South Carolina’s First Nullification


John C. Calhoun

One simply can’t run a country according to the plan that the nullifiers and states rights men advocated. If a state can overrule federal law on its own say-so, then federal law loses its force. With federal law impotent, the federal government becomes irrelevant and soon dissolves. Some vestiges might remain, but as a practical matter one reduces the Union to a collection of smaller, quarreling nations. Given many states had neither the population nor the economy to manage easily on their own, they would then likely consolidate into somewhat like-minded blocs. These groups would probably not repeat the same mistakes as the previous consolidation. Some nullification proposals foresaw essentially that, most notably the idea that the United States should try having two presidents with veto power over one another. One would come from the North, the other from the South. The Southern president would thus keep the Union forever safe for slavery.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The criticism holds true for matters large and small, in principle. We could leave things there, but doing so would require us to ignore the realities of the past. Certainly one could not expect a nation to endure large-scale acts of nullification. If a state or seven rejected losing the presidency or the program of a victorious party in national elections, that more obviously strains the Union and puts nineteenth century democracy in doubt than if it nullifies on a smaller scale. As a practical matter, many Northern states nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin took the extra step of doing it outright, leading to the Taney Court ruling that states had no power to nullify federal laws in Abeleman vs. Booth. Therein, the Court made much the same argument in contemplating the assertion that a state court could interfere with and prevent the operation of federal law:

It would seem to be hardly necessary to do more than state the result to which these decisions of the State courts must inevitably lead. It is, of itself, a sufficient and conclusive answer, for no one will suppose that a Government which has now lasted nearly seventy years, enforcing its laws by its own tribunals and preserving the union of the States, could have lasted a single year, or fulfilled the high trusts committed to it, if offences against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the State in which the culprit was found.

The rebelling states, of course, would without a trace of irony cite the practical nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the North as one of the injustices which drove them to rebellion. They correctly understood the tradition of states rights rhetoric: the issue, however contested, did not go our way and therefore we claim the right to declare ourselves winners. Obviously no nation could let such a thing stand and call itself democratic even by nineteenth century terms. Yet the United States did eventually let it stand. The nation did not spend vast sums and tie up the military to do as it had done to Anthony Burns a second time. Before that, it accepted nullification of a kind from South Carolina. I draw this account from Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

South Carolina’s cotton flowed out of the nation through Charleston and a few other lowcountry ports. Those ports thus naturally had ships in and out regularly, if nothing on the volume that New York, Baltimore, Boston, or New Orleans did. Like any functioning port, Charleston saw ships from diverse places. Many of its regular visitors hailed from the North and abroad. These ships had the usual complements, including some black seamen. Those seamen could roam freely about Charleston. To Charleston’s whites, that meant that northern blacks tainted by abolitionism could speak to their slaves. Worse still, Haitian seamen could walk free and tell anybody who asked about their country’s successful slave revolt. All of this in a region of the state where enslaved blacks vastly outnumbered whites. To further complicate matters, many enslavers from Haiti had passed through Charleston when fleeing the revolution. In the 1820s, they had had direct, personal knowledge of what a real slave uprising looked like. If they missed the significance, than the fact that Denmark Vesey used Haiti as an example of what his conspiracy could achieve would have highlighted it to even the dullest wits.

Charleston hung Denmark Vesey on July 2, 1822. Before he died, he brought the black seaman “problem” further into the limelight. With the lowcountry’s enslavers anxious about revolts, feeling embattled by the recent debates over the fate of slavery in Missouri, and a fresh uprising narrowly averted, they felt they had to do something. To answer the dire menace to their lives and their property in lives, South Carolina’s enslavers passed a law that required every black sailor locked away in the town jail for the duration of his ship’s sojourn in Charleston. Thus Charleston imprisoned the free to secure the enslaved at the end of the year.

All of that worked out just fine for Charleston’s fretting whites and just terribly for its free black visitors, precisely as intended. However, it put South Carolina on the wrong side of the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations had a treaty granting their sailors free access to one another’s ports. This treaty, declared the Constitution

shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

South Carolina passed a state law to the contrary. The UK protested to the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Freehling says that Adams might have gotten Charleston to ignore the law for a time. By the middle of the next year, Haitian and other black seamen moved about Charleston freely once more. This did not suit Charleston’s still-anxious citizens. They arranged a mass meeting in late July, forming the South Carolina Association to supervise enforcement of all South Carolina’s laws controlling black lives. The association named standing committees to do that work, which they soon commenced.

That enforcement led in short order to a court case. Charleston’s sheriff seized a free Jamaican black named Harry Elkinson and locked him up. Elkinson protested and sought habeas corpus proceedings, which he got. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson found the seaman law in violation of treaty and therefore invalid. However, Johnson held that he couldn’t order Elkinson’s release as his power extended only to federal prisoners. The South Carolina Association, for its part, declared the state sovereign and insisted that it had not surrendered its power to suppress revolts. Any act designed toward that end rightfully fell within its power, not the capacity of the United States. The state had not yet articulated a full-blown theory of nullification as Calhoun would later invent, but in pleading its case Benjamin F. Hunt and Isaac E. Holmes laid out an important precursor. Johnson didn’t buy it and laid out a strong refutation in his opinion:

Where is this to land us? Is it not asserting the right in each state to throw off the federal Constitution at its will and pleasure?

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Johnson’s opinion provoked a firestorm in South Carolina. If the state could not pass laws to govern its slaves and keep them in slavery, then how could it retain slavery at all? All Haiti’s alleged woes came back to a distant government meddling with slavery. Now they received the same at the imperious hands of a Supreme Court justice. The state ignored the decision and continued jailing sailors. John Quincy Adams kept getting protests from the United Kingdom. He reached out to the Attorney General, William Wirt, for an opinion on the law. Wirt came down firmly against it. In July of 1823, Adams forwarded Wirt’s argument and the protests to South Carolina, asking the legislature to fix the problem.

Though South Carolina’s legislature could not settle on what tone to take, they agreed on the substance. The Senate held that “self preservation”

will never by this state, be renounced, compromised, controlled, or participated with any power whatever.

The House affirmed

The measures directed towards colored persons brought within the territory of this state, are simply part of the general system of domestic police, defensible as such, and absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In other words, John Quincy Adams could best repose Wirt’s opinion and the British protests in some area perhaps well-suited to the cultivation of mushrooms but otherwise ill-disposed to agriculture. The state acted accordingly, continuing to imprison sailors. Washington and London could protest all they like, but South Carolina did as it willed. London could not perhaps force the issue short of a war. Washington chose not to and let the nullification stand.

Here, for the first time, the state grappled with the issues of the later Nullification Crisis. South Carolina cited the same reserved power of the states to nullify a treaty in the name of internal security that it would later call upon to nullify a federal law. In both cases, its constitutional thinkers discovered this power to save slavery. Victory in the first instance spurred South Carolina onward. If nullification worked once, it could work again.


The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Three


Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Parts 1, 2

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, writing for the Platte County Self-Defense Association, explained its intentions to his readers. The members feared that Emigrant Aid Societies unfairly competed for land in newly opened Kansas. They would plant mercenary paupers on that land to both keep Kansas free soil and undermine slavery in adjacent Missouri. They would do that by bringing into Missouri’s slave belt men of open abolitionist sentiment. They would gather and announce themselves, emboldening Missourians who already had doubts about slavery. They would also encourage free blacks, the worst sort of black to men of Stringfellow’s thinking, and use their homes as outposts on the underground railroad. The tide of free soil footsoldiers rushing through the Missouri slave country would also, with the lure of profit, induce even decent slaveholding men to turn traitor by selling them supplies and otherwise giving them aid.

We should not discount the fear of white subversion, breaking the almighty color line that kept poor white nonslaveholders and rich whites slaveholders together. The planter class really did need the assent of a great many whites to keep their slaves because whites did have and had used in living memory the power to end slavery within the bounds of a slave state. If that power  lay dormant after New Jersey’s 1804 emancipation law, that did not mean it had vanished. White solidarity kept slaves in their places.

The impetus for that white solidarity came in part from fears of a racial holocaust. Slaves had revolted violently in the past. Very large and frightening revolts had taken place in the Caribbean, the greatest and most notorious in Haiti. Servile insurrection lurked seemingly around every corner to some Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. The United States never had a massive revolt on the scale of Haiti, slaveholders thought they had in the past caught conspiracies to accomplish just such a thing. If they had to torture or terrorize confessions out of the alleged conspirators, that only meant that they knew what awaited if they told willingly. Paranoia played a role, but sometimes slaves really did set out to get their owners.

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

A good example could break white solidarity, convince the slaves to revolt, or both at once. Personal safety and racial paranoia ran smoothly together. Black brutes would kill innocent whites if let free. Inspiring whites to debate the merits of slavery openly would lead to poor whites turning against it. One would enable the other and soon everything would fly out of the slaveholders’ control. That might mean their personal ruin, but it would surely mean their financial ruin:

Already the effect of the coming of such a band of abolitionists to our border, has been not only to reduce the value of our slaves, but of our land. Slaveholders fear to come among us; good men who are opposed to slavery, will not come; and should Kansas be made a harbour for negro-thieves, ours, now the most prosperous portion of our State, will in a short lime become a desert waste. We must at once sell our slaves, abandon the culture of hemp, our great staple; suffer our fields to lie idle, until slaveholders driven from our State, Missouri shall fall into the hands of freesoilers, and a new people be brought to take our places.

The reference to good men opposed to slavery has to make one wonder what such person Stringfellow would have recognized. The Emigrant Aid Societies brought men opposed to slavery who he called bad on this grounds.

The fall of Missouri to freedom would, of course, have broader implications:

Not less is the interest which other slaveholding States have in the end, though seemingly it be less in the beginning of this struggle. The abolitionists are fully awake to the true nature, the future consequences of this struggle. They proclaim the purpose of their efforts to be, to surround Missouri with non-slaveholding States; force her to abolish slavery; then wheel her into their ranks for an attack upon the States south of her.

Missouri vanquished, Arkansas and Texas are looked upon as easy victims. Slavery then restricted to a small space, they rejoice in the contemplation of an early exhibition of another Haytian liberation.