“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.

How Often Did Enslavers Abuse Their Slaves?

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, some time ago I shared with you the story of an enslaved girl being brutally whipped. I did not then have the research habits I have now. In the course of answering a question about the prevalence of violence against enslaved people for Reddit’s AskHistorians, I revisited the story and gathered together some other sources I have since come upon on the subject. I have reworked portions of that post into this. None of it makes for a pleasant read. If you feel that you should take a pass on today’s post, please do so. Also please know that this post includes a vile racial slur.

One must naturally ask, if one accepts that enslavers abused their slaves, if every last one of them did it. We have a natural inclination to look for exceptions and we know from our own lives that people who do the same thing rarely ever do it to a uniform degree or in just the same way. Especially in our bureaucratized, computerized age it makes sense to ask for a normal level of brutality too, even if the victims of violence don’t have the luxury of comparing and taking their relative suffering with a philosopher’s detachment. The pain we feel, we must feel most keenly.

Enslavers, overseers, and others charged with controlling enslaved labor are people and do vary, but they and the law take violent “correction” as generally a matter of course. An enslaver who doesn’t lay it on regularly risks being thought a dangerously light touch and possibly a secret abolitionist in the minds of his neighbors. If one didn’t have the stomach for whipping oneself and didn’t have a regular person to do it, one could get the local sheriff to serve for a one-time fee. Robert E. Lee did.

Frederick Law Olmsted traveled the South and what he reports is largely consistent with the attitudes I see Southerners express amongst themselves:

The whip was evidently in constant use, however. There were no rules on the subject, that I learned; the overseers and drivers punished the negroes whenever they deemed it necessary, and in such manner, and with such severity, as they thought fit. “If you don’t work faster,” or “If you don’t work better,” or “If you don’t recollect what I tell you, I will have you flogged,” are threats which I have often heard. I said to one of the overseers, “It must be very disagreeable to have to punish them as much as you do?” “Yes, it would be to those who are not used to it-but it’s my business, and I think nothing of it. Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a nigger more than I would a dog.” I asked if he had ever killed a negro? “Not quite,” he said, but overseers were often obliged to.

Olmsted’s informant gave resistance to being whipped as just cause for a murder, which is something that Northrup risks in the movie. Enslavers often quantify by the number of lashes and we find occasional reference to standard punishments so incremented, but should not mistake these for modern business regulations. Enslavers, for practical purposes, answer only to themselves. Getting between the “domestic” relationship of a man and his human property smacked of abolitionism, to the point that even people running Bible study classes for slaves with the permission and supervision of their enslavers have trouble keeping on.

Independent of Olmsted, Jourdon Anderson’s famous letter to his ex-enslaver references a similar incident:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One doesn’t see much outright killing, though the law rarely punished any that did happen. More often comes horrific violence, which might lead to death. The worst Olmsted, an outsider present with the knowledge of the enslavers, saw happened to an eighteen year-old named Sall. They came on her while crossing a gully, where she had hidden out. She gave an excuse for being abroad without leave, but the overseer (Olmsted’s tour guide) didn’t buy it. (She said she was accidentally locked in, then got out on her own by breaking a plank loose. Then she got up and he spotted a ring of keys.) The girl’s father, all of a few minutes away, could have settled things one way or another. The overseer didn’t feel inclined to bother.

I’m sorry; things become much worse now:

“That won’t do,” said he [the overseer], “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulking horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” or “Ah, sir!” or “Please, sir!” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes-lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away form him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir! please, sir! oh, that’s enough, master! oh, Lord! oh, master, master! oh, God, master, do stop! oh, God, master! oh, God, master!”

Gentle Readers, I don’t know how many of you have or expect to have children or otherwise count teenagers among your loved ones, but Sall had those people too. She meant the world to them and they couldn’t prevent this, who might even have to watch it happen on other occasions.

A younger child too plays a part in this episode; a fifteen year old boy accompanied Olmsted and the overseer. He watched it all, bored. None of this was new for anybody but the Yankee. Olmsted

glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy for my emotion.

Olmsted couldn’t take it and rode off, the screams chasing him. The boy caught up to him, but not from pain or fear. The overseer came right behind, apparently finished. He can’t have missed much, if anything. “He [the overseer] laughed as he joined us.” Then he sounded off on how Sall cheated him out of day’s work. Olmsted asked if they had to do such things and the overseer made the standard argument:

Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would have done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.

The overseer struck to the heart of it: slaves don’t like slavery. Everybody in the South knew it, for all the occasional protests to the contrary. On the scale of an individual plantation, the enslaved outnumber the whites. It takes pain and terror to keep them at work. A slave may get off easy now and then, but even treasured personal valets can end up in the fields to make sure they don’t get ideas. The occasional less horrific enslaver doesn’t change the overall system.

It makes cold economic sense. The incentives free labor operates under don’t work well in a slave system. To get more out of a person, and thus more profit, they needed whips, chains, and other tortures. Temporarily or permanently impairing the ability of one to deliver that labor may well terrorize the others enough to make up the difference and then some.

This neglects, of course, that no one yet born has ever lived the live of the perfectly rational utility maximizer that stars in so many economic calculations. Fear plays its part: slaves not terrorized into submission may rise up and murder their tormentors. We must also consider rage: how dare the slaves challenge their masters? We can never forget the white supremacy that made it all work: those people, those subhumans, dared think they had the right to gainsay a white man. Finally, we must add pleasure to our calculations. Not every enslaver went to bed each night to happy visions of whips cracking and flying blood, but people in positions of power with great discretion and little accountability have a long history of giving themselves license to do things they would otherwise find unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson

Take it from an enslaver:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The author, no prodigy, exercised his boisterous passions upon Sally Hemings. He learned those things. They are part of his manners. That fifteen year-old kid decades later learned them just as well.

We have hitherto referred to impressionistic accounts, as historical research must. We have recorded moments, not sociological surveys. In the nineteenth century, a far less bureaucratized time, people did things more casually and made fewer managerial notes. A partial exception comes from the Barrow plantation in Louisiana. Barrow might have exceeded the norms of his time, but we can’t say for sure. My source, Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, wrote in the mid-Seventies and laments that no one has done a thorough study of plantation records that have survived to find out. I don’t know if one has been done since, despite checking a few recent surveys I have. Working from the Barrow sample, he comes up with

A slave -“on average”- was whipped every 4.56 days. Three slaves were whipped every two weeks. Among them, sixty (37.5 percent) were females. A male was whipped once a week, and a female once every twelve days.

During the two year period (1940-1) for which numbers exist, Barrow whipped all but 19 of his 129 slaves. We don’t know their age distribution, but it typical then 89 or so had reached the age of ten or more. Barrow whipped 119 individual slaves.

If Barrow did not whip children under the age of five, and if children under the age of ten were fairly evenly distributed, that means that every child aged five to nine probably was whipped one or more times in 1840-1841.

Barrow’s surviving diary extends somewhat beyond the 1840-1 time frame and may not be complete. He could have done worse than we know.

More than once, for example, Barrow penned suggestive diary notations such as “had a general Whiping frolick,” “whiped about half to day,” “general Whipping yesterday,” “intend Whipping them straight, “whiped all my grown cotten pickers today.”

Whipping frolics happened at least six times.

In his fine dissertation on the slave family, Bobby Jones concluded that Barrow resorted to “practically every known form of chastisement slaveholders used.” Jones pointed out: “During his career, Barrow resorted to chains; extra work; whipping; humiliation, such as making a man wear women’s clothing and parade around the quarters; imprisonment; stocks; ‘raked several negro heads to day’; ‘staking out’; ‘hand-sawing’; and dousing or ducking in water which occurred in October and November.”

Jones thinks that hand-sawing involved beating people with the saw, teeth first.


We can’t know for sure if we should take Barrow as exceptional or typical, but between the numbers his records provide and the constant reference to violence in period sources, we can’t fairly say that brutality happened rarely. Violence against enslaved people looks, both from the tremendous array of sources from enslaved people themselves, their enslavers giving advice to one another, and white third parties, like the overwhelming norm. All the stories of whipping, cutting, chaining, beating, rape, and torture didn’t just come from nowhere. People, almost all white, did them all to other people, all black. They made a system of this, a great, all-encompassing world that turned blood, pain, and screams into the money that made the wealth of a nation and fed the mills off another. Other people, most other whites, took no great interest in that until the same system appeared poised to enslave them too. Most of us, myself included, have taken little notice since of the many ways it continues. We too have learned our manners.

New England and the Slave Trade to 1808

Something different today, Gentle Readers. I undertook a light research project the past few weeks, at the suggestion of one of the mods over at Reddit’s AskHistorians. African slaves did not arrive in the New World on their own. It took Africans capturing and enslaving them, moving them to ports, and then Europeans buying and transporting them across the ocean. The lion’s share of that traffic in the later decades of the Atlantic trade took place on British-flagged vessels until 1808, and thence forward under Portuguese registry. Every seafaring power got a finger in the pie at some point, the United States included. Most of the American vessels that plied the trade did not, as one might imagine, come from South Carolina. Instead, slavers hailed primarily from New England. Yankee shipwrights built their vessels, owned them, crewed them, invested in them, and profited from their voyages. Did that investment have any influence on the eventual debates over banning slave importation on January 1, 1808? I set off to find out. I also used a more conversational, casual tone than I usually do here.


The Short Version

It’s complicated and the context matters. The short version is “probably a little, but some and some decisive stuff back earlier.” Ok then, everyone’s satisfied so we can all go home, consume the beverages of our choice, and call it good. Or we could go deeper.

The Long Version

Right then, let’s roll the clock back to Philadelphia, 1787. It’s summer, that time of year when rich white guys sit down to fix the Articles of Confederation, good and hard. The Committee on Detail gets to work based on general things settled by the convention. Its members are John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), James Wilson (PA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), and Oliver Ellsworth (CT). That’s two New Englanders, two Southerners, and a dude from Pennsylvania. The rest of the convention takes a break while they go to work, but not before Charles Pinckney (SC) tells everybody that

“that if the Committee should fail to insert some security to the Southern States ag[ain]st an emancipation of slaves, and taxes on exports, he sh[oul]d be bound by duty to his State to vote ag[ain]st their Report.”

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (p. 89). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

As if they could have forgotten.

The Committee on Detail’s report bans taxes on exports and slave imports, and by the way there’ll be no banning of those slave imports either. A few clauses down is a requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass any acts which would regulate trade, “navigation acts” in the parlance of the time. That first appears in Rutledge’s hand. Together this tilts wildly Southern: The South’s exports can’t be taxed. Its slave imports can’t be taxed. What can the South do that would get taxed? It’s either excise taxes, which had gone not so well previously, or a tax on imports that be a drain on shipping. Who did the shipping? New England, New York, and Philadelphia, mostly.

This was enough to get some pretty serious debate going. The arguments against involved much of the obvious: the Constitution they were drafting was proslavery. The 3/5 compromise would promote slave imports, since the South could literally buy votes in the House and Electoral College. If slavery weakened the South by requiring more military spending to keep it together, as the section sometimes argued, then the whole union would be on the hook. And really, we fought a revolution for freedom and now we’re going to protect slavery?

Rutledge, who chaired the Committee on Detail, gets up and argues otherwise: Hey, we’re not saying import slaves. We’re saying importing slaves shouldn’t be forbidden. Two, the South doesn’t need your dirty Yankee help protecting itself. The fact that we’re all paranoid about slave revolts and sore at how the British made off with so many of our slaves? Doesn’t count. But ultimately:

Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the South[er]n States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (pp. 94-95). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Rutledge said what everybody knew. There was a kind of alliance between New England and the Lower South operating. Ellsworth helped prove it by calling the antislavery element out for hypocrisy. If slavery was wrong, why were they just banning the import of slaves? This from a guy from Connecticut.

The convention soon found they were at a serious impasse, so they got together another committee to work out a compromise: Yes to a tax on slave imports but it couldn’t go higher than the average of existing duties. No ban on slave imports permitted until 1800. Cool? Not cool. South Carolina moved to kick the date back to 1808. The change passed with the votes of New England, the Lower South, and Maryland.

Since New England was being so nice about the slave trade, the Carolinians flipped on the navigation act clause, which was then deleted. We end up with this, the slave trade clause:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

New England gets commerce-regulating power that it wants and the Lower South does not. The Lower South and New England team up to save the slave trade they’re both interested in.

As everything subsequent in this post flows in one way or another from those words, let’s unpack them a little. You have the usual constitutional circumlocution around slavery. The framers were sensitive to the notion that the Constitution would not explicitly sanction what they called “property in man”. This fooled no one, but the distinction would eventually become very important in antislavery constitutionalism largely thanks to the efforts of Salmon P. Chase and James G. Birney, but getting well outside the scope of the question. (Fair game for follow-ups or subsequent questions, of course.)

The key parts:

  1. Congress will have the power, come 1808, to impose a total ban on the importation of slaves to the United States.
  2. Congress does not have that power until 1808, though it may impose a tax of up to ten dollars a head on such imports. Congress could literally make that the first act of the first Congress, pass it on the first day, and have it be the first thing to cross George Washington’s desk.
  3. The clause applies to states, not to the United States in general. Congress can do whatever it likes with regard to territories. It can even ban taking slaves already in the US into territories. It will do so, banning the import of slaves to the Northwest, Mississippi, and Orleans Territories. Only the first of these bans is well known, and then as an absolute prohibition. That’s how it was written, but the choice of the first governor and indifference in Washington ensured it was never more than a questionably-secure ban on imports. The bans on imports to Mississippi territory (modern MS and Alabama, mostly) and Orleans (Louisiana, naturally) were more explicitly that, but only in effect briefly and are allowed to lapse. These precedents are relevant to later antebellum stuff, but again that takes us well past the bounds of the question.
  4. The clause allows Congress to exercise its power to ban the importation of slaves to the United States in general on, or at any point after, January 1, 1808. It’s not required to do so on that date or any other.
  5. None of this requires states to import slaves. All of them had enacted bans on it during the Revolution as part of the non-importation movement. But those bans were state law and could be reversed. They would be by Georgia (1787-98), North Carolina (1790-4), and of course South Carolina (1805-7).


Incidentally, all of these constitutional provisions are unamendable. They’re entrenched in the Constitution to exactly the same degree as the two senators per state rule.

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

That’s the lay of then land when the first Congress gets together. It took them literally thirteen days into the Washington presidency to get into a fight over slavery. Josiah Parker, of Virginia, got up in the House and suggested: hey, we have the authority in plain English to impose a ten dollar tax on slave imports right now. Why don’t we tax the crap out of them? In the ensuing debate representatives from Georgia and South Carolina made arguments that sounded downright 1850s, up to and including early attempts at a positive good defense of slavery. James Jackson (no relation that I’m aware of to Andrew or Thomas) of Georgia condemned it as “the most odious tax Congress could impose.”

That’s very far from New England, though. Roger Sherman, of Connecticut Compromise fame (and, you know, Connecticut) opposed Parker’s proposal on the grounds that it was an amendment to a general tariff bill. It really ought to come as its own bill, even though a tariff is exactly what Parker was proposing. The objection might sound a little suspicious, and maybe it was, but it was held so generally in the House that Parker agreed to withdraw his amendment and resubmit it as a freestanding bill.

Parker’s tax came back up and the House voted to postpone it to the next session, at which point it would get mixed up in a firestorm over antislavery petitions from some Quakers and Ben Franklin who also wanted the Congress to do something about the slave trade. Franklin’s petition asked that they “step to the very verge” of their power and…and maybe think about freeing any slaves illegally imported? The prospect of the United States government turning into an agent for active emancipation must have been wildly popular in the South, right? You’d expect the kind of slightly manic cheer that fills media aimed at very young children or certain hygiene products. History’s full of heartbreaking stuff, though. The Lower South went ballistic.

It didn’t get them much. A House committee took in the petitions and reported out a summary of Congress’ powers with regard to slavery. That report laid out much of what I summarized above, particularly that no ban would come before 1808. It also established accepted constitutional wisdom, even by Republicans, all the way to 1860:

  1. The Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in any way within the bounds of a state, either to emancipate the slaves or to regulate their treatment. However…
  2. Congress had the power to prohibit US citizens from carrying slaves to foreign ports and
  3. Could prohibit foreigners from setting up slavers for voyages in US ports, plus
  4. Congress could set standards for the treatment of slaves on ships bound for the US.

This report didn’t become law of any kind; the Senate never signed off on it. But the House as a whole endorsed it, over Southern objections, and antislavery societies took it as a how-to for their future slavery fighting.

Let’s look at items #2 and #3. This is a part of the slave trade that is almost invisible in the story of American antislavery, but it’s an important one. Remember above that the Constitutional restrictions apply to importation of slaves to the United States. They do not apply in any way to operations in the carrier trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba (mostly), the West Indies (number two), or ports in South America (fairly rare, but it happened).

That’s actually where most American slavers did their business. They were primarily New Englanders. We can narrow that down still further. The majority of American slave ships (~70%) were owned and built in Rhode Island. There were operations elsewhere in New England and in New York that registered on the contemporary radar, but the Rhode Islanders were conspicuously all over this. The trade was a major factor in their state’s economy in a way that it no longer was elsewhere, if it had ever been. (I honestly don’t know. Colonial-era slaving is well outside my expertise.) About two-thirds of their voyages brought slaves from Africa, mostly in exchange for rum distilled right back home in the smallest state, and took them to the Caribbean. The other third supplied the American South, but most slave imports to the United States arrived on foreign ships.

So here we have an explicit declaration of congressional power over a trade which isn’t actually that important to the South, since they get their slaves from foreigners, and which limiting would only really hurt Rhode Island. Thus, there’s some real action…eventually. Congress took until 1794, but then they passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794. George Washington put his John Hancock on it on March 22.

What’s the law do? American citizens, and anybody setting out from a US port, are prohibited

for himself or any other person whatsoever, either as master, factor or owner, build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare any ship or vessel […] for the purpose of carrying on any trade or traffic in slaves, to any foreign country; or for the purpose of procuring, from any foreign kingdom, place or country, the inhabitants of such kingdom, place or country, to be transported to any foreign country, port, or place whatever, to be sold of or disposed of, as slaves

Do that particular dirty deed and your ship and all its accessories could be libeled, condemned, and forfeited to the United States in whatever district or circuit court happened to have jurisdiction. Furthermore, if you were involved with this sort of business, or aiding and abetting, you would take a $2,000 fine to be split between the United States and whoever prosecuted you. If you were a owner or master of a ship and even looked dodgy, and someone reported you to the customs officials, you could be required to swear an oath and give a bond that you would not embark any African or other natives to take elsewhere and sell as slaves for the following nine months. Congress wasn’t quite done yet. It also assessed a $200 per-head fine on any slaves you tried to traffic in, again split halfsies between the US and the prosecution.

You might anticipate a big controversy here and a law that just squeaked by, but it doesn’t seem so. I went looking for debates and the roll-call vote on the measure, but couldn’t find them. Don Fehrenbacher tells me that the law got “ready acceptance […] in both houses”. I’m inclined to believe him, but his footnote led me to a dead end. This is all in the Annals of Congress, which were compiled retrospectively from newspaper accounts decades later rather than recorded live, as it were. So it’s possible a debate happened and no one took much notice, but I’ve spent a couple of hours looking and I can’t even give you the vote totals. Beats me. (If anybody has found records of this stuff, please let me know; I’m desperately curious.) The law was, Fehrenbacher says, the result of some very carefully written antislavery petitions. In particular, they took great pains to avoid any request for abolition.

So the 1794 act becomes law. It’s not the most draconian thing, but the fines are quite high. It lacks for a good enforcement regime, though. Basically you’re looking at private prosecutions, which half the fine would buy the government. Those would mostly have to happen in the very places where the trade was most popular and its wealthy practitioners most influential. Long odds, right? Maybe, maybe not. It was enough to get Cyprian Sterry, one of Providence’s slaving bigwigs, to quit the business when the local antislavery groups promised to come after him.

And then there’s John Brown. No, not that John Brown with the wild beard and the badass mural in Kansas. (But seriously, look at that mural!) John Brown of the Brown University Browns. John Brown is having none of this crap about fines. The Congress can take its slave trade act and shove it. He’d been doing the same thing with Rhode Island’s state law against slave trading voyages since 1787. He sent a ship, the Hope, off a-slaving. Hope called at the Guinea coast, bought some people, and took them off to Cuba where the sale of the 229 survivors turned a handy profit.

Brown had clearly fitted out and set off a slaving voyage. His brother Moses, a Quaker convert, and the local Abolition Society came after him in a private prosecution. They made it their business to do this, but usually things got to the point where someone would sign an agreement to renounce the trade (as Sterry did) and they would drop the prosecution. Negotiations to that end did not budge Brown at all. Moses threatened him with more than the loss of an older ship if he kept at things, but Brown sucked up the loss of the Hope. Eventually it became clear that Brown was trying to push things to trial. If someone got nailed for illegally importing slaves they would have to face a jury, and a Rhode Island jury would probably not convict. Once that became an established fact, the law would be a dead letter.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Which it was, for the most part. The Washington administration did not bend over backwards to see the law enforced. Rhode Island’s commerce dipped for a year after passage, but then came right back. Between 1794 and 1804, Rhode Island saw twenty-two prosecutions but we know of at least two hundred voyages to Africa in the same time. It seems that the volume of the trade significantly increased after it became illegal. Good lawyering, friendly juries, and occasional intimidation kept it safe until Jefferson appointed one of the big name slavers to the customs post at Bristol in 1804. Shockingly, African clearances from there shot way up. Prosecutions did not.

I told you most of that to set this up. Come 1800, things are looking a little better for the 1794 law. The Adams administration is encouraging prosecutions and has a few ongoing. Congress decides to revisit things and improve on the old law with a supplementary bill. This one is going to jack the fines (double the value of vessels forfeited and price of the slaves), outlaw investment in slaving ventures (at the pain of losing twice your stake in them), and if you’re actually on the ship you could get two years’ jail. This applies to Americans doing their own trading destined for foreign ports, as well as Americans on board or investing in foreign vessels. If the Navy, or equivalent, does the capturing then its officers and crew are entitled to prize money. And if a private prosecution brings any of this about, the fines go halfsies to the US and the accuser again.

By this point, John Brown is 50% of Rhode Island’s House delegation. He has some things he needs to say. Quoting from the Annals of Congress here:

it [was] improper to prevent the citizens of the United States enjoying the benefits of a trade enjoyed by all the European nations. […] Many members of the House, he observed, knew how the former act was passed; they knew that Congress was drilled into it by certain persons who would not take *no* for an answer. It was well known that the Abolition Society, otherwise the Society of Friends, as they were called, were very troublesome until they got that act passed.

Cheeky of him to name the outfit his brother was a member of, and which had prosecuted him, by name. Brown went on to say that no American law forbade exporting Africans from Africa. So why not just let Americans take Africans where they pleased? Better to enjoy the proceeds than leave money laying on the table. They were slaves either way, ok? Cutting Americans out of such a lucrative business was just bad policy and, anyway:

it was wrong, when considered in a moral point of view, since, by the operation of the trade the very people themselves much bettered their condition.

He said it. Having crossed that Rubicon, which pitched him all the way down with the Lower South, Brown noted that Congress could fill up the Treasury with slave-produced revenues. Far better to do that then debt finance things, right? And it’s not like US law would prevent “one more slave” from being taken. It would just be some foreigner that did the taking. With distilleries idle, why not have the rum go off to buy people? Brown

had been well informed that on those coasts New England rum was much preferred to the best Jamaica spirits, and would fetch a better price.

This is, as I mentioned before, literally how Rhode Island bought slaves. Brown had been well informed by his own ledgers. I don’t know about Brown personally, but some of the traders owned their own distilleries.

I don’t know that any other New Englander spoke in opposition to the 1800 law. It passed on on May 10, 1800, clearing the house with all of five votes against. Who are those guys? Brown, of course, George Dent (MD), Joseph Dickson (NC), John Rutledge Jr. (SC), and Benjamin Huger (SC). It’s by no means a prefect indicator, but the fact that Brown alone votes against the bill paints him as a pretty marginal figure. The commerce is mostly a Rhode Island affair and the other Rhode Islander in the House didn’t vote against it. But one does have to consider that all previous acts turned out to be paper tigers. Even forfeited ships often got bought back by their previous owners for pittances. The 1800 revisions had as much effect as the 1794 original: a brief downturn followed by resumption and increase of voyages. Between the international situation and American non-enforcement, the US share of slave exports from Africa goes from an estimated 2% (1780s) to 9% in the following decade and then 16% for the first Jefferson administration.

Stephen Row Bradley

Stephen Row Bradley

Skipping a few minor episodes (making imports of slaves to a state that has closed the trade a federal offense that inspires SC, along with the money to be made importing slaves for further transit to Louisiana, to reopen the trade and a revival of the ten dollar tax that goes nowhere in retaliation against SC) we get to 1808…almost. We have to come up for a moment in December of 1805, when a New Englander gets conspicuous again. Stephen Row Bradley, of Vermont, gets up in the Senate and suggests they get cracking on a bill to prohibit slave imports, effective the first of 1808. The time might have seemed ripe, with states calling for a constitutional amendment to permit banning slave imports then and there not that long before, but Bradley’s proposal was taken as too soon all the same. There’s an undercurrent of doubt in all of this as to whether it’s proper for Congress to even consider an import ban before 1808, let alone years in advance.

December, 1806. Jefferson’s annual message (the equivalent to our State of the Union) recommends that Congress get an import ban together, effective January 1, 1808. Jefferson defended getting it done in advance on the grounds that it would mitigate against catching any vessels en route who may have started out legal but become illegal in passage. Bradley introduces his bill on December 3. There’s a broad consensus that now’s the time to do something and a ban should happen at the first available moment. Southerners even carp at the suggestion that they want anything else. The fights start over the details, with there being three big ones:

  1. What to do with people imported illegally? Should they be freed? If so, what does the nation do with them? Take them home? Settle them somewhere? Or do they remain slaves to be sold at auction? And if so, by whom? Was the federal government to become a slave trading operation? (Decided by the local jurisdiction, which meant kept as slaves and sold by state governments in the South.)
  2. What kind of penalty should violators face? (Original version: fines and forfeiture. Seen by most of the North as too little. Amended: death. Split the North, with many feeling it was too much. Final version: jail time.)
  3. Should Congress regulate the domestic maritime trade in slaves? Later on, this is often called the coastwise trade. Most of it runs from the Chesapeake to South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually Mobile and New Orleans. (Yes, but not much.)
John Randolph

John Randolph

These debates are not heavily studied, at least as of Matthew Mason’s Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States 1806-1807 (2000). Even contemporaries paid far more attention to other issues, despite often fiery rhetoric. The distinction is very much sectional, though Mason notes that the South prevailed as usual with the help of some northern cooperation. He doesn’t call out any New Englanders as conspicuous. This nuts and bolts wrangling took place in the House. The Senate recorded no debates or votes -thanks a lot, jerks-. Peter Early (Georgia) and John Randolph (Virginia) were conspicuous on the southern side, but if there was a particular locus of resistance in the New England delegations Mason doesn’t note it and I think he would have.

On the key vote as to what would happen with those people imported illegally, the House came to a 60-60 tie broken by the Speaker (Nathaniel Macon, NC). It got to that point with thirteen northerners voting against their section, eleven of them from mid-Atlantic states. They were Joseph Clay (PA), Henry Livingston (NY), Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), John Russel (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Uri Tracy (NY), Phillip Van Cortlandt (NY), Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY), Daniel C. Verplanck (NY), Eliphalet Wickes (NY)

What about those other two? I had to do a little hunting here, since it’s one of those things where you have to figure out which side is which and which is the relevant vote. It’s here. My method: I recognize the names of several southerners on sight, particularly the hard-liners, and know the section voted pretty solidly one way. So we want the nays. To be doubly-sure, and do the further sifting, I compared the nays with the roster here (PDF). I came out with, in addition to the previous list, Samuel Tenney (NH) and Peleg Wadsworth (MA).

Both are New Englanders, though neither is a Rhode Island man. I don’t know if Tenney and Wadsworth had any personal or constituency connections to the slave trade or not. This isn’t quite an up or down vote against slavery, though it’s close, so there may have been tactical considerations involved too. The strong New York connection to southern interests, political and economic, must be a factor for the others. New York’s remaining slave population might have served as another, but I’ve got my doubts considering they can’t have expected a whole lot of slavers to aim for their ports and so end up depositing human cargo locally where it would matter on a personal level that much. What slave ship is going to take a hold even partially full of people to a state that passed gradual emancipation in 1799 when there are so many more hospitable and profitable ports?

Which brings us to regulation of the coastwise trade, with the question being whether to limit the trade to vessels displacing forty tons or more. Twelve Upper South men voted for it, only ten northerners opposed. This was a significant limitation, as while an Atlantic-going slaver would run around 158 tons, the coastwise trade involved mostly vessels smaller than that.

So let’s fine those dissenting Yankees again. The vote is here. We want the Nays. There are seven repeat offenders from the last vote here: Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Samuel Tenney (NH), Uri Tracy (NY), and Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY). That leaves us three to find. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), Samuel Dana (CT). One wonders just what Martin Chittenden and Stephen Bradley said to each other when they got home.

So there’s four New Englanders in the mix, counting Tenney with the three new arrivals. That’s not a lot (35 New England reps total, 20 of them Federalists) but it is something. The New England of the very early 1800s is not the New England of the 1840s and 1850s. It’s a place where antislavery is popular, but it’s not the region-defining thing it would be in future years. That begins to emerge when it becomes clear that the Federalists are done as a national party and they don’t need to be appealing to enslavers anymore as their partners in Virginia and South Carolina in particular are no longer interested. I don’t know what’s going on with the Chittenden in Vermont at all, and Rhode Island is conspicuous in its absence (both RI reps are Republicans at the time, so maybe party whip and certainly the impotence of previous laws would be a factor), but they must have had their reasons. The state didn’t lose interest in slave trading for a while yet hereafter.

I fired up my Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see if there was a partisan angle. All four are federalists. Party lines aren’t as hard as they would become, but they could be looking to keep alive a national Federalism by resisting Jefferson’s program in hopes of wooing back southern coalition partners. But it’s only an inclination, against the general trend of their party’s vote, and it’s not too long after this that the party try to position themselves as a New England sectional party with an antislavery bent. On the balance, and absent any meaningful biographical data about them, I don’t think partisanship is the main factor. I can’t say for sure that there are personal or constituency interests driving them, but it seems likely.

I haven’t gone looking in the debate myself to see if any of the against-the-grain guys spoke up in an interesting way, but between my sources I think if they said anything useful and it survived, I’d have seen it quoted. It’s rare for them to even be mentioned by name. Mason notes that for all the fireworks in Congress, the slave trade prohibition doesn’t seem to have drawn many eyeballs. With the exception of Bradley, few of the antislavery party even seem to have felt it was the main event of the Ninth Congress. (Though it was the big event of their generation of antislavery activism.) The papers took little interest, and the Annals were collected largely from newspaper reports, so things probably have slipped away.

The bill passes on March 2, 1807, which brings us to our last vote. Only five men vote to keep the trade open. It is actually open at this point, because SC still has it going. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), James M. Garnett (VA), Abram Trigg (VA), and David R. Williams (SC). No Rhode Islanders but two New Englanders willing to take it to the bitter end and go on record, both Federalists. Chittenden remains the real mystery to me. New Hampshire at least has a coastline. He was born in northwestern Connecticut, but left there when he was thirteen. That’s old enough to have opinions, maybe. He was educated at Dartmouth and may have picked up his position there, but that would be a question for his biographer.


It’s very likely that I’m forgetting some.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher on the mechanics of the slave trade and law in particular, but also John Brown.

James, Sydney V. Of Slaves and Rum. Reviews in American History 10.2 (1982): 168-72. Web. A book review that gives some details from The Notorious Triangle, about Rhode Island and the slave trade which I desperately want to read, but is well outside my research budget.

Mason, Matthew E. Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807. Journal of the Early Republic 20.1 (2000): 59-81. Web for fine-grain details of the votes and debates.

Slavery & Politics in the Early American Republic by Mason was helpful or situating the New England Federalists.

Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification by David Waldstreicher for the Constitutional Convention and Yankee-Carolina alliance.

And a finding aid for the John Brown Papers (PDF) at the Rhode Island Historical Society for more information about Brown and how the Abolition Society operated.

The State of the Union in 1855: A History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce declaring that everything in the United States had gone perfectly well until those dirty abolitionists stirred up sectional discord by breaking faith with the constitutional compact. They had responsibilities to return slaves who dared steal themselves. They organized to disrupt slavery in the South. They replaced sectional comity with meddling impositions. Had such a thing happened between two nations, they would have already come to blows. By contrast, the South behaved in an exemplary fashion, its traditional constitutional scruples intact.

In putting the entire burden of sectional strife on the North, Pierce knew he went against many of his fellow Yankees. They could point to sectional aggression from the slave states going back down the entire history of the Republic. Having chosen antislavery Americans as his debating partners, Pierce took them on all down the line:

the States which either promote or tolerate attacks on the rights of persons and of property in other States, to disguise their own injustice, pretend or imagine, and constantly aver, that they, whose constitutional rights are thus systematically assailed, are themselves the aggressors. At the present time this imputed aggression, resting, as it does, only in the vague declamatory charges of political agitators, resolves itself into misapprehension, or misinterpretation, of the principles and facts of the political organization of the new Territories of the United States.

The president wouldn’t quite say that antislavery Americans lied their way through politics, any more than he would call out William Walker by name, but he made his meaning clear. To prove the point, he turned to “the voice of history.” All the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, Pierce averred, the South had yielded to the North. Virginia gave up “that vast territory,” now five of the larger states, to freedom. That a large territory south of the Ohio river remained enslaved did not enter into it. Nor did the conflicting claims of various other Connecticut and Massachusetts, decidedly not southern states, deserve consideration. This would have come as a surprise to the people of Connecticut, who maintained their ownership of a section of modern Ohio until 1800. Neither of the two northern states claimed the whole of the future Northwest Territory, but together their claims covered a large portion of it. If Virginia yielded up her territory, then they did no less.

Pierce then moved to Louisiana, insisting that the entire nation gained from it. The abolitionists needed only look at a map to see that the Louisiana Purchase narrowed down to almost nothing on its southern end, but widened dramatically as one steamed up the Mississippi. Furthermore, securing New Orleans ensured the commercial health of the Northwest. Thomas Jefferson bought the land for that express purpose. Pierce has a point here, but even he acknowledges that in terms of development, the Purchase skewed heavily southern.

No map could save the acquisition of Florida; you can’t get much more southern than the Sunshine State. Pierce justified it as a land swap. The United States surrendered claims to territory west of the Mississippi in exchange for it. In doing so, the Union secured its coastal commerce and security. Both sections won, even if Florida clearly would do no other than join the South.

This brought events up to the Missouri Controversy, which Pierce cast as more antislavery imperialism. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery, but it did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase. According to Pierce, the letter of the law permitted slavery west of the Mississippi all the way up to Canada. The North would not accept that and “the zeal of social propagandism” demanded concessions from the poor South. As such, the slave states nobly accepted a new slavery ban extending to states that did not then yet exist in exchange for retaining slavery in Missouri and Arkansas. The free states received that sacrifice on their behalf

with angry and resentful condemnation and complaint, because it did not concede all which they had exactingly demanded.

On paper, the North might look like a sore winner back in the 1820s. While the section lost Missouri, it gained almost the whole remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. But that additional territory failed to rush into the Union. Lands so empty,and so long remaining empty, of white settlement amounted to a meager victory indeed. Pierce rightly noted that antislavery Americans took the Missouri Compromise as a defeat. This all made for some deep irony when free soilers a generation so cherished the settlement, but they had that same generation to live with it and faced more radical proslavery advances than their fathers had. In 1819-20, the slave power demanded slavery remain where it already existed. In the 1850s, it spread slavery to places where the law had banned the institution.

The State of the Union in 1855: A British Imposition

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce opened his third annual message with complaints that the British had violated the agreed-upon neutrality of Central America. The British claimed otherwise, insisting that they had only agreed to future neutrality and in no way prejudiced any of their current claims to the region. They might have made a better case had they not actively expanded their influence after signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but come the turn of the decade London will finally scale back its involvement all the same. The perfidies of Albion reached further than Central America. At the same time as the United Kingdom disregarded neutrality and the sovereignty of independent states south of the border, it had done so right in the United States.

If you ask an American about the first modern war, you’ll probably hear about the Civil War. It involved technology on a new scale, with railroad and telegraph lines taking on both military significance and carrying news back inform a more engaged public. Ask a European about modern war and you’ll learn that the Crimean War did much the same in the mid-1850s, up to and including such Civil War innovations as ironclad ships.

By the time Pierce wrote his message, the Crimean War had gone on for more than a year. In the nineteenth century, the United States took a generally firm neutral stance toward European disputes. They had nothing to do with us and we wished nothing to do with them, most particularly their large and professional armies which could land nearly anywhere along the American coast and do as they liked in the face of our vast, sparsely defended frontiers. A relatively small European army had burned the White House in living memory. Pierce stated the American consensus when he declared that the United States expected foreign powers to keep their warfare to themselves and let Americans do as they liked:

Notwithstanding the existence of such hostilities, our citizens retained the individual right to continue all their accustomed pursuits, by land or by sea, at home or abroad, subject only to such restrictions in this relation as the laws of war, the usage of nations, or special treaties may impose; and it is our sovereign right that our territory and jurisdiction shall not be invaded by either of the belligerent parties for the transit of their armies, the operations of their fleets, the levy of troops for their service, the fitting out of cruisers by or against either, or any other act or incident of war. And these undeniable rights of neutrality, individual and national, the United States will under no circumstances surrender.

Neutrality did not require a Jeffersonian embargo, though. The United States permitted citizens to transport sell their wares to belligerents, including weaponry. Americans could even transport foreign soldiers. But you did such things at your own risk and, consequently, they did not implicate Washington. Many Americans had taken the risks and reaped the profits. None of that caused any problems that Pierce saw fit to mention. Nor had foreign armies transited American soil or foreign warships come unwanted into American waters. Americans had even managed not to help belligerent powers base privateers or fit out military vessels in domestic ports, something the nation couldn’t claim at all when it came to filibusters.

The rub came when the British recruited on American soil. American neutrality law forbade mustering expeditions to go join foreign wars just as it did outfitting warships for them:

they provide not less absolutely that no person shall, within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, enlist or enter himself, or hire or retain another person to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered, in the service of any foreign state, either as a soldier or as a marine or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer. And these enactments are also in strict conformity with the law of nations, which declares that no state has the right to raise troops for land or sea service in another state without its consent, and that, whether forbidden by the municipal law or not, the very attempt to do it without such consent is an attack on the national sovereignty.

The War of 1812 had not come again. The British asked for men, rather than abducted them. But they had gone beyond stopping ships on the high seas and instead recruited right on American soil. This might not make for a second burned White House, but agents of a foreign government recruiting for one of their wars within the United States clearly ran afoul of the neutrality laws. To permit them would, like indulging filibusters, encourage other powers to understand the United States as a willing co-belligerent. Such a state of affairs could easily draw the United States into battles not of its choosing. Permitting it to go unchallenged would surrender control of American foreign policy to the United Kingdom, a situation befitting a colony or a protectorate but not a nation which deemed itself independent and sovereign.

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

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.

The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.

When the arc of our history bends toward injustice

Internal Enemy CoverThe popular account of American history begins with a collection of demigods in powdered wigs. They discourse eloquently on political theory, making timeless arguments that hateful reactionaries scorned. Therefore, they embarked upon a gentlemanly war that ended in triumph. The French might have had something to do with it, but only to show that even the ossified Ancien Regime could see the fundamental justice of the patriot cause. Then passes a brief era of which we speak little, then the Constitution. In George Washington’s blessed administration, some arcane matter involving who rooted for or against the French Revolution animates passions. Alexander Hamilton, the dastard, has something to do with that. The Federalists careen off the rails, setting themselves up as rightful masters and march happily toward authoritarianism. Then Thomas Jefferson saves the nation in 1800. The Federalist assault on civil liberties comes and goes so quickly that it largely serves to demonstrate the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party’s righteousness. The nation has imperfections, but it doesn’t do to think too much on them. Anyway, they all worked themselves out. The United States, born perfect, became more perfect still. We take the march of freedom as our central theme. The arc of our history bends toward justice.

Most people probably know that freedom didn’t rise the same for everybody, even if we don’t care to admit it. Federalist, Democrat, and Whig all did little enough to liberate slaves. It took a second, rather different, set of Republicans to do much in that direction and then only under uniquely dire circumstances. We could add women and Native Americans to the list of people left out in freedom’s march. The usual phrasing, “left out,” implies oversight. No one set out to deny large portions of the human family any deserved spot in the sun. It just happened, ok? We administer our injustices best when we imagine them as a kind of natural phenomena. Nobody sends the wind and rain; you can’t blame someone for them. Nor could you expect some kind of reparation for the damages they inflict.

Failing that, we can rationalize. If a certain group of Americans don’t succeed as well as another, we attribute it to inherent inferiority. We might call it culture these days, but employ essentialist language entirely in keeping with older racial and national theories. In doing so, we transform an accident into someone else’s just do. If we can’t have innocence, then we can claim a kind of just vengeance. We life in a righteous world, which rewards deserving and undeserving with what they have coming.

The language of racial inferiority, like that of injustice as a natural disaster, communicates a fixed state. Whether deliberately or not, white Americans left others out or behind. If our ancestors did wrong, then they didn’t actively make things worse. Students of Indian history would rightly quarrel with that. Most of us probably know that disease killed most Indians, even if recent scholarship demonstrates convincingly otherwise. But Black Americans came here as slaves. They had nowhere to go but up. Surely nothing white Americans could do could make their lives worse than the brute fact of slavery already had. However talented we imagine our national ancestors, even they had limits.

But what if they did? What if the advance of white freedom depended not merely on black deprivation, but on increasingly common and severe deprivations? In reading Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, I have come on a clear case of just that.

I remember reading in my textbook, lo those many years ago, how the revolution unleashed a wave of freedom across the land. Americans, free from the dead hand of wicked Britain, liberated themselves through revising their constitutions, broadening the franchise, and other innovations. They even manumitted large numbers of slaves. The post-independence emancipations, all the way up to New Jersey’s in 1804, fit neatly into the narrative. If you read my textbook or one like it, you might have seen reference to the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well. Taylor explains how these worked:

Entail and primogeniture mandated that a great landowner pass on a landed estate (including slaves) intact to one heir, usually the first-born son, rather than divide that estate equally among all of the children. Perpetual in the male line, an entail barred any heir of any future generation from subdividing and selling or otherwise devising the property in parts. The owner had to preserve the estate for his eldest son and could not even mortgage it to borrow funds. The lone exception came when a generation had no male heir to inherit; in such cases, the daughters inherited jointly and divided the estate: considered a tragedy by a legal system that cherished the continuity of wealth in the male line. Aristocratic in design, entail and primogeniture sought to preserve a great estate through the generations. During the colonial era, Virginia’s great planters emulated the English aristocracy by entailing three-fourths of the lands in the Tidewater. Very few entails could be broken by later generations without great expense to navigate through a complex legal thicket.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Location 704). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

If this sounds like a recipe for permanently consolidated wealth and large numbers of well-born, but discontented white men, you have heard correctly. How could a gentleman of expectations get ahead when denied a reasonable share of the patrimony? This meant little to farmers of modest means, but it burned at the well-off. During the revolutionary era, those Virginians campaigned hard for the abolition of such laws as vestiges of the aristocratic past unwelcome in the new, democratic and republican age. White men deserved equality in rights. Entail and primogeniture required inequality. They should set their own course in life, but the laws fixed them to the states determined by their ancestors. They couldn’t sell their estates, or any part, or even take loans against them. How much more backward could one get?

Well off, white Virginians could scarcely expect a worse problem short of a slave revolt or abolition. Of the three fates, they had scarce experience with revolts and none with abolition, but quite a lot with restrictive inheritance laws. In abolishing the two (entail in 1776, primogeniture in 1785) they expected that the division of large estates between many heirs would bring about greater equality for white men and that the freedom to manage estates as one wished would serve as a good in itself. To the disgust of the crustier Virginians, the reformers had it right. Estates did divide. Enslavers had the freedom to manage their property as they saw fit. Freedom marched on.

Those estates, however, included people. So long as entail held, an enslaver could not sell off any slaves he came to by inheritance. Instead he had to keep them together with the rest of his property. This meant that enslaved people, though still subject to most of slavery’s horrors, could expect to remain together with their families and children. The architects of the old system of inheritance didn’t intend that outcome, but it happened all the same. The new market-oriented, white egalitarian freedom meant an end to that:

The reformed inheritance laws promoted a surge in the sale of slaves by owners seeking cash. During the 1780s, 40 percent of slaves advertised in the Virginia press had been sold at least once before in their lives: up from 24 percent during the 1760s. Virginia planters increasingly valued slave children for future sale. Richard Blow assured his son, “I think it useless to raise up families of them for any other purpose but to sell.” Jefferson deemed “a woman who brings a child every two years as more valuable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption.”

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 741-746). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The division of estates broke slave families and rendered those which remained more tenuous. You don’t have to read many slave narratives to recognize that enslaved people felt the loss of loved ones as keenly as anybody else. They often listed it alongside whipping as one of the key horrors of their lives. The end of entails freed enslavers to commence the great forced migration from the Upper South into the Cotton Kingdom which so thoroughly dismembered families in the decades to come.

In addition to that, the new laws simultaneously expand the number of enslaving Virginians. While the number of slaves held in vast estates shrank, giving more white Virginians a direct financial stake in slavery only increased their already strong practical attachment to it. The practice of renting out slaves to others grew as well, further entrenching bondage within the Old Dominion:

After the revolution, the renting of slaves increased as a means for masters to profit from surplus slaves, in contrast to manumitting them, which brought no financial reward. Many widows hired out their inherited slaves to derive an income while avoiding the rigors of supervising and punishing them. Executors of estates also rented out slaves to support orphans until they came of legal age. During the 1790s a farmer could rent a prime male field hand for $ 31 per year, about a tenth of the cost of buying such a slave. And an adult woman cost only about $ 11 per year, compared to $ 200 for a purchase. As renters, common men could acquire slave labor more readily than by purchase. The surge in postwar hiring further spread slaves among the white households of Virginia.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 757-762). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The dislocation and disruption of someone else’s life proves a far easier burden to bear than sudden changes to one’s own. When fewer people owned slaves or directly oversaw them, abolition must seem much more possible. The more people own slaves, the more they will object to challenging the system. They had a cultural stake as free white men regardless, and we should not downplay its significance, but adding a material stake to slavery could hardly do other than encourage them to defend bondage more devotedly.

Virginia probably wouldn’t have abolished slavery in the Revolutionary era anyway; it had far more slaves and enslavers than any of the states that did. But by liberalizing its inheritance laws, the Old Dominion both enhanced slavery’s durability and made the lives of a great many of its slaves more insecure and generally worse than they had hitherto endured. The advance of freedom for its fortunate sons came not just on the backs of already mistreated human property, but also through greater abuse still. To grow their freedom required shrinking the already tiny freedom of their slaves.

The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.

Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.

Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering

ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

LincolnOn the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.

Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.

Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.

Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:

I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.

But the seeds of  predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:

Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?

Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.

A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.

Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.