Some help for @GOP

Lincoln 1860Gentle Readers, a conventional post will come today but I wanted to put out this item separate from it. As you know, Abraham Lincoln hailed from the Republican Party. The Republicans today haven’t forgotten. I have it from Kevin Levin that for his birthday, the GOP’s official twitter offered up a fake Lincoln quote. This speaks volumes for their understanding of history, though I suppose we must give them credit for not attributing something from Alexander Stephens or Jefferson Davis to him instead. But I write this to help, not mock.

To replace the false Lincoln quote, I offer to the Republican Party this genuine article:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes”When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

 

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Sharing a bed with a suspicious man: The Escape of Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Reeder, in disguise

Andrew Reeder, in disguise

The Hunt, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Reeder’s diary.

We left Andrew Reeder in his woodchopper disguise and bedded out on the deck of a steamboat headed down the Missouri. He had escaped his troubles around Kansas City only to fall into a new set, as he suspected that a Henry Rout recognized him. When the boat stopped at Lexington, Missouri, site of Charles Robinson’s capture, Kansas free state delegate to Congress feared that a mob would come aboard for him as had happened to the free state governor. He rid himself of anything that could compromise his disguise and waited tensely for some hours, but finally called it a night around eleven.

May 25, 1856 did not bring the expected capture. Instead Reeder lay abed until almost nine, as they passed Waverly. A clerk came to inform him of the fact. The pretend woodchopper had claimed he had friends in that town and would disembark on arrival. As he had when a man tried to hire him to chop wood, Reeder had a line ready:

I told him that a gentleman on board had informed me that my friends did not live there any more, and that I would go on to Booneville.

Reeder declared this “partly true.” A person who asked after his business on the boat had prompted him to invent the Waverly friend. Reeder’s interrogator then wanted a name, which Reeder “told him at random.” Then he heard that no such person lived in Waverly. Kansas first governor thanked the gentleman for letting him know.

Gentle Readers, you and I know that smells to high heaven. We also live in a world with readily available instantaneous, cheap communication. Nineteenth century Americans had letters and maybe a telegraph. They also moved about often, particularly in the West, in search of new opportunities. Back then, this sort of thing could happen far more easily and often, making Reeder’s story more plausible.

Before noon, the captain of the boat came down to chat Reeder up. The ex-governor’s co-conspirators had arranged things with him before Reeder came on board, so he knew the score. He’d like to get Reeder off the deck and into the cabin, where he would have more comfort and possibly security, but just then many Border Ruffians occupied it. After letting him know, the captain sent a steward to offer Reeder food on the excuse that he had taken sick. Reeder declined, feasting on “good bread and cheese and a tin cup of water,” from his provisions. Reeder still thought someone marked him back at Lexington, so he must have remained wary of anything that would draw attention.

Later on the captain brought still more bad news: a Mr. Fogg shared the trip with Reeder. He throws a lot of names around, but I don’t think Reeder has mentioned Fogg before. From context, he must have known the delegate on sight. Once more, the fake woodchopper remained on deck. There he slept with a proslavery man named Ross, “of whom I had become very suspicious.”

Reeder doesn’t mean that Ross had roaming hands or a suggestive leer. He might have had both plus a thing for disguised politicians with axes, but scarce beds often meant nineteenth century men would share one. If you’ve heard the story about someone walking in on Lincoln with another man, now you know why. Space and physical comfort, rather than lust, put them under the covers together. Ross had his eye on Reeder, or at least he thought so. So did some others. That night, the delegate paid through to St. Louis and

watched with great care some three or four men who, I had persuaded myself, were suspicious of me.

Was Lincoln A Third Party Candidate?

LincolnGentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.

That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.

When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.

Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.

The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.

The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.

That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.

Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell

Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.

Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.

The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

Southern History? It’s Complicated.

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

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

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Christianity and Slavery

The abolitionists don’t figure very large in the general memory of the American Civil War. They deserve quite a bit more prominence, but then we would have to all admit just what the majority of the slave states chose to fight for. When they do come up, one often hears about them of people of great Christian virtue. Through their example, they give proof positive that we need more Christianity in our lives and, more pointedly, our government. The speakers will sometimes make a faint ecumenical gesture and say “faith” or “religion” but they mean Christianity. Nobody honestly thinks they mean we need to get right with Zeus. Nor do they mean any of Christianity available, but rather their specific sort.

I don’t want to debate the merits of that suggestion today but, in discussing such a sensitive topic, fairness demands I lay my cards on the table. I am a thoroughgoing secular humanist, an unbeliever in every religious creed of which I have heard and expect ever to hear. While I have a significant interest in religions as cultural and historical phenomena, they do not engage me as they would a believer. At this point I must add, because the question naturally arises and some who agree with me on some points of understanding with regard to religion opt to make asses of themselves, that I don’t think religion necessarily makes morally or intellectually inferior or that irreligion makes one in the same ways superior. I have not come here today to praise faith of any sort or to damn it, but my perspective does come necessarily informed by unbelief.

LincolnIn the absence of very compelling evidence to the contrary, I take the abolitionists’ religious convictions essentially at face value. They understood slavery as an abomination in the eyes of their god and took up arms, eventually literally, against it. The line from their faith to their action seems fairly straightforward. As Christians, they believed Christians could not hold slaves. To do so turned them away from the Almighty and invited his wrath

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln never made for much of an abolitionist until the very end, but most of them would have heard their convictions in that.

If I could end there, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this. Antislavery Americans did have secular arguments against slavery and we would do well to understand them, but they had religious scruples as well. One does not negate the other. The problem comes in the fact that proslavery Americans did much the same. They, as Christians, believed that they ought to hold slaves. They believed that through slavery they taught a savage and inferior race the rudiments of civilization and brought the light of faith to otherwise damned souls.

How studiously they tended to that Christian obligation naturally varied. Anything that seemed likely to lead to literate slaves, particularly gathering with other slaves under minimal or no supervision, could raise eyebrows and provoke suffocating scrutiny if it somehow escaped legal proscription. Likewise we should consider that the enslavers thought the right sort of Christianity might pacify their restive human property. But we can’t deny a genuine, if far from benevolent, missionary impulse played its part.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

We take antislavery Christians seriously when they go into their scriptures and come out with religious arguments against slavery. We must grant the same consideration to proslavery Christians who the same. If the abolitionists could draw a straight line from their faith to their politics, why couldn’t the other side? I ask because when one sees two contradictory claims, one naturally wonders which has the right of it. While you will find the occasional sort who praise the antebellum South for its fine Christian character, most modern Christians probably agree more with Frederick Douglass:

I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

To Douglass, enslaver Christianity amounted to no Christianity at all. I have nothing but sympathy for his desire to share no religion with them, just as I dislike sharing the name of atheist with Joseph Stalin. More than that, I see in Douglass an intensely admirable man with whom I do not eagerly disagree on matters of his particular expertise. However, to make a distinction as Douglass does requires us to decide that there exists one true Christianity against which we measure all who claim the name. When we find those who claim the title differ from the true faith, we can pronounce anathema on them.

If believers wish to find that true Christianity and pronounce those anathemas on their own account, they may do so. I don’t consider them insincere or dishonest for it. I do, however, not consider these judgments to have bearing on points of history. The means by which believers make these distinctions amongst themselves come down to theological commitment and devotional exercise, with historical argument rarely playing even a peripheral role. Even apparently objective criteria like examining the statements of Jesus in the Bible inescapably come freighted with presumptions about the role of scripture and its correct methods of interpretation which have caused intense, sometimes bloody, controversy within Christianity for so long as the religion has existed.

Granted a particular set of premises about them, I might make the same judgment. But which of the competing Christianities ought one take as definitive? History offers no answer to that, nor can it. We can say which Christianity we find more admirable and thus would rather prevail, of course. The question, however, often comes to rather more than that. By asking which Christianity deserves the name, we make an implicit judgment about Christianity. Do we consider it primarily good or bad?

Here I must demur. I see Christianity as far too large and sweeping a thing to reduce to a one word answer. We may as well as the question about freedom or government and then find ourselves instead considering the freedom to do what or from what, or which government, doing what, and when. Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought slavery. Other Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought for slavery. Christians have done good and evil, each time citing their faith as the cause. On a personal level, religion has brought great agonies and great comfort. Beautiful works of art and horrifying destruction alike have come from hearts fired by faith. Proslavery and antislavery Christians alike saw good, honest, faithful faces in the mirror. I prefer the latter; I hope you do as well. But our preferences can only tell us about ourselves, just as the preferences of historical actors tell us about them. Frederick Douglass considered slavery evil and Christianity good. Therefore an enslaving Christian made as much sense as a square circle or six-sided triangle. The enslavers, by and large, thought the opposite. Abolitionists, they held, had wandered from the true light of faith. With that in mind, I can only say that historically Christianity proved equally compatible with slavery and abolition.

I apologize if my answers don’t satisfy, but I have no others to give.

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Few things have more power over us than fear. At its bidding, we disregard otherwise dear values, cast aside critical safeguards, and do horrible things otherwise inconceivable. Ordinary people will rise up spontaneously, or “spontaneously,” in great numbers to do its bidding. We need to meet the emergency, you understand, and in that state we just don’t have the time and the stakes are far too high for the ordinary way of things to handle. Not all that long ago, an American leader told us that even if he had 99% certainty that the perceived threat amounted to nothing, the 1% doubt justified anything to combat it. That anything included torture. Through the suffering of our chosen martyrs, always someone else, we become free.

Syria, a country wracked by a civil war between a vile dictator and a vile group of religious fanatics, the latter of whom the United States rolled out the red carpet for in its misbegotten war of pleasure against Iraq and bungled aftermath, naturally has a tremendous refugee problem. Its huddled masses, poor, tired, and desperate, would probably like freedom. They would certainly like freedom from the prospect of marauders with guns out to murder them and their families. Maybe they haven’t imbibed every jot and tittle of western, post-Enlightenment values, but the hope that oneself and one’s children might escape slaughter knows no borders.

I have my doubts as to the popularity of such values among Americans. Few fret at the trifling burden of preaching, but we rarely care for the weight of practice. Because an unrelated group killed a large number of innocent people in Paris a week ago, we learn that the United States cannot permit a single Syrian refugee into the country. Presidential candidates have said so. Congress has said so. The governors of many states, including my own, have said so and pledged that should refugees come within their jurisdiction, they shall do all in their power to deprive them of a chance to start anew.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

They said the same things about the Germans, a militaristic people unsuited to democratic government. They said it about the Irish, enthralled to medieval religious leaders and sworn to do their bidding. Massachusetts even deported thousands of them. Slavs and Italians infamously came from the armpit of Europe. Change the ocean crossed and one finds much the same rhetoric deployed against the Chinese and Japanese. Do a ninety degree turn and you’ll hear it about people from Latin America. Take a small step back and you’ll hear it about black American refugees fleeing the South for the dubious safety of northern cities. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free, but not those poor, tired, huddled masses. They exhibit far too much huddling, poverty, fatigue, and yearning.

Anyone we let in must withstand scrutiny, of course. The world has no shortage of dangerous fanatics who mean to do us harm. They hate us, as the saying goes, for our freedoms and seek tirelessly to destroy them. Speaking of those, some of our would-be leaders have decided to run for Ayatollah in lieu of President, declaring that we can only trust those Syrians who we can prove sufficiently Christian. Presumably if elected, he would establish an Inquisition to assess their credentials. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella, though not so much for the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The Catholic Monarchs doubtless considered that working as designed. Others have advocated databases to track them. A yellow crescent badge must come up eventually. Failing that, perhaps tattoos will do the job.

Lincoln 1860We can say that these people don’t speak for us, but we keep voting for them. So it has transpired before. So it probably will again. Abraham Lincoln corresponded with Joshua Speed on the subject of Kansas back in 1855:

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

We can say that these leaders don’t speak for our values, but we keep electing them. I wouldn’t bet anything I wanted to keep on any governor losing an election over the Syrian refugees. Nor would many southern politicians likely lose an election for excessive enthusiasm for slavery. Of course many of us don’t bother with the conventional pieties. Only those who wish to pose as moderates need them. Speed’s rhetorical abhorrence of slavery might play well in his Kentucky, which remained as committed to slavery indefinitely in the 1850s as South Carolina did, but it wouldn’t do to sound too much like a Carolina radical.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

We can say that we face a unique threat which justifies our fear, but accidental discharges of handguns kill more Americans every year than innocents who died in Paris. Even deliberate shootings don’t warrant this sustained, organized rush for a less humid pair of trousers, no matter how clearly terroristic. Our leaders, aspirant and otherwise, have invented nothing particularly new. We have our traditions of fear, involving both “degenerate” immigrants and the horrific prospect of a freely moving black person.

Though we imagine fear as general and a concern for security as universal, both turn highly selective in practice. We do not calibrate our responses to the gravity of the threat, or to the likelihood of something happening, but rather we choose which perils we deem emergencies and which we consider merely ordinary. An understandable panic might explain immediate responses, but we maintain the same behaviors for decades on end. We don’t do calculatedly, with malice aforethought. We decide which people deserve protection and which punishment. Their deeds, real or imagined, rarely enter into it. They, whoever we choose this time around, come to us as curiously pathetic titans. They will destroy us all, but somehow remain our inferiors in every way that matters. We imagine not flesh and blood, but evil that cloaks itself in the semblance of people.

If I told you that a murderous band of sadistic rapists roamed the country at will and occupied high positions in the government, from which they exerted effective control over it, you would think me mad. I only named the slaveholders, their habits, and correctly stated their influence throughout most of the antebellum period. If I told you about a police state that aggressively monitored the internal movements of its people and vigorously suppressed dissent, would you think of Stalin’s Russia or Calhoun’s South Carolina? Security, fear’s respectable alias, demanded similar human sacrifices. So long as we imagine perfect security possible, we will continue feeding lives to it. You don’t sacrifice people you find valuable, of course. You sacrifice the expendable. Foreigners, outsiders, dissidents, anybody who doesn’t fit your vision of the good society. My governor would like to feed Syrians to what Corey Robin calls the Moloch of national security.

Moloch, if you don’t know your Bible, meant either a hollow idol in which human sacrifices burned or the god the idol represented. He preferred his feast in the form of babies. Whether this ever happened with any regularity or not, I can’t say. Imagining one’s neighbors as literally baby-eating monsters seems far too popular the world over to take at face value. Moloch features heavily in one of my favorite poems, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Must we keep feeding our Molochs? If starved long enough, the heavy judger of men might at last consume itself instead.

Fear of phantoms will only satisfy Moloch for so long. Eventually it will want more and fear’s apostles will eagerly provide. They know that by aligning with the security state, they have immunized themselves. Every society has a surfeit people deemed undesirable. Often they work hard to produce as many as possible. The lives burned away in all the persecuting horrors perfume the air. The screams make for a symphony. Thus Moloch blesses his faithful, orthodox practitioners of that most demanding rule: Do unto others, good and hard. The ritual ablutions cannot entirely hide their joy. At last they can run free and do as they always wished. They partake of forbidden pleasures sanctified by exquisitely selective altruism. Back in the day, priests would burn or otherwise dispose of only a part of offerings. The rest they would enjoy for themselves, thus making their living. If we pass such vast distances and find ourselves in the same place, we should wonder if we ever left.

So, as Lincoln wrote:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

We have come so far now that we count sufficiently white Catholics as equal, provided they join us in counting the rest as otherwise. The Russian Empire, Putin’s, Stalin’s, or the Tsar’s, awaits us, but why go? We can get it all at home. Had we come to a country born innocent, we might say that we accepted an intellectual immigration. Always broad-minded, we made room in America for a Russian police state. Our national ancestors did one better, though. They didn’t need to go study some other country to learn the arts of fear. They created it for themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, whips in hand. They did the same in the New England forests with hot lead.

We choose not to remember that part. The nativists don’t occupy much of a position in the national memory, save as an ordeal faced by certain immigrant groups and now happily behind them. We certainly don’t recall how they got right with nativism for the next wave of immigrants, who somehow came by all the same sins that their parents never did. To join an us, they agreed to create a them. The wages of our sins thus find repose in the most popular of places: our victims.

ssstloushavana

The SS. St. Louis in Havana

The faith in a united, narrow consensus America with few great rifts between its people demands we deny the controversy. A land can hardly claim perfection at birth and endless improvement thereafter, the ne plus ultra of American nationalism, and admit Americans as a fractious, divided people. Instead it must paper over the division by deciding who doesn’t count. The American consensus endures by writing its critics and its victims out of memory. There one must recognize not merely a normal, if regrettable, tendency toward self-flattery but rather another line in the liturgy of fear. It would not do to undermine the values of the nation, to corrupt its racial purity, and enfeeble the race by amalgamation or debase it by placing equal what nature, gods, or some other mouthpiece for our hatreds declared unequal. The eternal creed goes by many names, but works its bloody way through the world over and the voyages of the damned continue. Enough of us, Joshua Speed endlessly reborn, vote to ensure it. We know where the voyages end, whether with bullets or starvation or a crematoria. No evil, however notorious, lacks for eager accomplices.

Once we told slaves to endure for all eternity. Once we said No Irish Need Apply and sought to keep them from the country while they starved at home. Once we met black refugees from the South with a northern wing of the Klan. Once we sent a ship full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany. Now we tell Syrians to stay home and wait for ISIS to come get them.

Every time the warmed up the old idol and got our human sacrifices in a row, we found dissenters in our number. Now and then, we toss them in the fire with the rest. However much we may admire them, we do so from a healthy remove.  Taking sides in disputes long ended costs us little. When the same dispute reappears, we suddenly find ourselves living in the moment. What can we do? Our hands are tied. This time, like all the other times, differs so much that we can’t draw on past lessons. We pretend we can do no other, save to do mercilessly unto others. Then we contemplate our especially energetic species of inaction and declare our hands clean.

It all seems perfectly reasonable, just like that bit toward the end of Huck Finn with the steamboat explosion. Did the explosion hurt anyone?

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Unpacking Secession

The Charleston Mercury's extra announcing South Carolina's secession.

The Charleston Mercury’s extra announcing South Carolina’s secession.

It doesn’t take very long talking about the Civil War with people or reading about it online before one encounters the argument that the southern states had a right to secede. Thus we should not ask why secession took place, but rather why the rest of the nation objected and sought to suppress it. That question has value itself. We should ask it often and intently. It informs a great deal of recent scholarship about the war, in particular the continuing debate over to what extent, how, and when, northern whites understood themselves to fight the war to destroy slavery. The consensus holds that most came to emancipation only reluctantly, only after repeated defeats, and only as a measure necessary to win the war. But giving the question of why the rest of the nation fought the South its due attention should not distract us, as the bad faith debater wishes, from the more important fact that the South seceded to preserve slavery.

All that said, the supposed right of secession deserves some investigation in itself. In Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859, Elizabeth Varon distinguishes secession from disunion. The latter carried overlapping meanings:

Disunion was invoked by Americans, across the political spectrum, in five registers: as a prophecy of national ruin, a threat of withdrawal from the federal compact, an accusation of treasonous plotting, a process of sectional alienation, and a program for regional independence.

We usually, laypeople and historian alike, call all of those secession. Varon thinks we do so wrongly. To her,

Secession referred to a specific mechanism whereby states could leave the Union, and it reflected complex constitutional theories on the boundaries of state and federal power.

Secession, in Varon’s usage, thus describes how one goes about enacting the program of disunion. For the purposes of this post, I intend to broaden the term just slightly to also include how secession’s advocates understood it. One need not go far to find references to succession in antebellum political works, which plays into the notion that everybody in antebellum America agreed that states had a right to secede. Richard Ellis makes this point in The Union At Risk, and points to an important shift in the constitutional thinking along the way:

Prior to the espousal of the doctrine by the South Carolina nullifiers, most assertions of secession had taken the form of rhetorical flourishes, political ploys, and logical extensions of arguments not fully understood or thought out. Moreover, secession before 1828-1833 was not a doctrine that was associated with a particular interest group or section of the country. A number of the more vociferous New England opponents of the War of 1812 had spoken of it, but the moderates who controlled the Hartford Convention rejected the doctrine, and the entire movement was soon disgraced and lost in the nationalist fervor that swept the country after 1815.

New Englanders also floated secession much less famously, and in fewer numbers, against Jefferson’s embargo. A simplistic reading of that would suggest a national consensus that one could secede, just as a similar reading would find a consensus on states’ rights, but note Ellis’ qualifications. Rhetoric, ploy, and arguments taken to their logical extreme do not a program make. Nor does it follow that if they did, they necessarily further amounted to the assertion of secession as a legal process to which a state had a conventional right. If secession did mean those things, then suppressing it should at the very least come only through a conflict between its exercise and other, similarly compelling rights. One can make a very good argument that in 1860-1 other rights did conflict with any such exercise, but unless one takes secession as the ultimate of all rights then such a conflict seems inherent and inevitable. We come back around to calling out the army and the familiar narrative of 1861-5.

This doesn’t render consideration of methods and understandings moot. Antebellum Americans could understand secession as a different kind of right which they understood themselves as entitled to and yet suppress its exercise by another without contradiction. Though that might seem like a stretch, it relied only upon acceptance of the logic of the American founding. The United States arose through an act of treason against the United Kingdom. The founders levied war against the legally constituted government of the land, precisely the act which they would later declare treason in the Constitution. They claimed as their justification the right of revolution, a decidedly unconventional right.

We understand ordinary rights as involving our ability to do something without interference. What we consider interference depends heavily upon our political convictions, usually with a distinction between a right to do something free from government obstruction against a right to engage in the act in and of itself. The right of revolution doesn’t fit easily into either construction. Those who revolt must expect opposition and at least very likely that they will settle the issue by a contest of arms. Thus one doesn’t have an unhindered right to rise up at will, but rather a right that exists only in retrospect. If you win your war, you have the right. Otherwise, you had the right to hang. In this light, we must consider revolution not as a right like speech where suppression in itself would violate expected norms, but rather one its lack would do so.

The understanding secession as not revolution, but rather an orderly constitutional process, came into American discourse through the innovations of the nullifiers. It did not achieve the status of an accepted dogma even in the South until after Nullification came and went, as one can see here (PDF):

The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.

Here we have an impressive collection of statements. The author deems the South an “aggrieved” victim of Yankee “aggression.” He wants redress. But he loathes the thought of disunion. He distinguishes between constitutional means of the redress he hopes for and secession, which he calls revolution. He doesn’t leave matters there, though. He further writes:

The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

That, if not the earlier statements about the South’s suffering, sounds like something Lincoln would say. Robert E. Lee wrote it all to his son in late January, 1861. One can argue that Lee doesn’t make for much of a constitutional thinker. Whatever their abilities, military men have other priorities. Nor does his embrace of the Confederacy later on involve a clear contradiction. Lee would have noticed his fighting the war and in doing so he acted consistently with his understanding of secession as revolution.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

At least rhetorically, however, many secessionists did claim they had a legal process. Some might have believed it. During the Secession Winter, they did rather more than make the traditional threats. They employed a method along the general lines that Calhoun laid down in Nullification times. The states, through special conventions, had ratified the Constitution. To Calhoun, this meant that a state convention exercised ultimate sovereignty and could thus un-ratify the Constitution. The Union consisted only and entirely of the Constitution, legally speaking, so by exercising its sovereignty in this way, a state could take itself out of the Union. Other thinkers held that states could do this through ordinary legislation, but Calhoun’s state convention method generally prevailed. Calhoun only had to ignore where the Constitution located sovereignty to manage all this. One can’t blame him for missing it, though. Who reads the first sentence of a document?

Secessionists also differed, even in South Carolina, over whether they should secede unilaterally or not. Many held that secession would come more easily and more defensibly from a convention of the southern states acting in concert. Opponents damned them as secret unionists, pointing to the failure of the Nashville Convention to achieve secession a decade prior. Why would one adopt a method known to fail, unless one wanted the effort to fail too? Some might have done just that, but as a practical matter even while considering unilateral secession South Carolina’s leadership took a very keen interest in what other states planned to do. They had gone out on a limb before and learned that the rest of the South would not follow. That didn’t quite make the first secession a cooperative affair in the mode that the advocates of it wanted, with the whole South going out together, but they both expected and had some informal assurances that other states would follow.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

All the secession methods suggested in the antebellum agreed on one point: secession must proceed unilaterally in another way. A state had the power, either through revolution or constitutional process, to secede on its own. The consent of other states or the national government did not enter into it. They might engage in consultation. It might make for better politics for states to go out in a group. But when a state wanted to go, it had gone. This would always invoke the familiar storm of controversy. However, an uncontroversial process for secession exists in principle: the Constitution allows for amendments. If a state could secure the passage of an amendment authorizing secession, either for itself alone or for states in general, that would almost certainly meet constitutional muster. (The Reconstruction Amendments offer a clear case where the text of the Constitution did not, but such direct and obvious counterexamples don’t come up very often.) Somewhat more remotely, states could convene to write an entirely new constitution which would permit secession. Those legal roads exist, but the advocates of secession never seem very interested in them. Rather they want to leave, take the real estate with them, and demand that everyone else smile and wave as they depart.

What did the founders think of secession?

James Madison

James Madison

The conventional story goes something like this: The founders donned their powdered wigs, put their knee breeches on, and cheered as George Washington applied the requisite amount of boot leather to the necessary number of British posteriors. Thirteen colonies turned into thirteen free and independent states. They did not constitute, in any meaningful sense, a nation. The founders shared with the people of the several nations an abiding suspicion of central authority. Only the Revolution had united them and with it done they could all go back to those nations and have nothing more to do with one another. They never intended to create a consolidated republic and always imagined association between their states as strictly voluntary and subject to unilateral termination, secession in a word, at any time. To the degree the former colonies associated, they associated like you might associate with someone you met once at a party. Having a good time together did not make them married. This vision persisted through the Antebellum until the Tyrant Abraham I, the Hammer of Dixie, enslaved us all. Thus they said “the United States are” before the war and “the United States is” after, or even if they didn’t then they held sentiments largely along those lines. Shelby Foote said so.

I cannot improve on Andy Hall’s demolition of the argument from phrasing. Americans did not primarily or exclusively say “the United States are” until the Civil War and take up the singular verb after. The transition happened decades earlier. But that still leaves the meat of the story. Did antebellum Americans, most especially the founders whom the secessionists claimed as their own, consistently understand the Union as inherently voluntary, with states free to depart at will or, failing that, when they felt things sufficiently dire to justify an extreme step? In short: no.

By that I don’t mean to say that secession never crossed the minds of anybody prior to the late antebellum, nor that talk of disunion only arose late in the age. Threats of it go back to the Constitutional Convention. But those threats did not necessarily indicate general approval of the concept. Rather the convention, twelve of thirteen states strong, came together to curb state sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient to the task of governing the nation because the states had much greater power than the national government, even if that government constituted a permanent union. One needn’t interpret the text to drive that conclusion, incidentally, the Articles call themselves perpetual:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

A perpetual union hardly incorporates in itself any right to secession. Finding the power of the central state insufficient, must we think that the founders got together in Philadelphia to remedy that and then undermined their own work so comprehensively as to nullify it at the whim of any given state? The requirement that all states agree on legislation proved a critical weakness in the Articles, so would they really write it back into the Constitution? People in the past can do things that seem to us perverse and understand themselves instead as consistent with sound principles, but that suggestion would not have made any sense at the time.

The Philadelphia debates bear this out. Just a few days ago I noticed that Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause the Oxford History of the United States volume on the revolutionary era, sold by Amazon as an ebook for all of three dollars. I have not taken much interest in revolutionary history due to all the patriotic myth making. I know that historians do good work there, but the flag waving enthusiasm put me off long ago. All the same, I wanted to check something I’d heard in Mike Duncan’s wonderful Revolutions podcast. So I winced at the title and got my file. I have only read the chapters on the Constitutional Convention and ratification, but they proved a gold mine of information about what the founders thought on the issue. As much of the Philadelphia deliberations concerned representation in the Congress, they naturally dwell upon what states deserve in the way of power. It also made for a really good read. I intend to go back and finish the rest at some point.

I already knew that James Madison came to Philadelphia with a plan to grant the national government a sweeping veto over any state legislation, but the account I got back in high school painted the advocates for equality of the states in the Congress and those who argued for apportionment by population as roughly equal. In fact, only New Jersey and New York favored the former’s equal representation plan when it came down to voting. If a broad consensus existed in Independence Hall, it did not view the states in themselves as the principal components of the new nation. Otherwise one would expect much stronger votes in favor of state equality. What does this have to do with secession? A weak government could hardly prevent it. A strong one could coerce recalcitrant states and wake them from any dreams they had of disunion and nullification alike.

The advocates for state equality touched on the connection themselves. As Middlekauf has it:

Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, all from Connecticut, made the heart of the case for equality of representation with minor, though longwinded, aid from Luther Martin. The essential weakness in the argument for proportional representation, they insisted, was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the Confederacy. The states in reality were joined together by an agreement much like a treaty; they were free and sovereign. Now they were asked to give up their equal voices in the Union, in effect to be consolidated out of existence

James Wilson

James Wilson

Ellsworth further insisted that every confederacy in history had equality among its members, a point of history more convenient than correct. Madison and his fellow Virginian James Wilson would have none of this. Middlekauf continues:

Both rejected the small-state contention that a treaty bound the Confederation together. Far from a union of equals, the Confederation possessed some-but not enough-authority over the states. […] Wilson agreed and rejected the Connecticut proposal for a compromise -the lower house to be apportioned according to population, the upper according to state equality-and cited statistics which purported to show that such an arrangement would permit the minority to control the majority. Seven states, Wilson noted, might control six; seven with one-third of the country’s population would control six with two-thirds of the population. “Can we forget,” he asked, “for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”

That argument sounds downright twentieth century. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court rejected malapportionment of state legislatures in the 1960s on the grounds that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” I have heard that decision, which articulated the “one person, one vote” standard, damned as a grievous offense against state sovereignty. This sovereignty forms a necessary prerequisite for unilateral secession as practiced by the Confederates and admired by their various descendant movements today. Madison, back when the states had a far better claim to sovereignty in matters save for secession,

denied flatly the states were sovereign-“in fact they are only political societies. There is a graduation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.” The states, Madison argued, “are only great corporations, having the power of making by-laws, and these are effectual only if they are not contradictory to the general consideration. The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government-at least as much as they formerly were under the King and British Parliament.” And from these propositions about the character of the states-devoid of sovereignty, mere corporations, properly under the thumb of the national government-it followed that since America was a republic, representation must be based on the people.

A state which does not have final sovereignty, which constitutes a mere corporation and with laws that hold only as by-laws of its particular interests rather than paramount legislation, could hardly secede on its own initiative alone.

Madison further opined, implicitly, on the nature of state governments in The Federalist, Number 10:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

A state government must, by definition, constitute a smaller society than the general government. A local government would constitute one still smaller. Madison considered the smaller a far greater risk to the rights of others, a position often born out in twentieth century Supreme Court cases. One could also reach further back and look at the sort of oppression and outright persecution that the slave states indulged in to protect slavery. If one counts up state-level emancipations and exempts states built out of territories which had nationally imposed bans on slavery in their bounds prior to statehood, we have to stop counting states that ended slavery on their own and without war forcing matters at the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania-Ohio border. This gives us only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

From these nine we could subtract Maine as it had a Massachusetts-imposed slavery ban before it became a state, and Vermont, where slavery had never been practiced and so eliminating it took little exertion. This leaves us with seven states to live up to the laboratory of democracy reputation. Against them, we could count both the fifteen slave states of 1860 and the two slave territories of Utah and New Mexico. I would not say that states necessarily and always take the low road, and some have gotten out in front of the national government often enough, but the overall example does not give much encouragement when concerns go beyond simple things like traffic laws and into questions of minority rights.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

We know how the dispute worked out in Madison’s day, just as we know how it did in the case of Lee v. Grant. Adherents to other theories of national composition certainly existed. They had enough strength, when the advocates of state equality made it into a make-or-break issue, to force compromises. But the notion that the founders acted with one mind, however always borderline absurd, and that this mind fixed on the sovereignty of states simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. National supremacy flowed not from Lincoln in Washington, but from the convention Washington chaired in Philadelphia.

But, the conventional story then goes, whatever happened at Philadelphia ratification came contingent upon various undertakings. Most famously, the states only ratified with the promise that the Congress would pass a Bill of Rights and with some kind of tacit understanding that if this did not work out, the states could quit the union and resume their independent sovereignties.

This point came lately to my attention via a video Al Mackey posted over at Student of the Civil War. It begins with Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Yale, discussing the legality of secession. The secession discussion only consumes the first portion of the run time, but in it Amar makes some important points.

Madison did not get his global veto of state enactments for the Congress, but he did get the Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

By definition, sovereignty rests with whoever has the final say. The Constitution did not grant that power to the states, nor hazily delegate it to them by not granting it to the nation. It instead strips them of any such power to make laws, even state constitutions, contrary to the laws of the United States. Note that the provision does not limit itself to the national Constitution or treaties, but reaches to any federal legislation whatsoever. Even if the states had sovereignty before ratification, they ceded it then. This leaves no room for nullification either of one law or, in its ultimate form, the nullification of all federal laws by secession. A state could pass a law nullifying the tariff or the Fugitive Slave Act, as respectively South Carolina and Wisconsin did, but such laws existed only on paper and until a federal court declared them void at the latest. Roger Taney’s Supreme Court agreed on the second point when it tossed Wisconsin’s act of nullification, to the thunderous silence of most of the usual states rights enthusiasts. What part of this did South Carolina miss? Presumably the part where its nullification must meet with general approval as such a nullification would strengthen and preserve slavery whereas Wisconsin’s would not.

Amar further argues that if the founders intended the Constitution to come with a free trial period and sovereignty-back guarantee, then they did not act it. During the ratification debates in New York, with the vote very close and Alexander Hamilton not sure he had the votes, the anti-federalists suggested that they would give way for the promise of a Bill of Rights. Failing delivery on that front, New York would secede. Hamilton asked Madison for his opinion of such a deal. Even at this critical juncture when New York’s refusal would bisect the Union, possibly fatally, Madison declined to endorse compromise:

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification.

[…]

This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection

If Madison would have broken principle in the name of pragmatism, one must imagine he would have done it then. The Constitution already had the nine states it needed to go into effect, plus an extra, but the loss of New York would have meant a great blow. Unlike Delaware, South Carolina, or other states which desperately needed a union to sustain themselves, New York with its great port and generous hinterland might have been able to go it alone. Its bad example would weaken the new union from the start, hence his, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s writing of The Federalist to begin with.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Lest one think Madison and Wilson alone, or necessarily extreme, in looking into the future and cursing the names of John C. Calhoun and his unruly brood of nullifiers and disunionists, despite the votes at the convention and final Constitution arguing very much otherwise, Hamilton himself got into the act in The Federalist, Number 11:

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Strict and indissoluble, not loose and easily broken.

The framers did not envision anything like what Lincoln called the dreams of the Confederates:

In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement,—[laughter,]—to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction. [Continued laughter.]

I don’t know how the founders chose to organize their private time save for the evidence given by their progeny, acknowledged and otherwise. In their political acts they present a clear record favoring not states, with the national government as a kind of necessary evil, but rather saw it as a necessary and positive good and, moreover, as a clear way to suppress contrary movements in the states. That doesn’t mean we would necessarily find all their motives for doing so appealing or in line with those who favor a stronger national state today, but they did what they did and wrote what they wrote.

This myth, like the myth of the antislavery Lee, will endure this and many other blog posts. It will survive the scorn of historians. The supposed advocates of original intent will read it, as they do all other inconvenient facts, as irrelevant rather than persuasive. They and their more radical compatriots, latter-day secessionists who ask us to believe that just this once the rhetoric they employ lacks the white supremacy which has so consistently informed it in the past, must wrap themselves in a pretend history of original intent. The real one doesn’t have much to offer them.

The framers envisioned the possibility of unilateral secession, as attempted in 1860-1, and nullification as attempted by South Carolina and Wisconsin alike, and foreclosed each in Philadelphia and at ratification. Antebellum Americans knew as much and needn’t live in the cold heart of Yankeedom or on the Illinois prairie to notice it. The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war. Why should we pretend otherwise, unless we aspire to rehabilitate the some of the same politics that they did? Secession for what? States rights for what? If one can get a straight answer from the Confederacy’s latter-day partisans, in itself a major achievement, and they have cleverness enough to not simply say “slavery” with one of the usual codes, then I usually hear preserving the founders’ vision of the Union. It didn’t take a deep look into the founding era to find out what that vision entailed. One can and should note that it included slavery for at least the foreseeable future. But it did not include secession or nullification at all.