An Insult for Every Section

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

I can’t go very long without talking about the Wilmot Proviso, even after the Compromise of 1850 left it dead in the water. That Armistice came about to resolve the questions about slavery in the nation’s future opened by the Mexican War and David Wilmot’s answer to them. But I have not to date touched on how the South understood the Proviso not just as a political act contrary to their interests and, perhaps, survival. Without an escape valve, the natural increase of slaves would make more and more of the Lower South into darker and darker black belts, leaving its white slaveholders in a more and more precarious position. That aspect of the Proviso comes out at fairly immediate reading.

But the South also took the proviso as a sort of personal insult. By banning slavery from the West and thus the nation’s future, as understood by nineteenth century Americans, the Proviso said not just that slavery should someday in the far future end (a belief held by a significant number of Southerners) or be quarantined to a certain section of America, but also inevitably passed judgment on slavery itself and so the cultural, social, and economic system by which the South operated. To them, the Proviso declared white Southerners fundamentally unclean and unworthy of a place in the America to come. That naturally led them to wonder of Wilmot also saw any place for them in the then-present America.

William W. Freehling gives the Southern reaction an able summary in Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854:

David Wilmot, censurer, called up that odious stream of word associations no Southerner could abide: immoral equals inferior equals slave equals “nigger” – equals necessity to combat such pilloring of southern equality. As Peter Daniel of Virginia, a Democrat and an associate judge of the United States Supreme Court, explained to Martin Van Buren, David Wilmot’s moral “pretention” was “fraught with dangers far greater than any that can flow from mere calculation of political influence or of [economic] profit.” Wilmot “pretends to an insulting exclusiveness or superiority on the one hand, and denounces a degraded inequality or inferiority on the other.” A Wilmot Proviso advocate “says in effect to the Southern man, Avaunt! you are not my equal and hence are to be excluded.” The question, reiterated by Joseph Mathews, governor of Mississippi, in his January 1848 inaugural address, is “whether citizens of the slave states are to be considered as equals.”

Having little to no sympathy for the cause of slaveholders, we can easily dismiss these words out of hand. Certainly the political dimensions of the issue allow us to grasp its import. But we should not rush to that dismissal. Instead, imagining them complexly permits us to understand that Southern reaction did not come from either personal grievances or political grievances, but from both together. A commentary, let alone a formal policy, on how little welcome one deserves, in the nation’s future strikes deep. If one can’t imagine it in itself, remove slavery and replace it with an issue near and dear to your own heart and value system.

James Mason, author of the insult to the North

James Mason, author of the insult to the North

As Freehling notes, the logic of slavery required Southerners to at least to some extent adopt a worldview where inequality meant mastery. All white men had equality, if more so in the Old Southwest than in more aristocratic Virginia or South Carolina. They knew it because they mastered black people, either individually or through participation in a culture that endorsed it as the apogee of freedom. If white men did not, in fact, enjoy equality they had only one social category into which they obviously fit: slaves.

That kind of insult could not go unanswered and so did not. But the Armistice’s answer preserved some shreds of Southern dignity at the expense of an insult to the culture and identity of the North: the Fugitive Slave Act. And via the Georgia Platform, that state and others officially and more Southerners informally pledged themselves to maintaining the Union only so long as that insult saw thorough application.

Burning the Fire-Eaters

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, failed secessionist, or “resister,” candidate for governor

I mentioned yesterday that fire-eaters and Northern onlookers alike took lessons from the abortive secession movement of 1850-51. They had good reason to. Northerners might castigate the Southern radicals, but their neighbors made them pay more than just the lost chance at revolution.

Georgia replaced Towns with Howell Cobb. William W. Freehling describes Cobb’s platform:

Rebellion […] could never be lawful and could only be justifiable when natural rights were horribly violated.

The Georgia legislature sent Robert Toombs to the Senate. In more radical Mississippi, Jefferson Davis ran for governor as the radical and lost to Unionist Henry S. Foote. Even in South Carolina, where the political spectrum stretched from immediate secession even if it meant going alone to secession when they had other states to accompany them, Georgia’s early rebuke and Mississippi’s delays gave the cooperative state secessionists enough sway to ensure that the legislature set no date for its planned secession convention and commitment to the all-South convention they knew would never meet.

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis for the governorship

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis

After much storm and stress, the would-be secession winter that commenced in September lost its head of steam with Georgia’s electoral rebuke in November and then received a broad rejection by the voters in its key states. As late as 1851, after years of turmoil and many insults it insisted it would never bear, a majority of the South accepted the Armistice.

It would appear that as late as 1850, after four long years of shouting, threats, and duels, Southern Unionism had weathered its greatest stresses and come out the clear victor. It required suppression not from the foreign North, but Southerners themselves. They weighed the value of the Union, as the secessionists always threatened, but the South as a whole weighed it opposite of the way the fire-eaters hoped. Southerners remained Americans, despite a few malcontents.

Ten years later the Republicans remembered well that Southern radicals always threatened disunion and always backed down themselves or got put in their places by a Unionist majority. If South Carolina, always eager to make trouble, polished off with a new rhetorical flourish in 1860 then that meant only that they wanted to convince the nation this time they really meant it while crossing their fingers behind their backs.

It didn’t work out that way, but reading about this in detail has helped me understand why the Republicans had such firm convictions that it would during the secession winter that finally came. Of course the Republicans also lacked Southern party members who could warn them about the differences. If they had warnings from Democrats, the other party had waxed in the South as it waned in the North. Its Northern caucus could do little to resist the proslavery demands of the party’s larger, Southern contingent. Without the benefit of hindsight, how would anybody outside the party know for sure that those Northern Democrat warnings came in earnest instead of as the latest in their endless career as stooges for the Slave Power?

Freehling and Potter really deepened my appreciation of that dynamic. I only wish I read Potter first to give me the overview into which I could slot Freehling’s more detailed narrative of Southern politics. My blogfather deserves a special thanks too because I probably would not have read either in such detail and put it together quite as much without this empty screen to fill five days a week.

Dousing the Fire-Eaters

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

The fire-eaters had their way and the South left the Union in 1851, led by Georgia with South Carolina and Mississippi swiftly following. They dreamed it might happen, anyway. Georgia’s Governor Towns called his election in November for a secession convention in December, but that meant two months of delay. A lot could happen in that time. It did.

Two Whigs, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs, who Zachary Taylor once measured for nooses, and Democrat Howell Cobb, Speaker of the House after much strife, planned to save Georgia for the Union. The Whig pair hoped to create a new national party for Union. Cobb hoped to use Unionism to draw the disgruntled Southern Whigs, already smoldering over their Northern wing’s opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act and the Democratic attacks to which it exposed them, into the Democracy.

Against the Unionist trio’s considerable influence, rhetorical firepower, and not coincidentally an improving economy and the high cotton prices it brought, Georgia’s radicals turned tail and ran. They wanted not to break the Union, they said, but only to resist an unjust compromise to which the trio would have the South submit. They called themselves resisters now, not secessionists. Stephens, who claimed to travel more than three thousand miles up and down Georgia for the Union, and his fellows beat the radicals over the head with secession. It worked. Unionists won the election 46,000 to 24,000 and consequently dominated the convention when it met on November 25th.

Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs

The secession movement fell apart as swiftly as it had formed. On the 29th of November, Quitman wrote Seabrook that Mississippi would have its convention with or without Georgia, but not for a year. The revolution lost October and most of November to Georgia. Now it would sacrifice 1851 to Mississippi. For a full year ordinary white Southerners and their leaders alike would see how the sky did not fall. They would see how the slaves did not rise up. They would learn anew that their families and fortunes faced no greater threat than they had before the dreaded compromise.

South Carolina would have to act, then. Quitman wrote from Mississippi encouraging the Palmetto state. Perhaps even in delay and defeat Georgia and Mississippi paved the way enough to neutralize Carolina’s radical reputation. Strike the spark and Mississippi would turn, Georgia might reconsider, and soon slave state might still fall in line.

Howell Cobb

Howell Cobb

Carolina’s legislature made plans to follow Mississippi’s lead all the same and called for a general  Southern convention in January of 1852. By then Mississippi should, they hoped, be done with convention and United States alike. The South Carolina legislature authorized its own convention, date to be determined later, and appropriated money for the defense of its verdict by force. But even in the cradle of radical disunionism, passions cooled and Carolina’s moderates managed to ensure that the legislature set no date for its secession convention and delay still longer for an all-South convention that by then everyone knew would never meet. The secession conspiracy began with a bang and then fizzled out in the face of domestic Southern opposition.

The fire-eaters and northern onlookers alike learned lessons from the failure of Seabrook’s movement and both would act on them when Secession Winter finally came.

A Fire-Eating Slave Power Conspiracy

With their somewhat understandable fears in mind, where did the South have to go? What could be done about the Armistice? This post owes a great deal to David Potter’s The Impending Crisis and William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. 

George W. Towns, governor of Georgia

George W. Towns, governor of Georgia

Southern radicals had an answer. In speaking of the radical South, at least for the moment I want to clarify which radical South. For the purposes of this topic, by radical I mean all the anti-Compromise forces whatever their preferred remedy to the situation. Radicals rarely benefit from delay and these men knew their business. Millard Fillmore signed the last Compromise laws on September 20, 1850. On September 22, the Georgia’s governor called an election in November for a state convention that would meet in December and, George Washington Bonaparte  Towns expected, vote for secession.

Towns made the first official, public move of that secession fall, but the South’s radical disunionists-in-chief would not suffer others sunder the Union without them. South Carolina’s original plan for brinksmanship failed in the 1830s thanks to the expectation that when they called Andrew Jackson’s bluff, the South would unite behind one of its own against the government in Washington. The South demurred. Resolved not to repeat that experiment, the Palmetto State’s governor, Sea Island planter Whitemarsh Seabrook, quietly sought co-conspirators.

Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, governor of South Carolina

Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, governor of South Carolina

On September 15, before the portions of the Compromise rested on Millard Fillmore’s desk, Governor Seabrook encouraged his Texan counterpart to reject the cash offer, keep the disputed territory, and dare Washington to take it. If Millard Fillmore proved to have a little Zachary Taylor in him after all, South Carolina would give its blood and treasure in common cause with the Lone Star State. Other slave states would rush to their banner. Alexander Stephens had warned Taylor of just that when opposing No Territory.

No fool, Lone Star Governor Peter H. Bell, knew that great distance that separated South Carolina from Texas. Even more distance separated it from the land under contention. Ultimately, of course, Seabrook offered no more than a chance to win land and retain crippling state debts against the certainty of federal money in exchange for the land and retiring of the same debts. Bell might have gone to war against Zachary Taylor, but had nothing to fear from Millard Fillmore.

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

With hopes of Texas striking the spark to ignite the South thwarted, Seabrook turned to other, nearer governors. He promised to convene his legislature for secession as soon as he had assurance from two other states. Towns boarded the disunion train first, but Mississippi’s John A. Quitman wasted little time in joining him. (Mississippi, one ought to remember, shared the majority-slave club with South Carolina.) On September 29, the Magnolia State’s governor promised his state would quit the Union. He called his legislature to convene in special session to authorize a convention which he expected would vote for secession, just as Towns had.

In the course of seven days, from September 22 to September 29, three governors committed their states to secession. It would finally happen. The fire-eaters would have their way despite their loss at Nashville. Several slave states would go out together, invite the rest along, and a new republic of perpetual slavery would rise on the North American continent in the early months of 1851. Surely Millard Fillmore wouldn’t stop them.

Southern Fears about the Armistice

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

As I said of the Armistice of 1850, neither section really assented to the compromise as such. Despite its genuine popularity with the moderate political establishment and with the moderate populace, both antislavery and proslavery diehards had plenty of reason to resent and reject the version of the Clay Measures that finally passed under Millard Fillmore’s pen. I’ve already written a bit about how the new Fugitive Slave Law turned an issue that did not touch the lives of many disinterested Northerners into one that conscripted potentially each and every one of them into a slave patrol entirely alien to their everyday experience. Resistance to the new law deserves more attention, but I think that the basics form part of the average American’s understanding of the situation and resonate strongly with our personal revulsion at slavery.

Instead let’s swing South by way of a Northerner. Salmon P. Chase, the Free Soil Senator from Ohio, told us that despite Douglas and Fillmore’s insistence that the Compromise drew the curtain on the era of sectional strife:

The question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.

History vindicated Chase, but and his opposite numbers. The four years of tumult that Douglas and Fillmore wanted to draw the curtain on began with the Wilmot Proviso, provoking furious Southern response from both fringe radicals like William Lowndes Yancey and no less an establishment radical than John C. Calhoun. Wilmot deserves some credit for striking the spark, but fairness does not permit us to assign him all of it. By trying to exclude slavery from the Mexican Cession, he offered his answer to a question the nation would have had to answer anyway. Whigs of both sections largely opposed the war that won it, to their cost in the South especially. Had Texas been left independent, the question could never have arisen.

From far enough South, the Armistice of 1850’s answer to that question looked disturbingly like the Wilmot Proviso. It gave no explicit guarantee of security for any slaves taken into the territories of New Mexico or Utah. Worse still, the Armistice excluded slavery from California. There on the Pacific Ocean stood a free state plunging far south of the Missouri Compromise line which Southerners would concede in the name of Union even if they believed Congress had no rightful power to draw it. Between it and Texas stood dubious territory where an owner might move his slaves and then find a free state around him in a few years.

More worrisome still, those dubious territories came out of the hide of a slave state. Texas and Texas bondholders could celebrate, but if Washington could compromise its way into dismembering a slave state what could it not compromise its way into? Already it abolished public trading in slaves in the District of Columbia. A half-free territory now existed between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. Would more islands of abolitionism soon spread from federal posts throughout the South? What would happen if slaves ran to them? If military posts turned free soil, did that not effectively banish slaveowners from the military? From federal service and its lucrative patronage posts entirely?

Would that leave those posts for abolitionists to occupy and use to spread their pamphlets and so give slaves ideas about freedom? How could white southerners sleep safe in their beds knowing that even as their native moderates celebrated they had paved the road to a future where a tide of rebelling slaves would burst into their homes and murder their wives and children? In black belts, where slaves vastly outnumbering whites, conveying anything less than absolute commitment to slavery must invite ruin such as befell slaveholding Haiti’s white population.

Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Five)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

(Previous Parts: OneTwoThree, and Four)

Having described how the South lost its equal say in the Senate and House, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proceeded to tell the Senate that restrictions on slavery in the territories brought the South to its diminished state. Those restrictions in turn gave the free states their hitherto unparalleled power.

Having repudiated nearly the entire settled legal edifice restricting slavery, Calhoun then revived the old complaint over the tariff that drove his South Carolina to the brink of secession back in the 1830s, only to find the rest of the South uninterested in standing up to Andrew Jackson’s promise to use force against it. Calhoun and Henry Clay together negotiated a very gradual reduction in the tariff. But a salient fact hides beneath the verbiage about the tariff:

It is well known that the Government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting States, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due portion of the revenue […] a far greater portion of the revenue has been disbursed at the North, than its due share; and that the joint effect of these causes has been, to transfer a vast amount from South to North, which, under an equal system of revenue and disbursements, would not have been lost to her. If to this be added, that many of the duties were imposed not for revenue but for protection, — that is, intended to put money, not in the treasury, but directly into the pocket of the manufacturers, — some conception may be formed of the immense amount which, in the long course of sixty years, has been transferred from South to North.

Calhoun calls the South the exporting region of the nation. He means King Cotton, of course. To that one might add tobacco, rice, and sugar but for most of the South export meant cotton. Cotton grown by slave labor. In other words, via the tariff the North skimmed off the proceeds of the labor the South stole from its slaves.

This had nothing to do with slavery, just how the North excluded slavery from the territories and thus came to dominate the national government had nothing to do with slavery. Calhoun had the brains to see the absurdity in this, but the most brilliant people often make the most brilliant rationalizers. I don’t doubt that he believed every word of it.

What did all of this boil down to?

The result of the whole of these causes combined is — that the North has acquired a decided ascendency over every department of this Government, and through it a control over all the powers of the system. A single section governed by the will of the numerical majority, has now, in fact, the control of the Government and the entire powers of the system. what was once a constitutional federal republic, is now converted, in reality, into one as absolute as that of the Autocrat of Russia,and as despotic in its tendency as any absolute government that ever existed.

Calhoun went on like this while basing his worldview on a despotic autocracy that made the North winning elections look like, well, winning elections. More than that, he practiced that autocracy himself on the slaves he kept at his plantation. Calhoun represented a state singularly dominated by those who did as well, being appointed by the only legislature in antebellum America that had a slaveholder majority. Even by Deep South standards, South Carolina excelled.

South Carolina did not even let its people vote for president. The legislature simply appointed the electors. Other states had done the same, but not since Delaware in 1828. If the Autocrat of Russia, himself the head of the only slave society larger than the American South’s, had an American vacation home he might have picked a nice place in Charleston.

Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Three)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

(Previous Parts: One and Two.)

When I said “tomorrow” in Friday’s post, I meant “Monday”. Sorry about that. Let’s call this a special Sunday post to split the difference.

When last we left the ailing Calhoun, he informed the Senate that the sectional balance he insisted ratification of the Constitution depended upon already stood on thin ice with barely-enslaved Delaware no longer properly loyal to slavery. Thus the slave states numbered twelve and twenty-four senators to the free states’ thirteen and twenty-six, with Delaware as a neutral party. A free California just amounted to pounding that ice with a sledgehammer.

The Senate alone did not tell the whole story:

According to the apportionment under the census of 1840, there were two hundred and twenty-three members of the House of Representatives, of which the Northern States had one hundred and thirty-five, and the Southern States (considering Delaware as neutral) eighty-seven, making a difference in favor of the former in the House of Representatives of forty-eight. The difference in the Senate of two members, added to this, gives to the North, in the electoral college, a majority of fifty. Since the census of 1840, four States have been added to the Union — Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas. They leave the difference in the Senate as it stood when the census was taken; but add two to the side of the North in the House, making the present majority in the House in its favor fifty, and in the electoral college fifty-two.

The result of the whole is to give the Northern section a predominance in every department of the Government, and thereby concentrate in it the two elements which constitute the Federal Government, — majority of States, and a majority of their population, estimated in federal numbers. Whatever section concentrates the two in itself possesses the control of the entire Government.

The North outnumbered the South. It had control in the House, in the Electoral College, and threatened to solidify its control in the Senate. Remaining in the Union left the South at the North’s. In a sense, the North’s numbers besieged the South. Calhoun had a lot of experience at being outnumbered. His native South Carolina had a slave majority of 51.53% according to the 1820 census, thirty years before Calhoun gave his final speech. Its lowcountry black belts counties could reach 85% slave, higher when the planters retired to Charleston for the season. Even ten years later, the Deep South averaged only 47.28% slave and only Mississippi had joined South Carolina in the majority-slave club.

But didn’t Calhoun’s complaint amount to demographics? He might as well command the tide to stop. Calhoun disagreed. No natural trend made the South a minority section. That story tomorrow. (I’m sure this time.)

Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Two)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

Yesterday, Calhoun opened his farewell speech by declaring the great source of sectional strife not slavery itself, or rather antislavery agitation from North of the Mason-Dixon Line, but instead the growing disequilibrium between the slave and free states in the federal government. The ailing South Carolinian, in his last month of life, gave the Senate a history lesson to illustrate the point. Beginning with the first census of 1790:

the population of the United States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which then were in their incipient condition of becoming States; but were not actually admitted, amounted to 3,929,827. Of this number the Northern States had 1,997,899, and the Southern 1,952,072, making a difference of only 45,827 in favor of the former States. The number of States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, were sixteen; of which eight, including Vermont, belonged to the Northern section, and eight, including Kentucky and Tennessee, to the Southern, — making an equal division of the States between the two sections under the first census.

Right there in the numbers: the sections enjoyed something close to perfect equality. But times changed:

According to the last census [1840] the aggregate population of the United States amounted to 17,063,357, of which the Northern section contained 9,728,920, and the Southern 7,334,437, making a difference in round numbers, of 2,400,000. The number of States had increased from sixteen to twenty-six, making an addition of ten States. In the meantime the position of Delaware had become doubtful as to which section she properly belonged. Considering her as neutral, the Northern States will have thirteen and the Southern States twelve, making a difference in the Senate of two Senators in favor of the former.

Calhoun tips his hand here by citing barely-enslaved Delaware as an uncertain neutral. Despite his opening insistence  that a vague sectional imbalance, not slavery, formed the cornerstone of sectional discontent he goes on to list the least enslaved slave state as the one which at least partly left the South for the North. The line between the two remained the line between slavery and free soil.

According to Calhoun, the sections agreed to the Constitution with the understanding that they came into the Union as equals. In other words, the Union required precise equality of North and South. One supposes the framers had a few too many the night before they planned to write those clauses. I plan a future post to highlight some other issues with Calhoun’s position here.

Regardless, that old order faced the crisis of 1850 like Calhoun did, in its twilight years. The South could no longer count Delaware as anything better than a sectional neutral, Calhoun wrote. To him, California’s admission did not break the senatorial balance. Delaware’s disloyalty to the South did that, or at least badly damaged it. He might have added examples from other Border States, the Upper South, and even the occasional Deep South politicians breaking faith with the solid South he invented as a new constitutional unit over the states and, in some ways, the national government itself.

And the Senate held the last vestiges of Calhoun’s Ancien Regime. Tomorrow, the Senator from South Carolina has some remarks for the House.

Coming when Calhoun Called

The Southern congressional delegation did not unite behind Calhoun’s words as he hoped. But Calhoun could go over the heads of his fellow politicians. His Southern Address achieved considerable popularity in the South and an all-South convention might form the united front he wanted, either to stop the Wilmot Proviso or to take the South out of the Union.

South Carolina radicals (which, to those outside the state, included Calhoun) had good reason to look askance at their fellow Southerners. In the past Carolina got out ahead of the South and expected it to follow only to find other slave states unmoved. Likewise the rest of the South had good reason to look askance at South Carolinian radicalism, as the Palmetto State’s political spectrum often ran only between when secession should happen instead of if it ought to.

The call for a Southern convention could not, then, come from South Carolina. Fortunately for Calhoun’s hopes, the club of slave states where slaves outnumbered free people had another member in late 1849: Mississippi. It called the Mississippi Slaveholders Convention, with the understanding that its South Carolinian instigators would lay low. The Mississippi legislature appropriated $20,000 ($532,618.77 in 2011 dollars) and $200,000 ($5,326,187.75 in 2011 dollars) for the defense of the state should the Wilmot Proviso become law.

Meeting in October of 1849, the Mississippi Convention called for an all-South convention to meet at Nashville on the first Monday of the following June. The call itself put pressure on Congress to find a solution. The Nashville Convention added more. With the South gathered, Southerners might unite behind a plan to secede together. Few Southerners at the time believed a lone state had much of a future outside the Union, but the region as a whole surely would.  Virginia fire-eater Edmund Ruffin wrote as much:  “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution, I hope it shall never meet.”

Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin, like Calhoun disappointed by Nashville.

Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin

To Nashville came not a single Border State delegate. Louisiana’s moderate legislature refused to send delegates, as did North Carolina’s. Florida nearly joined them in abstaining. Texas sent only Sam Houston, always a moderate on slavery. Alabama sent delegates, but instructed them not to consider disunion. When called to elect delegates, ninety-five percent of Georgia voters stayed home. South Carolina alone supplied a full delegation that included many influential state politicians, but they maintained their low profile from the Mississippi Convention.

Deep South moderates dominated Nashville, denouncing Clay’s measures (introduced between the Mississippi and Nashville conventions), the Wilmot Proviso, and endorsing the plan to extend the Missouri Compromise line once more. They adjourned on June 12, taking a wait and see approach to the debates in Washington.

The Clay Measures: Something for the North

To work as a compromise, Clay’s resolutions had to include something for each section. Clay needed to appease the Deep South, where Calhoun and even more radical politicians threatened secession, but that appeasement had to take a form that the North could stomach and vote for too. So Clay enlisted Daniel Webster and gave him two things to please Northern, antislavery voters.

Firstly, California would come in as a free state. Clay took this as a fait accompli. It had more people than Delaware or Florida. It needed government. Its convention rejected slavery unanimously. The 1850 census found 962 black people lived in California, all free. Furthermore, slaveholders do not move quickly if they want to take their property with them.  The Gold Rush brought not Charleston patricians or Alabama cotton magnates to California, but rather a great tide of small farmers and townspeople. If Congress rejected their convention’s decision on slavery and demanded a referendum, California would vote itself free yet again.

What could the South ask here, that Congress go in and impose slavery on the new state against the expressed will of its voters? That might please Calhoun, as Mr. States’ Rights rarely failed to find grounds for exceptions when the federal government acted in slavery’s material interest, but would surely inflame the North and hand the abolitionists the specter of Congress forcing slavery on future territories to crusade against.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

Second, Clay gave Webster the answer to more than a decade of abolitionist prayers. Ever since abolitionists began organizing in the North, they’d sent Congress petitions. As Congress enjoyed full control over the District of Columbia, these petitions asked that it abolish slavery there. In the 1840s, that amounted to a relatively moderate demand as it did not challenge in any state where it existed nor in any territory that might in the future become a state. The position that Congress had the power to enact abolition in the District stood comfortably in the mainstream.

But the District had slave states to either side and slaveholders always feared their slaves getting hold of abolitionist propaganda and from it ideas about freedom. (The Gag Rule Controversy of the 1830s centered on how Congress should deal with those petitions.) A free District would put free soil on the border of Virginia and thus expose that state to the kind of baleful antislavery influences that encouraged Delaware and Maryland, with their borders on free Pennsylvania, to break with the Slave Power bloc. The South could not risk the Old Dominion, its most populous state, becoming another inconstant Maryland. Nor did southern Maryland, home to many plantations and directly adjacent to the District, care much for its own slaves getting ideas.

Clay split the difference, offering abolition of the slave trade but not slavery itself. Southern office holders could still bring their slaves with them without fear of their achieving freedom, as Clay himself often did, and slaves could still pass through the District with traveling owners enjoying the same security, but Clay proposed closing down the huge slave market, one of the larger ones in the nation, that operated not three blocks from the Capitol.

Calling the place a market can obscure the truth of it. Owners came from far around to buy choice slaves, who the market could hold for some time in what amounted to a private jail. Then at regular intervals, interested parties would gather to question the slaves, check their teeth, examine their bodies, and generally do everything one would do when buying a horse. Even many Southerners found the slave trade, if not the slavery it fed, distasteful. It too easily pierced the charade of domestic, genteel patriarchal tranquility in which they preferred to cloak their institution. Even for the proslavery extreme, abolishing the trade alone in the District still permitted it directly across the Potomac in Arlington and over the line in Maryland for the convenience of residents.

Surely the Deep South could accept that in exchange for what Clay offered it.