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

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

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

A Minority of One, Part One

Felix Kirk Zollicoffer (KN-TN)

Felix Kirk Zollicoffer (KN-TN)

Majority Report: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Reports with the Kansas petition here.


Galusha Grow’s majority on the Committee of Territories, affirmed that the Congress should admit the free state government to the Union at once. The territorial government Congress had establish lost all legitimacy through “fraud and violence” and its “odious oppression in the form of legislative enactments”. The time had come for Congress to act in the name of peace, liberty, and “the remove the causes of civil war.”

Not everyone on the committee agreed, so the minority produced his own report. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer (Whig turned Know-Nothing, TN), who might just outdo Galusha Grow in the competition for most remarkable name, did not think Congress should leave Kansas a territory. No American should dwell forever in a territory. Congress should instead authorize a state constitutional convention. However, he denied that Kansas had languished as a territory for so long as to

depress that independence of sentiment which a government like ours should ever cultivate in its citizens; and that it would be ill-judged in continuing to impose upon the United States the burdens of a Territorial organization, after the people of the Territory were fully able to defray for themselves all the expenses of a State government.

Yes, Kansas deserves statehood. But why rush? It had only two years’ territorial status under its belt. The typical state muddled through “from twelve to thirteen, and in some instances much more”. Zollicoffer, like Grow, had examples: Mississippi remained a territory nineteen years, Florida twenty-six, and Michigan thirty-two. That sounded wrong to me and I suspected that Zollicoffer engaged in some prevarication to claim some obscure legislation as the start of the territorial history rather than the normal organic act. He did not. Mississippi (1798-1817), Florida (1822-1845), and Michigan (1805-1837) all match his math. Sorry for misjudging you, Felix.

Furthermore, even if Kansas had done thirty-two years as a territory, Zolicoffer believed it lacked sufficient people to justify statehood. He put its October, 1855 population at twenty-five thousand, just as Grow did, but held that it required 93,420 whites to qualify. To admit it so soon would do an injustice to the the present states, diluting their power with representatives of so few. He declared that

It would be a radical departure from the established usage of the government; there being no instance in which a State has ever been admitted with a population so inconsiderable, and no instance, with one solitary exception, more than equal to the ratio of representation in Congress.

The Constitution may not, as Zollicoffer agrees, require such numbers. But the established norm came about for good reasons and the nation should not lightly set it aside. The average population of the eighteen states admitted, at the time of their admission, stood a bit over 104,000. The majority had just cherry-picked the low population territories to make its argument. He supplied a table to prove it.

Here Zollicoffer does do something sophistical. Grow’s majority did not present their low-population states as average. Rather they acknowledged that they had the low end of the curve. They maintained that Kansas could secure admission at its then-current population on the grounds that other states had done so with less. He has a perfectly good point on the numbers, but chose to misconstrue the majority’s position on the question to strengthen his own.

The Long Reach of American Fascism

I’ve written before that Donald Trump has a past. He has brought back to the forefront of American politics essentially open advocacy for white supremacy, after decades of white Americans pretending they didn’t have any real problem with black Americans. He has undone, at least for this moment, the work of Lee Atwater and his generation of PR men:

That distinction, and some others, do make the Trump campaign unique. We’ve known for decades that when fascism came to the United States it would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. They didn’t tell us it would come in orange with a dodgy comb-over, but then fascists have a history of not living up to their own aesthetic standards; the rules apply to other people. Saying fascism would come also implies that we didn’t have it already. It appears, in fact, that Americans invented the ideology, attitude, aesthetic, or whatever thing one considers fascism best called. Before Mussolini’s train ran on time, the Ku Klux Klan crossed the finish line so early we didn’t have a name for it.

Just as we risk missing the forest for the tree in taking Trump as entirely sui generis, so we do the same in taking fascism in isolation. Fascist movements have never, so far as I know, come to power without cooperation from the mainstream right of their countries. That cooperation came come eagerly or with a general sense of disdain, but it does come. Never Trump never came to much. Nor will the ritual denunciations. We can’t know what goes on between an individual and their ballot, but even if all the famous people declaring they’ve changed parties follow through, they have shifted perhaps hundreds of votes. Had enough of them existed to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination of the mainstream American conservative party, we would have seen it by now.

Trumpism, for all its thuggish bullying, open white supremacy, and admiration of street violence, has precious little but style to distinguish it from past runs for the presidency. I don’t need to dig back into the nineteenth century or root about in the dustbin of history for fringe candidates everybody has agreed, safely after the fact, to hate. If you want bellicose white supremacy in the vein of the murder victim getting what he had coming, take these remarks on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

King, you must understand, brought this on himself. By breaking the law to protest segregation, he produced the violent backlash that claimed his life. He ought to have known his place. The author of that statement then occupied no more exalted an office than that of governor, but he would go on to greater things.

Philadelphia, Mississippi has two claims to national fame. In 1964, the Klan, with help from the county sheriff and local police, murdered three civil rights activists there. I imagine that one doesn’t go on the tourist brochures, but it happened all the same. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, and Michael Schwermer helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. These laws abridged the power of state governments, particularly in the South, to behave abominably toward African-Americans.

Sixteen years later, a presidential campaign rolled into town. The candidate came fresh off his convention win, inaugurating his general election campaign in Philadelphia. I have no doubt that the people of Philadelphia, then and now, run the gamut just like people everywhere else. They deserve a presidential visit as much as anybody. But towns that even today boast only seven thousand or so people don’t have for national office candidates just drop by; I live in a town of ten thousand and we don’t get that. The campaign chose Philadelphia for a reason, and the man behind the podium made it clear just what they had in mind:

I believe in state’s rights.

I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.

And if I do get the job I’m looking for… (Cheers and applause)

I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

You don’t give a speech like this in a place like Philadelphia by accident. You do it because you want everyone to know that state’s rights means white power. The speaker didn’t wear a white hood and chant about the Klan getting bigger, but he didn’t need to. When you go to Philadephia, Mississippi and tell the town that murdered civil rights workers and so convinced the nation to pass laws curbing state power to abridge civil rights that you believe in state’s rights, you tell them that you’ve taken their side. You are no partisan for the victims, nor their cause, but the declared ally of their murderers. If elected, you will do all in your power to roll back civil rights and restore white supremacy’s untrammeled rule to its most murderous extent.

The speaker in question? Revered conservative statesman Ronald Reagan. I don’t see many conservatives, or many white Americans in general, willing to denounce him.

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

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

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

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

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

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

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

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

Thomas Fleming’s First Dead End: Compensated Emancipation

Thomas Fleming, a historian and novelist, has produced a remarkable essay. Therein, he presents two ways to rid the nation of slavery without a war: compensated emancipation and diffusion of slaveholding. We can’t rerun history and do things differently to know that for sure, but Fleming points to real historical circumstances where both solutions put an end to slavery. The essay covers several topics that each deserve their own post for full consideration, as they reference common pro-Confederate tropes and for reasons of length and clarity. Kansas coverage will resume in a few days.

LincolnAccording to Fleming:

The first solution came from Abraham Lincoln. It was the solution that the British used to free a million slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s – compensated emancipation. Not once but twice Lincoln offered the South millions of dollars if they would agree to gradually free their slaves over the next 40 or 50 years.


Why not just buy all the slaves? It worked for the British. Surely it could work for the United States. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument. When examined in more detail, it proves far less plausible. The millions of slaves living in the United states amounted to not millions of dollars invested in human property, but billions:

In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion.

The British had eight hundred thousand slaves to free and did so, ultimately, at the cost of twenty million pounds sterling. The United states had nearly four million who, together, beat the combined value of all the nation’s railroads and factories. Only the land itself, all the American portion of the continent, might have held greater cash value. The money to pay for the nation’s slaves at anything like fair market value would have taken appropriations on par with the cost of waging the war itself, something that no Congress confronted with anything less than an insurrection on the scale of the Civil War would have contemplated. Furthermore, the cooperation of the South would be essential to any compensation scheme. The Southern caucus would have to both allow its loyalists in the North to defect on the issue and then come over themselves, at least in significant numbers, to pass any bill that would buy up the nation’s slaves. This would almost surely mean forcing enslavers to sell their human property at a loss, as well as foreclosing the major avenue for economic and social advancement for the section’s poorer whites.

The white South proved unwilling to do any such thing both in the 1860s and every other time the subject came under serious consideration, whether the nation could raise the cash or not. When Ohio proposed compensation and colonization in 1824 with the eventual concurrence of eight other states, including Delaware in a rare departure from slaveholder solidarity, six of the slave states rejected the proposal emphatically. South Carolina’s legislature declared

the people of this state will adhere to a system, descended to them from their ancestors, and now inseparably connected with their social and political existence.

Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama concurred, so this amounts to more than an episode of South Carolina extremism. States so committed would hardly dispatch senators or elect representatives who would happily comply with any emancipation scheme, even the most gradual and mild. Nor could one expect their constituents to cooperate happily with it if they did. That commitment proved no less weaker in 1862. In Delaware’s case, it had actually deepened. Only the tremendous strains put on marginal slavery regimes by the war itself induced Missouri and Maryland to accept emancipation, and without compensation, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment.

The British managed compensated emancipation, but the United States did not manage a slavery regime under the same circumstances as the British Empire did. People of both nations enjoyed reaping the profits of slavery, but Britain kept slavery at arm’s length. One could not legally hold slaves within the United Kingdom, only in its colonies. A slave who set foot in Britain became that moment free, a fact long understood by the English courts. Those colonies, as Americans ought to know very well, did not enjoy full, equal rights, representation, or sovereignty with the mother country. Parliament had the full power to legislate on a colony’s behalf, regardless of the objections of any local assembly that might exist. Whites in Jamaica or Barbados might oppose emancipation, even with compensation, but their presence didn’t come with built-in senators and representatives to fight on their behalf. A proslavery lobby did exist, and delayed the progress of freedom significantly, but it had to operate in a free Britain and compete against industrial interests significantly more developed than those in the United States.

Politically, emancipation thus came more easily to Britain. It did so socially and intellectually as well. Proslavery writing stresses the intimacy of the American way of bondage. They called slavery a domestic institution and meant it not just in a general sense that they practiced it locally, but also much more intimately. Enslaved women received cruel tutelage on that point. The enslaved lived with the enslaver. Well-off southern whites grew up with enslaved companions. The enslaved cooked their meals. They slept in the enslavers’ rooms to remain available to the their every whim, no matter the hour and without delay. An enslaver might harbor fears for the institution’s future, but it permeated every moment of his or her life. By contrast, most British enslavers came to the colonies to establish a slave labor camp and get rich enough to hand management over permanently to an overseer. He would then go home, never intending to remain in perpetuity among the enslaved.

Parliamentary debates over emancipation conspicuously lack the kind of arguments about black inferiority which pervaded American discussion of slavery. Though Britain certainly had its share of white supremacists, their ideas did not lay the bedrock upon which one could launch a defense of slavery like proslavery writers did to a unique extent in the United States. Living among the enslaved, seeing them tortured, torturing them yourself, and yet also pretending that you governed them in a kind and fatherly manner required both a level of ideological commitment and personal delusion probably only sustainable to a large scale in the exceptional milieu of eighteenth and nineteenth century America.

This leaves us at the end of a road not taken. For compensated emancipation to have worked in the United States would have required a very different United States. To arrive at such a polity would have required transformations that one must expect the white South to fight bitterly, just as it fought bitterly against the different transformations that finally did end American slavery. Even should those cultural changes have taken place, the nation would then have confronted the still formidable practical obstacles to emancipation.

I departed from Fleming’s text to consider a common claim in neo-Confederate circles, but fairness demands that I also acknowledge he knows full well that the South refused compensation. The usual suspects don’t even get that far, instead preferring the notion that Lincoln and the Republicans really didn’t care about slavery. The few who do just barely better will insist that the antislavery movement instead refused to even consider compensation. That the South rejected it doesn’t enter into things, as that would admit that the South understood slavery as its paramount concern and waged a war on its behalf. Once one admits that, one must either don the white hood proudly or find a different cause.