“I am something of a pioneer.” John Brown and North Elba, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown has an interesting and often unfortunate life prior to his arrival in Kansas. By the time the nation’s most troubled territory came into the news, he had failed at business in multiple states. He dreamed already of revolution. Brown told his family that he envisioned going into the South with an armed band to free slaves. They would raid, terrify the enslavers, spirit those who didn’t want to or couldn’t fight up to Canada, and keep the rest in the mountains. Once he had a core group going, they could spark a general uprising that would purge slavery from the land. Brown thought he might get a start of it with the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. His antislavery convictions won him the notice of Frederick Douglass, who called at his Ohio home and praised Brown in his paper long before anyone but neighbors and business associates knew John Brown as anything other than a man with an unexceptional name.

Smarting from his recent failures at business, most recently in wool, and the protracted illness of his son Frederick, 1848 found John Brown near to the end of his rope. He heard that abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who donated some land to Oberlin College that Brown helped survey in 1840, wanted to establish a colony of black Americans in far Upstate New York. There, away from most hostile whites, they might prosper in peace. Few had taken Smith up on the offer for free land, more than a hundred thousand acres of it, on account of the distance and the bitter Adirondack winters. Those few lived in a small community called North Elba.

Gerrit Smith

In April of that year, Brown went to Smith’s mansion and presented the abolitionist with an idea:

I am something of a pioneer. I grew up among the woods and wild Indians of Ohio, and am used to the climate and the way of life that your colony find so trying. I will take one of your farms myself, clear it up and plant it, and show my colored neighbors how much work should be done; will give them work as I have occasion, look after them in all needful ways, and be a kind of father to them.

This all has more than a whiff of racist condescension to it, but the free black population of the North largely lived in cities. Smith’s colonists might genuinely have lacked ordinary farming experience and certainly had little opportunity to work land so remote and cold as North Elba. Either way, Brown impressed Smith and he agreed on the spot. Smith’s grant in hand, Brown went straight there and fell in love. The surroundings reminded him of “Omnipotence” and his “dependence” upon the Almighty.

Brown also found a colony in disarray. The land remained unsurveyed, so no one knew if they had the right parcels or not. Nor did it make for prime farm land. Their plight moved Brown, who would later sent them barrels of pork and flour. He imagined himself as their kind leader, teaching them agriculture, self-improvement, and religion. Brown aimed to make from this disorder and confusion a model community. He just had to close up his failing wool business first.

“Harassed, plundered, threatened, and insulted” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 2

John Brown

We left some of the Brown boys in Southern Illinois, where they came from Ohio with their livestock for the winter. Between physical ailments, the rigors of a winter lived out of doors, and the theft of some stock they had a rough time of it. They planned to strike for Kansas in the spring and Solomon Brown, age eighteen, joined them for the trip. According to John Brown’s own testimonial in James Redpath’s biography, The Public Life of Captain John Brown, all across Missouri

they heard much from her people of the stores of wrath and vengeanace which were then and there gathering for the free state men and abolitionists gone or going to Kansas, and were themselves often admonished, in no very mild language, to stop ere it should be ‘too late.'”

The younger Browns crossed Missouri in the spring of 1855, roughly contemporaneous with Missourian intervention in the Kansas legislative elections of March. With so many men on the move, money and cannons flowing, and all Kansas news the talk of the Show Me State, they couldn’t have missed the news if they tried. Since they came all this way, at such great expense, specifically to oppose the proslavery men, the Browns ignored their warnings and pressed on. They found a spot near Pottawattomie, which Redpath locates “about eight miles distant” from where John Brown himself would go to live.

At this point, Redpath offers me frustration. As you’ve probably noticed, Gentle Readers, most of my Kansas sources come from in and around Lawrence or the territorial government. They give a sense of what goes on further abroad, but naturally focus on what happens near home. The Browns settled a considerable distance from there and might add some variety. They claimed various difficulties at the hands of proslavery locals which

their father, in the paper above quoted, gave a detailed account; but as to have published it would have damaged the democratic party in the elections then pending, we are told that “a portion of the manuscript was lose,” and that “the history was of considerable length, but did not further possess special interest.”

We have this from Brown, writing before Harper’s Ferry but some years after. Reading the lines closely, it seems that he referred to a document he wrote while still in Kansas. It wouldn’t make any sense to worry about damaging the Democracy in 1859, but during the Kansas days Brown’s antislavery party had a large Democratic contingent. He might have destroyed it in order to help the free state cause or, to read between the lines, Brown may have written about his sons taking vengeance upon their proslavery neighbors for those troubles in a way that could discredit the movement.

Without Brown’s own words, Redpath relies on “a friend of the family.” Said friend tells that the Browns did not come to Kansas armed. The unarmed men

were harassed, plundered, threatened, and insulted by gangs of marauding border ruffians, with whom the prime object was plunder; and noisy pro-slavery partizanship was equivalent to a free charter to do so with impunity.

The Browns go to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

The last time a proslavery army departed from the environs of Lawrence, they left disappointed. Having come all that way to destroy the town and kill abolitionists, they went home with all the buildings still standing and only one of their enemy dead. The free state leadership pronounced themselves delighted in the outcome, but many of the men who flooded into Lawrence to defend the town also came for a fight and didn’t appreciate the negotiated settlement. Given James Lane’s questionable past and Wilson Shannon’s involvement, they had some cause to suspect their own leadership. Had they made concessions, rather than fight it out?

Free state sources speak to the widespread discontent at the end of the Wakarusa War. That affair at least ended with something like the status quo, which no one could claim of the sack of Lawrence. Among the most discontented the first time, one must count a new arrival to Kansas. According to James Redpath’s hagiographic 1860 biography, John Brown came to Kansas after some of his sons did. Redpath quotes at length from a manuscript that Brown wrote sometime before he went off to his destiny at Harper’s Ferry on how the abolitionist came to Kansas.

In 1854, the four eldest sons of John Brown, named John, Jr., Jason, Owen, and Frederick, all children by a first wife, then living in Ohio, determined to remove to Kansas. John, Jr., sold his place, a v ery desirable little property near Akron, in Summit County. The other two sons held no landed property, but both were possessed of some valuable stock, (as were also the first two named,) derived from that of their father, which had been often noticed by liberal premiums, both in the State of New York and also of Ohio.

Brown wanted posterity to know that his sons gave up a considerable amount of wealth in the name of Kansas’ freedom. Jason also had “a very valuable collection of grape vines, and also of choice fruit trees” which he opted to box and ship out. John and Jason both had families to move with them. The summer of 1854 did not cooperate with their resolve to strike for Kansas and crop failures prompted a plan for the the two younger brothers to take the livestock to southern Illinois for the winter at “very considerable expense” and with some of the animals stolen along the way. From Illinois, they could reach Kansas easily come spring of 1855.

Nor did the two Brown boys without families fit the image of a hardy frontiersman. Owen had a disabled right arm courtesy of childhood injury. Frederick, “though a very stout man” suffered from chronic illness “attended with insanity.” Brown sharply defended his some from accusations of mental disability and instead referred Frederick braving some sort of near-fatal surgery shortly before his departure. One disabled Brown and one debilitated and recovering Brown thus spent the winter husking corn, outside, to feed their animals. Sometime thereafter, Solomon Brown followed along to help them reach Kansas.

Cass Answers Sumner

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:

I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.

Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.

But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:

By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.

They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.

More Bad News: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Eight

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Reeder’s diary.

May 15, 1856 found Andrew Reeder still closeted in a hotel in Kansas City, “elaborately cared for” by various ladies who would bring him food, flowers, “and attend to all my comforts.” All in all, Kansas’ free state delegate to Congress found it downright comfortable if he set aside the great issue of the day. He needed to be off raising support for the free state cause, not stuck in western Missouri. He also missed his “idolized, noble wife” and “precious, dearly-loved children.” That he had sent G.P. Lowrey ahead of him to bring news to his family, as well as lay down a false trail that might help Reeder escape wore on him as well. When Lowrey delivered his news, they would know their patriarch as a man on the run and in danger.

Reeder had news that the dragnet continued to tighten around Kansas. G.W. Brown remained a prisoner at Westport. Proslavery men stopped ordinary travelers on the road and stopped the mail for searching.

One traveler, coming down from Lawrence, was stopped on the road, and ordered to open his carpet-bag to see if he had any letters or dispatches from Lawrence, and, as he refused to be searched, it was cut open by the ruffians.

It would not do for the free state party to get news of their plight out in person or paper. More worrying still:

About 100 young men from the South, said to be from South Carolina and Georgia, arrived, as I am told, last evening, all armed and equipped after the fashion of Buford’s men, who, from their appearance, equipments, acts, and conversation, have evidently come, not as emigrants, but only to fight. About half of them went on to Leavenworth, and the residue landed here and went into the Territory, leaving their trunks here with Mr. Taylor, and saying that they did not want them along, as the fight would probably be over in a few weeks, and then they would go back.

Buford’s men, or a very similar group, had work ahead of him. That evening, Reeder got word secondhand from a member of the Blue Lodge that they had another invasion in the offing. They hoped to get together two thousand men and raze Lawrence for good, entering Kansas in small groups and avoiding the major roads to avoid notice until they arrived. They would take the town at night and under the pretext of enforcing indictments against its leaders. Samuel Lecompte had given them those indictments and proslavery men had come to Kansas back in December allegedly to maintain law and order. Thwarted then, the proslavery men would likely press far harder now.

Misdirection and Another Capture: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Seven

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Reeder’s diary.

We left Andrew Reeder hiding out in a hotel in Kansas City, where he received news of Charles Robinson’s capture on May 13, 1856. Knowing that the proslavery dragnet reached further into Missouri than just the immediate border can’t have settled the delegate’s mind. Up to this point, Reeder had the company of G.P. Lowery. He advised Lowery to leave without him, on the first available boat and in a disguise. But before Lowery departed, the two arranged some misdirection. Reeder

had him to write a letter directed to me at Chicago, and mail it loosely sealed, to induce the belief that I was in the States, by the way of Nebraska and Iowa, as we were confident they would open it. I instructed him also, if he got safe to St. Louis, to telegraph up here that he had heard from me and that I was safe in Chicago.

Nineteenth century postmasters did open and scrutinize mail, most famously to hunt down antislavery publicans for destruction. Settled precedent dating back to Andrew Jackson’s administration blessed such business. Since postmasters received their jobs through patronage rather than from a professional civil service, even any inclined against such censorship had strong incentive to keep in line.

Reeder remained shut up in his room, though it seems that he had plenty of attention. He writes that no less than four ladies “most kindly waited on” him and “took a lively interest in my safety.” Come evening, Colonel Eldridge brought Reeder less enchanting company: the posse which had came for him at Lawrence had arrived at the hotel. The governor turned delegate assured Eldridge that they had a warrant for Reeder valid in Kansas, but not Missouri. Their authority ended at the border and no harm could come to him from helping Reeder out. However, should they come with a Missourian officer and process in hand, then Eldridge should give Reeder up to keep himself out of trouble.

Expecting them to come, I concealed this diary, and made preparations. I remained up, till midnight, and there was a constant running up and down from the street to their room. At 12 o’clock I went to bed and slept soundly.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Kansas’ first governor has sterner nerves than I do. He woke on the morning of the fourteenth to more welcome news. Eldridge came up and told Reeder that the posse had said nothing of him, but instead came for Grosvenor Lowery and Samuel Pomeroy, the latter an agent of the Emigrant Aid Company. But the good news came with some bad:

G.W. Brown, accompanied by Jenkins, had started for Lawrence, and had been stopped on the road by M’Gee’s party of Missourians (without any process, of course), and made prisoners. Have not learned what is done with them.

That day also brought a boat up to Kansas City which departed with great cheers from the town. Reeder thought that Robinson must have come through, but learned instead that Kansas City cheered a marshal’s party starting for Leavenworth. It says something for Reeder’s state of mind that news of an armed band heading into Kansas from Missouri came as a relief, though probably also to the fact that Andrew Reeder consistently stood for the party of Andrew Reeder. He had joined the free state movement late, when deprived of other means for political advance in Kansas, and under the condition that they make his grievance over shady land deals their own.

After a while, Reeder changed rooms for the second time. Things had quieted and the proper residents of the room had been out of it for some time. Anybody could start to wonder. At this point, Reeder hoped no one believed him present and so he might safely move on as soon as he could find a boat with a willing captain, which would remain docked through the night so he could quietly board. With Robinson captured, he needed to get moving regardless. It fell now to him to take up the governor’s mission and seek out the executives of Ohio, Michigan, and maybe even Iowa and Wisconsin to come to aid the free state cause.

Holy Toledo in Ohio: The Committee on Territories Weights In, Part Three

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow

 

Galusha Grow’s Committee on the Territories reported that Kansas’ irregular state government had precedent in the recent past. All of twenty years back, the people of Arkansas got together a state convention, wrote a constitution, and sent it on to Washington. At the time, no less an authority than Andrew Jackson’s attorney general signed off. They had the right to do so and the territorial legislature could not forbid them. Nor did granting statehood under such a constitution present any objections. Grow affirmed that even without precedent, Congress had the power to admit states at will, but the precise legal circumstances that the Congress grappled with now it had faced before. If Arkansas could do it, why not Kansas?

One could argue that Arkansas had some kind of unique situation. One might say that slave states get special rights. But Grow finished with Arkansas only to move on to Michigan, where I write this post. Some years back, Michigan celebrated its sesquicentennial. The territory felt fit for statehood well before it gained admission to the Union, but had disagreements with its neighbors. Michigan’s southern boundary ought to have run from the bottom of Lake Michigan to the bottom of Lake Erie. The legislators in Washington thought they shared a latitude. They don’t quite and Ohio and Indiana got statehood in advance of Michigan. When Ohio surveyed its northern border, it surveyed at an angle to include within itself the outlet of the Maumee river. Understanding the river and its port as an economic asset, and one which had been governed as a part of Michigan for some time prior, the territory commissioned its own survey that put the land right back with the Mitten. Between the two lines, you had the Toledo Strip.

This takes us up to 1833. Because Michigan doesn’t accept the Strip belonging to Ohio, the Ohio delegation blocks the territory’s application for statehood. Except for the boundary issue, Michigan followed the conventions: asking Congress for an Enabling Act before writing a constitution and all that. The Ohioans had some support in this from Indiana and Illinois, which had also revised their borders northward.

In 1835 the people of Michigan, after repeated failures to obtain an act of Congress authorizing a state convention, called one themselves without any such authority, elected delegates, formed and adopted a constitution, and under it elected State officers, United States senators, and a representative to Congress.

The governors of Michigan and Ohio also called out their militias, formed them up on either side of the Maumee, and took a few shots at one another. The sole injury came when an Ohioan named Two Stickney (yes, really) stabbed a Michigan sheriff. The Toledo War didn’t make for much of a war, but it did cost Michigan’s governor his job.

Congress finally agreed to take Michigan on as a state, provided that it accept the Ohio border. In exchange, the territory could have the lion’s share of the Upper Peninsula. The people of Michigan refused to trade an area with clear economic potential for an empty wilderness. This takes us into 1836. By this point the national coffers have a pleasantly full look to them, to the point that the Congress plans to pass the money out to the states. Michigan, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of thousands on militia expenses. It could use the cash but lowly territories would get nothing. Thus

Their action [rejecting the territory swap] was not satisfactory to a portion or a “party” of the people, and they, without any legislative act whatsoever, called another convention, and accepted the terms proposed by Congress though the people of large sections of the State refused to take any part in this convention, regarding it as illegal and revolutionary.

The proceedings from both conventions reached Washington, where Andrew Jackson forwarded them to Congress with the argument that the second convention, though not authorized by law, represented the will of “the people themselves”. Here we have an illegal convention that represents a minority, a party interest, making decisions for a territory without any formal authority to do so. What did Congerss do? It admitted Michigan on January 27, 1837. And so my grandfather’s favorite exclamation to use in front of children was born: “Holy Toledo in Ohio!”

Arkansas had an unauthorized convention and got into the Union. Michigan had that and dueling conventions. It received statehood. Why couldn’t Kansas?

 

Acutally, George Brown did Threaten Davy Atchison

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, yesterday I concluded that George Washington Brown probably did not print a threat against David Rice Atchison. John Stringfellow over at the Squatter Sovereign probably invented the line, or recast someone Brown had said of border ruffians in general as a threat on Missouri’s latest ex-Senator. Nineteenth century papers do invent dialog often enough. Go into the archives and you’ll find quite a few letters written under obvious pseudonyms, often in eye dialect, that look a mite too convenient for the paper’s editorial line. Letters from friendly correspondents generally use standard English, which makes both all the more suspicious for the contrast. A certain degree of prevarication inevitably happens in the editorials too. One must also consider that even politically aligned newspapers liked to pick fights with one another and eagerly sling the kind of mud that we would expect to find on Twitter today. Politically hostile papers had little reason to restrain themselves.

Stringfellow’s paper said that Brown promised abolitionists in Kansas would shoot Atchison dead if ever they found him in the territory with arms in hand. I ran a searches on permutations of the phrase “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” The Sovereign put it in quotation marks and attributes it to Brown. They all came up dry. I also skimmed Herald of Freedom issues for the two months prior looking for Atchison references. I found a fair number, but he rarely came up except as a villain alongside both Stringfellows and other prominent proslavery men or in conjunction with his role in the Wakarusa War.

The search and my skimming missed the piece to which Stringfellow must have referred. The January 12 Herald of Freedom has some praise of the Cleveland Plaindealer. The author, George Brown informs us,

talks like a man. We thought him always wrong, but we are glad to make a correction in his favor.

Talking like a man sounds like something you do while crushing beer cans on your forehead, bragging about your sexual prowess, or threatening violence to me. Sixteen decades’ distance have put me off on the first two points, but the Plaindealer’s Gray nailed the third. Brown quotes him, in reference to David Rice Atchison:

He, with all other residents of Missouri who have crossed the borders of that State either to vote or fight in Kansas, should be shot, if no other means can be used to prevent their intrusions.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While not quite the kill on sight statement that Stringfellow implied, this is otherwise quite close. But Stringfellow quoted Brown by name, not some fellow named Gray back in Ohio. Brown signed off in the next lines:

We may be allowed to say that we coincide in opinion with Mr. Gray, and that Atchison will be shot like a dog, traitor as he is, if he shall be found in Kansas with arms in his hands in case of a similar outbreak to the last. The people of Kansas hold him, and his colleague-B.F. Stringfellow-responsible for all the difficulties on the border; and in due time they will compel those men to pay the penalty for their violence, if continued.

Brown’s actual statement had a few more qualifiers than Stringfellow admitted, and doesn’t exactly match Stringfellow’s quote, but the differences don’t change the gist of it. If Atchison came back to Kansas with a party of armed border ruffians, then Brown thought him adequately qualified to play unwilling host to some hot lead. Morever, Brown expressed his firm belief “hundreds” would take the Plaindealer’s suggestion when the time came.

Given the number who turned out to defend Lawrence only the month before, he might have had it exactly right.

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.

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.