“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.

The First Congress and Antislavery Petitions

We left the First Congress with Josiah Parker’s bill to put a ten dollar per head tax, the constitutional maximum, on slave imports. Parker hoped that the tax would raise the price of newly-imported slaves enough to reduce the demand for them. James Jackson agreed that it just might, and so opposed it to the point of using the kind of radical language one would expect from the later antebellum. He damned Parker for aiming to crush the economy of Georgia, retard its development, and sacrifice it to fix Virginia’s surplus slave problem.  Along the way, he lamented the fashion for emancipation. That doesn’t make Jackson into Calhoun’s imitator by anticipation, but it does testify to the existence in the Lower South of at least some committed to perpetual slavery all the way back in the 1790s. The debate ended, for the moment, with Parker’s bill postponed to consideration at a later session.

That’s all interesting in itself, but what happened next undermines a popular myth or two about the founding era much-beloved by the Confederacy’s fans and, on occasion, by the Confederates themselves. The first session of the first Congress ended September 29, 1789. The second began on January 4, 1790. In the interim, the Quakers got busy. They petitioned Congress to do something about the slave trade. Don Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, from which I have this story, quotes them terming it a “licentious wickedness.” Some Southern representatives objected so strenuously that the House tabled the petition rather than refer it to a committee.

So much for that petition. The next day, Congress had a new one. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society did the Quakers one better. The petitioners

earnestly entreat your [Congress’] serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow Men.

Franklin's signature on the petition

Franklin’s signature on the petition

The petition ran over the signature of the Society’s president, Benjamin Franklin. Later generations, and some of the then-present generation, would tell you that the founders to a man believed in strictly limited powers for the general government. Alexander Hamilton might think otherwise, but that made him a singularly wicked man. No person should dream to follow the example of such a miscreant. The consensus, everywhere and in everything, was that Congress had limited powers and could not ever stretch beyond them lest tyranny ensue.

And then Ben Franklin writes asking that Congress at the very least read its powers as broadly as it could in order to restrict the slave trade and consequently undermine slavery. His advocacy of broad -maximally broad, in fact- construction in a time allegedly innocent of such things (again excepting Hamilton) deserves noting. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society didn’t just want Congress to do something. They asked Congress to throw the book at the slave trade, possibly invent some new ones to toss along with it. And, explosively, they proposed “the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage.” In other words, Congress had the power to free slaves. It might only reach to those brought into the country illegally, but the federal government would directly emancipate.

Thomas Tudor Tucker

Thomas Tudor Tucker

This could not go unmarked. Thomas Tudor Tucker, of South Carolina, spoke first. He expressed his amazement at Franklin, “a man who ought to have known the Constitution better.” Tucker

thought it a mischievous attempt, as it respected the persons in whose favor it was intended. It would buoy them up with hopes, without foundation, and as they could not reason on the subject, as more enlightened men would, they might be led to do what they would be punished for, and the owners of them, in their own defence, would be compelled to exercise over them a severity they were not accustomed to.

Franklin would give the slaves crazy ideas and so require the planters to reach new heights of cruelty to keep them subjugated. Did he care nothing for the tender consciences of the men with the whips? Or the slaves, who he proposed to help, who must suffer under them? Think of the slaves, Ben.

Aedanus Burke

Aedanus Burke

Did all of that point toward a general emancipation? Tucker thought it might. The South would never accept that “without a civil war.” Tucker’s impressively named fellow South Carolinian, Aedanus Burke, declared the whole idea unconstitutional. If the House did so much as referred the petition to a committee, it would exceed its powers. Such a thing

would sound an alarm, and blow the trumpet of sedition in the Southern States.

The House listened to all the fiery speeches and voted 43-14 to send the Franklin and Quaker petitions to a select committee appointed by the Speaker, a Pennsylvanian. He declined to name a single Lower South member to that body.

This may not show later-era sectionalism, but we certainly have from the first Congress a profound division over slavery. It might not burn so brightly or split the nation so neatly, but the happy story that the founding generation all agreed that slavery not only would end, but also ought to, takes a well-deserved beating. All the way back then, one could find southerners who wouldn’t even go for vague, indirect, and future schemes of emancipation right there alongside northerners who at least considered measures designed, if indirectly, to attack slavery where it then existed.

Back to Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Some time has passed since I plunged down into the horrors of Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. It would do to revisit the field on which he and his compatriots, and their antislavery opposites coming with Emigrant Aid Society funding, intended to wage some sort of war for the future of Kansas. William H. Seward and Stephen Douglas said as much. Out on the frontier, local white Missourians had ample reason to side with their slaveholding neighbors. They also had every advantage geography offered and only a line on the map separating them from Kansas. Why not filibuster it?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act got Franklin Pierce’s signature in the last days of May, 1854. From that point on, white men could rush in and stake their claims. They entered a land that had government only on paper. Pierce did not choose the first governor for the Kansas Territory until the end of June. That governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder of Easton, Pennsylvania, would not arrive in Kansas to exercise the duties of his first ever federal office until October 7. Until then, the law in Kansas could very well depend entirely on how straight and eagerly one shot. 

David Rice Atchison, who had done so much to ensure that he and others like him could take slavery into Kansas, came out and said as much, telling his audiences

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary with the bayonet and with blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Stringfellow’s law partner pledged to personally hang any antislavery settler he could lay hands on. The rhetorical fireworks in Washington had their equivalents on the frontier in the person of men on hand and willing to make the war of words a war of bullets.

Why not? Law might restrain them, but Stringfellow deprecated it:

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.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

He did not do so alone. Missouri men had gone over the border and staked their claims to the best land well before any law authorized them to do so. They had no one on the ground in Kansas ready to stop them. Nineteenth century Americans understood only the third of Kansas nearest Missouri as worth much to settle, and that even there the worth of the land depended very highly on a few convenient rivers to push back the great American desert. They had every reason to think they could steal the good land out from under any abolitionists and other outside interlopers before they arrived.

Then when Anthony Reeder appeared, the proslavery settlers could hand him a Kansas with its future already decided. Given his stated impartiality leaned far to the South, Reeder would only have to use his broad powers to consolidate the fait accompli. Eli Thayer’s aided emigrants could take their aid and go home or, failing that, accept that they’d come to a slave territory and change their tune appropriately.

The Dueling Soulés, Part One

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Pierre Soulé, Franklin Pierce’s minister to Spain, went to Madrid with instructions to keep his eyes open. Something, perhaps involving John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition and the Cuban junta that supported it, might just happen. If it did, Soulé must stand ready. His mission might suddenly involve negotiating a treaty to cede the island. Pierce instructed Soulé not to attempt purchase negotiations on the grounds that the junta found such things offensively colonial and, doubtless, with a mind to the far cheaper five finger discount. You really can’t beat that price for a tropical island slavery paradise.

But when Soulé’s big chance came, when Cuban authorities seized the Black Warrior, and the United States Army and Navy might just render Quitman’s expedition superfluous, Soulé stood in disgrace. The diplomat had taken it upon himself to shoot the French ambassador, a procedure not found in most manuals of international statecraft. Why would he do a thing like that?

On November 15, 1853, before the 33rd Congress met, before Douglas went on his carriage ride with Archibald Dixon, before Nebraska and anti-Nebraska and Republicans, in an era that must have seemed ages gone six months later, Louis Félix Étienne, the Marquis de Turgot, threw a party in Madrid in honor of both the French Empress and the baptism of the Duke and Duchess of Alba’s new daughter. Men like the Marquis de Turgot had tossed Soulé in prison for his revolutionary politics back in the day. Further complicating things, Soulé had met the Marquis’ boss, Louis Napoleon, back in 1849 when the latter still served as president of France instead of its emperor. From that point on, Napoleon III fairly loathed Soulé. The latter, seeing in Napoleon an autocrat like those he had opposed in his youth, returned the feeling.

Napoleon III married a Spanish noblewoman, the Duchess of Alba’s sister. Thus on two fronts, the Marquis de Turgot’s party must have looked like a reactionary gala indeed to Soulé. But he went anyway and there fashion returns to the story. Soulé himself cut quite the figure but his wife proved the belle of the ball. Even if the hosts did not especially care for the Soulé’s, and they did not, Madame Soulé’s fashion choices stood out. As she passed the Countess de Montijo, the mother of the French Empress, remarked to her son-in-law the Duke of Alba and the Marquis de Turgot about just how much of her chest Madame Soulé chose to display. The Duke, in her hearing, likened Henrietta Soulé to Marie de Bourgogne, who had allegedly cheated on the king of France centuries before. Educated, refined aristocrats do not say that a woman’s  dress implies that her favors come to all with enough cash on hand. They imply it with historical allusions.

Henrietta Soulé grew up speaking the French with which the Duke of Alba had insulted her. So did her son, Nelvil, who also heard. He demanded to know the scoundrel who said such things of his mother. Soulé pere gave the Duke a push, but let matters drop. Nelvil did not and sent off a letter demanding satisfaction. The Duke might have obliged, but reports of the event hit the London papers. He suspected the loose lips of the younger Soulé and asked how the London papers found out about the affair. Nelvil refused to answer.

With things now public and at an impasse, the prickly honor codes that both men subscribed to demanded a duel. On December 14, 1853, aggrieved son and Spanish aristocrat met one another with heavy swords. They swung their blades for half an hour, until both had thoroughly spent themselves. As they did so, their seconds discussed matters and reached a settlement: Both men had proved their honor, so why not burn all the letters and call it a day?

Sanity prevailed and they did just that. Sanity did not, however, prove quite equal to containing the passions of Nelvil’s father.

The Fashions and Passions of Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

By the time Joshua Giddings rose to oppose the Pierce administration’s plan to get Cuba by war, or induce Spain to sell with the threat of war, over the Black Warrior affair (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4), the Senate had signed off on the KansasNebraska Act. That chamber did so on March 3. The Cuban port authorities seized the ship on February 28. Giddings sp0ke on March 16, as the House stared down the barrel of its own Kansas-Nebraska debates and vote. Giddings spoke for many in the increasingly antislavery North.  

In theory, William H. Marcy had control of American foreign policy on behalf of Franklin Pierce. Pierce had chosen him to lead the State Department and the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of State. He often had reason to doubt that those facts mattered, but he did have the authority to send instructions to Pierce’s minister in Madrid, exiled French revolutionary turned proslavery zealot Pierre Soulé. That incendiary politician, former Louisiana senator, had warmed to the Cuban junta in New York and its revolutionary, with a side of future annexation, goals on hearing from the Pierce administration just what it intended toward the island. Now he had his big chance to achieve what he understood as the whole goal of his mission and be the diplomat who negotiated Cuba’s purchase or oversaw the opening of the war from Madrid.

Soulé had just one problem dogging him at this critical moment in his career: everybody in Madrid high society wanted nothing to do with him. That high society emphatically included the court to which he had to represent American interests. Matters had not begun that way, despite Soulé’s involvement with Cuban revolutionaries. Marcy had issued a circular letter ordering American diplomats to appear in the simple clothes of an American citizen, a plain black suit, rather than elaborate court uniforms. That strategy worked well enough for Ben Franklin in Paris during the Revolution. Why not now?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Marcy ought to have noted that when Franklin lived in London, he dressed to high society norms. His Parisian austerity made him a striking standout figure at court. It may also have been the kind of audacious fashion choice that only an amiable man like Franklin could pull off. American ministers in various courts had a great deal of trouble. Some ignored the instructions outright, some obeyed and took the lumps for the slight they gave to the courts. In London, James Buchanan absented himself from state functions to avoid having to pick a side. Soulé had a better idea: he went to a Parisian tailor and got a simple, American suit made out of fine black velvet and embroidered in silk instead of the customary gold lace. Amos Aschbach Ettinger has a contemporary description of him in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé, 1853-1855, from which much of my details about Soulé’s mission come:

the black-velvet clothes, richly embroidered, the black stockings, a black chapeau, and a black dress sword set off his black eyes, black locks, and a pale complexion, and gave him a striking appearance. He looked indeed, not like the philosopher whose costume he imitated, but rather like the master of Ravenswood.

Forget charming, plain Franklin. Pierre Soulé had him beat. The Queen and court agreed. He must have cut a striking figure indeed to the Europeans. The American press criticized him for giving up his republican simplicity to dress like an Old Europe aristocrat, suggesting that he would do better to dress as a monkey than follow the bidding of crusty nobility. But Madrid’s opinion counted in Madrid, not that of far away American newspaper men. The Spanish court liked the outfit and liked Soulé. How, then, did he find himself in disgrace and ostracized when he received Marcy’s new instructions regarding Cuba and the Black Warrior?

Pierre Soulé offended polite society in one of those ways most scandalous to the European glitterati: He shot one of them.

Bell’s Dissent, Part One

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

Unlike Sam Houston (12345, 6), Tennessee’s John Bell waited until the eleventh hour before delivering his big speech against the KansasNebraska Act. Both men, probably from the start, knew that they couldn’t change much. Douglas had the F Street patriarchs behind him and they largely controlled the Senate. He also had the party apparatus working for him, thanks to Pierce’s coerced support. Does all of that mean Houston’s and Bell’s, and indeed everyone else’s, speeches meant nothing?

Maybe. You can’t go into the Congressional Globe and read these men for long without realizing how madly they loved the sound of their own voices. I very much doubt any modern Senate speeches make any real difference in votes, unless someone makes a gaffe that could hurt come reelection time. People simply do not change their positions, especially on weighty issues, on a dime. The men in the Senate then cared about slavery and the Missouri Compromise as much as senators do any major issue today.  Houston, Bell, and all the rest clearly spoke with an eye toward the newspapers and posterity more than their peers. But at the same time, back then they actually lived in Washington, often together, for the duration of sessions and so probably had a lot more opportunity to influence one another than today’s politicians that fly home every Wednesday or Thursday.

Rising on March 3, in the session that ended with the Senate’s vote on the bill, John Bell did not expect his remarks to change minds. He began in resignation:

I feel greatly embarrassed in undertaking to address the Senate at this time, particularly since the sentiment of the body has been so decidedly expressed, not only in regard to the feature which is considered the most important in the bill, but in regard to every other to which I propose to address my remarks. I regret, sir, that I feel under any necessity to trespass at all upon the attention of the Senate, upon this subject; and particularly when I observe the solicitude of the friends of the bill for its immediate passage. But the relations in which I stand to this measure, I think, forbid me to forebear. My own self-respect would forbid that I should forebear, however painful it may be to me to express any views in opposition to a measure which seems to commend itself to the almost unanimous approval and support of my southern friends.

Bell reminded the Senate that he opposed even the repeal-free version of the bill that came up last Congress. He sat on the Committee on Territories, but had not supported changing the bill to include the repeal. When it came up before them, Bell was not in town. Still, the bill came through his committee and Bell had some explaining to do if he wanted to oppose it:

I saw that the objections I had urged to the Nebraska bill of the last session of Congress would apply to the measure then before the committee; and my impressions against the expedience of introducing any clause affecting the Missouri Compromise were strong; but as I had not considered the proposition in all its aspects, I agreed that the amendment might be reported; but as the honorable chairman of the committee will do me the justice to admit, I did so with the express reservation of the privilege of opposing the passage of the bill, if, upon careful examination of the subject, I should feel it my duty to do so.

I can only speculate, but this all has a whiff of Bell never expecting the bill to come near passage and so passing the buck back in committee. At any rate, Douglas agreed that Bell had his reservations and reserved the option to vote against the committee’s work. Bell proceeded to do just that.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Four

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Previous parts: 12, 3)

Aged Thomas Jefferson (seventy-one, with twelve years yet to live) let young Edward Coles (twenty-eight) down in 1814. Dolly Madison’s cousin and her husband’s personal secretary did not take the disappointment well. The Sage of Monticello pleaded that a man of his age simply could not get involved in new political movements, but Coles pointed out that the other revolutionary polymath, Ben Franklin, stirred himself easily at that age. Franklin turned seventy-one in 1777, while ambassador to France. The next year he secured the French alliance that Jefferson had celebrated. He stayed in France until 1785, then returned home the year he turned seventy-nine. Two years later, the gouty octogenarian attended the constitutional convention. Once home in Pennsylvania, he took up the causes of abolition and integration, freeing the two slaves he owned. Franklin published abolitionist essays the very year he died. And Thomas Jefferson, with his plantation and his slaves, begged off on account of his advanced years? Not everyone ages with equal grace, but Coles did not ask much more of Jefferson than some writing. His correspondence proved that much still within the Sage of Monticello’s powers.

Jefferson always found the time not quite ripe for emancipation and, just coincidentally, also preferred that any effort to build a movement for it spread very slowly and secretly. He probably did mean for them to eventually succeed, but he treasured the gifts slavery gave him in the form of his life and respectability as a Virginia planter more than his principles about liberty. Coles had enough of those excuses, as modern readers do. Jefferson could and did write eloquently, if anonymously, about the evils of slavery. He at least implicitly indicted himself in those writings. But Jefferson would make only the most timid attempts at reducing slavery where it already existed, and retreated swiftly from those. His personal sentiment rarely translated into real policy, but often led him to oppose limits on slavery.

Coles fretted far less about all that and turned mostly idle sentiment into constructive action. He and his seventeen slaves decamped for Illinois in 1819, the year after it attained statehood. He toured the area twice previously with an eye to good areas to buy land. While going down the Ohio, Coles gathered up his slaves, freed them, and promised each family 160 acres of good land on the Mississippi. Furthermore, Coles settled down nearby and helped them establish themselves. He freed more slaves by the time he turned thirty-three than Jefferson would in all his eighty-three years.

Coles, as a man of property known to the powerful in Washington, rose quickly in Illinois and stood for governor in 1822. The four-way race included two openly proslavery candidates. Had slavery’s supporters united behind one of them, Coles would have lost handily. Their division let him slip through with 2,845 votes to 2,687 for the runner-up, a margin of only 158 votes of 8,606 cast. Coles’ foes swept the southern, and southern-settled, part of the state while he carried the north. A few years earlier, Coles probably would have lost handily, even if his opponents failed to unite. After the War of 1812, vigorous Yankee immigrants finally flooded into the state as everyone expected them to do back in 1787. We should not, however, consider them all abolitionists of Coles’ stripe. Far more wanted the land for themselves and saw slavery as something that would disgust black-hating whites and keep them away, leaving it all to a bunch of white slaveholders who would lord it over their poorer white neighbors.

The victory of 1822 came, as silver linings often do, with a cloud attached. The same election that made Coles Illinois’ second governor gave him a proslavery majority in the legislature. When he came up with plans to revise the slave code and reduce kidnappings of free blacks, they rejected each notion in turn and moved for a referendum to authorize a new constitution where they could excise Illinois ban on slavery. That vote required a two-thirds majority, which they got in the state Senate but lost in the House by a single vote. The proslavery men promptly ousted the holdout, replaced him with one of their own, and carried the motion and began their celebrations.

The referendum came in 1824 and drew a crowd. Only 4,532 Illinoisans voted for president that year, but 11,612 voted on whether or not to rewrite their constitution to permit slavery. The final tally came in 6,640 for the status quo, still quite far from freedom, and 4,972 for slavery. Illinois squeaked by. Slaveholders learned their lesson. The rush of slaves that came into Illinois between 1810 and 1820 reversed, slowly. The apprenticeship system remained for decades yet and restrictions on free blacks endured still longer, but the state narrowly avoided becoming another Kentucky or Missouri. As most immigrants to new territories and states came from the territories and states immediately adjacent, an enslaved Illinois might have meant an enslaved Iowa and Wisconsin and a very different nineteenth century America.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Three

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Parts One and Two.)

Land speculators could not get Congress to enslave Illinois, but Southern settlers brought some slaves anyway. The territorial legislature obliged them by allowing slavery in all but name in an apprentice system, by allowing almost free import of slaves, and by adopting laws to make life difficult for free black people in the name of keeping enslaved black people as property and the territory otherwise as white as possible. With Missouri’s successes, and the riches they brought, just across the river, why not turn Illinois into a slave state in name as well as fact?

After 1818, statehood freed Illinois from the Northwest Ordinance that required the old pretenses. The local slaveholders could enslave Illinois and no one would gainsay them…except other Illinoisans. Not all of them wanted slavery in their new state and they had a leader in Edward Coles, an antislavery man from Virginia. Coles does not loom large in histories of the early Republic, but the man had connections. He served as James Madison’s personal secretary. His brother Isaac had done the same for Madison, and for Jefferson before him. While working in Washington, Coles decided to write to another Virginia antislavery man, Thomas Jefferson.

Coles learned his antislavery politics at William and Mary, but like Jefferson he spent some time hiding them. He knew he stood to inherit slaves if he said nothing and those whom Coles inherited, he could free. His father’s death in 1808 brought him a large plantation and twelve slaves. Coles promptly told his family of his intentions and found them not best pleased by the notion. Freeing slaves in Virginia would also require considerable legal effort, so Coles delayed. He put his plantation up for sale but kept the slaves and kept his plan for them secret. In 1810, Coles joined the Madison administration. But Coles did not give up his dream. He finally wrote to the Sage of Monticello on July 31, 1814.

Coles opened by apologizing for taking up the great man’s time, especially with such a thorny issue as gradual emancipation, but

My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery. This difficult task could be less exceptionably, and more successfully performed by the revered Fathers of all our political and social blessings, than by any succeeding statesmen; and would seem to come with peculiar propriety and force from those whose valor wisdom and virtue have done so much in meliorating the condition of mankind. And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, from your known philosophical and enlarged view of subjects, and from the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life, preeminently distinguished, as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your Country, as in being throughout honored with the most important trusts by your fellow-citizens, whose confidence and love you have carried with you into the shades of old age and retirement. In the calm of this retirement you might, most beneficially to society, and with much addition to your own fame, avail yourself of that love and confidence to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author, and on which we bottomed our right to resist oppression, and establish our freedom and independence.

We can free the slaves. We need only a sainted founding father, now retired and so immune to the political dangers such a plan would present to the career of a younger Virginian. The genius of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, can make it so. People trust Thomas Jefferson. They know he’s a rock-solid American patriot. If he led, others would follow.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Still, Coles understood how much he asked of a member of Virginia society. He told Jefferson that his convictions against slavery ran so deep that he aimed to leave quit Virginia for good, leaving behind friends and family, and free all slaves who came into his possession. But if Edward Coles could do that, surely Thomas Jefferson, secure in his retirement, could risk some social ostracism?

Jefferson answered back, on August 25, with a history of his own antislavery efforts and how the Revolution and then politics kept him too busy to gauge if opinion had changed in abolition’s favor since then. Since his retirement, no one has reached out to him about ending slavery so he thought the time not yet ripe. But now he had such a person at hand. Would he help?

This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.

And what should Coles, a slaveholder, do until the time finally did prove right?

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

Stay in Virginia, young Coles. Keep your slaves too. Treat them well and whisper abolition in secret. Then, someday, it will surely come. Old Jefferson will remember you in his prayers, but he has only those to give. Coles thought better in his September 26 response:

Your time of life I had not considered as an obstacle to the undertaking. Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.

With, one presumes, all the help Jefferson’s prayers could give, Edward Coles took his slaves west to Illinois.

How the North Became Northern

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, party favorite for the 1860 Republican nomination, and scion of a slaveholding New York family.

I previously identified the South with slavery and slavery with the South. That’s true enough in 1860 and for some time prior, but when the Revolutionary War began all thirteen colonies practiced slavery. They were, in that sense, Southern. At one point or another, such northern luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Hancock owned slaves, though their holdings pale in comparison to the three hundred slaves at Mount Vernon or the roughly two hundred at Monticello. No less an anti-slavery politician than William H. Seward grew up in a slaveholding family.

But before the Civil War, all the states north of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line ended slavery. I choose to say “ended slavery” rather than abolished it because abolition conjures images of immediate freedom for all slaves. That is, after all, the de jure effect of the Thirteenth Amendment and the sought-after goal of abolitionists in the decades before the war.

Instead of abolition, most states in the North which had practiced slavery (Vermont, a semi-independent republic prior to statehood, did not permit slavery in its 1777 constitution and, excepting a decade in the early 1800s, slavery was always forbidden in the Northwest Territory and its descendant states.) adopted gradual emancipation schemes. Pennsylvania passed the first such law in 1780. It provided that:

  1. No slaves could be imported to Pennsylvania, thus prohibiting owners from replacing freed or deceased slaves from elsewhere, and
  2. Freed all future people born to slave mothers, while preserving the status of all slaves born before the law took effect.
  3. But made all born to slave mothers serve a term as indentured servants to their mother’s owner for twenty-eight years.

The law also required owners to register all their slaves each year under penalty of having them freed to ensure compliance. It also exempted slaves held by members of Congress, which then met in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s law showed great deference to the property rights of slaveowners. So much so, in fact, that dozens born before the law took effect remained slaves until 1847. Save for the final state that adopted gradual emancipation, New Jersey in 1804, no other state took such a conservative course. Freeing children at birth and all slaves, no matter when born, after a term of years became typical.

Before the outbreak of war, abolition had a far shorter history. In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts enacted a new constitution that proclaimed all men born free and equal. A slave named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under it the next year and after some appeals received it and a decision that declared slavery abolished by the Massachusetts constitution. Thus all slaves in the state became free, at least on paper.

Most antislavery politicians, including Lincoln’s Republicans, favored not abolition but gradual emancipation. Restricting slavery from the territories was to bring it to a slow, natural death on the model that had banished it from the North. Only the war fully merged the white North’s struggle to preserve the Union with four million slaves’ struggle to free themselves. After, the two would again separate.