Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part Two

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

Part 1

We left the Big Springs Convention on a decidedly low note: ninety-nine votes to one approval of a constitutional ban on allowing black Americans into their free state of Kansas. George W. Brown spent a long paragraph condemning the measure, but he knew all too well that such laws had passed in other western states. He opposed them when back East, but in the end accepted that he and others could only expect so much from an antislavery movement chiefly concerned with the peculiar institution’s negative effect upon whites. In that he made the same calculation that many had, including a homely failed politician who had taken pains to never set himself openly against the racism of his fellow Illinoisans.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

That Brown made this calculation becomes evident immediately thereafter:

A determination was apparent with every delegate to the convention that the Free State party should unite. Division, it was evident, was defeat. A united front was victory. The result of that day’s procedure will be felt for ages. – The union and harmony which finally characterized the proceedings will give to the American galaxy another star, which will ultimately be the brightest in the constellation-one which will not be dimmed in the least by the foul stain of slavery.

Principles can get in the way of successful politics, even if one hopes that the desire to do politics flows from the principles. While Brown could only hope that unity would bring victory, he didn’t need to speculate as to what the proslavery party would do if faced only by divided, ineffective opposition. He could just look outside.

Building an alternative politics for Kansas required a candidates to run for office just as much as it did resolutions, platforms, and conventions. The thirty-third Congress had ended its term back in March. The thirty-fourth would convene starting in December. That meant Kansas would have to elect a new delegate. For that job, the free state movement had in mind their first martyr of national standing: Andrew Reeder.

When the nomination was made by acclamation it seemed as if the heavens were vocal with applause; and Governor Reeder’s appearance on the stand, in answer to the long and repeated calls, was received with the most boisterous shouts of satisfaction. Had a General returned in triumph from the battle-field, bearing the trophies of a thousand victories, he could not have been greeted with a more hearty welcome than was extended to him on this occasion.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Reeder gave a good speech, which Brown called “replete with important ideas” and “every word had a meaning.” The crowd ate it up. The Herald of Freedom does not include Reeder’s words in full, due again to Brown’s shoulder, but he fully appreciated the significance of choosing the deposed governor:

We expressed a wish that Frank Pierce could have looked out upon that collection of “squatter sovereigns,” and seen the man he had attempted to put down, and the manner the PEOPLE were disposed to take him up. Frank Pierce, with the nation at his heels, was never as popular or so deeply enshrined in the affections of the people, as is our own late Chief Magistrate, in the hearts of the American people.

The Free State Party had its convention, yet again, but now it also had a candidate to rally around. But they had still more divisions to resolve before they concluded their work that September day.

The Last Free State Man, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Legislative Assembly of Kansas, now relocated to Shawnee Mission, tried to go about its business. Andrew Reeder vetoed every bill they passed on the grounds that unless they met in Pawnee, they simply did not constitute a legal body competent to make laws. This did not convince the Assembly, which overrode each of his vetoes. It did, however go some way toward convincing Samuel D. Houston to quit the Kansas House. The majority could not very well remove him and maintain their position that only Reeder’s special elections drew their wrath. By the rules they invented to get rid of the other free state members, Houston had his seat fair and square:

Elected as I was by more than a threefold vote over my pro-slavery opponent, a gentleman of intelligence and ability

Houston knew going in that the majority would make trouble. Like everybody else in Kansas, he had not missed the massive fraud in the March elections. But he had stuck with it, submitting a minority report dissenting from the purge of his free state fellows and continuing on with the legislature to the Shawnee Manual Labor School and through most of July because

I felt that I could not honorably disregard the interests and wishes of my constituents while there remained any just ground on which I could retain my seat. This fact caused me to continue in a position from which, ordinarily, in the circumstances, I should have retired on the reception of my certificate.

Resigning would deny his supporters the representation of their choosing, paradoxically making him guilty of the same denial of their free choice that the Border Ruffians practiced. But that odd situation aside, Houston stuck with the House knowing its faults in the name of practicality:

The pressing necessities of our people in this wilderness land, destitute as we are in a great measure of wholesome laws, organizations, and all those varied benefits which result from a well regulated, civil arrangement, I felt disposed to pass over much that was clearly illegal; but I am fully convinced that, bad as it is to be without law, it is far preferable to an organization effected at the sacrifice of all that is just and noble in individual position, and all that is grand, fundamental and distinguishing in American principles.

Any government beats no government, but Kansas had the option of good government too. Houston pronounced himself ready to make many small sacrifices of principle, but only so far.

In a representative government like ours, many things may and should be passed over; but there is a point beyond which we cannot go without the most servile surrender of all our rights and liberties.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Those little sacrifices add up, until a mass of technicalities can overwhelm the whole. Houston reached the limit of his tolerance and called it quits. One can anticipate Houston’s reasons from prior posts well enough, but I think it best to look into the specifics rather than construct a generic antislavery man and project him on each historical figure. Doing that would very much mislead us with regard to many of them, especially in a place like Kansas where the lines often blur.

Andrew Reeder came to the territory loudly advertising his proslavery bona fides, but once present made himself deeply obnoxious to the proslavery party. Yet that did not make him an antislavery man like an Abraham Lincoln or a William Lloyd Garrison. Rather his commitment to popular sovereignty pushed him into alignment against the proslavery Missourians who violated its cardinal tenet, to his mind, of Kansas for the Kansans.

However, delving into Houston’s reasons just now would make for a much longer post. Instead they shall come tomorrow.

The Pawnee Land Scheme

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Reeder’s real estate dealings have hung over a few posts without further explanation. I hoped to find a better source than those I have on hand, but have so far failed. I’ve got a copy of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas in the mail that may shed more light, but it might not arrive until the middle of November. What follows comes from Reeder’s and other testimony in the Howard Report, Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, and Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, Volume Two.

Reeder himself begins the account with his visit to Franklin Pierce. The president

stated that the most pertinacious complaints of me had been made to him, and the most urgent demands had been made for my removal upon every ground that could be got up; that Gen. Atchison pressed it in the most excited manner, and would listen to no reasoning at all.

Atchison’s involvement speaks volumes. Bourbon Dave had no trouble stirring up others to go steal elections, and even coming with them to watch, but corrupt land deals? There he drew the line. One had to have some standards. To hear Reeder tell it

As to the charges of purchasing Indian lands and interests in towns, he said he was entirely satisfied as to the former, that it was all fair and honorable, and that hundreds had done so before me-ridiculed Mr. Manypenny’s objection to it, and said he had rebuked him when he talked to him of it; he was, nevertheless, sorry under the circumstances of this case, that I had many any purchases, as they made a pretext for my enemies to annoy him with demands for my removal.

Manypenny served as Indian Commissioner. He had negotiated the cessation of Indian lands back in 1853 which helped grease the Kansas-Nebraska wheels and drew controversy then due to his close relationship with prominent southerners and how he managed, surely by pure accident, to not extinguish Indian title to lands in Nebraska suited to a Pacific railroad. He had the job of reviewing purchases like Reeder’s, and in the governor’s case made

a most violent and high-tempered report against them upon the grounds of unfairness, as well as of technical want of conformity to the rules of the department.

This all happened back in January, by which time Atchison had let everyone know that he wanted Reeder gone. Reeder certainly looks bad in all of this, but Manypenny likewise looks short of disinterested and innocent. It sounds like Reeder tried to improperly buy Indian lands reserved, in the language of the time, to the “half-breed Kaw.” He apparently examined the land in the guise of his official business, which may have made the corruption harder still to deny. The War Department later found his partner in the deal, an officer, guilty of “irregularities” in buying the land. Manypenny’s objection probably came on both material and political grounds.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Which brings us to Pawnee. Aside the investments in building the place up for the legislature, which Reeder had an interest in, the governor cited its distance from Missouri as the chief appeal. This prompted considerable controversy:

as soon as it was ascertained or suspected that I would call the legislature together at that place, it was at once assailed through the press and otherwise to break it down; that a free-State population recently had commenced settling in and around it; that it was obvious its natural advantages would attract emigrants; that its distance from Missouri would constitute a great objection to the projectors and friends of the foreign invasion of our Territory, whilst the same reasons would,l in a few years, make it a rallying point for northern men, and draw about it a large settlement; that this was foreseen by the Missourians, and hence their hostility to it and their determination to break it up; that I had been informed by a reputable and credible citizen of Missouri that General Atchison had written to General [Secretary of War Jefferson] Davis on the subject, and that difficulties had been started in regard to the military reserve of Fort Riley, and as to a dispute between the commanding officer there and a couple of intruders, which had so resulted that the War Department had declared it, wrongly as I believed, within the military reservation, that after a number of houses had been erected, besides a large hall for the meeting of the legislature, and after it was known throughout the States that my proclamation had convened the legislature there.

Reeder paints this as a kind of convoluted misunderstanding. He designated Pawnee the seat of government, knowing it had a fort nearby. Fort Riley had a military reserve which nobody had yet surveyed. Some settlers, before all of this, had come in and received permission to set up a town near to the fort but on land not within the unsurveyed reserve. Much the same had happened previously with Leavenworth, the military reserve’s boundaries running around the town but not quite intruding thereafter. Reeder had nothing to do with it until he arrived in the area on his tour of the territory. He and his party then received shares in the Pawnee town association as a gift. He hadn’t meant to speculate in federal lands; mistakes happen.

Conflicts over land, especially land still waiting on a proper survey, recur throughout the American frontier. Abraham Lincoln’s father removed from Kentucky to Indiana in hopes of getting more secure title to land than he could hope for south of the Ohio. The question on Pawnee seems to come down to whether Reeder made a mistake, or a “mistake”. He came to Kansas as a first-time participant in such matters, which argues for the former, but his education as a lawyer argues for the latter. His continued insistence on Pawnee rather than another settlement distant from Missouri, further argues that he had his personal profit in mind. More on that tomorrow.

What is history for?

John Brown

John Brown

When I had fewer years but more hair and acne, I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Through a collection of essays on the most popular survey texts of American History, Loewen tore apart the conventional way that one learns history in high schools. He turned over rocks that the texts would have you believe didn’t even exist, given their complete silence on the subject. He shed light on the deep rifts in American culture and the profound struggles over how the nation ought to behave, scraping back layers of whitewashing so thick that even a teenager already interested in history had entirely missed them. Given how thoroughly even our most dire struggles get sanitized, this proved quite the revelation.

Loewen argued, so far as I can recall now, that the erasure of genuine conflict and its reduction to something more like a squabble over what to have for lunch created essentially feel-good pablum, mostly for white boys, and nothing at all for anybody else. The resulting product bored almost everybody and came off as a collection of trivia. One teacher I had in high school even called the material as much. That trivia collection suited me just fine, as I’ve long liked trivia, but it does raise the question of why anybody would bother. It has since lost its appeal to me in favor of what I consider a deeper inquiry.

It seems children in Denver don’t care for the trivia collection pablum version of history. They have one up on yours truly at that age. There’s much more, and far more useful things, to take from a history class. Their school board disagreed, insisting that their program should include mostly lies their teachers tell them, presenting

positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In the class I’m taking, Eric Foner described this kind of thing as the hobbit’s view of history. A classmate kindly transcribed his words:

In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public.

Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.

I understand that the Denver affair seems to have wound down, with the board backing off at least until the journalists look away, but the demand for a hobbit’s history recurs throughout the country. Children should believe, to paraphrase David Blight (who does not support this approach at all, I should add) that America, born perfect, then became more perfect still in a steady, unending march of freedom.

But what if the ultimate test of citizenship for much of the nation’s history hinged on the color of your skin?

What if patriotism has generally meant eagerness to go to war, a zeal to suppress dissent at home and support of filibustering and other piracy abroad?

What if the free market involved company towns that paid company scrip, not real money, which you could only use to shop at the company store? What if the free market involved workers locked in a factory as it burned around them and burned them to death? What if the free market produced bosses who hired the mafia to bust up strikes?

What if authority demanded that the law give some people as property to other people, to sell, beat, rape, work to death, or otherwise use like farm animals? What if that authority got its legitimacy from stolen elections, by force, by elections in which few concerned parties could actually vote?

What if the law required you to help arrest and take back to slavery a person who stole himself or herself away? What if it demanded you speak no word against slavery? What if it treated mere public disagreement with the administration as treason?

Does the end of civil order justify the preservation, even the extension, of those and innumerable other injustices? Many people in the past thought so. Apparently some still do.

If I stood before the Denver school board, perhaps I would need to tell them that I did not invent these hypotheticals myself.

The board’s program speaks volumes. It offers not a word in favor of accuracy, nor complexity, nor nuance. Students would not hear about the costs of the free-market system, only its benefits. They would not hear about abuses of authority. They would hear nothing about the denial of individual rights to, for example, four million slaves, to women, to immigrants, to other racial minorities, to socialists and communists, to union organizers, or any of the other people who haven’t counted according to someone in the past. They would hear that civil order is civic virtue, regardless of its nature, that one should presume every law righteous, and that one should view anybody engaged in protest as suspect and alien, fundamentally illegitimate int heir methods and goals as they tend to disorder and strife.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most hated man in America in the 1950s and 1960s had some words about this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councileror the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”


I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

On its most basic level, the board’s program and those of like-minded individuals across the country aspire to cultivate that negative peace. People should know their place. Facts that reflect poorly on the nation, that undermine patriotism, that require children to consider complicated and diverse points of view, should be denied to them. This way they will not grow up into adults who continue in the habit of asking uncomfortable and inconvenient questions.

History as pablum does worse than not teaching it does. Rather than offering students simple ignorance, it promotes the false impression that one knows what one does not. To teach a good parts only version of history amounts to denying the bad parts exist and so encourages blind repetition of them. If we have always exhibited perfect righteousness in the past, why should we think we’ve suddenly done wrong now? For that matter, if we have such perfect righteousness all down our history then why should we think anything that we, as a nation, have done should cease?

This does mean that history will make people uncomfortable. A fuller telling will raise inconvenient questions. It will not flatter anybody’s ideological preconceptions. Most people of the antislavery movement, people who probably everybody today admires and counts as ideological ancestors, had truly awful attitudes toward black Americans. David Wilmot made it very clear that he didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of slaves:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Others considered white racism so insuperable, or black neighbors so undesirable, that they saw no chance of black and white Americans living in peace together. Thus they supported the removal of black Americans back to Africa, no matter how many generations had gone by between their ancestors’ kidnapping and the day of exile. Even antislavery Americans engaged in what we might consider a heroic, direct, sometimes violent struggle against slavery at risk to their own lives don’t come down to us as perfected saints.

John Brown made history before Harper’s Ferry not by attacking a proslavery paramilitary band, but by hauling proslavery civilians out of their house at night and murdering them for their presumed past and future votes against the policy he preferred. He did not with that start the guerrilla war over Kansas, but he pushed it into a new and more violent phase. The same John Brown rescued nearly a dozen slaves and took them safely off to Kansas, a claim desperately few white abolitionists could make.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Does John Brown count on the side of positive aspects of American history or the negative? What about David Wilmot? What about Abraham Lincoln, who even during the war tried to get a black American colony going on an island off Haiti? I don’t mean to put all these men on the same level as Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have no doubt that someone could scour up ways that each of the latter led exemplary lives. In Lee’s case, entire books already exist on the subject. Anybody, with sufficient editing, becomes a demon or a saint.

Doing history well and developing a robust understanding of the past, and thus how it has shaped our present, doesn’t come easy. It requires us to confront imperfections in our heroes, blind spots in our ideologies, and the often savage limits of the promises America allegedly made to everyone. Does that make for better citizens? I hope so, but I think it worth doing either way. Life often requires grappling with complex issues long after the classroom passes into memory. Where better to hone those skills than in the study of actual complex issues faced by actual people, often in ways that reverberate down the years to us? You can’t understand the present without some appreciation of how we got here. That requires grappling with complexities, among people we want to make heroes and villains alike, that the Denver board and their like-minded confederates elsewhere seek to prohibit.

Those complexities will lead us all down uncomfortable roads. We may not come out better for it; people do study the past intensely and well and go on to happily repeat its worst horrors. But not making the effort only increases our odds of doing so. If history does not strike the reader as a worthwhile pursuit in itself, then I offer the chance to reduce our odds of doing worse as ample justification for its study all the same.

The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.

Gone off the Map for a Day

Gentle Readers,

There will be no news hot off the presses from Kansas, in 1855 or otherwise, today. If you want some Civil war-related content, then you may find the breathtaking stupidity of certain self-appointed Southern Heritage Advocates amusing. It transpires that they looked up Abraham Lincoln in the returns for the 1860 census and discovered a woman unrelated to him or to Mary living in their home. Could this Mary Johnson have been a slave?

Well no. As it clearly says on the very page they produced, it tabulated only free people. The schedule of free persons thus clearly proves, by listing this free person in Lincoln’s household, that Abraham Lincoln was secretly a slaveholder and this fact has been suppressed for fifteen decades. I am not making this up. Al Mackey offers a reasonable interpretation of the affair here. Stupidity or malice? I lean more toward the former, but the two come together often enough.

Happier tidings, then.

Your author spent the time that he would have devoted to writing another Kansas post with a friend back from Oregon for the week. It’s only the third time since 2000 that we’ve seen each other. We spent the time in this foreign place, an uncharted, howling wild lit by an alien, unnatural ball of flame that floated in the sky. I think that its hateful light burned my tender flesh. Tiny creatures feasted upon my blood.

Slithering, loathsome things undulated in the grass. Signs warned us of them in lurid detail. I can only presume that some forgotten generation of explorers posted them. We saw none, but I have no doubt that for all our strange ordeal they lurked nearby. I suspect that my friend had dire intentions toward me, as she lured me off the marked trail -surely the remains of some ancient, lost civilization- to point out the odd flora.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

This plant eats meat. Their petals form little cups that fill up with a substance that smells delicious to insects. The insects fly in and get stuck, where the plant happily digests them. Fascinating organisms, I must say. I apologize for my questionable photographic skills, but with thoughts of the slithering things in the grass I did not care to crouch down and get a really good picture. I fed the wildlife sufficiently upon my precious blood, thank you.

A View of Kansas, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The Chicago Democratic Press’ correspondent, who Horace Greeley kindly reprinted for us, gave the reader ample reason to go to Kansas. While not perfect, it offered good land and tolerable weather. The nearer portion of it had all the timber one would want to make homes, barns, fences, and all the rest of a successful farm. Even the Indians, from whom one would take the land, seemed almost like white people with their successful farms.

One might take from the Chicago paper’s name that it leaned Democratic. From that one might also conclude that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act came out of a Democratic Congress and Democratic administration, the paper would stop there. Greeley might have printed its words regardless, since they would entice antislavery men to go off to Kansas all the same. The article did commence with careful neutrality, avoiding slavery entirely. But it came at last to the subject:

The course which the officers of the government feel bound to pursue is producing much ill-feeling among the emigrants. They are hardy and enterprising, and seem determined each for himself to preoccupy a large slice of this new and valuable territory. Desperate efforts are being made by the Missourians to induce slaveholders to go there, but the balance of feeling is against it. Many of the most intelligent slaveholders admit there is no chance for them. This should not lull our northern people for a single moment, and they certainly should not be deterred by the blustering of the Missourians from going there.

Yes, the men from Missouri made dire threats. They said they would run off antislavery settlers, violently if necessary. They had every advantage geography could offer and a good head start. But slavery did not travel easily. Not every Missouri man came over committed to bringing it along and few wealthy planters would risk valuable human property on land that might soon go free. The Democratic Press continued:

We look upon it as a patriotic duty, for our young men especially, to settle this territory and make it a free State, thereby removing forever the greatest obstacle to the permanence and future prosperity of the American Union. It will confine Slavery to definite limits. The northern people would respect their rights under the Constitution, and leave them to enjoy their “peculiar institution” till their interest and their duty should conspire to lead them to abolish it. The peace, we fear, the very existence of the Union is at stake in the settlement of this great question. Let all who love their country be ready to “be up and doing” when the time for final action shall arrive. The safety and glory of the country is at stake, and we know there are thousands of strong arms and warm hearts ready to enlist in this enterprise. There is no fear for Nebraska. Let Kansas be settled with freemen and we are done with the fearful agitation of the Slavery question forever.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Save Kansas; save the Union.

The appeal stands out in part for coming from a Democratic paper, and a Chicago one at that. Douglas’ dream of revitalizing the party in the North by taking slavery off the table seemed no closer to reality. When he tried to rescue it in Illinois, he found Chicago unsympathetic. Then a speaking tour to rehabilitate himself ran hard up against Abraham Lincoln. Northerners, even Northern Democrats, refused to get over how he sold them out to the Slave Power. Some of them would go so far as to make a new political party over it.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Six

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow defended slavery on religious and benevolent grounds. How could the abolitionists censure what the Bible endorsed and which so benefited the slaves? His claims reached farther than that, though. Stringfellow also insisted that slavery benefited the white race. At this point, a modern reader immediately thinks that of course whites benefited. The profits made with the theft of black labor flowed into white pockets. Surely Stringfellow meant not that whites benefited in a materialistic sense. One could not defend slavery just by saying how rich one got from it or how it funded fine civic projects.

Yet he did. Abolitionist and antislavery Americans of the age viewed slavery as an economically backwards, unproductive enterprise. It retarded progress and put a millstone around the nation’s neck. Nineteenth century Americans loved progress above most other concepts. Believing in America meant believing in progress. That progress could come through territorial expansion, the opening of new lands to white settlement, or technological development, but it all fed into the spirit of the time. They rode the railroad and telegraph into the future. Calling slavery a retrograde impediment to progress also called it unpatriotic and unwelcome in the future of iron and steel that seemed just around the corner.

Stringfellow would have none of that:

We have now the statistics furnished in the census: they are in reach of all; their truth can not be disputed, and we are now enabled to determine beyond controversy the effects of negro-slavery. The men of the north are peculiarly, a “calculating” people, accustomed to deal with facts and figures; and a large majority of them we believe disposed to be just, to listen to fair argument, to yield to the force of truth: to them we submit with confidence the startling evidence furnished by the census.

Listen up, Yankees. You like your numbers and B.F. Stringfellow has some numbers for you. Taking pains to make fair comparisons, he chose to weigh the statistics for the New England states against their similarly developed slaveholding peers: Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Going through the census, Stringfellow found

These five Southern States, with a free population of only 2,198 greater than the six New England States, have nearly double the number of churches, capable of accommodating a million more worshippers, at but little over half the cost!

Godly New England seems awfully disinterested in building houses of worship, even though it had more towns in which to situate them. The slaveholding states built more churches, for more people, for less money. They surely could not have done the last without the benefit of slave labor. The blood and sweat and toil of black slaves made for godly white men. And they even let the slaves worship with them, contrary to abolitionist claims that slaveholders kept back from their property the benefits of religion:

These Southern States contain a population, including slaves, of 720,410 more than New England: yet in New England there are 200,000 more who cannot find a seat in the house of God! These Southern churches can not only accommodate every man that could be crowded into the temples of New England, but would then give room to more than a million of slaves!

The picture grew even worse for New England when accounting for the fact that more than two hundred of its churches called themselves Unitarian or Universalist, and thus not really Christian at all. In all the South, the census found only eight such dens of heterodoxy.

Something about the northern air sent people to imagining dubious religious innovations in general:

Out of the census, we can point to Mormonism with its polygamy; Millerism, Spiritualism, as taking their birth, flourishing alone where abolitionists are found. The Stowes, and Beechers, with the Fanny Wrights, and Abby Folsoms, are to be found alone in that land which produced Joe Smith, Miller, the Misses Fox.

What is it which has thus reversed the condition of these people, set at naught all our experience; has converted the indolent thoughtless Southerner into the humble orthodox Christian; while the men of the north, the world over noted for religious enthusiasts, the sons of the Puritans, have fallen from their simple stern devotion, become setters up of strange doctrines?

The abolitionist movement did draw a great deal of support from Upstate New York’s Burned-Over District, known for its religious innovations. One can’t argue with those facts, though one need not share Stringfellow’s suspicion of new, novel religious ideas.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Five

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Stringfellow hammered the point that the census showed slaves as better off in terms of physical and mental health than free blacks, neglecting any difference in their ability to access what the nineteenth century had to offer in terms of social welfare for those so afflicted.  Stringfellow pressed on from there. He had the Bible on his side. He had the census. But he had still more statistics to advance his thesis that slavery benefited the slave and slaveholder alike.

Even in slaveholding Missouri, free black people just did little to no good. They had slaveholding whites and faithful slaves all around them, but appeared to take little from their good example. Stringfellow knew because he lived in their company:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character

It did little to just assert that free black ne’er-do-wells rampaged across the South, though. People of the time would probably not call him a racist for it, but they would know all too well that a proslavery man has a strong motivation to exaggerate or outright invent sins of those who slipped slavery’s noose. Stringfellow went to the crime statistics to back himself up.

Of the moral condition of the slave, as contrasted with that of the free negro, the census also gives us no information. But so full are the annals of crime, of evidence on this head, we would waste time in making the contrast. Of the slave we fearlessly assert that as to all the higher grades of crime, he will contrast favorably even with the white man. But “children of a larger growth,” kindly, affectionate in their dispositions, their wants all simple, amply supplied, they have neither the temptation nor the inclination to commit crime. They may be led astray, they are easily ruled, they may commit a petty trespass; but let alone, with none to corrupt them, they pass through life happy, contented and innocent.

Slaves behaved themselves, absent some abolitionist giving them bad ideas. Free black people? Not so much:

On the other hand, the unhappy free negro, thoughtless and improvident, driven from the society of the good and the virtuous, an outcast among the vicious, is regarded as a nuisance even by the abolitionist! He is not a mere nuisance, but the criminal statistics of the North show, that crime of the highest grades, offences which are punished by confinement in the penitentiaries, prevail among the free negroes to an unheard of extent. In Massachusetts, composing less than one-hundredth part of the population, they furnish one-tenth of the convicts. In other States, the proportion is even greater. In the South, on the other hand, offenses of this character are even more rare than among the whites.

I wish Stringfellow gave a source for his numbers. Despite his proud declaration that he has them, we receive only this one from his text.

That said, let’s grant for the sake of argument that Stringfellow spoke the general truth. He ignores, and can’t have missed the fact having lived in a slave society, that slaves had little to no access to the criminal justice system. If they committed a grievous crime, it might make a sensation in the newspapers and be on everyone’s mind for a while. That slave or free black person, however, stood little chance of coming before a court, facing trial, and receiving a sentence. The white South, seeing its survival at stake, dealt with these things brutally but informally.

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s

Abraham Lincoln told the story of one such case in Stringfellow’s own Missouri back in the 1830s:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

McIntosh murdered a prominent citizen of St. Louis. Even on its chilly frontier, where cotton did not grow, the white South dealt with that kind of thing far more often by means of private violence than the courts.

Trading Cuba for Kansas

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and revisited.

Back when I returned to the subject of Cuba filibustering, I said that I wanted to explore just how the South chose the questionable prospect of slavery expanded into Kansas over the sure thing of slavery in Cuba. I don’t think that I ever came out and said how that choice happened. This seems like a good moment to go back and unpack the narrative a bit.

Essentially, expansionist-minded Southerners had two opportunities to spread slavery in 1854 and 1855. They could bring the institution to Kansas, or they could bring Cuba with the institution to the Union. Each place had its attractions. If Cuba came into the Union, it must come in as a slave state. It already had slavery, so no one could complain about losing territory promised over to free soil. Even an eleventh hour emancipation poison pill from the departing Spanish could easily be reversed. Unlike the American Southwest, Cuba came thick with slaves and so no one could reasonably call it an undeclared region.

All in all, Cuban slavery looked very secure. The Spanish might threaten, cause panics, and inspire resolutions against the Neutrality Acts and conspiracy theories about British involvement (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but a swift conquest would moot those fears. A fleeting emancipation could easily end with slavery reinstated. Geography would keep slave-stealing abolitionists away and offer self-stealing slaves fewer places to run. If the John A. Quitman and his filibusters could achieve a swift conquest, especially if aided by local revolts, it seems very reasonable to conclude that slavery would persist without disturbance on the island.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

If Quitman could win his game of Grand Theft Island, the Union might not instantly accept Cuba. The Cubans might not instantly accept the Union. But the example of Texas, always on their minds, argued that if Cuba could maintain some kind of de facto independence long enough then somehow, annexation would come. While Texas came in at the price of a war and amid great controversy, nobody proposed giving it back. The imperialistic, missionary attitudes of nineteenth century Americans, convinced that progress expanded with the nation’s borders, could easily ensure that. Would Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis, Caleb Cushing, and Stephen Douglas really refuse Cuba offered up on a silver platter?

But much hangs on that little word ‘if’. If Quitman could take Cuba, if a revolt erupted that he could sail to aid, if he could sail, if he had the ships and men, if the law did not intervene, then all of this might come to pass. Kansas did not have slavery. Bringing it there would involve a fight. But no one save Indians would question the right of Americans to the land.

The Kansas question revolved not on whether expansionists could prevail against a foreign power and then smoothly consolidate their gains into the Union, but rather on whether they could prevail against other Americans. With Kansas adjacent to the Missouri black belt, drained by the same river, and slavery-friendly Missourians possessing a geographic leg up on the competition, that must have looked like the better gamble. Even if Southerners largely understood Kansas as a Missourian issue which they, as fellow slaveholders, had a duty to advance that still left them united in a way that filibustering did not. Lawless filibusters might come off as lovable rogues and high-spirited patriots in Louisiana, but many sections of the South looked on them less charitably than on legitimate, honorable military conquest or lawful purchase of more land (parts 1, 2, 3) from Mexico.

Looking back, we can say that the South made the wrong choice. We know that the North’s fury over being sold out did not abate but instead fueled the foundation of a new, avowedly antislavery party. We know that party nearly won the presidency in 1856 and did in 1860. We know that the KansasNebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. They did not. With the two options before them, Kansas could very reasonably look like the safer bet. The South had dared Northern outrage, won, and endured the backlash over the fugitive slave act. Slavery in Kansas might ensure its spread, with time, to Utah and New Mexico. With a gloss of popular sovereignty, especially if freedom prevailed north of Kansas, they could reasonably have thought that everything would blow over.