The Remedy of Justice and Peace: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 14

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13Full text

If the Senate wanted Civil War, Charles Sumner told them how to get it. They need only take the present territorial government of Kansas in as its legitimate government, rendering permanent the proslavery usurpation of its elections. The proslavery men on the ground, already not shy about violence, would surely step up their campaign to purge the land of dissenting whites. Antislavery men in turn would look more ardently to their defense. Money and guns would flow into the state from both sections and soon the violence would spread.

Should the Senators wish to avoid that, they had a solution on hand. William Seward proposed junking Stephen Douglas’ bill to take the present government of Kansas and make it a state. Instead, the Senate should recognize the free state movement and its Topeka Constitution. They had all the officers of a proper government ready to go the moment Congress gave the word. Sheriff Samuel Jones kept a list.

Rarely has any proposition, so simple in character, so entirely practicable, so absolutely within your power, been presented, which promised at once such beneficent results. In its adoption, the Crime against Kansas will be all happily resolved, the Usurpation which established it will be peacefully suppressed, and order will be permanently secured.

Senator William H. Seward (Republican-NY)

The country should thank William Seward for saving the Union. Sumner spent a brief paragraph praising him that must have gone over well during the rehearsal, then moved on to why Kansas deserved statehood. First, the Kansans asked for it and statehood would take Washington off the hook for Kansas’ expenses. Those included expenditures for keeping the peace, which Sumner attributed with considerable justice “on account of the pretended Territorial Government.” Second, Kansas showed the ability to defend itself during the Wakarusa War. That argued for its passing the stage of an enfeebled state in need of a direct patron. Third and last, Sumner pointed out that Kansas had “the pecuniary credit” to afford to run its own affairs.

Anticipating objections, Sumner ran down them in short order. The Constitution left admission of states entirely to the whim of Congress, placing no test upon them save for not making states by carving land out of existing states without leave. (To answer the obvious question, West Virginia’s formation had the assent of the then-recognized government of the state.) Nor did precedent of law insist on a minimum population, though folk wisdom often thinks so. Even if it did, Kansas had more people in 1856 than Delaware or Florida and so easily matched the customary bar. One might object that Kansas did not have enough people to qualify for a single member in the House, according to then-current ratios. Florida gained admission despite that. Furthermore, the ratio of representation changed regularly until unwise capping of the size of the House in the early twentieth century. With that the case, Sumner argued that a controlling precedent found in the ratio at the time of the Louisiana Purchase ought to apply.

Thomas Hart Benton

Likewise, while Kansas had a wildcat state movement Sumner could point to prior occasions where the Congress had respected such organizations and given them statehood. Most recently, California got that treatment. Previously, Michigan “now cherished with such pride as a sister state” did. Michigan, like Kansas, presented itself to Congress with all the usual officials and a constitution adopted without prior approval. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and James Buchanan all endorsed Michigan’s statehood at the time, a fact remembered on the state’s maps. In the end, only eight Senators voted against Michigan and the chamber even voted full compensation for the senators forwarded with Michigan’s application retroactive to the start of the session. To deny Kansas now would “bastardize Michigan”.

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The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.

The Border South’s Great Test

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

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.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

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.

The Virginia Showdown, Part One

 

 

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The Know-Nothings had it going on. They made an impressive showing in the 1854 elections. They even took over Massachusetts, host to  so much antislavery drama. Delaware’s Whiggery disbanded to join in the fun. If all the South did not have the North’s immigrant population to stir up nativist fears, then at least its border states and Louisiana did. Those could be the foundation of a new bisectional party, even if it did still tilt to the North. Would states that decided, as a Baltimore paper advised, to sideline slavery in favor of anti-immigrant fears even remain southern enough for it to matter? Stephen Douglas decided, even in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska, that he should worry more about the Know-Nothings than antislavery men. If the Know-Nothings could elect one of their own governor of a major southern state, he might have it right.

Virginians had that major southern state and an election coming up. Unlike half-free Maryland, Virginia still had a healthy slave system. It might also have some discontented people in its extreme west who did not much care for slavery, but aristocratic Virginian planters had bought them off before with incremental advances toward white egalitarianism. They had just done another round of that in 1850, finally giving all white men equal access to state government. Doing that also meant, of course, that the planters voted themselves considerable tax advantages. As a populous state with a healthy slave system, Virginia would be a great feather in the Know-Nothings’ cap.

To take the governor’s post and ring in the Know-Nothings glorious future, they chose an ex-Whig, Richmond lawyer Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. The very model of eighteenth century refinement, Flournoy disdained campaigning. He instructed his voters by letter and refused to make public appearances. He would not stage a circus and prostitute himself for the voting mobs; gentlemen did not do that kind of thing. It drove Virginia’s aging patriarchs wild.

Against Flournoy, the Democracy chose Henry Alexander Wise. A political shapeshifter of the highest caliber, Wise had been a Jacksonite enthusiast turned States Rights Whig before turning Democrat again. Back in 1850, he led the charge to empower poor whites, then switched back and led the charge to secure tax advantages for slavery. He mused that slavery might some day end, then attacked his foes for not defending it strongly enough. This did not endear him to Virginia’s patriarchs. Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first degree.”

Consistency did not much trouble mass politics, though. Wise had risen through the Virginia establishment by alloying eighteenth century ideals about hierarchy to nineteenth century populism. He would use popular appeal to achieve aristocratic goals, spreading the gospel that only age, sex, and race should separate men. Even a propertyless white man still had his skin endowing him with despotic power over every black person.

Wise tore across Virginia, covering three thousand miles in only four months. Every night, for as much as four hours, he screamed in the gaslight until he had only a whisper left. He stomped. He roused the rabble. He put on a show. Wise’s demagoguery could have come from an aristocrat’s worst nightmares. This all sounds like something one would expect of the nativists, playing up public fears. But if the Know-Nothings had unwashed hordes of Irish Catholics to keep them up at nights, then Henry Wise played to a different set of fears: those provoked by the Know-Nothings themselves.

Grappling with Demographics

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, future Republican

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, Know-Nothing, and future Republican

In the summer and fall of 1854, the Know-Nothings racked up win after win. In Massachusetts, they commanded 63% of the vote, elected all the state senators and all but two of the state representatives. That amounted to not just a win, but an amazing landslide. If they could co-opt Massachusetts, then the antislavery furor over Kansas-Nebraska might truly pass away. To the Bay State, they added a 40% showing in Pennsylvania. Even in New York, where Whiggery remained strong, they could pull in 25% of the vote. As the Whigs waned, the Know-Nothings waxed. They won more than fifty seats in the 34th Congress and caucused with the Opposition Party, a new conglomeration of anti-Nebraska, antislavery, and generally anti-Democrat (hence the name) men to control the House. They put one of their own, Nathaniel Banks, in the Speaker’s seat.

But could they cross the Mason-Dixon and become a national party? Delaware’s John Clayton thought so. Tennessee’s John Bell agreed, supporting a Know-Nothing for governor. The Know-Nothings seemed very much posed to make it happen, but they faced a strong demographic challenge. In 1850, the census counted 2,234,602 foreign-born people in the United States. That amounted to 11.50% of the national population. Only 313,312 of those people lived in the slave states. Almost a quarter of them, 24.45%, lived in Missouri alone. Louisiana provided another 68,233 foreign-born, for 21.78% of the South’s immigrants. Maryland (16.34%) and Kentucky (10.03%) rounded out the top four. Together they accounted for 72.40% of the South’s immigrant population.

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

An anti-immigrant party would have trouble building up a movement in states with few immigrants, and that included most of the South. Louisiana, with its sin city of New Orleans and dreams of a Caribbean empire, could look very northern. Few other places in the Lower South did. The Upper South could offer few additions to the list. Only in the border states did anti-immigrant fervor threaten to eclipse slavery and there we must at once exclude the South’s immigrant mecca of Missouri. David Rice Atchison’s state loved the Kansas-Nebraska act. The ongoing feud between Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton helped keep slavery front and center in the political consciousness, but even that conflict rose out of the inherent problem of securing slavery on its most exposed frontier. This left the other end of the northernmost South to flock to the nativist banner.

Flock Maryland, and John Clayton’s Delaware, did. By 1860, both had immigrants enough to outnumber their slaves. In Maryland, swelling numbers of immigrants almost matched shrinking numbers of slaves. William W. Freehling quotes the Baltimore Clipper:

Let all sectional disputes and all discussion of the slave question be laid aside. Our future should turn upon … whether natives or foreigners shall rule.

In Maryland and Delaware, white, native-born Americans could see an advantage in rolling back tides of immigration. They faced a real risk of losing control and thus had a real reason, on top of any abstract fears, to fight to keep what they saw as their birthright. Street gangs clashed in Baltimore almost daily. They had to do something and so elected a Know-Nothing mayor. The next year they took the Maryland legislature and elected its governor. Elsewhere, Know-Nothings soon took Delaware’s single seat in the House, six of Kentucky’s, three of Missouri’s, and even five of Tennessee’s.

Demographics certainly limited Know-Nothing appeal in the Lower South, but they might have a shot at Louisiana. Anti-Catholic credentials wouldn’t help much there, but anti-Irish credentials very well might. They would help themselves greatly if they could pick up Virginia, the perennial southern bellwether. A party that only functioned in the border states could not swing the South, but one competitive also in the Upper South and with a few outposts in the Cotton Kingdom very well could. Maybe the Know-Nothings did not need ironclad demographics on their side.

Building a National Party

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

The Know-Nothings had a real movement behind them. People genuinely feared Catholicism and Catholic immigrants. That mostly meant Irish immigrants, who greatly outnumbered the German immigrants arriving at the same time. The Germans also tended to disperse more broadly across the country, where the Irish concentrated in major cities along the East Coast. This made them obvious and threatening even beyond their numbers, as concentration naturally meant clannishness and naturally shaded into conspiracy to people with the right measure of nativist paranoia. This anti-immigrant fervor, very similar to and overlapping with antislavery fervor, invites speculation. Could the movement steal slavery’s spotlight? Could it fuel a new national party to replace the Whigs?

We know that it did not. Instead of Know-Nothings and their American Party, we got the Republican Party. But we can and should try to see things, as closely as we can, as they appeared to people of the time. They didn’t know how the decade would turn out. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin turned into a runaway bestseller, then the salacious anti-Catholic The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk still came in second. Like antislavery works, Maria educated its readers about the sexual excesses of its villains. If slavery turned the South into a giant brothel, then Catholicism did the same for every Catholic nation. Imperiled virgins and the lurid sexual depredations of slaveholder and priest alike gave concerned Americans plenty to read about. In an era of tremendous sexual repression, they also gave respectable Americans an excuse to do so and leave such works openly on their bookshelves. Prurience need not drive politics, but if the two coincided than few interested parties would object too loudly to that happy accident. Nativists could sell books. They even became a brief fad, with companies selling Know-Nothing branded tea, toothpicks, and candy.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The nativists had successful propaganda and real fears that struck at the heart of a certain type of American. Could they also win elections? Nativists candidates already had done so from time to time. More could only follow. Know-Nothings elected the mayor of Philadelphia. They swept Massachusetts and came near to taking New York. Those wins did not a national party make, but they showed the great power of the nativist impulse. If they happened in the North, Pennsylvania rested right next to enslaved Maryland. An alliance of Lower North and New England nativists needed only to grow a southern wing to become a national party. The insular South would surely come around, deeply hostile to the arrival of alien people with strange folkways. If Yankees seemed alien to the point of hostility, then what did that say about Catholics?

Plenty of southern men found themselves shopping for a party in the early 1850s. In barely enslaved Delaware, senator John M. Clayton happily went about building a bridge to join northern and southern nativists. He took his last term in the Senate as a member of the American party, having started off as an anti-Jacksonite and later a Whig. Generally moderate, he saw in the movement a chance to bring back the good old days when slavery agitation remained on the margins of political life and the sections lived together. All the destructive passions animated by the slavery debate needed only be retargeted. The Americans, like the name said, would unite all Americans who deserved the title. Too often had Angl0-Americans allowed others to see naturalization and eventual citizenship as rights. By rallying the great majority of genuine, 100% native-born Anglo-American stock, which included plenty of southern men, the Know-Nothings could forge a new national party and restore sectional comity for good by putting the foreign-born and radical antislavery and proslavery men all in their proper, marginal, places.

Update: This post previously referred to the bestselling anti-Catholic work as Maria, Maria. The current version is the correct title.