The Remedy of Justice and Peace: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 14

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13Full text

If the Senate wanted Civil War, Charles Sumner told them how to get it. They need only take the present territorial government of Kansas in as its legitimate government, rendering permanent the proslavery usurpation of its elections. The proslavery men on the ground, already not shy about violence, would surely step up their campaign to purge the land of dissenting whites. Antislavery men in turn would look more ardently to their defense. Money and guns would flow into the state from both sections and soon the violence would spread.

Should the Senators wish to avoid that, they had a solution on hand. William Seward proposed junking Stephen Douglas’ bill to take the present government of Kansas and make it a state. Instead, the Senate should recognize the free state movement and its Topeka Constitution. They had all the officers of a proper government ready to go the moment Congress gave the word. Sheriff Samuel Jones kept a list.

Rarely has any proposition, so simple in character, so entirely practicable, so absolutely within your power, been presented, which promised at once such beneficent results. In its adoption, the Crime against Kansas will be all happily resolved, the Usurpation which established it will be peacefully suppressed, and order will be permanently secured.

Senator William H. Seward (Republican-NY)

The country should thank William Seward for saving the Union. Sumner spent a brief paragraph praising him that must have gone over well during the rehearsal, then moved on to why Kansas deserved statehood. First, the Kansans asked for it and statehood would take Washington off the hook for Kansas’ expenses. Those included expenditures for keeping the peace, which Sumner attributed with considerable justice “on account of the pretended Territorial Government.” Second, Kansas showed the ability to defend itself during the Wakarusa War. That argued for its passing the stage of an enfeebled state in need of a direct patron. Third and last, Sumner pointed out that Kansas had “the pecuniary credit” to afford to run its own affairs.

Anticipating objections, Sumner ran down them in short order. The Constitution left admission of states entirely to the whim of Congress, placing no test upon them save for not making states by carving land out of existing states without leave. (To answer the obvious question, West Virginia’s formation had the assent of the then-recognized government of the state.) Nor did precedent of law insist on a minimum population, though folk wisdom often thinks so. Even if it did, Kansas had more people in 1856 than Delaware or Florida and so easily matched the customary bar. One might object that Kansas did not have enough people to qualify for a single member in the House, according to then-current ratios. Florida gained admission despite that. Furthermore, the ratio of representation changed regularly until unwise capping of the size of the House in the early twentieth century. With that the case, Sumner argued that a controlling precedent found in the ratio at the time of the Louisiana Purchase ought to apply.

Thomas Hart Benton

Likewise, while Kansas had a wildcat state movement Sumner could point to prior occasions where the Congress had respected such organizations and given them statehood. Most recently, California got that treatment. Previously, Michigan “now cherished with such pride as a sister state” did. Michigan, like Kansas, presented itself to Congress with all the usual officials and a constitution adopted without prior approval. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and James Buchanan all endorsed Michigan’s statehood at the time, a fact remembered on the state’s maps. In the end, only eight Senators voted against Michigan and the chamber even voted full compensation for the senators forwarded with Michigan’s application retroactive to the start of the session. To deny Kansas now would “bastardize Michigan”.

Holy Toledo in Ohio: The Committee on Territories Weights In, Part Three

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow


Galusha Grow’s Committee on the Territories reported that Kansas’ irregular state government had precedent in the recent past. All of twenty years back, the people of Arkansas got together a state convention, wrote a constitution, and sent it on to Washington. At the time, no less an authority than Andrew Jackson’s attorney general signed off. They had the right to do so and the territorial legislature could not forbid them. Nor did granting statehood under such a constitution present any objections. Grow affirmed that even without precedent, Congress had the power to admit states at will, but the precise legal circumstances that the Congress grappled with now it had faced before. If Arkansas could do it, why not Kansas?

One could argue that Arkansas had some kind of unique situation. One might say that slave states get special rights. But Grow finished with Arkansas only to move on to Michigan, where I write this post. Some years back, Michigan celebrated its sesquicentennial. The territory felt fit for statehood well before it gained admission to the Union, but had disagreements with its neighbors. Michigan’s southern boundary ought to have run from the bottom of Lake Michigan to the bottom of Lake Erie. The legislators in Washington thought they shared a latitude. They don’t quite and Ohio and Indiana got statehood in advance of Michigan. When Ohio surveyed its northern border, it surveyed at an angle to include within itself the outlet of the Maumee river. Understanding the river and its port as an economic asset, and one which had been governed as a part of Michigan for some time prior, the territory commissioned its own survey that put the land right back with the Mitten. Between the two lines, you had the Toledo Strip.

This takes us up to 1833. Because Michigan doesn’t accept the Strip belonging to Ohio, the Ohio delegation blocks the territory’s application for statehood. Except for the boundary issue, Michigan followed the conventions: asking Congress for an Enabling Act before writing a constitution and all that. The Ohioans had some support in this from Indiana and Illinois, which had also revised their borders northward.

In 1835 the people of Michigan, after repeated failures to obtain an act of Congress authorizing a state convention, called one themselves without any such authority, elected delegates, formed and adopted a constitution, and under it elected State officers, United States senators, and a representative to Congress.

The governors of Michigan and Ohio also called out their militias, formed them up on either side of the Maumee, and took a few shots at one another. The sole injury came when an Ohioan named Two Stickney (yes, really) stabbed a Michigan sheriff. The Toledo War didn’t make for much of a war, but it did cost Michigan’s governor his job.

Congress finally agreed to take Michigan on as a state, provided that it accept the Ohio border. In exchange, the territory could have the lion’s share of the Upper Peninsula. The people of Michigan refused to trade an area with clear economic potential for an empty wilderness. This takes us into 1836. By this point the national coffers have a pleasantly full look to them, to the point that the Congress plans to pass the money out to the states. Michigan, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of thousands on militia expenses. It could use the cash but lowly territories would get nothing. Thus

Their action [rejecting the territory swap] was not satisfactory to a portion or a “party” of the people, and they, without any legislative act whatsoever, called another convention, and accepted the terms proposed by Congress though the people of large sections of the State refused to take any part in this convention, regarding it as illegal and revolutionary.

The proceedings from both conventions reached Washington, where Andrew Jackson forwarded them to Congress with the argument that the second convention, though not authorized by law, represented the will of “the people themselves”. Here we have an illegal convention that represents a minority, a party interest, making decisions for a territory without any formal authority to do so. What did Congerss do? It admitted Michigan on January 27, 1837. And so my grandfather’s favorite exclamation to use in front of children was born: “Holy Toledo in Ohio!”

Arkansas had an unauthorized convention and got into the Union. Michigan had that and dueling conventions. It received statehood. Why couldn’t Kansas?


“No legal objection” The Committee on Territories Weights in, Part Two

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow’s (R-PA) Committee on Territories reported that the territorial phase of government constituted a necessary evil. The white men of a newly colonized area simply could not afford a state government, nor could the poor state of infrastructure, communications, and the hazards of the frontier support one. Without federal largess, they would live long in anarchy. Thus Congress stepped in and established a government on the nation’s dime, filling the gap until the white colonists existed in sufficient number to pay for it themselves. In exchange, Congress took a supervisory role over the territory. That necessarily impinged on the self-government of the colonists, but since they hadn’t lost any of their natural capacity for self-rule the Congress had a responsibility to end the territorial stage and admit the territory as a state as soon as the circumstances justified it. Neither of these amounted to a Constitutional requirement, and Grow came armed with exceptions, but it did make for a kind of moral obligation to admit Kansas.

Provided, of course, Kansas had written a republican constitution and had the numbers. Grow turned first to the numbers. He cited an estimate that Daniel Woodson, Secretary of Kansas, had forwarded to Franklin Pierce and which Pierce duly transmitted over to Congress. Did twenty-five thousand suffice? If not, Woodson’s number had aged a six months. If the trends from then continued, then Grow expected “forty-five or fifth thousand” white people on the ground. “Each month,” he tactfully added

from excitement and stimulus given toe migration in all parts of the Union to this Territory, adds largely to its numbers.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Ely Thayer and Jefferson Buford don’t come up by name, but everybody knew exactly who and what Grow meant.

Grow stressed that, while the Congress might have certain conventions on the point, the Constitution laid out no hard number of white people that justified statehood. It, like the rest of the admission process, hung on Congress’ sovereign discretion. This “affords no uniform precedent.” For Tennessee, the Congress accepted a bit more than 32,013 (its population in the 1790 census). Louisiana came in with than 34,311 (1810 census). Indiana passed the finish line with less than 23,890 (1810 again). Mississippi shed its territorial status with less than 42,176 (1820). Missouri had 55,988 whites (1820), Arkansas 25,671 (1830). Florida finished up the list with 27,943 and change (1840 census). Nothing like a pattern emerges here, unless it sets a bar blurred across the low-to-mid tens of thousands. By Woodson’s estimate, Kansas had somewhere around as many people on hand as Indiana, Arkansas, and Florida did when Congress admitted them. Grow slid neatly into taking his projected growth as a given and pointed out that Kansas’ population exceeded that of “many of the States and the time of their admission into the Union.”

All of this makes Kansas petition for statehood, which it claimed to already half-possess by taking it on itself to write a constitution, sound very normal. Grow held that accepted conventions did not make for binding precedent, so the fact that Congress had not given leave for any such thing didn’t matter. His committee grappled with the issue all the same. “In a majority of cases” Congress gave advance permission for constitution writing, but not every one. Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, and Iowa went on without an enabling act. The Constitution didn’t require one and its lack had produced no great evil. Congress retroactively endorsed them through the acts of admission. What it could do for five territories, it could do for a sixth.

Benjamin Franklin Butler of New York

Benjamin Franklin Butler of New York

Furthermore if one wanted a precedent, then Galusha Grow had one that neither ex-Democrats like himself nor present members of the Democracy could lightly set aside. Arkansas had a constitutional convention without the permission of Congress or their legislature. The governor wrote asking if he had a duty to put a stop to that. Andrew Jackson, through Attorney General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the New York lawyer, not the Massachusetts general), wrote back

They undoubtedly possess the ordinary privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. Among these is the right of the people peacably to assemble and to petition the government for the redress of grievances. In the exercise of this right, the inhabitants of Arkansas may peaceably meet together in primary assembly, or in convention chosen by such assemblies, for the purpose of petitioning Congress to abrogate the Territorial government, and to admit them into the Union as an independent State. The particular form which they may give to their petition cannot be material so long as they confine themselves to the mere right of petitioning, and conduct all their proceedings in a peaceable manner. And as the power of Congress over the whole subject is plenary and unlimited, they may accept any constitution framed, which in their judgment meets the sense of the people to be affected by it.

Twenty years back, Old Hickory’s administration practically looked into the future and blessed the free state movement. Even if the petition came with a constitution attached, as Kansas’ had, Butler said

I perceive no legal objection to their power to do so.

Hale vs. Pierce: Scheduling the Civil War

John Hale

John Hale

John Hale, New Hampshire’s free soil senator, castigated Franklin Pierce. That Scourge of God and vulgar demagogue, he told the Senate, impugned the good character of men of such exalted station that the President proved unworthy to tie their shoes. They had stood for a free Kansas, with fair elections. They had avowed the president’s supposed convictions and declared for the Kansans to set the territory’s course. Franklin Pierce had done all in his power to ensure every decision about Kansas’ future fell to armed mobs from Missouri.

Hale made no apology for the harsh words. He would

be restrained by no consideration from speaking what I believe to be the truth.

Lest anybody thought Hale had something nastier to say. The Senator took being called an enemy of the Constitution seriously indeed. Hale also thought the charge absurd, but an absurd charge can still offend. If Pierce wanted to pick a fight over Kansas, then Hale stood ready. He could not imagine a better cause, at least in early 1856. 

In declaring that the battle might begin then and there, on the floor of the Senate, Hale needed only look forward to the most likely of events. Nineteenth century Americans organized territories with the expectation that they would soon seek admission to the Union as states. The free state movement already had a plan to try it. The proslavery side soon would do the same. Thus:

If, by the illegal violence of the men who have gone over into Kansas, and undertaken to establish slavery there, they shall come here and ask for admission into the Union with a slave constitution, and Kansas will be rejected, the President tells us that is the most favorable aspect in which the question can be presented. That will be the issue, and, if it be decided against slavery, we are threatened with civil war.

Hale might sound overheated to us, but the admission of a new state had brought the nation into crisis twice in living memory. His formula of a slave state rejected by Congress recalls the Missouri Controversy, but we could just as easily point to California seeking admission as a free state. The two greatest sectional clashes of the antebellum era to date both began on the same road.

All this bellicosity required disclaimers. Hale didn’t want people to think him a fanatic. He didn’t welcome a civil war, though he confessed that at times he wished one would come to get it all over with. Should the war finally erupt, Hale anticipated it would have one good effect:

it would learn those men who are constantly talking about the dissolution of the Union a lesson which neither they, nor their children’s children, would ever forget.

They learned two lessons, in fact. The nation would not stand for rebellion and would put one down with great force. It would also let them have nearly everything short of slavery if they continued the war by other means for long enough.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Of course, Franklin Pierce would not make the best wartime president; he made for a nearly catastrophic peacetime president. Better, Hale thought, to wait:

If the attempt at disunion were made wish such a man as General Jackson, or General Taylor in the Presidential chair, and it were repressed promptly, as it would be, people would say “Oh, it was his great military power, his reputation, his popularity which did it.” God knows they could not say it of this President.

The gallery rang with laughter.


Hale vs. Pierce: Enemies of the Constitution

John Hale

John P. Hale

We left John P. Hale taking his own swipes at Franklin Pierce’s theory of presidential impotence. The president could do nothing, Hale, affirmed, except when doing something would serve to expand slavery. Andrew Jackson, the hero of all good Democrats and a fair number of former Democrats of Hale’s stripe, would never have stood by and proclaimed his hands tied or let proslavery radicals contravene the rights of white men. That Jackson did precisely that in letting southern postmasters censor the mail did not detract from his image as a president of vigorous, decisive action.

Hale then expressed his low estimation of Wilson Shannon’s political future. Though Shannon “went shouting over the plains as he went, that he was for slavery in Kansas” he found himself caught between North and South. Hale expected Shannon to find no one in the Senate who would come to his aid when his administration collapsed.

That brought Hale, with some parting disdain at the way Pierce reduced Kansas to a footnote in his annual message, to the president’s “long lecture upon slavery.” There,

The President of the United States in the paper which he sent here a few days ago, takes the ground that the gentlemen who do not agree with him in his peculiar notions are the enemies of the Constitution. He so puts it, for he says:

“If the friends of the Constitution are to have another struggle, its enemies could not present a more acceptable issue than that of a State, whose Constitution clearly embraces ‘a republican form of government,’ being excluded from the Union because its domestic institutions may not in all respects comport with the ideas of what is wise and expedient entertained in some other State.”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale read Pierce fairly. The President attacked the very idea of the Missouri Compromise, or any other restriction on slavery imposed from Washington. He staked out the position that slavery could have no limits. The people of a territory must accept its import from elsewhere. They could not ban it until, after enslavers had time to dominated the territorial government and thoroughly ensconce human bondage in the area, the territory became a state. When had such a situation ever led to a free state? In an earlier time, states with marginal slavery systems had emancipated after often considerable struggle and through an often decades-long process, but the club of territories left open to slavery by Congress which then abolished it had, then and now, no members. Pierce didn’t quite say slavery everywhere, slavery forever, but he came close. Then he proclaimed it the single orthodox reading of the American Constitution, from which one could not dissent.

Hale would have none of that. He called it “an insult to the majority of this nation.” Pierce had to know as much, “if he reads anything beyond the most servile sheets that his creatures send to him.” Hale might have added that Pierce could know it through the majority in New Hampshire that put John Hale into the Senate. Yet Pierce added “one half of the popular branch of Congress, and quite a number of the members of the Senate” to the nation’s enemies list.

Though insulted, Hale refused to take the hint and quiet himself. If Pierce declared him a foe of the Constitution, alias a traitor, then

I say the President can do me no sort of harm by such denunciations as this. I am perfectly willing to take it

Hale could afford to take it; he had plenty of company.

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.

Potterizing Andrew Jackson

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tubman during the Civil War

Tubman during the Civil War

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

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

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

Andrew Jackson, the Democrats, Sean Wilentz, and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Gentle Readers, for nearly the past month, I’ve read Sean WilentzRise of American Democracy. Wilentz surveys American political history from 1800 to 1860. I thought to read it as a companion volume to David Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a much broader survey of the period from 1815-1848. Either book would easily maim pets or small children, but they have little else in common. Wilentz and Howe talk almost completely opposite positions about the democratizing trend of the age, right down to attributing it primarily to different parties. Wilentz locates democracy in Andrew Jackson’s Democracy. Howe finds it in the evangelical reform associations that concentrated on the Whig side of the aisle. I concur with most present historians of the era that Howe has it more right than Wilentz, though both have significant blind spots.

I may write a comparative post about the two books at some point, but today I want to delve into an issue I came across while reading Wilentz. I have found him hard going, very unlike Howe. Some of that comes down to one’s taste in prose, but more often I find myself silently arguing with the text. Wilentz proudly declares himself a partisan for Andrew Jackson, a popular enough sentiment in decades past. He casts his work as a modern version of Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson, a similar lionizing of the man and his movement. Given Jackson’s career, this presents difficulties for a reader of modern sensibilities. Wilentz skips past some of that, summarizing the military actions that made Jackson infamous in roughly as much space as he spends on the general’s health. This leaves his critics to come across as paranoid aristocrats. He does take seriously Jackson’s involvement in Indian removal and makes few excuses for it, though he does downplay Jackson’s personal responsibility and emphasize how Jackson understood removal as a benevolent act.

Even more implausibly, he refuses to consider Jackson or his movement as proslavery. Wilentz doesn’t deny that the Democracy had a proslavery wing, just as the Whigs did. In the Lower South, though not elsewhere, Wilentz calls that wing’s politics master race democracy. But he denies that that those Democrats exerted a decisive influence, at least as late as 1850, and considers it an outlier from the Democracy rather than its central theme. He would thus reject Howe’s characterization of the movement as a whole:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

I find very little to disagree with in Howe’s interpretation, which he supports generously throughout his formidable tome. I felt the temptation to dismiss Wilentz as a shameless partisan more interested in vindicating his heroes, but one can say that about any historian. Every work of history includes an argument and to a large degree flows from it. Bad histories do exist, but bad history means more than history with which the reader disagrees. A bad history should have serious methodological or evidential issues, at least. Wilentz may have a few of those. I understand that historians of the Early Republic don’t think highly of his treatment of the Jeffersonians, with some criticisms reaching to that point. I don’t know enough about the period to feel confident saying for myself, or even that I could spot the problems without help.

I feel much more confident in disagreeing with Wilentz about what one must do to earn proslavery status. It came to me only when Wilentz laid down his criteria firmly, in a discussion of contradictions within the Jacksonian coalition:

The politics of antislavery exposed another side of Jackson’s coalition. Jackson and his party were decidedly hostile to antislavery radicals. Without endorsing Calhounite pro-slavery positions, the unapologetic slaveholder Jackson, especially in the postal controversy, tried to silence the immediatist agitators, even if it took a federal censorship law to do so. Those efforts only reinforced the radical abolitionists’ conviction that Jackson himself, as well as his party, was no better than any of the other slavocrats, and that their professions to democracy and equality were vitiated by their racism and self-interest.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Wilentz presents no facts here to quarrel with. Jackson absolutely and purposefully alienated abolitionists. This makes him at least to a small degree proslavery, given his fight against the institution’s foes, but we could say the same of David Wilmot, who bragged about fighting abolitionists:

Is there any complexion of Abolitionism in this, sir? I have stood up at home, and battled, time and again, against the Abolitionists of the North. I have assailed them publicly, upon all occasions when it was proper to do so.

Calling Wilmot and others like him both proslavery and antislavery might cover the bases, but it invites confusion and misunderstanding. As Wilentz notes, attacking abolitionists did not make one a Calhounite. Surely Jackson’s ownership of slaves implicates him further, all the more so because he did not inherit them or have trouble emancipating them due to restrictive laws, but rather eagerly sought out human property with which to enrich himself. That alone would make him fairly proslavery in my book, possibly closer to a Calhounite on the subject than not.

Wilentz doesn’t think so. Rather it seems to him that unless one makes explicit Calhoun-style positive good arguments in favor of slavery, one doesn’t qualify as proslavery. In other words, one must adopt the most radical proslavery position available to get the title. None of us would probably shed any tears at the excommunication of John C. Calhoun from the antislavery ranks, least of all the man himself. Maybe the fact that Jackson, and other Democrats thereafter, did not consistently argue for the wonders of slavery makes them less radical than Calhoun, but does that really exculpate them? We credit antislavery Americans who condemned abolitionists for their position, even if we find it unsympathetic. That allows for degrees of distinction in opposition to slavery. Might we not do the same with degrees of proslavery sentiment? Wilentz appears willing to grant that range of opinion to slavery’s foes, but not as much to its friends.

Wilentz admits that slavery and race played their part in shaping the Democracy, but only to excuse them:

To halt abolitionist agitation and quiet southern counteragitation, both Jackson and Van Buren attacked the abolitionists’ civil rights, in the mails and gag-rule controversies […] northern Democrats did take the lead in disenfranchising blacks (as in Pennsyulvania in 1837-38), even as they celebrated the growing political impact of lower-class white men.

None of this, however, made the Jacksonians a pro-slavery party-or even, as one milder critic has argued, “functionally pro-slavery”-fighting a proto-abolitionist Whig Party in order to protect a status quo that left the slaveholders the dominant class in American politics. The Jacksonians did not oppose interference with slavery where it existed, or obstruct the abolitionist efforts to arouse the South, because they wished to sustain the slaveholders as a national ruling class. They wanted, as the Whigs did, to keep slavery out of federal politics to protect constitutional order, national harmony, and party unity. Sustaining the slaveholders’ power was the goal of Calhoun and others

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

This contradicts itself so markedly that one wonders how, or if, Wilentz failed to notice it. A functionally proslavery movement would, through its actions and inaction, serve to protect, perpetuate, and possibly expand slavery. It need not intend specifically or primarily to do so in order to manage the task functionally. Preserving the status quo in Antebellum American did just that. That the Whig mainstream felt similarly tells us that proslavery Whigs existed as well, a fact Wilentz eagerly points out later in the same paragraph. There he credits John Tyler, certainly a proslavery man but a fairly dubious Whig. (The party ultimately expelled Tyler, during his presidency, and by the time he left office he had a largely Democratic administration.) Wilentz does note that Calhoun came back to the Democracy in a quest to transform it into a more explicitly proslavery vehicle, but would we expect him to have chosen the less hospitable of the two parties for that project?

People can disagree about where to draw interpretive lines. We must admit to the fuzziness of every boundary, given the complexity of the past and its population of inconstant human beings. Historians have excused inaction on slavery from exponents of the necessary evil argument. They had slavery, but couldn’t see a way out and had some misgivings. Those misgivings rarely, if ever, drove them to challenge slavery where it existed. Rather acting out their supposed sentiments fell to other people, of some future generation or distant place. If we credit their rhetorical qualms, then we should weigh them against their practical outcome: the perpetuation of slavery.

Wilentz draws his proslavery lines so precisely that they read more as tools for exculpation than understanding. Anybody can be antislavery, but it takes a real zealot to manage proslavery. You’ve got to know your Calhoun and show it off. One has to work hard for the title, even though accepting the existence of slavery represented the status quo position. Such a framework might make sense today, when few will openly advocate for slavery and most of us imbibed abolition as a national achievement, but hardly seems suited to the nineteenth century. Rather it seems Wilentz purposefully construed only the most radical proslavery position as proslavery in order to avoid applying the term to the movement that has his sympathies.

He could have done better. On other fronts, Wilentz makes worthwhile points. To Howe, class doesn’t seem like a particularly relevant metric in democratizing. Wilentz thinks otherwise and argues well for the position. Neither historian eagerly handles the ugly side of their preferred movement’s politics, but Howe does a much better job of acknowledging his. Wilentz only seems able to raise the subject in order to minimize it or make excuses, most critically on slavery and race. On less fraught issues, like patronage, he even finesses the matter through outright silence. I don’t know any way to explain this all except that Wilentz decided a priori in favor of Jacksonian Democracy, then contorted around inconvenient facts until he had something that seemed halfway plausible.

I find myself entirely in agreement with Kevin Gannon over at the Junto:

Wilentz’s entire corpus is predicated on the argument that Jacksonian Democracy, in its most Schlesingerian sense, was the motor that drove the inexorable “Rise of American Democracy.” To believe this, though, one has to soft-pedal (at best) the racialized, herrenvolk nature of that Democracy; see the Free-Soilers as the true representatives of the Jacksonian creed instead of actual Jacksonians like James Polk; and argue the moderates and conservatives within Whiggery and abolitionism sped the cause of freedom rather than delayed it.

The Nullification Crisis and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Once upon a time, South Carolina defied the national government. It declared her rights as a state and struck down a federal law, daring Andrew Jackson to come down and make something of it. The state even tried to raise an army to meet the one Jackson intended to send. Most of the Confederacy’s latter-day boosters don’t know about the affair. Now and then, however, one does find someone aware of history before April of 1861. They will trot out the story of the Nullification Crisis as proof positive that the South (even though only the dominant faction in South Carolina went all-in with nullification) had grievances with the North unrelated to slavery, usually with immediate reference to the tariff.

I don’t propose here to dissect the tariff issue in detail. Others, notably Craig Swain and Andy Hall, have done a good job of that and I don’t yet feel competent to add to it. But I have made my way through William W. Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I have not yet read the other modern treatment of the event, Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. I have, however, learned that Ellis agrees with Freehling on the central point that even back in the 1830s, South Carolina launched a fleeting rebellion to save slavery. Both treatments thus depart from prior historians who insisted that in Nullification times, South Carolina had a cause pure and divorced from slavery. My own high school history class followed the older school, to the point where in younger and more ignorant times I once used the argument from Nullification myself.

The intricacies of constitutional theory invented in the late 1820s to justify nullification, a revolutionary step in itself, could probably make for a dozen or more posts. Freehling devotes his longest and most difficult chapter to them. It makes for demanding reading even if one has a strong interest in the subject. The chief primary source, John C. Calhoun’s then-anonymous South Carolina Exposition and Protest (PDF), doesn’t help matters much as the South Carolina legislature did some heavy revising of Calhoun’s text to incorporate multiple different theories of nullification. One ends up with a document somewhat at odds with itself. I may dig into all of that in the future, but today I have a more practical approach in mind.

The argument goes that South Carolina, which the arguer often conflates with the entire South, opposed a high tariff. Sure enough, the United States passed a very high tariff in 1828. Southerners did protest. South Carolina’s congressmen voted through those rates, so one might at once dismiss them as hypocritical. But on the contrary, South Carolina’s representatives voted as they did intending to destroy the bill. They ensured that it would include duties injurious to manufacturers, with Freehling listing high rates on raw wool and molasses in particular as aimed at northern industry. This would, they hoped, separate those manufacturers from the others and turn enough votes to defeat the whole bill. South Carolina bet wrong, finding that enough northerners voted for lower rates on the targeted goods to render the bill acceptable, if imperfect, to the manufacturers that they hoped to turn.

George McDuffie (D-SC)

George McDuffie (D-SC)

The argument continues, tactical blunders aside, that Southerners understood the tariff as picking their pockets to subsidize the development of the North. It didn’t clearly do so, as Crag and Andy show, but they certainly believed that. The popular argument of the time, articulated by George McDuffie on the floor of the House, held that the tariff demanded Southerners give away the proceeds of forty bales of cotton to the taxman out of every hundred they grew.

Here we hit on the central difficulty of taking anti-tariff politics independent from slavery: the enslavers didn’t grow that cotton. Their slaves did. South Carolina’s upcountry, more so than other states, felt the pinch of the depression after the War of 1812. A combination of poor access to credit, even by early nineteenth century American standards, and overextension that came back to haunt the upcountry cotton magnates. They had a great deal of debt taken on in an era of high cotton prices which they had to repay in a time of lower prices. But their objection boils down to the fact that the tariff would cut into the profits they stole from their enslaved labor force. How could anyone understand this as a cause independent from slavery, short of simply not reading or not thinking about it at any length, I don’t know. Rather we have here a clear, specific grievance that arises from and depends upon slavery. Maybe a farmer in Illinois or Maine could have a tariff complaint untainted by human bondage, but not the cotton planters in the South’s most enslaved state. A commercial grievance did not necessarily make for a slavery grievance, but in South Carolina one had precious little commerce that didn’t either arise from or directly serve slavery.

One could argue, if rather selectively, that South Carolinians did not understand the tariff issue as deeply connected to slavery, or at least to proslavery politics. They had a straightforward financial crunch they wanted out of and saw the tariff making it worse, even if their business involved stealing lives and labor. Here too we soon find ourselves confounded by facts. In this case, however, we need to understand a bit more about the South Carolina economy in the early nineteenth century.

Most everyone probably remembers that one could only profitably grow cotton, even with slave labor you could torture into higher yields, along the coast and on the Sea Islands. There enslavers grew long-staple cotton. There, in the swampy lowcountry, South Carolina got its start. In addition to cotton, Carolina enslavers collected the fruit of slave labor on massive rice plantations. Rice required swampy land to grow, something in short supply in most of the upcountry. then Eli Whitney changed the world with his cotton gin, making short-staple cotton a profitable crop in the upcountry and across the Lower South. This turned the inland South from a land of timber stands and wilderness into the richest section of the country. The expansion of short-staple cotton naturally began in South Carolina.

The two cotton fibers, however easily confused, supplied different markets. Long-staple cotton went into luxury goods like lace. Short-staple cotton went into most everything else. Advances in processing made it look briefly like upcountry cotton might force sea island strains out of the market, but improvements in production had mitigated against that and made the years immediately before Nullification relatively comfortable and prosperous for lowcountry enslavers whether they grew rice or luxury cotton. One would not expect them to lead an antitariff crusade in such an environment. In that role, we would expect the upcountry men feeling the squeeze. Yet within South Carolina most of the leading nullifiers hailed from the lowcountry. Clearly they had more than the bottom line on their minds.

The lowcountry’s great fear came in the horrifying specter of debating slavery. The nation’s tiny antislavery movement had sent its first petitions to Congress and the lowcountry enslavers, vastly outnumbered by their human property, believed that discussion of slavery had reached the slaves who took part in Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy. If they did nothing to stop discussion, then their slaves might rise up and murder them in their beds. They had already taken steps in that direction through various vigilance measures in and around Charleston, but a series of fires and rumors of other conspiracies kept them in a state of keen paranoia. Thus they felt they must silence slavery debate forever, for their own wealth and safety and decided they could best manage that by declaring Congress had no power over their domestic institution. Through social connections and shared investment in slave property, they spread their ideas into the upcountry.

Why not just say they set out to defend slavery? In the early 1830s, endorsement of slavery qua slavery lacked the cachet it would later have. A gentleman should hope that at some indeterminate date in the future, slavery would magically end. Until then, he just had to make do with the terrible burden of a fortune beaten, raped, and stolen from the bodies of black Americans. In this way, enslaving constituted a necessary evil. Arguments for the positive good of slavery, though in development, had yet to sweep even South Carolina.

Allow me to close with some words from the nullifiers themselves on the nature of their crusade. Freehling quotes the May 12, 1830, Winyaw Intelligencer:

It is not, it ought to be understood, that the Tariff is only one of the subjects of complaint at the South. the Internal Improvement, or general bribery system, and the interference with our domestic policy-most especially the latter-are things which … will, if necessary, be met with something more than words.

Looking at the justification for internal improvements in the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause, Robert Turnbull argued

these words “general welfare” are becoming every day more and more important to the folks, who are now so peaceably raising their cotton and rice, between the Little Pedee and the Savannah. The question, it must be recollected, is not simply, whether we are to have a foreign commerce. It is not whether we are to have splendid national works, in which we have no interest, executed chiefly at our cost. … It is not whether we are to be taxed without end. … But the still more interesting question is, whether the institutions of our forefathers … are to be preserved … free from the rude hands of innovators and enthusiasts, and from the molestation or interference of any legislative power on earth but our own? Or whether, like the weak, the dependent, and the unfortunate colonists of the West-Indies, we are to drag on a miserable state of political existence, constantly vibrating between our hopes and our fears, as to what a Congress may do towards us, without any accurate knowledge of our probable fate, and without a hope of successful resistance.

Thompson Player, an upcountry man, agreed that the tariff

is only preparatory to ulterior movements, destined by fanatics and abolitionists to subvert the institutions and established policy of the Southern country, to gratify their capricious and pretended charities.

Robert Barnwell held that

there are some changes in the very forms of our domestic policy, to which they could scarcely persuade us quietly to submit. And there are no changes, however vital and subversive of our most absolute rights, which fanaticism and misguided philanthropy would not attempt.

William Preston said it more bluntly still:

the slave question will be the real issue-All others will be absorbed into it. The hypocrisy of the north & the fears of the South will combine to bring us to the same result, and will Louisiana cling to her sugar and give up her negroes?

All quotes from Freehling.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I could go on. I may still in the future. But I can think of no better spokesman for the nullifiers than their leading ideologist, a fixture of Carolina politics and figure on the national stage for decades, none other than John C. Calhoun. In September of 1830, Calhoun wrote to Virgil Maxcy:

I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the pecular domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in the opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all the other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the state is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.