A Boston Welcome for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner gave up convalescence at Cresson, Pennsylvania, and returned to Philadelphia. There he received bad news yet again: his doctor believed that Sumner must refrain from any physical or mental excitement if he wanted to live. Sumner kept up an active correspondence, but refused invitations to attend public meetings. Delivering a speech, especially to a crowd and in his customary style, might well be beyond his ability. A public failure like that would not have done much for his fragile mental and physical state.

Sumner may have stayed in Philadelphia for longer, but Anson Burlingame looked poised to lose re-election. Sumner did not approve at all of his accepting Brooks’ challenge, but already at Cresson he received the Congressman with obvious affection for the benefit of the reporters on hand. When that, plus a public letter of support, did not seem adequate, Sumner returned to Boston. Ostensibly he came for a grand reception, but really to campaign. Though he did decline the banquet offered, Sumner had to muddle through the rest.

On November 3, the festivities began with Sumner driven from Longfellow’s home to that of Amos Lawrence, benefactor of the Emigrant Aid Society and longtime foe of the Senator’s. There Sumner received a plethora of guests in the afternoon, who came up from the State House in eighteen carriages. They in due course put him into an open carriage and escorted him to the Boston city line. There, in 1824, Josiah Quincy met the aged Lafayette on his return tour of the United States. Now, the aged Josiah Quincy met Sumner.

Quincy praised Sumner at length before a crowd of seven hundred, closing with thanks to Heaven for keeping him around long enough to see the day. Sumner, still in his carriage, leaned forward and appeared greatly moved. The powerful voice necessary for an orator in the age before microphones and speakers, failed Sumner. Appearing “haggard and careworn, with languid eye and pale cheek,” he spoke briefly. The Senator called his suffering “not small” but he did it for duty’s sake and it paled before what the good people of Kansas still endured.

Then the show continued, with Sumner transferred to a new carriage drawn by six gray horses, joining the mayor of Boston and Quincy for a half-mile procession through cheering crowds and beneath banners hung to welcome him. The crowd might have grown to seven thousand, packing the streets, hanging from windows, and standing on rooftops to get a look at their hero. Men, women, and children through bouquets into the carriage.

Governor Gardner welcomed Sumner to the State House with a consciously apolitical speech. All Massachusetts stood with their maimed Senator, just not necessarily on matters of policy. Sumner had a proper speech ready to go in response, but he only managed a few lines before his endurance gave out. He had somewhat more after Quincy spoke, but between that, all the crowds, and movement, Sumner had had enough. He passed the copy to reporters on hand for printing.

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“I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner at a health spa up in the Alleghenies. There he continued to struggle with his recovery, but seemed at last on a slow mend. He looked forward to some time home in Massachusetts, though not the grand reception he expected. Sumner usually enjoyed the public eye, so his dread of it now speaks volumes to his state of mind. Walking still strained him and mental exertion gave him headaches.

At the spa, Sumner showed more troubling symptoms still. When tired, which must have happened frequently given the continuous references to his exhaustion, Sumner felt

as tho’ the blows were raining upon his head again; then will feel a numbness in the scalp; then again acute pains; then a sense of exhaustion that prevents any physical or mental effort.

We would say Sumner had flashbacks. He had trouble sleeping still and began to fear the loss of his faculties. The Senator now stared down the prospect of permanent disability, something he feared more than death. He wrote Joshua Giddings that

I sometimes am led to apprehend that I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.

George Sumner didn’t help matters by talking about cases of mental illness he observed in Parisian hospitals. Way to go, George. Dr. Wister, of Philadelphia, told Sumner that he couldn’t comment on whether the Senator suffered a brain “deranged organically or only functionally.” A functional disorder, someone might recover from. Actual brain injury? Maybe not. Sumner probably suffered both. He also became preoccupied with his symptoms, for which one can hardly blame him. Every time he fell short of his expectations, his body reinforced his fears.

Eventually, Sumner could take no more of the spa at Cresson. He wanted more engaging surroundings that could get his mind off his debilitated state and left, against the advice of the doctor there. Leaving took him back to Philadelphia and Dr. Wister. Once again he seems to have improved briefly, but then relapsed. He later wrote to the spa’s physician that he left too soon.

Come the end of September, Dr. Perry examined Sumner again and found his frailty largely unchanged. As before, he believed the Senator could not take much stress at all if he hoped to keep his life.

“His steps were feeble and tottering”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner declined to take any further part in Preston Brooks’ prosecution than grand jury testimony; he did not consider himself at all well. The psychological strain of revisiting the attack constantly, perhaps even in Brooks’ presence, can’t have appealed even when he felt physically better and Sumner rarely felt that. Visitors described him as a man much enfeebled, who may not make it. Francis Blair’s home in Silver Springs gave him some relief from Washington’s summer heat, but it remained close enough for a steady steam of visitors that further exhausted the Senator.

On July 5, Sumner returned to Washington City to put his affairs in order before departing for less demanding climes. That prompted a fresh bout of visitors, including both antislavery luminaries and members of the diplomatic corps. Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner relates that the only administration men, excepting Lewis Cass who Sumner once befriended in Europe, stayed away. The parade of well-wishers can’t have helped, but Sumner left the city on July 7, staying the night in Baltimore before proceeding on to Philadelphia and Dr. Caspar Wister. At the time, Sumner expected to return to the Senate in August.

Dr. Wister examined Sumner on July 9 and found him in

A condition of extreme nervous exhaustion, his circulation feeble, and in fact every vital power alarmingly sunken. At that time his steps were feeble and tottering, as if in extreme old age; he complained of constant pain in the back and lower extremities, -in the latter it was a tired and weary sensation and he had a sense of construction and pressure about the head. At that time his pulse was quick and small, appetite language, and his sleep broken, disturbed, and unrefreshing. All the above conditions were heightened by exertion either mental or physical.

Wister recommended Sumner go to Cape May for relaxation. He spent a week there, improving, but then suffered another relapse. On July 22, he wrote to Giddings that he might resign his seat. Sumner still wanted to come back and resume his duties, but clearly doubted that he could. He abandoned Cape May for a health resort at Cresson, Pennsylvania. There, but he managed a daily ride on horseback, though he still struggled with walking. By mid-August, he could write -again to Giddings- that he hoped “to do good service in the coming campaign” for the presidency. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont in June, with a sympathy vote going to Sumner for vice-president.

On August 28, Sumner wrote a friend that he had not made a full recovery,

but I ride on horseback, converse, read, write letters, and hope soon to be in working condition, though I fear that a perfect prudence would keep me from all public effort for some months to come.

Walking still exhausted him, but Sumner felt on the mend. He expected to return to Massachusetts soon, but dreaded the inevitable public welcome. He would rather “slip into Massachusetts, run about for a few days” and then maybe get on the stump.

 

The Fugitive Slave Clause Debated and Disregarded: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 7

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; full speech

Charles Sumner made his case to the Senate that the Fugitive Slave Clause did not constitute a vital compromise on which the framers hung the American Union. It came into the Constitution as an afterthought, toward the end of business in Philadelphia. No one had previously demanded the provision and South Carolina first advanced it as an annex to the provision for the return of fugitive criminals. Afterthought or not, the language did not go unmarked in Independence Hall. Sumner reminded the Senate that

the very boldness of the effort drew attention and opposition. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, at once objected: “This would oblige the Executive of the State to do it at the public expense.” Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, “saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse.”

Sherman’s argument may not sound like one opposed to the Fugitive Slave Clause, but keep in mind that the common law right to recover strayed livestock fell on the owner. One didn’t, at least absent a dispute, involve the courts or constabulary to get back a horse. With Sherman’s and Wilson’s objections before them, the Fugitive Slave Clause’s advocates let it drop for a day. It came up again on the morrow as a measure against “fugitives from service or labor” rather than “fugitive slaves” and the addition passed with unanimously without debate.

The latter fact didn’t comport well with Sumner’s argument on the clause’s contentious, marginal nature so he moved quickly from it to a discussion of ratification. There he acknowledged that Southern federalists had used the clause as part of the sales pitch for the Constitution but pointed to debate on the point:

In the Virginia Convention, an eminent character, Mr. George Mason, with others, expressly declared that there was “no security of property coming with this section.”

Should that not settle things, he referred the Senate to the Federalist’s discussion of national powers geared toward “harmony and proper intercourse,” which omitted the clause as one of them. That indifference, began at Philadelphia, continued through the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. Sumner argued that the law considered fugitive slaves only an an adjunct to fugitive criminals, which doesn’t quite match the circumstances. Resistance to the rendition of fugitive slaves from Pennsylvania directly led to the passage of the act. For that matter, Southerners sought many of the draconian provisions then that they would finally achieve in 1850.

Returning to facts, Sumner argued that few fugitives ended up back in slavery under the 1793 law. He rightly noted that even then, northern opinion leaned toward the self-stolen slave to the point that in Boston

the crowd about the magistrate, at the examination, quietly and spontaneously opened a way for the fugitive, and thus the Act failed to be executed.

A Vermont judge did one better, looking at documents proving ownership and deciding to only sanction rendition if “the master could show a Bill of Sale from the Almighty.” In the face of such obstruction of so vital a right, Southerners twice before 1850 tried for a better law and both times failed to get one through Congress. Sumner brought them up entirely to note those debates as the first time that the South chose to view the Fugitive Slave Clause as a vital part of the Union.

 

The First Congress and Antislavery Petitions

We left the First Congress with Josiah Parker’s bill to put a ten dollar per head tax, the constitutional maximum, on slave imports. Parker hoped that the tax would raise the price of newly-imported slaves enough to reduce the demand for them. James Jackson agreed that it just might, and so opposed it to the point of using the kind of radical language one would expect from the later antebellum. He damned Parker for aiming to crush the economy of Georgia, retard its development, and sacrifice it to fix Virginia’s surplus slave problem.  Along the way, he lamented the fashion for emancipation. That doesn’t make Jackson into Calhoun’s imitator by anticipation, but it does testify to the existence in the Lower South of at least some committed to perpetual slavery all the way back in the 1790s. The debate ended, for the moment, with Parker’s bill postponed to consideration at a later session.

That’s all interesting in itself, but what happened next undermines a popular myth or two about the founding era much-beloved by the Confederacy’s fans and, on occasion, by the Confederates themselves. The first session of the first Congress ended September 29, 1789. The second began on January 4, 1790. In the interim, the Quakers got busy. They petitioned Congress to do something about the slave trade. Don Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, from which I have this story, quotes them terming it a “licentious wickedness.” Some Southern representatives objected so strenuously that the House tabled the petition rather than refer it to a committee.

So much for that petition. The next day, Congress had a new one. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society did the Quakers one better. The petitioners

earnestly entreat your [Congress’] serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow Men.

Franklin's signature on the petition

Franklin’s signature on the petition

The petition ran over the signature of the Society’s president, Benjamin Franklin. Later generations, and some of the then-present generation, would tell you that the founders to a man believed in strictly limited powers for the general government. Alexander Hamilton might think otherwise, but that made him a singularly wicked man. No person should dream to follow the example of such a miscreant. The consensus, everywhere and in everything, was that Congress had limited powers and could not ever stretch beyond them lest tyranny ensue.

And then Ben Franklin writes asking that Congress at the very least read its powers as broadly as it could in order to restrict the slave trade and consequently undermine slavery. His advocacy of broad -maximally broad, in fact- construction in a time allegedly innocent of such things (again excepting Hamilton) deserves noting. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society didn’t just want Congress to do something. They asked Congress to throw the book at the slave trade, possibly invent some new ones to toss along with it. And, explosively, they proposed “the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage.” In other words, Congress had the power to free slaves. It might only reach to those brought into the country illegally, but the federal government would directly emancipate.

Thomas Tudor Tucker

Thomas Tudor Tucker

This could not go unmarked. Thomas Tudor Tucker, of South Carolina, spoke first. He expressed his amazement at Franklin, “a man who ought to have known the Constitution better.” Tucker

thought it a mischievous attempt, as it respected the persons in whose favor it was intended. It would buoy them up with hopes, without foundation, and as they could not reason on the subject, as more enlightened men would, they might be led to do what they would be punished for, and the owners of them, in their own defence, would be compelled to exercise over them a severity they were not accustomed to.

Franklin would give the slaves crazy ideas and so require the planters to reach new heights of cruelty to keep them subjugated. Did he care nothing for the tender consciences of the men with the whips? Or the slaves, who he proposed to help, who must suffer under them? Think of the slaves, Ben.

Aedanus Burke

Aedanus Burke

Did all of that point toward a general emancipation? Tucker thought it might. The South would never accept that “without a civil war.” Tucker’s impressively named fellow South Carolinian, Aedanus Burke, declared the whole idea unconstitutional. If the House did so much as referred the petition to a committee, it would exceed its powers. Such a thing

would sound an alarm, and blow the trumpet of sedition in the Southern States.

The House listened to all the fiery speeches and voted 43-14 to send the Franklin and Quaker petitions to a select committee appointed by the Speaker, a Pennsylvanian. He declined to name a single Lower South member to that body.

This may not show later-era sectionalism, but we certainly have from the first Congress a profound division over slavery. It might not burn so brightly or split the nation so neatly, but the happy story that the founding generation all agreed that slavery not only would end, but also ought to, takes a well-deserved beating. All the way back then, one could find southerners who wouldn’t even go for vague, indirect, and future schemes of emancipation right there alongside northerners who at least considered measures designed, if indirectly, to attack slavery where it then existed.

Unpacking States Rights

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One often hears that nineteenth century Americans believed in states rights. With these two words we answer a multitude of questions: What policy position characterized white Southern opinion in the antebellum era? States rights. Why did white Southerners object to bans on slavery in the territories? States rights. Why did white Southern states secede in 1860-1? States rights. Why did white Southerners fight the Union? States rights. Uttering the two words absolves one from any obligation to further inquiry. States rights simply constitute an end unto themselves. They slice; they dice; they explain all American history for however many payments of $19.95.

One can find nineteenth century Americans making all of those claims and if one settles for a superficial reading, then they suffice. Looking at them in light of their authors, their times, their circumstances, and the broader history of the nation tells a rather different story. Only the rights to institute, expand, and defend slavery excited much interest in the antebellum South. Attempts to exercise state sovereignty against the federal government otherwise garnered this answer:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

Thus, South Carolina declared the ends of the Union frustrated and its obligations therefore void. The Carolina secessionists pointed to the Constitution, chapter and verse. The free states had undertaken obligations that yielded their sovereignty to the Union on the matter of slaves who dared steal lives from their rightful owners. One can’t argue otherwise, as the Constitution says so right here:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The free states dared nullify federal law. They did so not in some vague or ambiguous area, but where the Constitution explicitly denied them any such power just as it stripped from the states the power to set tariff rates. By breaking faith with their constitutional promises, in this and other matters, the free states had dishonored themselves and forced South Carolina from the Union.

One could go on with this hypocrisy. It would take an arduous search to find an invocation of states rights free from it, if one exists at all. Northern states did claim they had rights to nullify this law or that, most famously Wisconsin when it nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, but they also asserted that they lacked the any such power. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. recounted many such examples in his essay The States Rights FetishNearly a century has come and gone since he wrote and that makes his history downright antique. One should read it with considerable caution. But that said, I don’t think one can argue with the facts he cites.

Beginning with the wellspring of states rights rhetoric, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-9, Schlesinger points out that Jefferson and Madison drew them up as works of political protest. The Federalists in Congress had trampled what we would call civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts. This trampling applied rather selectively to people of Jefferson’s and Madison’s political party. From New England, where the Federalists had control of the legislatures, condemnations rained down. The Constitution vested the power to judge a statute’s constitutionality in the federal courts, not the state houses. That we might agree with Jefferson that the Federalists had gone so far should not blind us to the partisan concern.

Then Jefferson’s party gained control of the government in 1800. Jefferson’s and Madison’s policies harmed the New England shipping industry. The New England legislatures then discovered that they did, in fact, have the power to judge the constitutionality of federal laws:

In February, 1809, the Massachusetts legislature resolved that the embargo measures were, “in many respects, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on the citizens of this state,” though the citizens were counselled “to abstain from forcible resistance, and to apply for their remedy in a peaceable manner to the laws of the commonwealth.” The Connecticut legislature resolved in a similar spirit that it would not “assist or concur in giving effect to the … unconstitutional act, passed to enforce the Embargo.”

The War of 1812 brought the notion that state militias should come into federal service, under the command of federal officers. Connecticut put on its best South Carolina act in response, declaring

the state of Connecticut is a FREE SOVEREIGN and INDEPENDENT state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic

James Madison

James Madison

The issue of the Bank of the United States brought such talk to Pennsylvania and back down to Virginia. Who took the other side?

The federal government found an outspoken friend in South Carolina and a somewhat unexpected defender in Massachusetts. In resolutions of 1821 and 1822 both states asserted the full right of Congress to enact laws establishing a national bank with branches in the several states, and Massachusetts, with an odor of self-righteousness, explicitly championed the right of the United States Supreme Court to settle all questions involving the constitutionality of legislation.

The same South Carolina would discover that states had the right to nullify federal laws after all, aiming the power at the tariff. With all of this talk about sovereign states and nullification, one would assume that other states rushed to the Palmetto State’s banner but

they sought in vain for friends and defenders where they had every right to expect them. In the first stages of the controversy, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both former expounders of the state rights position, expressed their belief that the tariff was entirely constitutional. Event hose states of the South which had earlier declared a belief in the unconstitutionality of the tariff system were not willing to follow the logic of South Carolina into nullification. […] Mississippi adding, with myopic vision into the future, “we stand firmly resolved … in all events and at every hazard, to sustain” the president in “preserving the integrity of the Union-that Union, whose value we will never stop to calculate-holding it, as our fathers held it, precious above all price.”

Easy enough to say with an enslaver in the White House.

Schlesinger goes on: Massachusetts condemned the annexation of Texas and resolved to ignore the resolution that carried it into force. Vermont, Ohio, and Connecticut agreed. Schlesinger then moves on to Wisconsin’s aforementioned nullification. Not taking the Supreme Court decision as binding, the state

resolved in 1859, on the verge of the war to preserve the Union, that the several states which had formed the federal compact, being “sovereign and independent,” had “the unquestionable right to judge of its infractions” and to resort to “positive defiance” of all unauthorized acts of the general government.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

What does all of this amount to? One can read the various proclamations as evidence of a robust antebellum conviction that the states had the rightful power to judge federal laws unconstitutional and nullify them on their own authority. States both North and South claimed it. But states of both sections, the same states often enough, also condemned it and declared it treasonous. It seems, to judge from consistent patterns of behavior rather than isolated rhetoric, states had the right only when and only to the extent that they lost the most recent round of elections and resolved not to accept that verdict nor to wait for their redress in the next canvass.

Stripping away the constitutional rhetoric and high theory, states rights boil down to just that. Even in the most generous reading, a consistent states rights sentiment would amount to the conviction that state governments have greater propensity to enact policies that one prefers than the federal government. Nothing about the state or federal governments makes one or the other inherently more virtuous. We can find in the past actions equally praiseworthy and horrifying from both. For every abolition of slavery and segregation, we have a Trail of Tears or Japanese-American Internment.

In this light, the regular changes in position on supposedly bedrock constitutionalism become entirely comprehensible. Whether Massachusetts in 1809 or South Carolina in 1860, the cry of states rights expresses no more than the partisanship of the losing party to an election. Its universality likewise comes as no surprise, given that everyone who prevails in an election requires another who did not.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

This brings one back around at length to one of the standard answers to neo-Confederates: states rights for what? Nobody wants any kind of abstract, unspecified states right or state sovereignty in itself. Rather one seeks them in order to achieve various ends which appear then impossible at the national level. Stripping all context from assertions of state power and rendered them into constitutional esoterica does nothing but impede our understanding of the past.

I suspect the authors of such arguments intend as much. By taking the politics out of political arguments, we hide from ourselves and others the information necessary to make informed judgments. So blinded, we inevitably come to the conclusion that past Americans simply had some kind of good faith dispute over the letter of the law which, thanks to some irresponsible actors, turned into a war. It would not do to pay attention to the main behind the curtain, whatever he does to his slaves. We must instead comment only the color of the drapes and the manly vigor he demonstrated in choosing it.

This policy or that, before the Civil War or after, violates states rights. Anti-lynching laws? States rights. Integration? States rights. Civil Rights? States rights. Obamacare? States rights. Same-sex marriage? States rights. If we can give it a name, we can invent some right of a state to block it. Curiously, the rights of the people never seem to get much airtime in these discussions.

Those who propose to argue for states rights as a good in themselves ask us to believe that they would change their position entirely if only a state did the work instead. In this fantasy, South Carolina would have abolished slavery in 1860, if only Lincoln had lost. The South would have integrated, but then the Supreme Court and Lyndon Baines Johnson made a federal case out of it.

Out in the real world, people do violence to others and their victims feel the pain and pay the cost more dearly than any rarefied constitutional doctrines. Whether malefactors draw pay from Washington or Lansing or Columbia, their prey suffer the same. Yet the latter-day speakers of the high-class rebel yell would have us always pay no mind to the man behind the curtain or to those he afflicts. We must say nothing about any of that, confining ourselves to commentary on the color of drapery he chose and the manly virtue he displayed in the choice.

Americans did not embrace states rights in the Secession Winter to defend themselves from tyranny. Winning an election does not make a tyrant any more than losing it does not make one virtuous. The white South flocked to the banner then to save themselves from the consequences that losing the election posed to the institution of slavery, going so far as to assail in their Dear John letters to the Union exercise of the very rights they simultaneously claimed. They did not rediscover their ancient faith in the late 1940s, but rather raised up the old banner in the name of white supremacy once again. By pretending otherwise we might make things more comfortable for ourselves, but in doing so we only outsource the costs to others and so make ourselves accessories to and accomplices in their deprivations, great and small.

The Virginia Showdown, Part One

 

 

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The Know-Nothings had it going on. They made an impressive showing in the 1854 elections. They even took over Massachusetts, host to  so much antislavery drama. Delaware’s Whiggery disbanded to join in the fun. If all the South did not have the North’s immigrant population to stir up nativist fears, then at least its border states and Louisiana did. Those could be the foundation of a new bisectional party, even if it did still tilt to the North. Would states that decided, as a Baltimore paper advised, to sideline slavery in favor of anti-immigrant fears even remain southern enough for it to matter? Stephen Douglas decided, even in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska, that he should worry more about the Know-Nothings than antislavery men. If the Know-Nothings could elect one of their own governor of a major southern state, he might have it right.

Virginians had that major southern state and an election coming up. Unlike half-free Maryland, Virginia still had a healthy slave system. It might also have some discontented people in its extreme west who did not much care for slavery, but aristocratic Virginian planters had bought them off before with incremental advances toward white egalitarianism. They had just done another round of that in 1850, finally giving all white men equal access to state government. Doing that also meant, of course, that the planters voted themselves considerable tax advantages. As a populous state with a healthy slave system, Virginia would be a great feather in the Know-Nothings’ cap.

To take the governor’s post and ring in the Know-Nothings glorious future, they chose an ex-Whig, Richmond lawyer Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. The very model of eighteenth century refinement, Flournoy disdained campaigning. He instructed his voters by letter and refused to make public appearances. He would not stage a circus and prostitute himself for the voting mobs; gentlemen did not do that kind of thing. It drove Virginia’s aging patriarchs wild.

Against Flournoy, the Democracy chose Henry Alexander Wise. A political shapeshifter of the highest caliber, Wise had been a Jacksonite enthusiast turned States Rights Whig before turning Democrat again. Back in 1850, he led the charge to empower poor whites, then switched back and led the charge to secure tax advantages for slavery. He mused that slavery might some day end, then attacked his foes for not defending it strongly enough. This did not endear him to Virginia’s patriarchs. Fire-eater Edmund Ruffin called Wise “a political liar of the first degree.”

Consistency did not much trouble mass politics, though. Wise had risen through the Virginia establishment by alloying eighteenth century ideals about hierarchy to nineteenth century populism. He would use popular appeal to achieve aristocratic goals, spreading the gospel that only age, sex, and race should separate men. Even a propertyless white man still had his skin endowing him with despotic power over every black person.

Wise tore across Virginia, covering three thousand miles in only four months. Every night, for as much as four hours, he screamed in the gaslight until he had only a whisper left. He stomped. He roused the rabble. He put on a show. Wise’s demagoguery could have come from an aristocrat’s worst nightmares. This all sounds like something one would expect of the nativists, playing up public fears. But if the Know-Nothings had unwashed hordes of Irish Catholics to keep them up at nights, then Henry Wise played to a different set of fears: those provoked by the Know-Nothings themselves.

Grappling with Demographics

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, future Republican

Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, ex-Democrat, Know-Nothing, and future Republican

In the summer and fall of 1854, the Know-Nothings racked up win after win. In Massachusetts, they commanded 63% of the vote, elected all the state senators and all but two of the state representatives. That amounted to not just a win, but an amazing landslide. If they could co-opt Massachusetts, then the antislavery furor over Kansas-Nebraska might truly pass away. To the Bay State, they added a 40% showing in Pennsylvania. Even in New York, where Whiggery remained strong, they could pull in 25% of the vote. As the Whigs waned, the Know-Nothings waxed. They won more than fifty seats in the 34th Congress and caucused with the Opposition Party, a new conglomeration of anti-Nebraska, antislavery, and generally anti-Democrat (hence the name) men to control the House. They put one of their own, Nathaniel Banks, in the Speaker’s seat.

But could they cross the Mason-Dixon and become a national party? Delaware’s John Clayton thought so. Tennessee’s John Bell agreed, supporting a Know-Nothing for governor. The Know-Nothings seemed very much posed to make it happen, but they faced a strong demographic challenge. In 1850, the census counted 2,234,602 foreign-born people in the United States. That amounted to 11.50% of the national population. Only 313,312 of those people lived in the slave states. Almost a quarter of them, 24.45%, lived in Missouri alone. Louisiana provided another 68,233 foreign-born, for 21.78% of the South’s immigrants. Maryland (16.34%) and Kentucky (10.03%) rounded out the top four. Together they accounted for 72.40% of the South’s immigrant population.

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

An anti-immigrant party would have trouble building up a movement in states with few immigrants, and that included most of the South. Louisiana, with its sin city of New Orleans and dreams of a Caribbean empire, could look very northern. Few other places in the Lower South did. The Upper South could offer few additions to the list. Only in the border states did anti-immigrant fervor threaten to eclipse slavery and there we must at once exclude the South’s immigrant mecca of Missouri. David Rice Atchison’s state loved the Kansas-Nebraska act. The ongoing feud between Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton helped keep slavery front and center in the political consciousness, but even that conflict rose out of the inherent problem of securing slavery on its most exposed frontier. This left the other end of the northernmost South to flock to the nativist banner.

Flock Maryland, and John Clayton’s Delaware, did. By 1860, both had immigrants enough to outnumber their slaves. In Maryland, swelling numbers of immigrants almost matched shrinking numbers of slaves. William W. Freehling quotes the Baltimore Clipper:

Let all sectional disputes and all discussion of the slave question be laid aside. Our future should turn upon … whether natives or foreigners shall rule.

In Maryland and Delaware, white, native-born Americans could see an advantage in rolling back tides of immigration. They faced a real risk of losing control and thus had a real reason, on top of any abstract fears, to fight to keep what they saw as their birthright. Street gangs clashed in Baltimore almost daily. They had to do something and so elected a Know-Nothing mayor. The next year they took the Maryland legislature and elected its governor. Elsewhere, Know-Nothings soon took Delaware’s single seat in the House, six of Kentucky’s, three of Missouri’s, and even five of Tennessee’s.

Demographics certainly limited Know-Nothing appeal in the Lower South, but they might have a shot at Louisiana. Anti-Catholic credentials wouldn’t help much there, but anti-Irish credentials very well might. They would help themselves greatly if they could pick up Virginia, the perennial southern bellwether. A party that only functioned in the border states could not swing the South, but one competitive also in the Upper South and with a few outposts in the Cotton Kingdom very well could. Maybe the Know-Nothings did not need ironclad demographics on their side.

Building a National Party

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

John M. Clayton (Whig-turned-American-DE)

The Know-Nothings had a real movement behind them. People genuinely feared Catholicism and Catholic immigrants. That mostly meant Irish immigrants, who greatly outnumbered the German immigrants arriving at the same time. The Germans also tended to disperse more broadly across the country, where the Irish concentrated in major cities along the East Coast. This made them obvious and threatening even beyond their numbers, as concentration naturally meant clannishness and naturally shaded into conspiracy to people with the right measure of nativist paranoia. This anti-immigrant fervor, very similar to and overlapping with antislavery fervor, invites speculation. Could the movement steal slavery’s spotlight? Could it fuel a new national party to replace the Whigs?

We know that it did not. Instead of Know-Nothings and their American Party, we got the Republican Party. But we can and should try to see things, as closely as we can, as they appeared to people of the time. They didn’t know how the decade would turn out. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin turned into a runaway bestseller, then the salacious anti-Catholic The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk still came in second. Like antislavery works, Maria educated its readers about the sexual excesses of its villains. If slavery turned the South into a giant brothel, then Catholicism did the same for every Catholic nation. Imperiled virgins and the lurid sexual depredations of slaveholder and priest alike gave concerned Americans plenty to read about. In an era of tremendous sexual repression, they also gave respectable Americans an excuse to do so and leave such works openly on their bookshelves. Prurience need not drive politics, but if the two coincided than few interested parties would object too loudly to that happy accident. Nativists could sell books. They even became a brief fad, with companies selling Know-Nothing branded tea, toothpicks, and candy.

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

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

The nativists had successful propaganda and real fears that struck at the heart of a certain type of American. Could they also win elections? Nativists candidates already had done so from time to time. More could only follow. Know-Nothings elected the mayor of Philadelphia. They swept Massachusetts and came near to taking New York. Those wins did not a national party make, but they showed the great power of the nativist impulse. If they happened in the North, Pennsylvania rested right next to enslaved Maryland. An alliance of Lower North and New England nativists needed only to grow a southern wing to become a national party. The insular South would surely come around, deeply hostile to the arrival of alien people with strange folkways. If Yankees seemed alien to the point of hostility, then what did that say about Catholics?

Plenty of southern men found themselves shopping for a party in the early 1850s. In barely enslaved Delaware, senator John M. Clayton happily went about building a bridge to join northern and southern nativists. He took his last term in the Senate as a member of the American party, having started off as an anti-Jacksonite and later a Whig. Generally moderate, he saw in the movement a chance to bring back the good old days when slavery agitation remained on the margins of political life and the sections lived together. All the destructive passions animated by the slavery debate needed only be retargeted. The Americans, like the name said, would unite all Americans who deserved the title. Too often had Angl0-Americans allowed others to see naturalization and eventual citizenship as rights. By rallying the great majority of genuine, 100% native-born Anglo-American stock, which included plenty of southern men, the Know-Nothings could forge a new national party and restore sectional comity for good by putting the foreign-born and radical antislavery and proslavery men all in their proper, marginal, places.

Update: This post previously referred to the bestselling anti-Catholic work as Maria, Maria. The current version is the correct title.

A Visit from the Butcher of Bologna

Gaetano Bedini

Gaetano Bedini

To further reinforce the KnowNothings’ fears, the Catholic Church did have designs on the United States. Specifically, it wanted what every proselytizing religion wants of unbelievers: conversion. Conversion would naturally bring increased influence for Catholicism and the Catholic hierarchy, just as American Protestantism meant similar advantages for the Protestant clergy. Fairness demands we admit that the united Catholic hierarchy would probably use that power more effectively than diffuse and divided Protestantisms, but it seems unfair to blame Rome for divisions that the Protestants eagerly forged amongst themselves. Nativist fears received further stoking through the visit of the first Papal Nuncio to the United States, Gaetano Bedini.

For some time, the faithful disagreed as to who owned and controlled Catholic property. In Europe, no question existed. The Church, as a corporate entity, owned everything outright and often with extraordinary privileges beyond those of a normal landholder. On paper, the land belonged to the bishop and transferred with the office. In the United States, a corporate body also generally owned church property. That corporate body, however, took its governors from among the local faithful. Some Catholic Church property in America ran under European lines, with the bishop’s name on the deed. But American Catholics often didn’t care to join congregations dominated by Catholics of different ancestry. German Catholics, in particular, disliked the Irish and so often threw in together to buy a plot of land and build their own church. The local bishop, usually Irish, still assigned the priest. If these parishioner-owned parishes didn’t care for the appointment, they could refuse to pay said priest.

All of this sounds very arcane, but when the board of trustees and the bishop disagreed persistently those disputes landed in the courts. In March, 1854, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned a lower court and awarded church property held by the trustees to the local bishop. When similar disputes erupted in upstate New York, the archbishop of New York had a bill put forward in the state legislature to assign all Catholic property to the bishops. That, of course, meant taking it from Americans to give it to agents of a corrupt, reactionary, despotic foreign power. If the state would seize land for Rome, where would it stop? The bill failed in 1852, but came back in 1853.

Into this fervor, which ran together with disputes over taxing Catholics to fund Protestant public schools while the Catholics had to pay for their own Catholic schools and the related dispute over whether Catholic children should participate in Protestant Bible readings if they went to the public schools, Pius IX sent his friend Gaetano Bedini. He would, Pius hoped, sort out the whole business over Church property and generally put American Catholicism’s house in order.

The Pope must have taken a lesson from the Franklin Pierce school of diplomatic appointments. Bedini, though his personal friend, came to America with a record as a dangerous reactionary. He served as military governor of Bologna and there put down a liberal revolution in 1849. He had never before operated in a nation with a Protestant majority. Bedini further lacked much in the way of the expected diplomatic tact. Though he arrived without incident, the Forty-Eighters knew how Bedini earned his bones and went to work agitating against the so-called “Butcher of Bologna”. They even had a priest from Bologna, who split with the Papacy over Italian unification, to tell Americans about the devil in their midst. Native-born Americans and immigrants alike soon met the Nuncio at each appearance, bringing violence in New York, Wheeling, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Richmond. In Cincinnati, matters escalated to a full-blown riot.

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

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

Bedini complicated matters by lingering, staying more than six months. He could not resolve the church property issue, but toured the country and generally hung around regardless. Even some Catholics thus suspected that he had secret orders from the Pope to do something aside from his official remit. Maybe Rome wanted him to work on Pierce until he consented to a permanent Catholic representative, at which point Bedini would take the job. Maybe he organized a secret Catholic political machine to dominate American politics. Maybe, given late tumult in Italy, he paved the way for the Pope’s relocation to the United States. Bedini did finally leave, incognito, in February 1854. By that point, his fellow churchmen feared for his life.

Bedini’s departure, to the sufficiently paranoid, meant only that this one mission failed. That he came at all proved that Rome had a subversive agenda for America. Godly Protestants had no choice but to put a stop to it. Fortunately, they had a new political party just for that. Just as the Slave Power seemed to have the free states under siege, so too did Rome seemed poised to invest American Protestantism.