slave and slaveholder alike.

Even in slaveholding Missouri, free black people just did little to no good. They had slaveholding whites and faithful slaves all around them, but appeared to take little from their good example. Stringfellow knew because he lived in their company:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character

It did little to just assert that free black ne’er-do-wells rampaged across the South, though. People of the time would probably not call him a racist for it, but they would know all too well that a proslavery man has a strong motivation to exaggerate or outright invent sins of those who slipped slavery’s noose. Stringfellow went to the crime statistics to back himself up.

Of the moral condition of the slave, as contrasted with that of the free negro, the census also gives us no information. But so full are the annals of crime, of evidence on this head, we would waste time in making the contrast. Of the slave we fearlessly assert that as to all the higher grades of crime, he will contrast favorably even with the white man. But “children of a larger growth,” kindly, affectionate in their dispositions, their wants all simple, amply supplied, they have neither the temptation nor the inclination to commit crime. They may be led astray, they are easily ruled, they may commit a petty trespass; but let alone, with none to corrupt them, they pass through life happy, contented and innocent.

Slaves behaved themselves, absent some abolitionist giving them bad ideas. Free black people? Not so much:

On the other hand, the unhappy free negro, thoughtless and improvident, driven from the society of the good and the virtuous, an outcast among the vicious, is regarded as a nuisance even by the abolitionist! He is not a mere nuisance, but the criminal statistics of the North show, that crime of the highest grades, offences which are punished by confinement in the penitentiaries, prevail among the free negroes to an unheard of extent. In Massachusetts, composing less than one-hundredth part of the population, they furnish one-tenth of the convicts. In other States, the proportion is even greater. In the South, on the other hand, offenses of this character are even more rare than among the whites.

I wish Stringfellow gave a source for his numbers. Despite his proud declaration that he has them, we receive only this one from his text.

That said, let’s grant for the sake of argument that Stringfellow spoke the general truth. He ignores, and can’t have missed the fact having lived in a slave society, that slaves had little to no access to the criminal justice system. If they committed a grievous crime, it might make a sensation in the newspapers and be on everyone’s mind for a while. That slave or free black person, however, stood little chance of coming before a court, facing trial, and receiving a sentence. The white South, seeing its survival at stake, dealt with these things brutally but informally.

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s

Abraham Lincoln told the story of one such case in Stringfellow’s own Missouri back in the 1830s:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

McIntosh murdered a prominent citizen of St. Louis. Even on its chilly frontier, where cotton did not grow, the white South dealt with that kind of thing far more often by means of private violence than the courts.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Four

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow had the Bible on his side, if he did say so himself. He knew piratical abolitionists would flood Kansas with pauper mercenaries. That flood would not just take Kansas away from slavery, but also inflame antislavery sentiment in the adjacent Missouri slave belt. Ruin and race war would come unless he and his Platte County Self-Defense Association comrades stood against it. Stringfellow knew from the horrifying example of Haiti that without white tutelage, black people would return to their supposed natural state of idolatrous savagery.

Even if one granted Haiti as a clear example that black people simply could not govern themselves, nineteenth century Americans had another example of a black population living without slavery. Stringfellow could hop on a train, catch a river boat, ride or walk a few hundred miles and find himself deep in a free state. Every free state had at least some free black people living there, despite the best efforts of their white neighbors. If the natural experiment of Haiti suggested that blacks needed slavery, didn’t the natural experiment of the free states suggest that they did not?

Stringfellow didn’t think so. He had facts and figures to back up his assertion that slaves benefited from slavery. The 1850 census, like the 1840 census, did more than just count the people and note their race and sex. In fact, the census for the first time tried to count every single person in the nation. The census takers also counted the “deaf and dumb”, the blind, and “insane and idiots”.

Loss of speech, of hearing, of sight, as certainly indicate physical, as idiocy and insanity do mental suffering. By the extent to which the negro, slave and free, is subject to these afflictions, we are enabled to determine his condition. Blindness, insanity and idiocy especially result from destitution and distress.

That makes good sense as far as it goes. If we looked at a group of people working in a particular industry or living in a particular area today and found that they had statistically significant higher rates of blindness, mental impairment or illness, or loss of speech, we would think something had gone wrong. Stringfellow compared the census figures for whites and free blacks to start, finding their rates of the aforementioned afflictions:

Of Deaf and Dumb, 1 to 2151 White, 1 to 3005 Free Negro
“Blind 1 to 2445 ” , 1 to 870 ” ” 
“Insane and Idiots 1 to 1374 ” , 1 to 980 ” “

From these he concluded that free blacks suffered such things at a greater rate than whites. What about the slaves? Stringfellow constructed a proper table of the data:

Deaf and Dumb. Blind. Insane and Idiots.
White 1 to 2151 1 to 2445 1 to 1374
Free Negro 1 to 3005 1 to 870 1 to 980
Slave 1 to 6552 1 to 2645 1 to 3080

Not only did the slaves suffer less than free blacks, they actually came off better than whites! How could that be? Stringfellow posited that “the watchful care of the master” and “the simple genuine happiness of the slave” explained it all.

Counting the disabled had been a problem in the 1840 census, which returned figures so obviously wrong that when confronted with specific examples even John C. Calhoun would admit that the federal marshals made errors in recording them. In some cases, the number of black people with disabilities exceeded the total black population and Calhoun would not pretend anything other than error occurred there. Furthermore, in order to get on the census lists for disability one had to live in some kind of institution, poorhouse, or benefit from some kind of local charity. Whites would receive precedence over blacks in the North, possibly to the point of complete exclusion, but down south even that asked a great deal. A disabled slave would remain a slave and most likely take tasks for which the disability didn’t matter so much and might go unmarked. The 1850 census came from the work of nineteenth century lay Americans, not twenty-first century statisticians and demographers. The numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Three

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow could cite the Bible to support slavery, just as the abolitionists cited it to damn the institution. He could have left matters there, settling for the Bible’s blessing to declare slavery a positive good. Stringfellow had other plans. If he had more support for his position, he might as well give it all. A reader unpersuaded by any alone might find the combination enough to warrant a change of mind. Thus he pressed on, arguing that

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. Mrs. Stowe could not in fancy picture him a kinsman of poor Topsy; Fred Douglass would disown him as a country-man. It is not for us to question God’s purposes, but it is certain that from our first knowledge of the negro race, those only have been rescued from the lowest stage of heathen barbarity, who have been made slaves to the white man — those only have learned to know the God of the Christian, who have been instructed by their masters. Ages have rolled on, and still the labour of the pious, missionary has been in vain; the African in his native land is still an idolator! Even now the only hope of his elevation, in the scale of humanity, is by means of the liberated slave.

Just look at Africa! A whole continent full of barbaric, ignorant savages! They run around naked, sacrificing people to stone altars. They’re not even Christian! American blacks should thank American whites for enslaved them. Did they really want to go back? Only when white men took them away to the New World did they learn the rudiments of civilization.

An abolitionist could argue that Stringfellow never asked the slaves if they wanted to go back. Few slaveholders did and many ardently opposed any kind of national support for the American Colonization Society. The latter might lead to the state requiring them to send away their human property, after all. Thus colonization extended only to free blacks, who had usually been in the United States for generations, had friends and family there, and considered it their home as much as the home of any white man.

But what about those free black people? If they did well enough, then it mooted Stringfellow’s case. Should they have truly required removal to the New World and the tutelage of slavery, their subsequent success as free people would show that slavery had done its good work and could be put away.

But we go further and say that wherever the negro has been the slave of the white man, his condition has been better, not only than that of his race in the deserts of Africa, but better than when freed from the control of the white man, in whatever land the comparison be made. Whether we look to his condition in St. Domingo, the slave of the light-hearted Frenchman; In Jamaica, of the energetic Englishman; in the United States, of the indolent Creole of the South, or of the enterprising Kentuckian, as a, slave, the negro has ever been better and happier than when free.

They just liked it that way. Ignore the testimony of the broken tools, slow work, running away, and all the other ways slaves expressed their resistance to their condition. Instead look at the results of freedom upon them:

In St. Domingo and Jamaica, which once contained a population, prosperous and wealthy, the masters kind and indulgent, the slaves joyous and happy, with their light labors yielding abundant harvests, robbed of the care, protection and forethought of the white man, we see them fast sinking to the starving miserable condition of wretched savages.

The slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations would probably like a few words with Stringfellow about their light labors.

In our own country, with the advantage of the white man’s example before them, with all the watchful care of their friends, the abolitionists, to aid them, the condition of the free negro is far worse than that of the slave. Politically their condition is worse than that of the slave, for as to all the honors and offices of government, the privileges of a citizen, freedom is to the free negro worse than an empty name. Subject to the burdens, they are even by the abolitionists deprived of the benefits of government. They who so love the slave, that they will steal him from the care and protection of his master, will exclude the unhappy free negro from a home in their State. Unlike the slave, they have none to protect them. To the slave, the master is the government, a ruler with limited powers, whose interest is identical with his subject. To the master alone does the slave owe allegiance, from him he receives protection. To the free negro, the government is that of a stranger — he is as an alien, with all the burdens, with none of the privileges of a citizen. Until the free negro is made politically that which nature has not made him, the equal of the white man, his political privileges are in fact the worst species of oppression.

However nakedly self-serving, Stringfellow has the ghost of a point. Antislavery whites did also vote for laws keeping black people out of their states, out of their polling places, out of elected office, out of their schools, and so forth. Whatever manifold sins the slave states indulged in, however eagerly Stringfellow wants to ignore them, not a one of them demanded every black face driven from their bounds. Racial egalitarianism simply did not enter the minds of many nineteenth century American whites, though it came close to catching on for some during Reconstruction.

Twentieth and twenty-first century white Americans have a fair bit of work left to do on that front too.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Two

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Defense of Slavery, Part 1

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered slavery a positive good for white and black alike. The activities to which the Platte County Self-Defense Association and similar groups pledged themselves take on an additional layer of meaning. The men of western Missouri did want to defend themselves, their families, their property in human lives, and their profits. At least some of them also saw themselves as engaged in a project for social betterment in the broader national context. If slavery did so much good, why wouldn’t one want to prevent the establishment of a new free state just for its own sake? Free states become legal mistakes that cause social calamities for both races. For the good of the nation and all its people, decent Americans should unite to abolish them.

To make his case, Stringfellow began where a great many Americans of his age would have begun on a moral question; he opened his Bible. There he found a god who ordained and blessed slavery.

This broad proposition will doubtless cause the abolitionist to sneer — it will strike as bold, the good men of the north who have been so long deceived; it may even seem hard of proof to those in the slave-holding States who have feared to investigate the subject; but we have the evidence at hand. A good lesson has been taught us, and we have profited by it. So long and so oft had it been proclaimed from the pulpit, that slavery was a violation of God’s law, men begun to doubt whether a slaveholder could be a Christian. Men of the world, too little versed in the teachings of the Bible, feared to investigate the question. Our Divines, misled by their text-books, took for granted the dogmas of their Doctors. Yet so soon as one man dared approach, the Holy Book, dared to “search the scriptures,” it was found, that instead of being a violation of God’s holy law, slavery was actually established by that law! The truth was proclaimed; discussion followed; the result was, that investigation fixed beyond controversy the fact, that by the first law given to man by his Maker, the law proclaimed from Sinai, slavery was established! Moses, the divine law-giver, was a slaveholder! Slavery was recognised and regulated by our Saviour! A “fugitive slave,” instead of fleeing aided in his escape, was returned to his master by Paul, the great Apostle, to the Gentiles!

So triumphantly and conclusively was the consistency of slavery with the Christian religion established, that abolitionists were driven to infidelity, to blasphemy: they trampled under foot the Bible, spurned the God and Saviour of slave-holders!

That bears some unpacking. Stringfellow notes that the abolitionists have opened their Bibles too. They’ve made religious cases against slavery. But to do that, they had to look selectively. As the product of a slaveholding time and slaveholding culture, the Christian and Jewish religious works alike acknowledge and support slavery in clear terms. Slavery did not just happen in Biblical texts; those same texts regulated and endorsed it. Submissions on this point appeared so often in DeBow’s Review that the editor published one with a resigned note that they had done the subject to exhaustion.

The question of whether a Christian could hold slaves had divided denominations before Stringfellow wrote and would continue to do so. Some of these divisions remain today, though the slavery issue has long since vanished into the past. The Free Methodists split from the other Methodists because they believed a Christian could not hold slaves and slaveholders ought not rise to positions of leadership in the faith. The Southern Baptists split from the other Baptists because they believed one could and objected to the exclusion of slaveholding leaders. These divisions don’t feature prominently in most surveys of the roots of the Civil War but Calhoun mentioned them in his final speech (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and they occupied the minds of many Americans at the time. Religions might not have been part of the state apparatus, but they did form threads common national culture that came under strain and in many cases snapped in the years before Fort Sumter.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow explained the intentions and policy of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Doing so gives us a valuable window into how the principals of the time saw themselves and the situation they faced. But he titled his pamphlet “Negro-Slavery, No Evil”. Like many nineteenth century authors, he had a longer version of the title too: Negro-Slavery, No Evil, or The North and the South. The Effects of Negro-Slavery, as Exhibited in the Census, by a Comparison of the Condition of the Slaveholding and Non-slaveholding States. Considered in a Report, Made to the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, by a Committee, through B. F. Stringfellow, Chairman.

Stringfellow makes it nearly ten pages into all that before he reaches the topic in the title. At first blush, a moral or other defense of slavery qua slavery seems a bit beyond the scope of a pamphlet laying out the Platte County group’s reasons for organization and action. Of course they believed slavery a good thing. They had an understandable fear of race war and losing their human property that further directly motivated them. The righteousness of slavery seems a few steps further removed, though. One might believe slavery right and good, or even merely the best of a bad situation, and still not think it imperative to carry the institution into Kansas. Plenty in the South did, considering Kansas a Missouri issue to which they had a sectional obligation and duty rather than a vital and immediate interest.

All that said, slaveholders resented the Missouri Compromise and other limits on slavery because they understood them as judgments about the institution’s morality. Limiting slavery implied undesirability, both for the institution and its practitioners. They did not view themselves as tainted inferiors who the nation ought to quarantine. Thus Stringfellow and company naturally saw the Kansas question as a part of the larger national debate and their stance on the morality of slavery as core to their undertaking. They cast their position in moral terms like anybody would. This ranges wider than the immediate problem of Kansas, so I’ve given it its own heading.

Stringfellow lays it out bluntly:

We assert that negro-slavery, as it exists in the United States, is neither a moral nor a political evil, but on the contrary, is a blessing to the white race and to the negro.

A Virginia patriarch might fret about slavery and say he wished it gone, all the while fighting ardently to keep it, but Stringfellow had none of that. White and black alike felt not the best of a bad situation. They did not have the wolf by the ears, as Jefferson had it, and worry about letting go. Rather they felt blessed by slavery. Just ask the white slaveholders.

That said, even Stringfellow had his limits:

Let us not be understood as suggesting that the number of slaves should be increased by violence, by opening again our ports to the importation of those whom the now abolitionists would then capture in the wilds of Africa. Though it has been wisely suggested, if this were done, abolitionists would give us no further troubles, they would as did their fathers, become slave-catchers, and thus being able to make a profit of slavery, would cease to hate slave-owners; would forget their mock love of the negro in their real love of money; though it may easily be shown that slavery has done more to civilize and christianize the African, than all the schemes of all the pious missionaries; yet our sympathies for the African are not such as for his good to induce us to bring among us a horde of savages. Our philanthropy does not extend, so far as to become the civilizers of savages, by bringing them into our families. We are now reaping the benefit of our fathers’ good works; we have the civilized Christian man, in place of the rude, vicious, and degraded heathen.

In smearing abolitionists as slave-catchers, Stringfellow had a small historical point. Many New Englanders helped build, crew, operate, and owned the ships that carried millions of slaves to the New World. They made good money doing it. But the era of New England slave ships plying the Atlantic ended decades before. The last slave importers who operated legally in the United States operated from ports in Georgia and South Carolina. Southerners, not Yankees, continued the trade on the sly. As the decade wore on, sons of the South a bit more radical than Stringfellow would prefer openly advocated for full resumption of the African slave trade. Even on the eve of civil war, that asked too much of most Southern consciences.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Seven

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 12345, 6

The Platte County Self-Defense Association, committed to preserving slavery in Missouri, naturally had a low opinion of antislavery settlers. The group existed to keep them out of Missouri and run them out of Kansas. They worried about a racial revolution, the loss of their valuable human property, and of course the profits they reaped through the theft of lives and labor to grow their hemp. To that end, abolitionists of any stripe looked much like terrorists would to us.

But an abolitionist, to the minds of people of the time, looked like a rich man from New England. Such people would not rush to start new lives on the wild frontier. They had their money and their success. Poor people and people of middling success would take that chance. They might, however, take it with some of the funds that Eli Thayer’s and other Emigrant Aid Societies would offer. The slaveholders on the Missouri frontier knew that very well. It thus bears looking a bit more closely at how Stringfellow and his compatriots viewed the people they expected to actually chase from Kansas.

But to that other class, hired slaves of corrupt masters, who are sent for the purpose of driving our brothers from Kansas, of stealing our property, driving us from our homes, we offer no argument, but that of the strong hand.

The Platte County men would not restrict themselves to sternly worded letters and Stringfellow’s pamphleteering.

We have not, it is true, done that, which natural right would have justified us in doing. There is no law to bind them to keep the peace — there can be none, until it is enacted by the Legislature of that Territory; they are to us as would be a band of Blackfeet or Camanches, who should encamp upon our borders, for the avowed purpose of stealing our cattle and horse, of plundering our farms and villages. We would be justified in marching to their camp, and driving them back to their dens, without waiting for their attack. We are not bound to wait, until they have “stolen our negroes,” “burned our slaveholding towns.” But we have been so “law abiding and orderly,” that we have not done this: we have simply said, “we will when called upon,” go to the aid of our friends, and assist in expelling those who proclaim their purpose to be the expulsion of our friends. Robbers and murderers have no right to call on the law for protection.

In other words, they should have already gone off and purged Kansas antislavery settlers. No law governed it and those people represented the worst of two sorts of human being to nineteenth century whites: slaves and Indians. They deserved driving out for the crime of their mere existence. Yet in their forbearance, the Platte County Self-Defense Association stayed their hand. They, to use the infamous words of Roger Taney constituted

beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

Free soil settlers in Kansas might, by accident of birth, end up as white men but Stringfellow laid it out in plain language. No law protected or should protect any such person. If they came, then they meant war. If they threw a war, the Missouri slaveholders would come.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Six

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 12345

The Platte County Self-Defense Association, via Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, insisted that it lived up to its name. It concerned itself with the maintenance and defense of slavery not in Kansas, but in adjacent Missouri. Its members further cast themselves as the advance guard for slavery in general. If they failed, Missouri would fall to freedom. Then abolitionists would descend not on chilly Kansas or Missouri valley hemp country, but on the virgin cotton lands in Arkansas and Texas where planters really saw their future expansion heading. They stood for themselves and for all the slaveholding states, prepared to fight enemies from without and subversion of the sacrosanct color line binding all whites together on behalf of slavery at home.

As the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act had proved, and the Dred Scott decision and two famous Confederate invasions would later prove, defending slavery often required conducting offensive campaigns in free territory. Stringfellow owned up to that:

There is another measure which we have proposed, which may be deemed local and personal, and which has been grossly misrepresented by the abolitionists and their sympathisers. We have been charged with pledging ourselves to assist in the expulsion of all settlers who go to Kansas from the non-slaveholding States. This, like most other abolition statements, is purely false. On the contrary, the only pledge we have given touching the expulsion of any person from Kansas, is one which we expect ere long to be called on to redeem by the good men who have gone to Kansas from the non-slaveholding States. That pledge is, that we will, when called on by the citizens of Kansas, aid them in expelling those who are exported to that Territory by the Abolition Aid Societies. With these, the honest men, who go to Kansas from the non-slaveholding States, are not to be confounded.

No, the men of the association would never go to Kansas to run out everyone from a free state. Yes, they would go when asked by Kansans to evict the illegitimate mercenaries of the Emigrant Aid Societies. They knew Kansans would ask because they expected to supply the Kansans. They would not run out slaveholding Kansans, of course. Nor would they answer the call of Kansans from free states who asked them to help run out outside agitators in favor of slavery, however amusing one might find the image of them racing across the border to haul themselves back to their starting point. This sharp distinction allows Stringfellow and his comrades to pledge themselves to defending legitimate settlers in Kansas, while limiting legitimacy to the settlers who will come and vote the way they prefer. Heads they win; tails the free soilers lose.

Stringfellow justified the distinction without difference by appeal to frontier mythology. People who came to Kansas on their own, who would come mostly from Missouri as the shorter distance meant lower costs, went

with the spirit of freemen to secure a home for their children, they go respecting the rights of others

Not like the other sort:

the slaves of Thayer & Co. and his associates, to do their masters’ bidding; to drive others from the Territory, to steal negroes from Missouri.

How dare they propose to drive people from Kansas! Didn’t they know that job belonged to the Platte County Self-Defense Association?

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Five


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 123, 4

Stringfellow, his Platte County Self-Defense Association compatriots, and American whites in general had a wide panoply of legal means to control American blacks. Their edicts ran through slave codes in the South and various state laws in the North that enforced forms of segregation, reserved voting to white men alone, even barred all blacks from some states, and otherwise comfortably situated white supremacy at the heart of the body politic. Stringfellow’s northern neighbors could have told him a thing or two about how to manage blacks in the absence of slavery.

But the stability and security of slavery did not rest on the control of blacks alone. That same control had to extend, if in sometimes more sophisticated and subtle ways, to poor whites who might otherwise use their vote to remove slavery and blacks alike from their presence. Stringfellow appreciated that risk and declared that the self-defense to which his association pledged itself included defense against giving those whites any such ideas. The association thus promised that it would not suffer the sun to set on any whites within its reach who took to antislavery agitation.

What did that mean for the rights of white men, enshrined in the Constitution? In one sense, it meant very little. In the nineteenth century, states had no obligation to extend any federal right whatsoever to their citizens. They could if they so wished, but could extend some or none and remove them just as freely. The familiar rights of modern Americans did not come slowly out from their paper tomb until the twentieth century.

All that said, Americans of the time still believed they had rights and took the exercise of them seriously even if they lacked the full legal superstructure that we would expect. That extended, in some ways, even to the oligarchs riding high on brutally oppressive slave societies. Some things, Americans just ought not to do.

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

We believe in your rights as Americans. We believe in the rule of law. But as no law yet forbids expressing abolitionist ideas, we must take the law into our own hands. Your right to speak does not trump our right to hold slaves.

This speaks to the essential trade-off between slavery and freedom, as understood by many nineteenth century Americans. Black slavery required not just the subjugation of blacks, but also the compromise of white freedom. The slaveholders would take that trade, accepting less freedom for a class of whites in order to secure no freedom for blacks and the freedom to hold slaves for themselves.

Antislavery whites perceived the exchange just the same way: preserving slavery meant sacrificing white freedom. Nor did the trade appear to happen once, but rather it looked more and more as years went on that additional sacrifices would always come. Slavery, once tolerated under the Missouri Compromise, suddenly demanded all of the Mexican Cession. Then it demanded all the nation’s unorganized territory. What would it demand next? If they too must knuckle under to the despot in his plantation house to keep him in his slaves, then they wanted no part of his freedom to have them and would work if not to end it then at least to curtail its reach and power over their lives.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Four


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3

A free Kansas would lead to a free Missouri. A free Missouri would turn into an abolitionist headquarters from which to strike deeper into the South. Financial ruin and a strong chance at racial annihilation would ensue, as to men like Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and the Platte County Self-Defense Association one simply could not live with black people without holding them as slaves. Maybe the North could get away with its tiny number of free blacks, though Stringfellow doubted it, but the South had vastly more. The abolitionists promised ruin for everyone. Thus

The plan of our Association is not aggressive, but as our name imparts, truly self-defensive. We are pledged diligently to investigate and promptly bring to punishment every violation of the laws which have been enacted for the protection of our slave-property.

One can’t doubt Stringfellow’s sincerity. He does write propaganda informed by a particular time and place not entirely typical of the antebellum South, but he writes with a set of fears very much the same as those expressed by whites living in areas far safer for slavery. The fear that the color line would break and poor whites would turn against slavery informed thinkers in the Lower South just as much as it did those in Stringfellow’s chilly environs. In no state did slaveholders form a majority, though in Mississippi slaveholding households came very close to a majority of white households. They needed the poor whites to see themselves as whites first and so have a common cause with the planter aristocrats, rather than the slaves. The facts of their skin must trump the fact that a black slave and a white freeman doing the same hard farm labor had far more personally in common than the legal walls separating them suggested.

But how could Stringfellow, his Platte County Self-Defense Association comrades, and the slaveholding class in general keep out the threat of class consciousness parting ways with racial consciousness? The Association pledged itself to

We have determined to adopt all proper means to rid ourselves of the free negroes, who are unfit and have no right by law to remain among us: and to prevent all such as are not members of some white family, and subject to their control, from residing in our county.

This form of racial control became quite common outside the South in the several decades after Reconstruction in the form of sundown towns. James Loewen wrote a great book on it.

But sundown towns take us far afield from the Missouri hinterland in 1854. Chasing off free, independently living blacks from Missouri would not keep control of poor whites. For that, the Association had other plans

We have also pledged ourselves to expel from our county all who shall be found proclaiming principles which tend to induce our slaves to escape, to lead them to insurrection and rebellion.

The expulsion, by violence if necessary, of any who spoke out against slavery, in Kansas especially but also at home, gained the Missouri filibusters their place in the history books.