A Free State Welcome for Davy Atchison?

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Alongside the Squatter Sovereign’s endorsement of Pierce’s third annual message and John Stringfellow’s plan to sell town shares to fund arms for proslavery militiamen ran another item. Every issue I have seen of the Squatter Sovereign, until January of 1856, ran with an endorsement of David Rice Atchison for president. The Stringfellows really liked Missouri’s lately former Senator. When they took it down, they did so at the request of the great man himself. The most illustrious border ruffian, the man who declared he would wipe Kansas clean of every abolitionist, the most instrumental figure in managing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, declared that he had no presidential ambitions just then. But, the Sovereign reported, David Rice Atchison planned to move to Kansas. He would come with friends, slaves, and friends with slaves, and settle down in his namesake town.

I don’t know that Atchison ever did move to Kansas, even temporarily, but the news got the Squatter Sovereign very excited. It seems the rumor went around a few different times, so Atchison might have had plans and reconsidered or let on that he had such plans as a way to bolster the proslavery cause. Or John Stringfellow may have imagined it entirely. When you name your town after someone who lives nearby, you might start to expect things. Either way, the Sovereign relates that not everyone in Kansas cheered at the prospect of the author of all their woes coming to stay:

Brown, of the Herald of Freedom, says that “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” We inform the valiant editor that Gen. A. intends moving to this country in a few weeks, and whenever the traitors of Douglas county, or any other portion of the Territory, refuse obedience to the laws of the Kansas Legislature, enacted at Shawnee Manual Labor School last summer, and a posse is called out to aid the sheriff, Gen. Atchison will be found on the ground “with arms in hand,” and if you want his scalp you can have an opportunity of taking it, provided your courage does not evaporate as it did before when the militia was called out.

That the Sovereign uses quotations suggests something Brown actually wrote. Given his occasional bellicose inclinations, I can believe Brown might have. I went looking for any such proclamation in the Herald of Freedom, but found none. Stringfellow and Kelley might refer to something that Brown said rather than published, or have chosen to construe remarks he made in general as a direct threat against Atchison, but the lines look suspicious. They maintain that Brown said, rather than wrote, so they could appeal to some personal communication or spur of the moment utterance unavailable to posterity, but they frame the piece just as they would a response to a printed editorial. Clearly they intend for the reader to take a direct threat to the life of one of the nation’s more prominent politicians as something Brown went on the record about.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

This all fits well with the proslavery line on the free state movement: lawless hoodlums devoted to general anarchy beset Kansas. The friends of law and order must take a firm stand against them or those fanatics would burn the whole territory, perhaps the whole Union, to the ground. Their movement, though it might seem full of lawless hoodlums, acted strictly for defense. The placement of the piece so close to Stringfellow’s filibuster fundraising plan further underlines the point: Buy his town shares so proslavery men can have their guns, or the opposition might go so wild as to kill a senator.

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce didn’t like antislavery politics and he wanted everyone to know it. In his third annual message, he recast the history of the nation up to the Missouri Crisis through a proslavery lens. He occasionally made points that historians today would accept, especially when he depicted antislavery forces understanding of the Missouri Compromise as a loss for their side. But the president got to the 1820s just by warming up. The subsequent decades further proved, to his mind, that the proslavery South had consistently respected constitutional settlements and the nation’s sectional accord, while the antislavery North had disregarded them nearly from the start.

Leaving Missouri behind brought Pierce up to the annexation of Texas. That “next step in territorial greatness”

became the occasion for systematized attempts to intervene in the domestic affairs of one section of the Union, in defiance of their rights as States and of the stipulations of the Constitution. These attempts assumed a practical direction in the shape of persevering endeavors by some of the Representatives in both Houses of Congress to deprive the Southern States of the supposed benefit for the provisions of the act authorizing the organization of the State of Missouri.

The Texas question involved many issues. Aside slavery, annexation would almost certainly bring war with Mexico. We know how that war went, but even in a time with far more enthusiasm for military adventures prominent Americans from Martin Van Buren on down viewed the prospect with some apprehension. The accession of such a large territory, extending north of the Missouri Compromise line but mainly beneath it, where slavery existed made for a singularly thorny problem. Should the nation accept Texas at all? Would annexation vastly swell the South’s power? Would it overthrow the Missouri Compromise? These doubts postponed annexation for a decade and the relevant treaties the 2/3 majority they needed in the Senate, so John Tyler got around the problem by pushing through a joint resolution annexing Texas directly as a state, skipping the territorial stage entirely. The United States had never gained foreign land by a simple act of Congress before and the innovation looked to many like a dirty trick. The expedited statehood didn’t help either.

Pierce ignored all of that, dismissing objections as another eruption of antislavery fanaticism and pressed on to the Mexican War. David Wilmot had sought to bar slavery from any lands taken as a result of the war, save those of Texas. This, Pierce considered an

abusive and unconstitutional employment of the legislative powers of the Government to interfere in the condition of the inchoate States and to impose their own social theories upon the latter

The assertion that inchoate states (territories) had sovereignty on par with actual states came as news at the time, for all Pierce aimed to cast it as an eternal verity. He might come from a state bordering on Canada, but the president could quote proslavery constitutional dogmas with the best of them. But rejoice, for Pierce had the Constitution win through again. The new territories got to decide for themselves on slavery. That much of the controversy arose from Southern objection to a free California, which had done just that as an inchoate state, didn’t warrant a mention. As a bonus, the Armistice of 1850 brought a new fugitive slave act to better the traditional arrangement between the states.

All that said, Pierce closed with a full-throated defense of repealing the Missouri Compromise as a necessary reaffirmation of the original Constitutional order, fundamentally an act of orthodox justice for a slaveholding South long the victim of antislavery attacks.

One must wonder where in all of this Pierce crosses the line between sincere advocacy of contrary positions and trolling the opposition. He might have believed every word. He might have written the whole as no more than a cynical defense of his own record. But Pierce had to know by the time of writing that he would almost surely face a hostile Congress. He inaugurated his relationship with that body in an annual message that could scarcely do more than reinforce that hostility.

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Black Law and the Missouri Precedent

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I’ve no idea why it didn’t go up as scheduled.

The winter came in all its fury to Kansas. The Border Ruffians, defeated without battle, went home to nurse their grudges and dream of future mayhem. The people of Lawrence, with militias now bearing Wilson Shannon’s commission, buried Thomas Barber. It all made for a very full month, but December of 1855 had still more to hold. The day before Thomas Barber’s burial, December 15, 1855, the people of Kansas went to the polls. The Free State Party set that as the date for ratification of their constitution. That document barred slavery in Kansas, declared any ownership of people from other states invalid within its bounds, and carried with it the fruit of the difficult coalition between racist antislavery whites and comparatively more enlightened abolitionists. When antislavery Kansas came put the popular into their sovereignty, they had more than the constitution to vote up or down. Separately they would make their will known on the black law.

This, as the Herald of Freedom reminded its readers, made for

The great bone of contention […] One party was desirous of engrafting a feature into teh Constitution excluding every class of the colored population from the Territory, bond or free. Others saw in this a species of oppression, and as for adopting it as a feature of the fundamental law, they were conscious they could never make their way through Congress with such a dead weight attached to that instrument. They had the precedent of Missouri as a land-mark to guide them.

The Missourian precedent went back to the Missouri Controversy, if a lesser known part of it. Congress ultimately let Missouri into the Union with slavery intact and drew a line across the rest of the Louisiana purchase to keep slavery from the lion’s share. The Missourians, displeased at the delay of their statehood on behalf of black Americans, wrote a constitution that excluded any free black person from entry into their state.

This blatantly violated the federal constitution, which guaranteed free movement of the citizens of each state. Some states had given black Americans citizenship, and even the vote. By the letter of the law, they had as much right as any other citizen to come and live in Missouri. Congress balked, passing an impotent amendment insisting that Missouri’s constitution did not do what it said it did but taking no meaningful action on the matter.

Back in the 1820s, Missouri had the advantage. It might get away with such things, but the free state men risked more and in more fraught times. Slavery’s defenders, already sure to put up a dire fight indeed, could throw the words of the free state Kansans’ political fathers against them. On top of that, they risked losing the favor of particularly New Englanders who might otherwise serve as their most loyal partisans in Washington.

Given the circumstances, despite its past condemnation of the law, George Washington Brown’s paper endorsed the constitution. Stephen Douglas, Franklin Pierce, and all the rest promised Kansas popular sovereignty and they would have it.

The President, even, must give it his sanction, else prove false to all his former professions

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Kansas dared. The voters approved the Topeka Constitution 1,731 to 46. As for the black law, the ballot did not strictly pass a law in itself. Rather the election proclamation directed Kansas’ qualified electors to approve or disapprove instructions to the first General Assembly to meet under the constitution’s auspices

providing for the exclusion of free negroes from the State of Kansas.

Such an instruction could come close to law and the voters must have understood it as such. They took their popular sovereignty and voted in its favor 1,287 to 453. New Englanders like Charles Robinson by and large opposed the law, but Westerners like James Lane handily outnumbered them.

Monuments and Compromise

Liberty Place monument original location

The obelisk at its original location

New Orleans has four monuments to white supremacy now slated for removal. Two of these monuments fall into the run of generic Confederate celebration. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis had all that much to do with New Orleans or Louisiana, but if you can’t put up a statue or Lee or Davis as an icon of white power then what else is there? In the case of New Orleans, one could plausibly argue that Andrew Jackson does the job and has an obvious local history connection. New Orleans has a Jackson statue and, while I understand it has rightly drawn criticism, the proposed removal doesn’t include it. It does include a statue of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, a genuine native son.

This leaves us with the fourth monument to consider. It commemorates not the familiar war, but its less famous continuation. On September 14, 1874, five thousand members of the White League battled the state militia and local police. It took the arrival of the United States military to suppress their insurrection. People don’t just get together thousands strong and pick a fight with the state for the pure joy of battle. The obelisk celebrating the struggle did not originally come with an explanation, but the city added one in the 1930s:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

In the Thirties, whites didn’t feel as obligated to talk around the issues as they often do now. The rioters in 1874 fought for white supremacy against a Reconstruction state government and they would have had it if not for the Army getting in the way. If the Confederate veterans in the White League didn’t get what they wanted at the time, their perseverance eventually won through. The obelisk generated the sort of criticism one would expect, eventually leading the city to add a new plaque contextualizing the monument. This pleased no one, and really could please no one. The city moved the obelisk, leaving it out of view until former Grand Wizard David Duke sued for its return. New Orleans relocated the it to a less conspicuous place. Now it may at last go for good. This also fails to please.

The inscription

The inscription

We have a natural tendency to look for compromises. This often means not a settlement, but rather that a sufficient number of us agree to call things settled, as it did for Henry Clay’s famous compromises. Compromising makes one feel high-minded, reasonable, and generally better than the partisans of either side. They consider only their interests. We, the compromising, nobly work to for everyone’s. It all sounds very good on paper. It might even work out that way when differences come down to small details or similar means to achieve generally agreed-upon ends. Now and then, one does find situations where the narcissism of small differences plays a large role.

More often, though, one encounters real differences in values. Our shared humanity, though it ought to move us toward large circles of compassion and empathy, only goes so far. People have different and frequently irreconcilable values. We can hide that fact under platitudes about how we all love our families and want to lead peaceful, happy lives. Some of us, given the general human proficiency for self-deception, successfully hide it even from ourselves. Sufficiently blinded, we can push for peace and comity that amount less to mutual contentedness and more to often brute enforcement of the very circumstances which render those alleged goals impossible.

The white people of New Orleans once thought the White League right to fight for white power and the preservation of as much of slavery as possible. Perhaps many still do. White Americans frequently preach egalitarianism, but just as frequently lose interest when the time comes to turn sermons into policy. That might cost us some of our capital, social and otherwise. White power didn’t require justification. It did not constitute a new or radical change, like racial egalitarianism, but rather the normal order of events. This makes it peaceful. Everybody knows his or her place and we all go along, ignoring slavery, lynching, and other perfidies. One can ignore them entirely or pretend these things just happen and have nothing to do with us, but the more honest might admit that we prefer them. They happen to the right kind of people, deserving of such treatment for whatever reasons we care to invent.

Where can one find a middle ground between those who view such things as right and those who view them as wrong? If we view white Americans’ depredations against black Americans as right, then anything that ameliorates or halts them constitutes a loss. If we take them as wrong, then anything that doesn’t constitutes a loss. For either side to claim satisfaction, the other must lose. A true compromise solution, where no one loses and everyone walks away somewhat satisfied does not, and cannot logically, exist. In this case, should we understand compromise as ideal even in principle? Or should we understand it as an expression of less overt partisanship?

Appeals for compromise, like any other appeal, might arise from cynical motives. A party that expects to lose might suggest compromise in order to preserve an implicit victory against the threat of explicit defeat. Without positive action against it, a preferred status quo will usually prevail. It has, and in order to function most anywhere short of a police state, must have the at least passive assent of those with the power to change it. To that, we can add delays, procedural complaints, and maliciously scrupulous compliance with formalities. All can do much to gum up the works while appearing neutral and disinterested enough to avoid obvious partisanship.

All of this applies to the the forest of white supremacist memorials, but I think the point more generally applicable. In reading Robert Pierce Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath a few days back, I came on this telling point:

The second reason for slaveholders’ fear of federal revenues is at once the simplest and the most profound: they dreaded the disruption that change would bring to a closed system. The report of South Carolina’s Nullification Convention rendered a stunning judgment on the inflexibility of its slave society when it denounced the application of the American system of protection and internal improvements to “the great Southern section of the Union” on the grounds that “local circumstances” rendered the region “altogether incapable of change” (emphasis added). Nothing could better illustrate the brittleness of the slave system than this sweeping statement.[1]

South Carolina’s nullifiers might have spoken for their own especially ossified state, and surely appreciated the perceived fragility of their system, but other Southerners had a sunnier view of their section’s potential. Later generations of historians have taken a more positive (for white enslavers) one yet, noting the remarkable durability and adaptability of slave systems. That said, this still has some truth to it. Humans have a great ability to change and innovate when we absolutely must, but it takes works and might raise questions about the fundamental order of things that we find uncomfortable or intolerable. Even if we don’t consciously accept the premise that white must control black and black lives exist for the convenience of white looting, we live in a culture that does so. This holds true for Americans who have snow outside their windows right now as for those who have none. By fixating on allegedly unconnected factors, we can pretend that we have not imbibed those doctrines whilst simultaneously serving as partisans for them. We all do so often enough.

Those now protesting the removal of the Liberty Place monument and other markers of white power don’t always follow that script. I encourage you to click through and read the remarkable things that Amanda Jennings wrote in Kevin’s comments, but read them knowing that she likes her “goverment” without any n in it. I presume that her accent, like my own, doesn’t stress the letter. Jennings insists she means nuts. Should she convince you of that, you may also find her strange world where men like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis wrote anti-Southern lies about the South in the service of “the government” quite persuasive. You may also find yourself interested in various real estate ventures and compelled to assist Nigerian dignitaries who have lost access to their bank accounts. I would advise against such endeavors, but per Jennings you should take all I write as the product of a brainwashed stooge of the government.

[1]Forbes, Robert Pierce (2009-01-05). The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (p. 168). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

A Memorial for a Free Kansas, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1 and 2

Knowing full well that appealing to Congress for redress because the Missourians and their allies sought to impose slavery on Kansas would win them no new friends, the free soil men who wrote the memorial had other ideas. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant that the people of the territory got to decide for themselves for or against slavery, then the Missourians gave them ample cause to protest. No one could conceal the massive fraud at the ballot boxes. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act ended the last sacred compact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, then surely it replaced that with a new one. North and South together agreed, if with great controversy, that the people of the territories now stood sovereign in their choice of labor system. Yet here came the Missourians, charging across the border with guns, threats, tar and feather. Surely Congress, having agreed to popular sovereignty, could not accept that. For Washington to stand idly by would transform the meaning of the new settlement entirely, from a fair contest which both sides accepted, to something else entirely.

That bill is made to mean popular sovereignty for them, serfdom for us. The doctrine of self-government is to be trampled under foot here, of all other places in the world, on the very spot which had been hallowed and consecrated to its most signal vindication. The altars which have been reared to it on this chosen ground, and around which at least the democracy of the whole Union had sworn allegiance, and to which we had come as pilgrim worshippers in the wilderness, are to be ruthlessly demolished. The compact is to be basely broken, and the ballot of the freeman (in effect) torn from our hands, almost before the ink of the covenant is dry. Not only, too, is the principle of popular sovereignty to be blotted out, but more than this, even the object of the contest is to disappear. The question of negro slavery is to sink into insignificance, and the great portentious issue is to loom up in its stead, whether or not we shall be the slaves, and fanatics who disgrace the honorable and chivalric men of the south shall be our masters to rule us at their pleasure.

The memorial came far short of Charles Robinson’s recitation of slavery’s evils, but used the same theme of white men enslaved. Having dared that far, the authors at once pull back and appeal to the loftier sentiments of the wider South. Surely they could not countenance this and would discover in themselves some principle beyond the greater glory of slavery?

They could have found such an audience. Missourians might care desperately about Kansas, but to the rest of the South the new territory stood on the extreme northwest corner of the world. Far greener pastures remained in Texas, in Arkansas, and in time probably in some new acquisition from Mexico. They didn’t need Kansas like the Missouri slaveholders did. So the free soilers reached out to both sections:

We want the men of the north and the men of the south to protect us. Through yourselves, their representatives, we appeal to their honor, to their justice, to their patriotism, to their sympathies, not for favors but for rights-not for trivial rights, but for the dearest rights guarantied to us by the Declaration of Independence, by the Constitution of the Union, and by the law of our organization, by the solemn compact of the States, and which you pledged to us as the condition of our coming here.

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

They still had faith in the old Union, even in the section with which their adversaries aligned. Painting the border ruffians as isolated fanatics, much the same way southerners liked to describe abolitionists, they insisted they could not

believe that the States of the South will sanction the outrages that have been perpetrated upon us, or will allow them to be continued.  And, although we might reason the matter as a question of policy, and show that it is contrary to the laws of nature and society, and opposed to all human experience, that good can come from such an evil, (although we might prove that it is “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind,” and that the reaction will be fearful,) yet we feel that this is unnecessary, that it is enough to appeal to their honor and their sense of justice, and to reply upon their plighted faith.

Some former Missourians, alienated by the great fraud, might have had a hand in these passages. Even if they did not, an awareness that fence-sitting neighbors would inevitably read the document would have argued for some well-placed flattery. The free state men came to their position by many roads. They could look over their shoulder and see room for others on the same paths. It did not take a New England abolitionist to see the border ruffians’ conduct as outrageous. Sam Houston prophesied such strife when he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to start with. There might yet be other Sam Houstons to come to Kansas’ relief. By making an appeal on such terms, the memorialists could give them rhetorical cover to buck the prevailing sentiment of the section. They could stand on the Union, on self-government, and rebuff accusations that they’d gone over to the abolitionists in secret.

A Free State Fourth, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2

Charles Robinson, a genuine Massachusetts-born abolitionist working for Eli Thayer, spoke to the free staters assembled at Lawrence for the Fourth of July festivities about how they could resist the imposition of slavery by the legal government of the state, casting disobedience to the established authorities not as a species of treason but rather as fidelity to American principles. In a country founded by a bunch of successful traitors, that made sense enough.

One could not miss some obvious parallels. An outside power really did seek to dictate how Kansans should govern themselves, imposing slavery on them by cross-border election stealing, by force and threat of violence. That they had local Kansans on their side as well complicated things, just as similar complications and similar violence marked the same situation during the Revolution. The construction of “Kansan” identity, like “American” before it, required ideological gerrymandering. A Loyalist simply did not count as an American and could be deposed from office and deprived of property by force. Many got just that treatment in the 1770s, a bit of dirty laundry that made for a much tidier revolutionary narrative.

The free state party hadn’t done anything like that, so far, but the proslavery party had forced people out of office and had used violence at the polls. They had their own version of Kansas to create, after all. Robinson and the rest of the opposition had noticed:

the people of Kansas Territory are to-day the subjects of a foreign State, as laws are now being imposed upon us by citizens of Missouri, for the sole purpose of forcing upon this Territory the institution of slavery

[…]

Is it politic, is it for our moral, intellectual, or pecuniary advancement to submit to the dictation of a foreign power in regard to our laws and institutions. This the question that deeply interests us all, and for the consideration of which this day is most appropriate.

Just as Washington fought British tyranny, so must they fight slavery’s tyranny. Robinson, his disclaimers about not preaching general abolition aside, took aim at the institution itself. He spoke for the right of free state Kansans to set their own course, without Missourian impositions, but wouldn’t let the audience forget that the enemy’s cause and enemy’s methods came from the same poisoned tree:

The foregoing are but a few paragraphs of the volumes that might be quoted to prove the blessings of liberty and the evils of slavery. Liberty, the goddess to whom this day is dedicated, showers upon her votaries peace and prosperity, intelligence and enterprise, morality and religion. The inspirer and guide of Washington and the patriotic fathers, may she become the presiding genius of our own beautiful Kansas! Slavery-the opposite and antagonist of Liberty, the ruin of nations, the impoverisher of States, the demoralizer of communities, the curse of the world, and child of hell-may she go to her own place.

If Missouri or Mississippi or any other state wanted to turn itself into an impoverished, miserable, accursed hell, they could knock themselves out. That the South boasted many of the nation’s richest men did not enter into things. Their capitalist acumen simply did not come up. Antislavery men could not acknowledge such things, unless they also wished to make a moral case against slavery itself. Then one could talk about ill-gotten riches, but in so doing look dangerously concerned with the well-being of people of the wrong color. Abolitionists might do that kind of thing.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Robinson played it a bit safe there, but in all fairness most abolitionists did believe slavery brought poverty. If any at Lawrence disagreed, then what did they mean by coming to town to begin with?

On this day and this occasion we may speak freely, assured that no offense can be given by the strongest expression in favor of freedom, or in opposition to slavery, as no one who is in favor of the latter can join in the celebration of this day. No person who does not ‘hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ can consistently participate in the festivities of this day. Nay, should we fail to speak in utter detestation of slavery, and to hurl defiance at the monster on this anniversary of freedom’s natal day, especially when the tyrant has already placed his foot upon our necks, why, the very stones would cry out.

Take it from the words of a slaveholder, if an occasionally and very quietly apologetic one, himself. If you believe in America, you must oppose slavery. Invoking Jefferson to defend freedom in Kansas brings a further special irony in that the man superannuated safe of Monticello strongly opposed the Missouri Compromise that the free staters aimed to revive in fact after the Kansas-Nebraska Act abolished it in law.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow explained the intentions and policy of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Doing so gives us a valuable window into how the principals of the time saw themselves and the situation they faced. But he titled his pamphlet “Negro-Slavery, No Evil”. Like many nineteenth century authors, he had a longer version of the title too: Negro-Slavery, No Evil, or The North and the South. The Effects of Negro-Slavery, as Exhibited in the Census, by a Comparison of the Condition of the Slaveholding and Non-slaveholding States. Considered in a Report, Made to the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, by a Committee, through B. F. Stringfellow, Chairman.

Stringfellow makes it nearly ten pages into all that before he reaches the topic in the title. At first blush, a moral or other defense of slavery qua slavery seems a bit beyond the scope of a pamphlet laying out the Platte County group’s reasons for organization and action. Of course they believed slavery a good thing. They had an understandable fear of race war and losing their human property that further directly motivated them. The righteousness of slavery seems a few steps further removed, though. One might believe slavery right and good, or even merely the best of a bad situation, and still not think it imperative to carry the institution into Kansas. Plenty in the South did, considering Kansas a Missouri issue to which they had a sectional obligation and duty rather than a vital and immediate interest.

All that said, slaveholders resented the Missouri Compromise and other limits on slavery because they understood them as judgments about the institution’s morality. Limiting slavery implied undesirability, both for the institution and its practitioners. They did not view themselves as tainted inferiors who the nation ought to quarantine. Thus Stringfellow and company naturally saw the Kansas question as a part of the larger national debate and their stance on the morality of slavery as core to their undertaking. They cast their position in moral terms like anybody would. This ranges wider than the immediate problem of Kansas, so I’ve given it its own heading.

Stringfellow lays it out bluntly:

We assert that negro-slavery, as it exists in the United States, is neither a moral nor a political evil, but on the contrary, is a blessing to the white race and to the negro.

A Virginia patriarch might fret about slavery and say he wished it gone, all the while fighting ardently to keep it, but Stringfellow had none of that. White and black alike felt not the best of a bad situation. They did not have the wolf by the ears, as Jefferson had it, and worry about letting go. Rather they felt blessed by slavery. Just ask the white slaveholders.

That said, even Stringfellow had his limits:

Let us not be understood as suggesting that the number of slaves should be increased by violence, by opening again our ports to the importation of those whom the now abolitionists would then capture in the wilds of Africa. Though it has been wisely suggested, if this were done, abolitionists would give us no further troubles, they would as did their fathers, become slave-catchers, and thus being able to make a profit of slavery, would cease to hate slave-owners; would forget their mock love of the negro in their real love of money; though it may easily be shown that slavery has done more to civilize and christianize the African, than all the schemes of all the pious missionaries; yet our sympathies for the African are not such as for his good to induce us to bring among us a horde of savages. Our philanthropy does not extend, so far as to become the civilizers of savages, by bringing them into our families. We are now reaping the benefit of our fathers’ good works; we have the civilized Christian man, in place of the rude, vicious, and degraded heathen.

In smearing abolitionists as slave-catchers, Stringfellow had a small historical point. Many New Englanders helped build, crew, operate, and owned the ships that carried millions of slaves to the New World. They made good money doing it. But the era of New England slave ships plying the Atlantic ended decades before. The last slave importers who operated legally in the United States operated from ports in Georgia and South Carolina. Southerners, not Yankees, continued the trade on the sly. As the decade wore on, sons of the South a bit more radical than Stringfellow would prefer openly advocated for full resumption of the African slave trade. Even on the eve of civil war, that asked too much of most Southern consciences.