Potterizing Andrew Jackson

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

In The Half Has Never Been Told, Ed Baptist tells the story of Robert Potter. Born poor, in a declining section of North Carolina, Potter had few prospects. In addition to his modest birth he had the poor fortune of birth in a time when his white skin and male sex did not quite mean everything yet. The law disenfranchised most whites. The enslaver elite supported infrastructure projects designed to carry their tobacco to market, which they expected everyone to pay for. In the capital-starved antebellum South, their banks declined to extend credit to any save their own set. Their university catered only to their own sons.

With these obstacles before him, we might expect Robert Potter to vanish into the anonymous multitudes. He got lucky instead, finding a patron in the local elite who favored him with an education and arranged for him to join the Navy as a midshipman. Potter’s benefactor might have expected his man to stay bought. He might have done so, but when Potter sought office he found the old money oligarchs aligned against him. They ensured his defeat. He challenged the other man, Jesse Bynum, to a duel. Bynum refused. One dueled with peers, not inferiors. In a fit of bootstrapping straight out of American myth, “Potter ambushed Bynum and cracked his skull with a stick.”

In Potter’s and Bynum’s world, to treat a white man like an inferior came quite close to treating him like a slave:

Enslaved men were not allowed to defend their pride, their manhood, or anything else. They had to endure the penetrating of their skin, their lives, their families. Therefore the best way to insult a white man was to treat him like a black man, as if he could not strike back, and the best way to disprove that was to strike back.

Fully aware of all that, the courts indulged well-off men who felt the need to prove their manhood. They did not often extend the same tolerance to those less well off. Potter faced no legal challenge, but the threat of one joined the other indignities he suffered and put him thoroughly at odds with the oligarchy. Potter won his next election, a rematch with Bynum, and proposed a raft of measures to challenge planter dominance. His bills went nowhere, but they earned him the voters’ esteem. They sent him to Congress in 1828 and reelected him in 1832.

Between sessions of Congress, Potter came home and got the idea that his wife had cheated on him with a minister and a teenage neighbor. Polite society deemed both men his superiors. They had, at least in his mind, wronged Potter. He must avenge his honor or be degraded. Potter might have tried a duel, but he fixed on a new innovation:

On August 28, 1831, Potter kidnapped both of those men. he took them out into the woods. Then he castrated them. Then he released them.

Within a day, Potter had been captured. he was then locked in a cell at Oxford, the county seat. But from behind bars, as he awaited trial, Potter penned a defense of his actions. His “Appeal” was, he said, an effort -“as a man-as a member of society”- to explain to explain himself “to the world,” but especially “to you, my constituents.” He justified his castration of two white men, honored members of their society, as self-defense. They had tried to unman him first, “stab[bing] me most vitally-they had hurt me beyond all cure-they had polluted the very sanctuary of my soul.” Their cuckholding left him “the most degraded man” in Granville, and he now “felt that I could no longer maintain my place among men.” He had been subjected to the same humiliation that enslaved men had to endure. The only possible solution was to wipe off “the disgrace that had been put upon me, with the blood of those who had fixed it there.” Like a proper gentleman who shot someone in a duel to erase an insult, Potter believed that only an act of greater violation than what had been committed against him would erase the unmanning mark.

Potter spent two years in jail, during which time the legislature gave his wife a divorce and let her change the name of their children. He got off relatively easy because North Carolina had no law on the books to punish castration. The legislators passed one proscribing death for anybody who chose to follow Potter’s example and “Potterize” their enemies.

Potter’s sensational case speaks to the violent, honor-obsessed character of the Antebellum South. After his release, poor white men who understood Potter as one of their own put him right back into the state legislature. His plight reflected their own indignities. His solution spoke to their oft-frustrated search for redress. As white men, they deserved better; they demanded it. A cotton planter of the Tennessee elite built his political career on casting himself as their voice. When he took his oath, in front of an unprecedented crowd, Andrews Jackson bowed to the throng who had themselves bared their heads in deference.

Jackson didn’t invent popular politics. The owner of more than a hundred slaves hardly made for a common man, but he played the part. In him, poor white men saw their dreams fulfilled. In his many duels, they saw a nineteenth century superhero fighting as they did, for them. He had already “made Jefferson’s paper empire for white liberty into fact.” The genocidal Indian fighter, victor of New Orleans, epitomized their kind of America. In office, he would sweep aside Indian nations and open still more vast sections of the Southwest to slavery. Then he threw down with the crustiest of all oligarchs: South Carolina enslavers.

Jackson took the nullifiers’ action as a direct challenge to the power of a national majority. So did a Tennessee constituent, who said, delighting in Old Hickory’s humiliation of the South Carolina planter elite, “The old chief could rally force enough…to stand on Saluda Mountain [in northwestern South Carolina] and piss enough to float the whole nullifying crew into the Atlantic Ocean.” The way he saw it, Carolina’s planters blustered about mobilizing the militia and blocking federal tariff enforcement until the collected penises of Jackson’s supporters, like himself, cowed them, and they backed down.

You could drown in the testosterone, among other substances. A certain kind of man found in Andrew Jackson the apotheosis of America: bloody, bold, resolute, ready to kick every Indian ass, whip every enslaved back, kill all the Britishers, and then come home to passionately mourn his sainted wife. He might as well have hailed from Krypton as upcountry South Carolina. The white man’s white man might have hated banks and paper money. He might have broken the law to break the Bank of the United States, among his lesser sins, but we put people on money to celebrate them. As the hallowed founder of a Democratic party deeply wedded to white supremacy and singularly powerful in the South, where it rarely had more than notional competition, it comes as no surprise that when the Democracy instituted the Federal Reserve they put Jackson’s picture on its ten dollar note. He moved to the twenty, replacing Grover Cleveland, in 1928.

We put Jackson on our money because we admired him, the same reason Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln appear in our wallets. Everyone understands that, for all we might sometimes pretend otherwise; no American currency has ever depicted Benedict Arnold. We kept him there because we kept on admiring him. Now we have tentatively decided to do otherwise, pushing Jackson to the back of the bill and putting Harriet Tubman on the front. Jackson might very well have fought a duel with someone who told him his face would go on paper money, but he surely would have if told that an enslaved woman would replace him. Displacement itself would have bruised his always-tender pride. Displacement by a woman? A black woman? A slave? Old Hickory could hardly imagine a greater indignity. If the dead could truly rise from their graves in outrage, Jackson’s rattling skeleton would have put on an appearance by now. We will Potterize him.

Tubman during the Civil War

Tubman during the Civil War

That in itself deserves some celebration. After so many decades, we have come kicking and screaming to a point where this may actually happen in a decade and a half. General Jackson will have his demotion, but Tubman’s promotion deserves its own consideration. If we wish to replace Jackson with an American similarly endowed with what the more sophisticated members of the historical academy call badassery, she makes for a great choice. Tubman didn’t just steal herself to freedom, itself a harrowing, dangerous act. She went back and rescued others, freeing scores in an eleven year career. She went back armed, for her own defense but also to straighten out fugitives who had second thoughts. A single enslaved person with cold feet might expose the whole operation and put everyone back in bondage, or a shallow grave. Thus, Tubman reasoned, “Dead niggers tell no tales.” Not content with such exploits in peacetime, during the Civil War Tubman graduated from nurse and cook to army scout. One of her expeditions freed north of seven hundred enslaved people.

We have in Tubman’s life daring exploits in freedom’s name much as we might imagine in Jackson’s. If he deserves recognition for such a record, then she does as well. The question we face in these matters, whether or not we care to admit it, is not which historical figure makes for a better superhero. Rather we must ask ourselves which vision of Truth, Justice, and the American we prefer. Past generations have come down firmly on Jackson’s side, nailing their colors to the fruits of genocide and an empire for slavery.

I don’t think we’ve quit all that, or even come near to it, just yet; a new face on money will not change minds. It can only, at best, tell us that minds have already changed. Just as many of us have not found Jackson’s portrait an eloquent testimony to his character, others will find nothing to admire in Tubman’s. But it takes more than a few disaffected people to make such a change. If we have not gone so far as we would like, and will inevitably declare final victory again as we always do, then we have at least dragged ourselves some small step forward. In 2016, many Americans still find Andrew Jackson’s vision of freedom praiseworthy and want to hide Harriet Tubman’s on a new denomination that we will never print or on an obscure one used only as a novelty, but not so many as once did. We have come this far.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Four

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Curtis laid out a thoroughgoing definition of treason for his Boston grand jury back on October 15, 1851. You had to conspire to resist the laws of the United States, or their enforcement. You must use or threaten force. You didn’t have to plan far ahead or come in full military panoply, but you did have to intend to oppose execution of at least one law in all cases rather than just in a particular instance. Through all of this, Curtis has largely written in the context of the act itself and immediate perpetrators, but he did specify that treason came out of conspiracies and combinations. How far could those reach, legally speaking?

It should be known also, that treason may be committed by those not personally present at the immediate scene of violence. If a body of men be actually assembled to effect by force a treasonable purpose, all those who perform any part, however minute, or however remote from the scene of action, and who are actually leagued in the general conspiracy, are to be considered guilty of treason.

That spelled bad news for vigilance committees out to aid fugitive slaves in their escape. If we take the laws of Kansas as those of the United States, an arguable proposition but probably close enough for proslavery Kansans, then it also implicated the entire Kansas Legion. They had a military band aimed at resisting the territory’s laws, which they hardly needed unless they foresaw the use of force to resist. The Legion’s constitution specified that once a group reached a thirty men, it must have a military character. Jacob Branson, his rescuer Samuel Wood, and likely everybody of consequence in the free state movement had membership in such a combination.

The sudden burst of warrants and eager exploitation of the crisis to seize the free state leaders in Lawrence still looks like an opportunistic fishing expedition in light of this, but one with at least a plausible legal leg to stand on. Legal niceties didn’t bother proslavery Kansans and their Missourian allies all that much, but they could honestly say they observed some of the forms.

Curtis spelled it out in words that anticipate free state political activity almost word for word:

Influential persons cannot form associations to resist the law by violence, excite the passions of ignorant and unreflecting, or desperate men, incite them to action, supply them with weapons, and then retire and await in safety the result of the violence which they themselves have caused. To permit this, would not only be inconsistent with sound policy, but with a due regard to the just responsibilities of men. The law does not permit it. They who have the wickedness to plan and incite and aid, and who perform any part however minute, are justly deemed guilty

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Set aside the fact that Curtis had antislavery efforts in mind when he wrote all of this and I don’t see a great deal one could argue with. We might not reach for treason so quickly today as Curtis did, preferring some other offense, but his reasoning on each point appears sound and practical. His definitions don’t perfectly fit events in Kansas, but they come close. Given the real fear of slave revolt and already-extant inattention to the finer points of law, I come away from this with the strong sense that when most proslavery men said treason, they meant it. It served their purposes to make the claim, and some of the lawyers probably knew better, but it all fits together too well to read the accusations as entirely cynical.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Three

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Yesterday we looked at the first prong of Samuel Curtis’ test for treason as it related to fugitive slave rescues in his own Boston and, later on, to the events precipitating the Wakarusa War in Kansas. Curtis specified that one could levy war against the United States by any organized attempt to thwart the execution or enforcement of its laws by force. The fugitive rescuers surely did that. The free state movement, as of the end of 1855, had done the same if one counts the laws of Kansas as laws of the United States. If one does not, then they remained innocent. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, as customary for laws organizing territories, granted lawmaking authority to the territorial government with the proviso that Congress retained the power to review and annul such laws. Whether that makes them federal or not probably depends on where one stands. In the strictest reading, they don’t qualify. Functionally, however, they might come close enough to make little difference.

What of the nature of combinations to resist the laws, then? While the free state movement had a long paper trail, when Samuel Wood roused some men and came to Jacob Branson’s rescue he appears to have acted on his own authority. He led a militia company, but he made no effort to secure permission from the free state leadership to mount the rescue. Did relatively spontaneous acts count as conspiracy?

Curtis thought so:

Such a conspiracy may be formed before the individuals assemble to act, and they may come together to act pursuant to it; or it may be formed when they have assembled, and immediately before they act. The time is not essential. All that is necessary is, that being assembled, they should act in forcible opposition to a law few the United States, pursuant to a common design to prevent the execution of that law, in any case within their reach.

You didn’t have to plan ahead; you could treason on short notice. Curtis doubtless had in mind heat of the moment efforts to free slaves who dared steal their bodies from their rightful owners, but the relief of Branson counted too.

Of course, levying war still meant something more closely approximating war. You had to use “actual force” to graduate from talk to treason. What counted as that force? The Army of Northern Virginia qualifies and Samuel Wood’s band operated in similar ways, if on a vastly smaller scale. How big and organized did a treasonous conspiracy have to get? Not very:

It is not necessary that there should be any military array, or weapons, nor that any personal injury should be inflicted on the officers of the law. If a hostile army should surround a body of troops of the United States, and the latter should lay down their arms and submit, it cannot be doubted that it would constitute an overt act of levying war, though no shot was fired or blow struck.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Nobody shot Samuel Jones, but the threat of force worked just as well. If we grant that for the people Jones and his allies intimidated at the Kansas polls, then we can’t exclude the same tactics used against them. Samuel Wood and his men came out with guns, in a rush, outnumbering Jones and demanding his prisoner. It didn’t take a genius or a clairvoyant to know what would probably happen if he refused to yield up Branson. As Curtis wrote:

The presence of numbers who manifest an intent to use force, if found requisite to obtain their dmeands, may compel submission to that force, which is present and ready to inflict injury, and which may thus be effectually used to oppose the execution of the law. But, unfortunately, it will not often be necessary to apply this principle, since actual violence, and eve murder, are the natural and almost inseparable attendants of this great crime.

To cast a net broad enough to consider Jones acting under the laws of the United States also requires us to sweep up Kansas poll workers. Unlike the Sheriff, they had the letter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on their side. If it did not constitute a law of the Untied States, then no act of Congress could. Jones’ menacing of them looks at least as much like treason as Wood and company menacing him. Neither incident resulted in violence, contrary to Curtis’ expectations, but they didn’t need to.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

In October, 1851, Samuel Curtis gave his federal grand jury a definition of treason (PDF). He expected, in a Boston where antislavery Americans had lately rescued a few fugitive slaves from those who aimed to steal them back to slavery, that the jury might need to know. Curtis laid out a three point test: The accused must conspire. That conspiracy must involve obstructing the enforcement of a law of the United States. The conspiracy must then use force to that end. All of these applied to Bostonians who had saved enslaved Americans from recapture. Together, these things constituted levying war against the United States. They might, depending on how one read them, apply to the free state movement in Kansas as well.

Curtis did better than nineteenth century bullet points. He wanted his jurors to understand the law thoroughly and so gave a further explanation that runs to about a page of printed text. That section opened with an important qualifier:

It is not enough that the purpose of the combination is to oppose the execution of a law in some particular case, and in that only. If a person against whom process has issued from a court of the United States, should assemble and arm his friends forcibly to prevent an arrest, and in pursuance of such design, resistance should be made by those thus assembled, they would be guilty of a very high crime, but it would not be treason

In a Bostonian context, this means one could throw together to rescue Shadrach Minkins or Anthony Burns and not commit treason. Over in Kansas, Samuel Jones had a warrant to arrest Jacob Branson. He had that warrant under the authority of the federally-constituted territorial government. I don’t know if a territorial court operating under that law counts as a court of the United States rather than one of Kansas Territory, but even granting Jones the point Branson and his rescuers might fall short of Curtis’ definition of treason. They opposed the execution of the law, by force, in one particular case.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

However, if the individuals combined

forcibly to prevent any person from being arrested under that law, and with such intent, force is used by them for that purpose, they are guilty of treason.

Here Samuel Newitt Wood and company get into deeper trouble. They as much as told Jones that they would rescue anybody he came after with a warrant. Though the people of Lawrence tried to disavow the rescue of Branson, they had made rhetorical pledges to resist Kansas’ laws too. Their resistance didn’t extent to force, yet. They took pains to emphasize they resisted the laws of Kansas, not the United States. Charles Robinson, at least, understood resisting Wilson Shannon by force as resisting federal authority. Whether he meant that as a precise legal judgment or just a recognition of how Shannon might treat things, the ambiguity remains.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee, slave catcher

One might argue that the resistance to one law doesn’t really count, just as resisting on behalf of one person doesn’t count. Curtis anticipated the argument and would have nothing of it:

The law does not distinguish between a purpose to prevent the execution of one, or several, or all laws. Indeed, such a distinction would be found impracticable, if it were attempted. If this crime could not be committed by forcibly resisting one law, how many laws should be thus resisted to constitute it? Should it be two, or three, or what particular number short of all? And if all, how easy would it be for the worst of treason to escape punishment, simply by excepting out of the treasonable design, some one law.

The judge has a point. If the Army of Northern Virginia scrupulously held to the fugitive slave law, and they did so enthusiastically when they had the chance in Pennsylvania, then that hardly made them innocent of treason. Robert E. Lee commanded, among other things, the largest slave patrol in American history.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part One

Reading sources hostile to the free state movement, and antislavery in general, one often comes across mention of their treasonable nature. With regard to the wildcat state government that came to operate in Kansas in late 1855 and early 1856, the connection doesn’t require much explanation. They really did aim to set up an illegal government within the territory of the United States, in opposition to the legally-constituted government placed in charge of that same territory. When the guilty parties work only to obstruct the fugitive slave law, to the point of violence, the accusations seem more strained. Strained, however, does not mean insincere, hysterical, or inaccurate. I have previously tried to understand accusations of treason in the context of those making them and the situation at hand. I lacked a grounding in nineteenth century jurisprudence necessary to say more. Thanks to Al Mackey’s research (PDF), I can do better now.

On October 15, 1851, your author’s negative one hundred twenty-ninth birthday, Justice Samuel Curtis of the United States Circuit Court in Boston issued instructions to a grand jury. It doesn’t seem that Curtis had a specific case in mind when he gave these instructions, but rather made them in anticipation of cases likely to come before the jurors during their term. We know that Boston didn’t have another fugitive rescue until Anthony Burns, but he didn’t.

Curtis opens by explaining why we must take treason so seriously, noting that it alone receives a precise definition in the Constitution.

It is there made to consist in levying war against the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. This language is borrowed from an ancient English statute, enacted in the year 1352 (25 Edw. III.), mainly for the purpose of restraining the power of the crown to oppress the subject by arbitrary constructions of the law of treason.

That all sounds very high school civics. The Founders, understanding that accusations of treason could lead to serious oppression, precisely defined the crime. Themselves a band of traitors against the crown of Great Britain, they had experience on both sides of the law. To argue that either small bands rescuing fugitive slaves or a protest movement oriented towards achieving legitimacy with the United States government levied war against it may seem quite the stretch to us.

Curtis didn’t think so. According to “settled interpretation”

the words “levying war,” include not only the act of making war for the purpose of entirely overturning the government, but also any combination forcibly to oppose the execution of any public law of the United States, if accompanied or followed by an act of forcible opposition to such law in pursuance of such combination.

Curtis couldn’t read the free state movement into this back in 1851, but surely would have recognized it later just as he recognized treason in fugitive slave rescues. He provided the jury a helpful checklist for diagnosing traitors:

(1) A combination, or conspiracy, by which different individuals are united in one common purpose.

Whether the Boston vigilance committee or the free state party, we have that. The Blue Lodges gave the border ruffians much the same. But anybody could unite in common purpose. If you go out with friends to see a movie, you’ve done as much.

(2) This purpose being to prevent the execution of some public law of the United States by force.

Our night at the movies slips the net here. The free state movement, for all its rhetoric of resistance, also wrapped itself in the flag and declared specifically for a public law of the United States: the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Though one sees occasional reference to the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s sanctity from proslavery men, they generally defended their activities in terms of counteracting efforts by Emigrant Aid Societies. They concerned themselves, on paper, with tit for tat rather than the sanctity of the law, except for the Kansas slave code.

The free state party, whatever occasional disavowals its leaders made, did have active military companies enlisted for its cause. Prior to fooling Wilson Shannon into authorizing them, those forces occupied a deeply ambiguous role. However, they did not meaningfully satisfy Curtis’ third criterion:

(3) The actual use of force, by such combination, to prevent the execution of that law.

Nobody attacked the United States Army, revenue officers, or federal marshals. Andrew Reeder faced armed threats in regard to the execution of his duties, but the proslavery men declined to consummate them. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow attacked the governor and the matter ended with pistols drawn, but he had a personal grievance against Reeder for calling him a border ruffian.

By a very strict reading Curtis, it seems no one in Kansas had committed treason. The judge, however, intended a more expansive reading and offered it up to his jurors.

Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Four

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1, 2, 3, Greeley’s pamphlet

The proslavery majority of the Kansas Legislative Assembly warmed up by proscribing the death penalty for inciting, supporting, or even just suggesting slave revolt. Dare to speak or write against slavery and you must die. The same penalty applied for simply bringing such written material into Kansas. If you received a copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper in the mail, you could and, if caught must, die for it. Helping a slave free himself or herself could result in death, but for the first time the legislature gave sentencing judges an option: they could pick ten years’ hard labor instead. Even unknowingly helping a slave who simply might have absconded would get you five years breaking the proverbial rocks. The penalties for helping slaves who stole themselves further extended to slaves who came into Kansas from another state. The majority would sanction no safe haven for the victims of its Missouri neighbors.

The proslavery men could read their newspapers. They knew that black and white abolitionists had freed Shadrach Minkins and, more recently, Anthony Burns in Boston. They knew that armed force had repelled Gorush from Christiana and took from him his life along with his slave. They resolved to ensure that, unlike those Yankee fanatics, they would not let such deeds go unpunished:

If any person shall resist any officer while attempting to arrest any slave that may have escaped from the service of his master or owner, or shall rescue such slave when in the custody of any officer or other person who may have such slave in custody, whether such slave have escaped from the service of his master or owner in this Territory or in any other State or Territory, the person so offending shall be guilty of felony and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

You might rescue a slave in Kansas, but if you did you would end up behind bars for it.

Still looking northward, the legislature pressed on. Its dictates might have legal force all on their own, but they required officers of the state carrying them out to have practical force. Someone had to arrest offenders. What if they, as some northerners did, refused to do their duty? If they refused to arrest slaves or aid in their capture, they faced a fine of between one and five hundred dollars.

One struggles to think of some way to punish the abettors of fugitive slaves that the Assembly did not think of and find a way to punish. Entice a slave to flee and die. Knowingly help a refugee from slavery and die or, at very least, enjoy your ten years’ hard labor. Doing so unwittingly still earned you five years. Resist men seizing a slave and take two years. If an officer of the law refused to arrest or aid in the capture of a slave, he faced a large fine. From start to finish, they completely criminalized aiding slaves who dared steal their lives away from their rightful owners.

And the legislature had yet to finish.

The Slaver’s Lexicon (with insight from @Ed_Baptist)

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I’ve had this post hiding in the back of my skull for a while, possibly as far back as when I read Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume One. As I’ve yet to drink deeply from the fire hose of slavery historiography, I held off on writing it. Even after The Economist affair it sat quiet in some corner of my mind. But Kevin Levin turned over that stone with this post. He quotes Baptist’s book, which sounds still better every time I hear about it, on the nature of slavery:

Talk about “stealing” forces a focus on the slave trade, on the expansion of slavery, on the right hand in the market, on the left picking ever faster in the cotton fields. In this story there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner, only the ability of the strong to take from others. Stealing can never be an orderly system undergirded by property rights, cushioned by family-like relationships. There is no balance between contradictory elements. There is only chaos and violence. So when enslaved people insisted that the slave trade was the crystalline form of slavery-as-theft, they ripped the veils off a modern and modernizing form of slavery, one that could not be stabilized or contained. Constant disruption, creation, and destruction once more: this was its nature. (p. 189)

The authors of slave narratives sometimes refer to stealing themselves. In comments, Kevin quotes Frederick Douglass on the matter:

I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.

Douglass certainly did that. He took another man’s property without permission by running away. But we seldom use that phrasing. I know that I have in the past, but rarely. More often we speak in terms of runaways. Children run away, but we know that they should be at home if everything has gone right. Livestock runs away. Trains and cars run away. In each case, we view these runaways as deviations from the natural order. Even saying someone has a runaway imagination carries with it at least a mild reproof. They’ve gotten carried away and abandoned good sense. Furthermore, each scenario implies a need for correction. Someone must stop, corral, find, or secure the runaway object or person.

Douglass famously made himself a fugitive. Fugitives have broken the law, making them criminals, but go a step farther still: They run from justice. They have not just done wrong, but even more completely isolated themselves from orthodox society by fleeing its corrective apparatus. Before advances in criminal justice, the common law made fugitives into outlaws and encouraged ordinary people who saw them to execute them at will. Though sanctioned by law and thus not technically lynching, such an execution might look much the same.

We take our cue on the latter from the fugitive slave act in labeling slaves that stole themselves, of course. People called them that at the time and it generally makes sense to use period terms rather than anachronisms. But in calling slaves who steal themselves runaways and fugitives, don’t we to some measure conceal the reality of slavery? The language suggests, even if we don’t intend it to, that a slave belongs to his or her master in the correct order of things. That may not raise problems when we characterize the views of slaveholders; we need not share someone’s views in order to report them.

But do we really stop with that language when we stop characterizing the views of slaveholders and switch to a more general voice? I don’t think that most of us do, myself included. We inherit the biases of our sources, which have a long history of privileging the master’s perspective over the slave. The last few generations of historians have made tremendous gains in reversing that trend, but these things often move slowly. Only in the last few years have we seen Hollywood move away from a faithfully Lost Cause depiction of slavery and the Confederacy. Defenses of slavery as something ultimately good for African-Americans remain current in some corners of American thought. One of them reached some fame this past year:

“And because they [Black Americans, though Bundy prefers the term ‘negro’] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Freedmen's Bureau cartoon

A cartoon attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for encouraging idleness

Less freedom than under slavery. Past generations didn’t even bother with the act, skipping right to simply calling black people lazy as the slaveholders did, even if they sometimes cloaked it in a scientific guise. Crude racism goes a long way toward accounting for this, but there are other human foibles at work. I suspect that most people flinch from a full-bore examination of the horrors of slavery. They don’t make for easy reading and lack the obvious immediacy that present day horrors have, even if we still live in the world they made. Looking away tends to preserve one’s impression of the peculiar institution as wrong in some vague, general sense rather than having a firm command of what it entailed that made it so wrong. This runs the risk of making slavery into a fairly venal sin, like cutting in line or using coarse language. By giving ourselves the luxury of obscurity we more easily inherit the language and attitudes of the very people and practices that otherwise condemn.

Changing the language will not change the reality, but it can help change our perception of reality. That might necessitate some kind of action. At the very least it raises one’s consciousness of the real, hard facts. This probably explains why most of us, myself included, don’t change our language.

The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.

Possibilities for Peace

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.

But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.

The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.

But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.

Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4, 5

The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.

Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.

How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.

In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.

All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 123456) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.