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.

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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.

The First Republicans

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

Several groups have claimed the name Republican in American history. Thomas Jefferson’s political party, which we call the Democratic-Republicans did. So did the party that Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson made, though they eventually settled on calling themselves Democrats. We use anachronistic and partially anachronistic names to avoid the obvious confusion. The modern Republican party traces its descent to the Republicans of this post, not the other ones. In many, though not all, respects that apple fell very far from the tree. A hundred and sixty years will do that.

The discontented northern Democrats, ready to bolt their party over Kansas-Nebraska, had the Whigs waiting for them. By and large, however, they did not want to turn Whig. The Whig party had its own problems and many of them remained on all matters save slavery, traditional Democrats. Instead, they would create their own party in conjunction with discontented antislavery Whigs. This meant a serious risk to the men jumping ship, as they gave up access to party patronage and all the work they had put into advancing within the Democracy and Whiggery for many years…unless the party establishment in an area defected together. Then its existing unity would turn it into the local machine of the new party with little trouble.

Just that happened in some places, especially where the Whigs had little success. Weak parties do not inspire great efforts to save them, so relatively organized contingents of ex-Whigs rapidly turned into the leadership cadre of new Fusion, Anti-Nebraska, and People’s parties. Those names did not quite stick and the movement increasingly coalesced around the name Republican, as they defended republican institutions against slave power aristocrats. On February 28, 1854, a meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin adopted the label. At the time, the Nebraska bill had yet to pass the Senate. In July, after it had become law, the new party got together a convention in Jackson, Michigan and made the name official.

In recent decades, third-party efforts in American politics have taken on a sort of farcical air. A group of people who would count winning 5% of the national vote as a tremendous victory gather together and make speeches, pass resolutions, and have some fun while the rest of us ignore them. In 1854, the new party conventions essentially dissolved the Whig party in several states. In Indiana and Ohio, the Whigs had no convention that year and thus fielded no candidates. They barely did better in Vermont, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

The Democracy had its problems as well. In May, the Indiana Democracy convened under the leadership of Jesse Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator. It passed resolutions endorsing Kansas-Nebraska. The next day a different Indiana Democracy met to condemn Kansas-Nebraska and endorsed a platform against any extension of slavery and advocating the prohibition of alcohol. Over in Massachusetts, the new Republicans came mostly from old Free Soil stock just as eager to join in. They resolved to repeal the fugitive slave act, restore the Missouri Compromise, ban slavery in all territories, to stand against any territorial expansion (especially involving Cuba) unless that territory came in without slavery, to prevent the admission of any new slave states to the Union, and to abolish slavery outright in the District of Columbia.

In short, the Massachusetts Free Soilers turned Republicans proposed reversing every single gain slavery had made in the past decade and a radical rollback that would put a powerful squeeze on the institution. On the fugitive slave act alone, they proposed a course of action that the South had soberly warned amounted to a declaration of war and promised to break the Union over. If the white North could not have a free Nebraska today, then a few years down the road maybe the South could have no more slaves at all.

Parties Divided and Uniting

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas misjudged the North. Any hope he had that finishing forever debate over slavery and its future, as well as opening the floodgates for white settlement in the plains, would win the white North back for the Democracy and meet the challenge of antislavery Whiggery by removing its signature issue died hard over 1854.

Antislavery politics had spawned the tiny Liberty Party in the Burned-Over District of New York back in the early 1840s. They split off from more radical abolitionists like Garrison in reading the Constitution as an anti-slavery document. That core of a few thousand supporters went into the Free Soil party in 1848, briefly turning into a major movement. But the free soil movement largely subsided, at least on the presidential stage, after the Compromise of 1850. Antislavery found a more congenial home among the northern Whigs. William Seward’s wing of the party happily welcomed them. The party’s ailing southern wing did not, but the Democracy’s successes in the South helped limit their ability to reign in Whiggish moves against slavery. This in turn set up a vicious cycle where the party’s northern wing felt less beholden to its southern compatriots and thus could adopt policies increasingly hostile to those same men and their prospects of election in the South.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

Despite successes, the northern Whigs had their own problems. Without a functioning Southern wing, they had little hope of gaining the White House again. Their past success there, however fleeting, had also brought about results from Texas annexation to the Fugitive Slave Act that many of the same northern Whigs found obnoxious. Furthermore, the Democrats who might switch over had seen the Whigs and Whiggery as the enemy for decades. They may agree on slavery, but not necessarily the rest of the Whig program that would come with joining in. Chase appealed to the Independent Democrats, not the Whigs-in-waiting. To top it all off, Whiggery had both lost its southern wing and now faced a potent challenge from tides of immigrant voters. In the four years before 1852, more immigrants had flooded into the country than Winfield Scott’s entire popular vote. Those immigrants, the Irish prominent among them, tended Catholic and Democratic.

We can easily forget that trend, but in other circumstances it might have saved the Democracy in the North. To the extent most immigrants, especially the Irish, cared about slavery they saw it through the lens of free blacks competing with them for jobs. Slavery might protect them from such competition. While the Whigs made token efforts to sweep up the Irish vote but more often treated them as a band of drunken undesirables better kept from voting to begin with. They would just go vote democrat anyway. The Irish could very well see all of that. They could also see the Puritans, Scots, Welsh, and Ulster surnames, faces, and attitudes and know where they ought to go instead.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Thus alienated antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs both had problems in their parent parties. The Democrats had a party establishment dominated by proslavery men and their lackeys, bent on striking against the vital interests of the free, white North. They could, if they could overcome their other differences, go Whig. That might very well have worked out, as increasingly slavery trumped all other issues. More and more of the white North would compromise or take a loss on some other front in order to contain slavery. But the Whigs they could have joined also saw their own ship sinking. If they could not get what they wanted inside Whiggery, why not do it outside? That would at once free them from the encumbrance of party members opposed to their interests and duck what might prove a very difficult fight between antislavery and anti-immigrant Whigs for the party’s future.

The Free Soil party gave a partial blueprint for them. Though it never elected a president, it set a precedent for antislavery Whigs and Democrats to coalition. Furthermore, it still had senators that it elected in coalition with one party or the other as state politics dictated. If a new anti-Nebraska, antislavery party could not take over a state or two on its own then the Free Soil party’s route remained open to it.

A Hell of a Storm

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Back when Stephen Douglas and Archibald Dixon (W-KY) went for their fateful carriage ride on Wednesday, January 18, 1854, Douglas agreed to make the Missouri Compromise repeal explicit in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He said it would raise a hell of a storm. The Little Giant gravely underestimated the North’s wrath. Coming at the tail end of four months of rancorous debate in the Senate and House, the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) both reintroduced to the mix the last great insult to Northern men, the Fugitive Slave Act. In the four years prior the North had engaged in sporadic resistance to the law, even to the point of violence, but the passion for showy rescues of fugitive slaves burned itself out and a conservative reaction took its place. By 1854, the North had lived with the law for nearly four years. The South insisted that the North must and, by and large, northerners agreed to accept the law in exchange for preserving the Union.

Absent Kansas-Nebraska, Boston might still have rallied to Anthony Burns’ side. They had rescued Shadrach Minkins, after all. But Stephen Douglas drove men who once called themselves sober conservatives over to the abolitionist side. With their newspapers full of Kansas-Nebraska and its breach of the sacred territorial settlement for months prior, now came a chance for the North to tell the South just how tightly it felt the bonds of agreements the other section no longer honored. If the white North could not have the great plains, then the South could not have back its fugitive slaves.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Allen Nevins reports that while Burns’ trial went on in Boston, three newly escaped slaves in New York found themselves caught and returned. This once would have passed without comment, as most fugitive renditions did. Now the papers erupted and protesters held a mass meeting. In Syracuse, telegrams brought word that a marshal with a fugitive would pass through on the afternoon train. Church bells rang and a crowd of two thousand stormed the train when it arrived. They found no marshal and no fugitive, but the speed and size of the reaction speaks volumes.

In Boston itself, the Vigilance Committee got wind of a man coming up to reclaim a slave now working as a barber in Vermont. They staked out the hotels and stalked him when he arrived while two couriers raced off, arriving at two in the morning, to alert fugitive and get him to Canada.

In Milwaukee, back in March, a story much like Burns’ played out, if with less violence. Learning that the Milwaukee jail held a fugitive, a crowd gathered and held a meeting right outside the courthouse. They resolved to stake out the jail so no one could spirit the fugitive away in secret. In due course, they liberated the man and his owner departed Milwaukee to duck charges of assault and battery.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Chicago, Douglas country, more than twelve fugitives found themselves protected against marshals and the local militia by an angry mob late in the year.

In the White House, Franklin Pierce received a letter that called him

the chief slave-catcher of the United States. You damned, infernal scoundrel, if only I had you here in Boston, I would murder you!

Just a few years before, abolitionists could barely meet without threat that mobs would break up their assembly. Respectable halls and churches closed their doors to men like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, who preached lawbreaking and threatened the Union. Now all doors opened to them, even if Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution and preached disunion.

Douglas’ storm had come and would not soon depart.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Six

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Charles Suttle tried to get a few hundred extra dollars out of various Bostonians while Anthony Burns rotted in a slave jail. But eventually Burns got out. Suttle wanted done with him and Richmond had a fair on, so Anthony Burns went up at auction. The crowd knew him for a runaway and heaped abuse on Burns. For some time, the auctioneer could get no bids. Finally David McDaniel, a North Carolinian, bought him for $905. Suttle refused a sure $1,200 in Boston, demanded $1,500 later, and bemoaned his expenses. He gave up the use of Burns’ labor for four months. Suttle told Boston correspondents that, as a man of no great wealth, he had to look out for his financial interests. Apparently that entailed giving up $295 for principle.

McDaniel went up and had a talk with Burns. He knew that Burns fancied himself a preacher and would have none of that. Preachers could give slaves ideas and an illicit meeting of slaves, ostensibly for religion, usually put visions of a conspiracy to run away or cut owners’ throats into the minds of slaveholders. When you outnumber a group of people you treat very badly, paranoia naturally follows. Burns refused to submit to that, but promised that if treated well he would serve well. Otherwise, Burns told his new owner, he fully intended to leg it again.

McDaniel, surprisingly, had a sense of humor about that. His business in North Carolina involved growing cotton, but mainly he traded slaves and horses. Charles Emery Stevens reports that McDaniel freely partook of the wares of his female property, happily selling off his children. One would not expect it of such a person, but McDaniel did treat Burns relatively well. Anthony had charge of his stables, slept in an office there, and did not have to answer to any overseer but McDaniel himself. Slaves regularly went in and out of McDaniel’s plantation, but Burns’ place there seems rather stable. Maybe McDaniel took a shine to him. Burns did not feel compelled to run, even if he’d rather be free.

Leonard A. Grimes

Leonard A. Grimes

By this time, his Boston supporters had lost all contact with Burns. He tried to write them from the slave jail, but the letters never arrived. In all likelihood, they never got past the local postmaster. But for a happy accident, Burns might have still been in North Carolina when the war broke out:

At length, an accident revealed the place of his abode. He had one day driven his mistress in her carriage to the house of a neighbor, and, while sitting on the box, was pointed out to the family as the slave whose case had excited such commotion throughout the country. It chanced that a young lady residing in the family heard the statement, and by her it was repeated in a letter to her sister in Massachusetts. By the latter the story was related in a social circle where the Rev. G. S. Stockwell, one of the clergymen of the place, happened to be present. This person immediately addressed a letter to Anthony’s owner, inquiring if the slave could be purchased. An answer was promptly returned that he might be purchased for thirteen hundred dollars.

Leonard A. Grimes, a black man born free in Virginia and now a minister in Boston, took up the challenge. Grimes had worked smuggling fugitive slaves through Washington. He had even done two years hard labor in a Virginia jail for helping fugitives make their way north. There, Grimes found religion. He also found Washington less than thrilled to see him again and so decamped to Massachusetts, founding a church in Boston where Shadrach Minkins had worshiped. Forty of his flock fled to Canada after the fugitive slave law passed.

With some trouble, Grimes raised the cash and made arrangements to buy Burns in Baltimore for $1,300. Then free at last, Burns met a hero’s welcome in Massachusetts and landed at Oberlin to study theology. He toured parts of the North with an exhibit on the evils of slavery and sold copies of Charles Emery Sevens’ story of his struggles to fund more studies, but Burns’ health never recovered. After a brief stay in Indianapolis in 1860, he made his way to Canada and died there, off the radar of American antislavery men, in 1862.