Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.

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Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

When Lincoln and Douglas met at Springfield and Peoria, they debated the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln also made his return to political life and could have done worse than to do it by sharing a stage with and showing up one of the most famous, if also now infamous, men in the nation. But the two men met in the fall of 1854, an election year. Each spoke both for himself and for his party. Though Illinois had a Republican party, Lincoln kept away from them and announced himself still a Whig.

That year began with the reintroduction of a clean, Missouri Compromise affirming Nebraska bill that rapidly mutated through four versions into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed the House only thanks to Alexander Stephens’ firm whip hand. Just as the bill hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) affair erupted in Boston. All of this tumult merged with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement. Any one of those could have made for a wild election season. All three together generated a political firestorm of the kind rarely seen in American history.

Douglas, of course, wanted to see his fellow Democrats succeed. They had the Presidency. They had the Congress. During the Second Party System, they had governed the nation almost without interruption. The party might have its problems, and serious ones at that, but things generally worked out for it. The Democracy ran Washington. Then came 1854. Allen Nevins details the Democracy’s many reverses and the following relies heavily on his Ordeal of the Union.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, between strongly antislavery New England and the Border South, New York found the Democracy split and let a Whig, Myron H. Clark, slip into the governor’s mansion. Twenty-nine of the state’s districts elected an anti-Nebraska congressman.  Pennsylvania, home to James Buchanan and other politicians far more compromising than its other famous son, David Wilmot, delivered the Whig-Know-Nothing coalition a governor and control of the legislature. Pennsylvania’s House seats went twenty-one to four in favor of the anti-Nebraska men.

Up in New England, the news predictably came in more of the same. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts’ votes went to the Know-Nothing-Free Soil coalition. They had plenty of help from the Massachusetts Democracy, which passed what Nevins bluntly calls an asinine resolution proclaiming that Pierce and his administration “confirmed the fraternal feeling among the States.” What kind of families did they come from? Who could they possibly think they would fool? The Bay Sate went completely over to the anti-Nebraska bloc. It’s one-time possession, Maine, had been for the Democracy happily for years but now joined its parent in throwing the Nebraska men out of office.

John Hale

John Hale

 

The Northwest had no better news for Douglas. Salmon P. Chase’s Ohio gave the Democracy not a single House seat in its October elections. Indiana gave up only two in the same month. Just two years earlier, Ohio favored the Franklin Pierce 47.83% to 43.18 and Indiana 52.05% to 44.17%. Illinois soon followed, surrendering five of its nine House seats to anti-Nebraska candidates. The state legislature fell to the same deluge. Douglas’ fellow Illinois Democrat, James Shields, would soon find himself no longer a senator. Across the Mississippi, Iowa turned on the Democracy too, electing an anti-Nebraska governor who promised continual war against slavery’s expansion. Its anti-Nebraska legislature signaled that Douglas’ compatriot Augustus Caesar Dodge would soon join James Shields in the ex-senator club.

The 33rd Congress, which passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had 162 Democrats, 91 from free states and 67 from the slave states. The Democracy had never had a better showing. By the time the dust settled, the Democracy lost 4 (5.97%) slave state seats but held only 25 (27.47%) of their 91 free state seats, 66 (40.74%) down from two years earlier. Forty-four members of the Democracy’s northern wing voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A mere seven (15.90%) of them had jobs in the 34th Congress. Those who defied the party to vote against it, 48 in all, saw only 15 (31.25%) of their number kicked to the curb by angry voters.

The Democracy might have one more president to elect, and did regain control of the House when it put James Buchanan in the White House, but its days as the nation’s natural party of government had ended. From 1854 onward, the Democracy served as a southern party with a minority wing in the North almost completely at the mercy of the South’s proslavery politics. The party that once commanded majorities in both sections as a matter of course would not do anything of the sort again until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stephen Douglas had done to his own party what his successes in 1850 and subsequent increasing antislavery agitation had done to the Whigs, only with the sections switched.

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.

Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.