Worse than the Stamp Act: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 14

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13; full speech

Charles Sumner reminded the Senate of how far America had fallen to pass the Fugitive Slave Act by comparing it to the Stamp Act. Both constituted usurpations of power by out of control legislatures. The people rose in righteous rebellion, revered founders and common Americans alike. The righteous indignation of a freedom-loving people forced the mightiest empire since Rome, in the full blush of its powers and across an ocean, to bow and recant. That took less than a year. The Fugitive Slave Act had endured for the better part of two by the time Sumner spoke in late 1852, but that did not deter the Senator from Massachusetts. He did argue that the law resembled the Stamp Act in many particulars, but he deemed it far worse a villainy.

Sumner damned the Stamp Act like a good American, but he considered it an offense against “civil liberty only; not of personal liberty”. A few cents’ tax with the chance for trial without a jury violated the sacred liberties of the people, but it didn’t reduce anyone to slavery. While the founders could, and did, discourse at length about how the British would enslave them as a matter of rhetoric, no one in London speculated on the future price of a prime George Washington.

in placing the Stamp Act by the side of the Slave Act, I do injustice to that emanation of British tyranny. Both, indeed, infringe important rights; one of property; the other the vital right of all, which is to other rights as the soul to the body

Freedom, Sumner averred, counted for more than property. There he probably different from some of the framers, for whom freedom flowed from property. We today could point to property in people specifically as where they found their freedom. Such a conclusion would undermine Sumner’s narrative of declension fatally. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to him at all any more than it did generations of historians who followed, until Edmund Morgan asked the question in American Slavery, American Freedom.

But what if the Fugitive Slave Law did meet constitutional snuff? Sumner looked over at his friend Andrew Butler and cited him on the question:

The Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler) was right, when, at the beginning of the session, he pointedly said that a law which could be enforced only by the bayonet was no law.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Sumner argued that a law might have all the formal endowments necessary to come into force, but absent “the essential support in the Public Conscience of the States” it could not survive. Popular defiance would render laws impotent, whether the Stamp Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, or civil rights legislation. In order to enforce a law, one has to have people on the ground willing to arrest, try, and convict offenders. Absent those, one may as well legislate against the sunrise. Since the Fugitive Slave Act would have to find enforcers in the free states, their public consciences would make it a dead letter.

“Your Constitution has forbid it”: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 11

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; full speech

We left Charles Sumner explaining how the first fugitive slave law, from 1793, didn’t complicate his argument that the framers wanted the national government to have nothing to do with slave catching. He argued that they made a mistake; everyone knew that just as everyone knew they erred with the national bank. Anyway, strict construction did not permit the nation to assume a power for slave renditions on the grounds that the Constitution had no such explicit grant of power to Congress. Members of the Democratic end of Sumner’s coalition back in Massachusetts must have nodded along. To give them more thrills, and probably nauseate more than a few of his ex-Whig comrades, Sumner then engaged in a page-long defense of state’s rights to underline his point. That included words which, a few years later, took on a rather different cast over the fate of Kansas:

Non-intervention is the rule prescribed to the Nation. [For slavery.]

Stephen Douglas, Archibald Dixon, and company would tout non-intervention as the magic bullet for ending slavery controversy when they repealed the Missouri Compromise. The nation had interfered to ban slavery and they would restore it to its proper place as a local question. Sumner would promptly switch principles, just as every principled state’s rights man does in the same situation.

Continuing on the theme, Sumner declared

if the slaveholder has a right to be secure at home in the enjoyment of Slavery, so also has the freeman of the North-and every person there is presumed to be a freeman-an equal right to be secure at home in the enjoyment of Freedom.

State’s rights would work both ways, until about January of 1854. Sumner reminded the Senate that the free states might take a lesson from proslavery impositions and, in some future day, apply the powers that Southern men gave to Congress for their own ends. In Reconstruction, just that would come to pass.

The Senator from Massachusetts then dissected the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in more detail, damning it for the denial of a jury trial to the accused. According to the Constitution, even if the government had the power to act as proslavery men wished, accused fugitives had a right to a jury’s verdict. The clause applied to people “held to labor” and only the people who owned their labor could recover them. One couldn’t just assert that, but rather had to show it to some legal standard. The new law discarded all of that in favor of a simple claim made to a commissioner, with no jury and no right of defense. By acting as a trial in all but name, it bypassed ancient and dear rights:

And these proceedings determine on the one side the question of property, and on the other the sacred question of Personal Liberty in its most transcendent form; not merely Liberty for a day or a year, but for life, and the Liberty of generations that shall come after, so long as Slavery endures.

This made for wild stuff, so wild that Sumner found a South Carolinian senator who objected back when the matter came before the Senate in 1818:

This would give the Judge the sole power of deciding the right of property the master claims in his slaves, instead of trying that right by a jury, as prescribed by the Constitution. He would be judge of matters of law and matters of fact; clothed with all the powers of a court. Such a principle is unknown in your system or jurisprudence. Your Constitution has forbid it.

When even a South Carolinian thinks one has gone too far in defense of slavery, one must take notice.

Charles Sumner and Freedom of Religion: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; full speech

Charles Sumner informed the Senate that the work of his neighbor in the chamber, James Mason, imperiled white liberties as well as black. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had no language to restrict its application to black Americans. A slave catcher could, in theory at least, accuse anyone on the street of having absconded, haul that person before a commission where they could not speak on their own behalf, and have them bundled off to the slave states for a life in bondage without any of the customary protections that white Americans saw as their birthright. They would have not a trial, but “summary proceedings.” They would surrender the power to enslave a white man at will to a civil servant appointed by a court and dismissed by the court on any whim at all, and pay that commissioner more to rule for slavery than freedom. The commissioner could hear evidence without opposition and without the accused having a chance at cross-examination. The Fugitive Slave Act trampled Habeas Corpus. Finally, in defiance of the founders’ clear will at the Constitutional Convention, it rendered fugitives at public expense.

Those sins matter, then and now, but it does come across as a lawyer’s indictment. Sumner focused for most of a page on procedural guarantees and rights one exercises in the context of a trial. While that doesn’t trivialize them at all, it does render them a bit esoteric for people who don’t expect to face charges in a court of law. To those Sumner added a right dear to far more Americans:

The Constitution expressly secures the “free exercise of religion;” but this Act visits with unrelenting penalties the faithful men and women, who may render to the fugitive that countenance, succor, and shelter, which in their conscience “religion” seems to require.

As with Sumner’s condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act for not limiting itself to whites, this raises an unlovely set of issues. Few Americans want anyone sufficiently white and of sufficiently familiar faith to suffer interference in the exercise of their religion. This results in preferential treatment for religions familiar to white Americans, which in Sumner’s time mainly meant Protestant denominations. But we also think the law ought to apply to everyone the same and that people should not suffer compulsion to comply with religious dictates not of their own choosing. These values conflict on nearly every point. When religions require the usage of controlled substances as part of their practice, we scruple little about outlawing them. When they require us to impose our sexual mores on others, especially women, millions of Americans will cheer.

I write this with modern conflicts in mind, but in Sumner’s time one might well have objected that antislavery Christians impinged the freedom of conscience of proslavery Christians by interfering with the God-ordained institution of slavery. Antislavery Christians would answer back that interference with opposing slavery and forcing them to act in conformance with its preservation trampled their own devout convictions. Both could have it perfectly right. As moralists, we can prefer one or the other and invent a constitutional doctrine to justify it like we do any of our other preferences, but the essential conflict remains. Someone has to lose and Sumner, like the rest of us, chose the other side.

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.


About that Fugitive Slave Clause: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 6

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

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

Charles Sumner insisted to the Senate that, properly construed, the Constitution permitted the national government no power to institute, defend, or protect slavery. Such authority belonged exclusively to the states, which could choose as they wished. He said as much in an argument against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but the point reached further. The act and the theories that led to it both grated against the true meaning of the Constitution, which enshrined a national presumption of freedom that could not be surrendered absent due process of law. That left Sumner with a problem in the form of the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause:

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

By the plain reading of the text, the Constitution does make the rendition of fugitive slaves a national business of some kind. If a slave crossed state lines, the government in Washington had an obligation to return them. Sumner had to explain that away.

The Senator commenced by declaring that none of the great compromises at Philadelphia hung on the clause, after which he reviewed them at length. Returning to the subject, he remarked that the Virginians there presented sixteen resolutions on the best form of government and none called for any fugitive renditions. Nor even did the South Carolinians, who presented a plan “marked by considerable minuteness of detail” quite say that. Their plan included a provision for the return of fugitives from justice, but not fugitive slaves. The “flaming guardian of the slave-interest” can’t have missed that opportunity by chance.

That must sound like hair-splitting. Since he talked himself into a corner, Sumner wanted to lawyer the corner into a boulevard. But he had a point, if a narrrow one. We call people who have some kind of court judgment against them or who flee capture by law enforcement fugitives from justice. Fugitive slaves had, and often could not legally have, any such court order. If it took a judge to declare everyone a slave to start with, the system wouldn’t have withstood the spotty legal infrastructure of the early United States. Nor did Southerners usually consider fugitive slaves in defiance of a law, precisely. They asserted the right to fugitive rendition by analogy to non-human livestock. If a cow or a horse strayed into someone else’s land, you had a common law right to go in and get it back inherent in the right to hold that animal as property. As another species of property, slaves must count for that or they must not count as property.

The whole work of the convention nearly passed, with seven full drafts of the Constitution, before the fugitive slave matter came up. Then Charles Cotesworth Pinckney suggested the convention ought to do something about fugitive slaves, though he declined to present one. The next item on the agenda involved the rendition of those aforementioned fugitives from justice, at which point Pinckney and another South Carolinian moved that fugitive slaves fall under the same provision. That would treat them as criminals.

Sumner might have made an arcane, technical point, but it had a substance to it all the same. The framers did not act like men who viewed the Fugitive Slave Clause as a critical compromise to preserve the Union. They treated it like a genuine afterthought.

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

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

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

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Six

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner delivered a strong moral argument against slavery at Faneuil Hall. Especially in Boston, that kind of thing had to raise questions. The threat to white freedom embedded in the institution could get a pass, but when Sumner evinced powerful sympathy for the enslaved his audience may have heard a whiff of Garrisonian purity about him. The Garrison wing of abolitionism preached non-involvement with politics, that sordid mire of compromise that had done so much to defend and expand slavery. Garrison’s moral purity might make him an appealing figure today, but it also makes him a curious one for a political aspirant to invoke at a party meeting. One does not, at least in rhetoric, compromise on morals. By freighting antislavery with such potent religious language, Sumner put himself in a potentially difficult spot.

Naturally, he had an out:

The testimony which we bear against Slavery, as against all other wring, is, in different ways, according to our position. The Slavery which exists under other governments, as in Russia or Turkey, or in other States of our Union, as in Virginia and Carolina, we can oppose only through the influence of morals and religion, without in any way invoking the Political Power. Nor do we propose to act otherwise.

By making slavery foreign, Sumner once more indicted it. To hold slaves put a polity in the company of autocratic Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey: states his audience would understand as deeply backward and alien. Making it foreign also made it to a substantial degree someone else’s problem. Here Massachusetts’ future senator repeated far more conventional antislavery attitudes. The good people of Massachusetts did not practice slavery, so their moral responsibility lay in exhortation. However:

Slavery, where we are parties to it, whenever we are responsible for it, everywhere within our jurisdiction, must be opposed not only by all the influences of literature, morals, and religion, but directly by every instrument of Political Power.

Massachusetts lacked the power to end slavery in the South by legal means. Such a scruple extended to the use of federal power just the same. What happened in South Carolina stayed in, or should stay in, that state. But free jurisdictions had used that power for themselves since the 1780s, with the Bay State leading the way. Thus, to Sumner, they had proven themselves competent and trustworthy. Therefore

I am sorry to confess that this can be done only through the machinery of politics. The politician, then, must be summoned. The moralist and philanthropist must become for this purpose politicians, -not forgetting morals of philanthropy, but seeking to apply them practically in the laws of the land.

And should your legislature like to summon Charles Sumner, he didn’t have to say, he would not misplace his morals on the train to Washington. The implication held double meaning: Sumner would not turn traitor to his principles, but would also not fly off into some Union-imperiling radicalism by attacking slavery in the slave states.

Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

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

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.


Only Franklin Pierce Can Save the Union: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Seven

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

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

Andrew Butler told the Senate, in essence, that he saw Kansas as another Texas. If the South did not have it, then it would turn into the launching point for a war against slavery. He indicted John Hale’s opposition to David Rice Atchison’s gaggle of proslavery filibusters as a continuation of Hale’s opposition to annexing Texas. Hale could hardly disagree. Butler didn’t quite leave things there, insisting that the annexation proved more a boon to the North than the South as a free trade Galveston would have fed imported goods into the South and evaded Yankee tariffs. Hale and his fellows ought to thank the slave states for bringing Texas into the Union.

And anyway, did Hale and company want to give Texas back?

They might say so, but they would be rebuked about as effectually as any public men could be rebuked whenever they appeared to that judgment. These are hard questions, I admit. I ask them, would they agree that England should take Texas and exclude slavery, or that Texas should continue to be a separate republic; or would they expel her from the Union if in their power?

Hale or some friends might remark in private about how they’d do better without Texas. I know some of my political comrades have, just as the other side would like to be rid of California or Massachusetts. But to suggest giving land annexed into the United States to Britain, the hated antithesis of all American liberty, made for a potent charge. It had extra credibility in this context because American abolitionists understood Britain as an ally in their struggle, a fact not lost on the white South.

That “gravamen” dispatched, Butler proceeded to the next:

Suppose the so-called [free state] Legislature assembled in Kansas on the 4th of March, absolutely hoisting the banner of treason, rebellion, and insurrection, what is the President to do? I tell you, sir, as much as the gentlemen to whom I allude denounce the President, if he should not interpose his peacemaking power in Kansas, that Legislature will be opposed, and opposed by men as brave as they are, with weapons in their hands, and the contest will be decided by the sword.

If Franklin Pierce didn’t step in, proslavery violence would surely ensue. That would then spread, with Butler citing efforts to organize a military expedition to Kansas in his own South Carolina. Those “young men who will fight anybody” would start a bloody contest that put the Union at risk. Only Franklin Pierce could stop it. He had to act, or

he would be guilty of a criminal dereliction of duty […] for by interposing, he can cave them from the consequences of this issue.

It fell on Pierce to save antislavery Kansans, traitors all, from the “consequences” of their actions. Proslavery militants have little agency in Butler’s account. He doesn’t quite call their reaction one they can’t resist, but comes close. They act not just as a political opposition to the antislavery party, but also something more elemental. Here Butler dips into the favorite language of the obviously culpable, somewhere between “mistakes were made” and “they made me do it.” Antislavery people, or the President, could do something to stop them but proslavery men had no power to stop themselves.

Dreams of a British Texas: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Six

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

From his discussion of David Rice Atchison’s remarkable benevolence and restraint in saving the people of Lawrence from a proslavery mob led by David Rice Atchison, Andrew Butler moved on to another matter. In considering John P. Hale’s rhetorical assault on his friend Dave, Butler came to what he called “the gravamen” of Hale’s position. That gravamen, Texas, had much to do with both Hale’s own past and present matters in Kansas. Franklin Pierce had read Hale out of the New Hampshire Democracy for opposing annexation of the Lone Star Republic on antislavery grounds. Butler struck right to the point:

I will put my questions, however, to the Senator from new Hampshire, […] Would he consent that Texas should have become a British province, with the certainty that England would place that province in the same condition as its West India islands, and with the certainty that her policy would be to make war on the institutions of Louisiana and other southern States? Would he take the part of England in such a controversy, sooner than of those who have given us our liberties and our rights? Would he consent that Great Britain should take possession of Texas, and make war, like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour among its neighbors? Would he consent to that, on an acknowledged condition only that it should not have slaves, and should be pledged to make war on the institutions of the southern States? Would he agree to make war on his southern confederates on such conditions and through such agencies?

John Hale

After the initial attempt to secure annexation on semi-independence from Mexico failed, the Texans let the matter drop for some time. It came back in the 1840s. That time, Sam Houston played a complicated double bluff. He courted a British protectorate over his nation and offered to emancipate its slaves should that protectorate come. At the same time, he told Americans that the British had offered his fragile republic protection against Mexico on the condition of emancipation. Texas needed protection from Mexico and the financial windfall that a British subsidy for emancipation would bring. Houston himself might have accepted either outcome, but an abolitionized Texas presented an existential threat to slavery in Louisiana. The Tyler administration keenly appreciated the political usefulness of the story Houston told, whether the members believed it or not and annexation squeaked through the Senate by means of a joint resolution of Congress and amid great controversy. Butler presented Hale’s historical position and in so doing invoked his present one. John Hale would literally take the part of Britain and establish an abolitionist Kansas from which antislavery radicals could strike into Missouri, now playing the part of Louisiana.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Butler imagined a far more romantic, crusading antislavery effort than existed prior to 1860. Border clashes did happen, but few in the white North imagined anything like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. On the Kansas front, only Ely Thayer in the Emigrant Aid Company took earnestly his plan to replicate the freeing of Kansas by sending Yankees to colonize Virginia. To the degree that keeping Kansas free would undermine slavery in Missouri, antislavery writers imagine a largely passive process where the enslaved and white population growth did much of the work until a political movement within the established order worked a transformation over the Show Me State as had happened in Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern jurisdictions.