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.


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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

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

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

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

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

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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

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

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

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

John Brown

John Brown

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

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

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Three

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2

The British and Americans agreed that neither power should dominate Central America or any future Nicaraguan canal. Instead, they foresaw a neutral canal where both nations could enjoy the flow of commerce without troubling one another. The British could have their British Honduras, now Belize, but no more. So they agreed in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

To hear the Americans tell it, Britain’s expanding into islands in the Bay of Honduras violated that understanding. They had Belize and should settle for that. To the British, the Bay Islands formed no more than an extension of Belize, to which the United States had already consented by accepting the presence of British Honduras. Furthermore, the Americans had it wrong regardless as the treaty looked forward, coming fully into effect only when someone set to building the Nicaragua canal.

Here London proved the equal of any dissembling American diplomat. The British had, at absolute minimum, expanded British Honduras by establishing their control over the Bay Islands. Though the British had past dealings with and attempted settlements upon the islands, they went to the United Provinces of Central America on that nation’s independence. The Hondurans inherited the islands on their independence. They protested when British settlers came squatting, but had no means to evict them at the time. When those settlers asked for British protection, the British obliged and then set up the crown colony. All of this looks, in the broad strokes, very like the kind of thing that the Americans wanted to do to Cuba and had done, over a longer time, to Mexican Texas.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Matters might have remained in that state, a cause of some tension but otherwise an interesting footnote at best. But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company ran the steamers over the Nicaragua route, linking the American East to the new American Far West. Vanderbilt went off to Europe and with him safely gone, two unscrupulous businessmen stole the company out from under him. When he returned, Vanderbilt resolved to ruin the men and threw his cash behind a route across the isthmus of Panama.

Meanwhile, in Greytown at the eastern end of the Nicaragua route, the Accessory Transit Company took charge of some land by the harbor. The free port’s officials wanted that land turned into a quarantine station. The company refused. The officials might have made off with some company property during the dispute. With things heating up, an American agent with close ties to the Company, Joseph W. Fabens, sent off dispatches to Washington about how out of control things had become.  Along the way, a Company captain brutally murdered a black pilot.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

You can get away with a lot in a free port, but blatant murder asked too much latitude of Greytown’s government. They sent a man to arrest the captain. Here the American captain’s story comes together with another American in extreme southeastern Nicaragua, Arkansan Solon Borland. A former senator who physically attacked Henry S. Foote back in 1850, Borland had a radical pedigree a bit too hot for Arkansas. He resigned in 1853 and ended up posted to Managua as the American minister. There he won friends and influenced people by lobbying for the United States to take up the Honduran side in the Bay Islands dispute and giving a public speech about how he hoped to see Nicaragua soon annexed to the United States. He’d have done better to wait a year until William Walker (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) ran the nation.

Passing through Greytown in May of 1854, Borland stepped up with gun in hand to stop the arrest. Instead he got arrested. Protesting his arrest got Borland a broken bottle tossed in his face by the unfriendly crowd. His diplomatic immunity got Borland freed and he returned to Washington to tell his story. If this kind of thing had happened in Cuba, a war might very well have erupted. But the Mosquito Coast lived in a legal limbo, Greytown especially. No one could plausibly blame Nicaragua, or even the United Kingdom, for the act of an unruly mob in a fairly lawless town of five hundred outside the reach of both. That said, someone had to pay. The mob assaulted and injured an American diplomat. Even calm old William L. Marcy would not take that sitting down.

Trading Cuba for Kansas

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and revisited.

Back when I returned to the subject of Cuba filibustering, I said that I wanted to explore just how the South chose the questionable prospect of slavery expanded into Kansas over the sure thing of slavery in Cuba. I don’t think that I ever came out and said how that choice happened. This seems like a good moment to go back and unpack the narrative a bit.

Essentially, expansionist-minded Southerners had two opportunities to spread slavery in 1854 and 1855. They could bring the institution to Kansas, or they could bring Cuba with the institution to the Union. Each place had its attractions. If Cuba came into the Union, it must come in as a slave state. It already had slavery, so no one could complain about losing territory promised over to free soil. Even an eleventh hour emancipation poison pill from the departing Spanish could easily be reversed. Unlike the American Southwest, Cuba came thick with slaves and so no one could reasonably call it an undeclared region.

All in all, Cuban slavery looked very secure. The Spanish might threaten, cause panics, and inspire resolutions against the Neutrality Acts and conspiracy theories about British involvement (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but a swift conquest would moot those fears. A fleeting emancipation could easily end with slavery reinstated. Geography would keep slave-stealing abolitionists away and offer self-stealing slaves fewer places to run. If the John A. Quitman and his filibusters could achieve a swift conquest, especially if aided by local revolts, it seems very reasonable to conclude that slavery would persist without disturbance on the island.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

If Quitman could win his game of Grand Theft Island, the Union might not instantly accept Cuba. The Cubans might not instantly accept the Union. But the example of Texas, always on their minds, argued that if Cuba could maintain some kind of de facto independence long enough then somehow, annexation would come. While Texas came in at the price of a war and amid great controversy, nobody proposed giving it back. The imperialistic, missionary attitudes of nineteenth century Americans, convinced that progress expanded with the nation’s borders, could easily ensure that. Would Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis, Caleb Cushing, and Stephen Douglas really refuse Cuba offered up on a silver platter?

But much hangs on that little word ‘if’. If Quitman could take Cuba, if a revolt erupted that he could sail to aid, if he could sail, if he had the ships and men, if the law did not intervene, then all of this might come to pass. Kansas did not have slavery. Bringing it there would involve a fight. But no one save Indians would question the right of Americans to the land.

The Kansas question revolved not on whether expansionists could prevail against a foreign power and then smoothly consolidate their gains into the Union, but rather on whether they could prevail against other Americans. With Kansas adjacent to the Missouri black belt, drained by the same river, and slavery-friendly Missourians possessing a geographic leg up on the competition, that must have looked like the better gamble. Even if Southerners largely understood Kansas as a Missourian issue which they, as fellow slaveholders, had a duty to advance that still left them united in a way that filibustering did not. Lawless filibusters might come off as lovable rogues and high-spirited patriots in Louisiana, but many sections of the South looked on them less charitably than on legitimate, honorable military conquest or lawful purchase of more land (parts 1, 2, 3) from Mexico.

Looking back, we can say that the South made the wrong choice. We know that the North’s fury over being sold out did not abate but instead fueled the foundation of a new, avowedly antislavery party. We know that party nearly won the presidency in 1856 and did in 1860. We know that the KansasNebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. They did not. With the two options before them, Kansas could very reasonably look like the safer bet. The South had dared Northern outrage, won, and endured the backlash over the fugitive slave act. Slavery in Kansas might ensure its spread, with time, to Utah and New Mexico. With a gloss of popular sovereignty, especially if freedom prevailed north of Kansas, they could reasonably have thought that everything would blow over.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Four

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2, 3

In November of 1854, Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, told to the readers of DeBow’s Review that for the safety of the whites of Cuba, of the slaveholding whites of the American South, and for the safety of the Union, the world’s last best hope for liberty, the island must come into the Union. But it must come in with its slavery intact. A war would spoil that hope at once, as the Spanish would surely order emancipation and arm Cuba’s slaves to defend their freedom against Americans come ashore with chains in hand. Spain would never sell the island, but even if a miracle happened and it did the corrupt, hateful Spaniards might poison the feast for slavery on their way out by issuing emancipation decrees in advance of the date of sail. Thus, Cuba must come into the Union by the path paved by Texas: a domestic revolution with Americans coming to join the fray.

Here Walker hit on a substantial difficulty. While Cuba and Texas both had the benefit of considerable distance from the central authority that possessed them, Texas had the benefit of a sparse population easily united and, thanks to only lines on a map and the Sabine river between them, a handy supply of American Southerners eager to insert themselves into a brewing revolution. With small numbers of the right sort of white person on hand, a flood of southerners could quickly turn any revolution into one very much of their own liking. Why, they even had Texans bent on revolution who hailed largely from the South and who revolted in part because the Mexican authorities tried to sever their commercial ties to their old homes.

Cuba, by contrast, had a Creole population. While some southerners saw them as essentially white, no small thing to nineteenth century Americans, they did not share a strong, common history or culture except insofar as both had extensive experience with plantation slavery. Would they really flow together like two drops of water with Americans rushing to their aid the moment the United States set aside the Neutrality Acts and gave Quitman and his filibusters national blessing? Certainly Quitman had Cuban exiles on his side, but his little army would come full of Americans. The Cubans actually on the island might not welcome them. While some might accept annexation, possibly with an American-dominated government during a brief independent interlude, to others that would only come down to another colonial power taking control.

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Walker owned up to the difficulty. The Cubans wanted their independence, not a new set of masters. The filibusters knew that and would go anyway. Their patriotic spirit demanded it. A revolution without external help would surely fail. Thus, naturally, the native Cuban revolutionaries would welcome the filibusters with open arms. They had the same enemy. Perhaps later they would sort out the rest. The lure of freedom trumped all other concerns. Walker knew it did. After reporting a series of motions, protests, and the suppression of a secret society Walker got to the meat of Cuban revolutionary history:

They evinced it [their commitment to revolution] by an imperfect plan of revolution, which failed in 1848, and by the ill-fated expeditions of 1850 and 1851, when a band of our gallant countrymen were murdered under circumstances of so much ruthlessness and barbarity-whose blood cries out aloud from the ground, even now, for vengeance; when that gallant and ill-fated general who led them paid the forfeit of his daring with his life. But he has not died in vain. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Future generations of his enfranchised countrymen will revere him as a hero, and the dark-eyed daughters of his “beloved Cuba” will deck his grave, as a hallowed spot, with the fairest, freshest flowers, and his memory will live ever in the hearts of his countrymen.

They have evinced their desire to be free, in 1854, by their untiring efforts to direct public sentiment in this country to the matter of their condition and desires; by the accumulation of the means of war, in the midst of dangers actually incomprehensible to an American mind. They have done more than Poland, Hungary, or Italy; for they have shown a disposition to assist themselves in a practical, sensible manner, in accordance with the difficulties which surrounded them, and in the only manner in which success can be accomplished.

Fair enough, Cubans had risen up against Spanish rule without the help of invading Americans. Even then some revolutionary groups operated on the island. If past expeditions had gone off to their deaths, that did not mean that Cuba would never rise to aid a filibustering invasion. Completely aside slavery, the Spanish had given many Cubans reason to want out of their empire. Ill-timed and ill-fated expeditions did not have to continue forever. The broad strokes of the plan all seemed to fit together.

While we can’t take Walker as a disinterested party, he does have a few legitimate points and has grappled with the practical difficulties of revolution. Underneath all the nineteenth century romantic adventure and idealism, and the horrific proslavery pandering, one can see how filibustering could have worked out. If Cuba had more people than Texas, those people had a far more up close and personal experience of Spanish brutality than the Texans had with its Mexican counterpart. They had at least as much reason to revolt as a Texan did and more people could mean more revolutionaries on the ground to join up with incoming Americans.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Three

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2

Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, took to the pages of DeBow’s Review in November of 1854 with a last-ditch effort to drum up support for taking the island from Spain. He began by emphasizing its importance to the Union and articulating a domino theory of emancipation: Should the slaves of Cuba receive their freedom, it would inflame the slaves of America to rebel. The South could not risk such a thing and to save itself from racial annihilation might have to break the Union. But taking Cuba by force would only ensure that Cuban emancipation proceeded. Thus the United States could not war upon Spain to seize the island, despite what Pierre Soulé and company thought in the Ostend Manifesto and Franklin Pierce briefly pondered.

Walker moved to the obvious second option. Couldn’t the United States buy Cuba?

The plan of acquiring Cuba by purchase, if not obnoxious to all the objections which attach to its acquisition by conquest, yet many of these, applicable in the latter case, apply with equal force in the former; with this insuperable objection on the part of the Southern States, that it would introduce into our Union a State burdened with such decrees as have been already ordained, as well as such as might be hereafter enacted by the existing government, respecting the status of the negro, between this and the date of purchase. All these the power purchasing would be compelled to maintain and to carry out. All of these are and would be at war with a proper administration of the domestic policy of the South.

Walker had a point. Any purchase deal would be negotiated in advance and take place on a scheduled date. One does not buy islands by going out to Islands-R-Us and picking one off the shelf on a whim. The Spanish could poison the deal after the fact with some kind of emancipation policy. Once freed, the former slaves would need re-enslaving and that struggle would probably involve great effort. It might erupt into an island-spanning slave revolt to inspire slaves across the water in the United States to join in. That struggle would also surely create a dramatic controversy in Washington. The South might prevail then, as it had before, but that victory could be another of the Pyrrhic kind which it spent the 1850s perfecting.

But really, purchase discussion amounted to a sophisticated way to accomplish nothing and feel otherwise:

This question, however, will never arise. Spain will never sell Cuba. It is not probable that her overweening pride will be drowned in her avarice, when so large a portion of the purchase money will go to her creditors, and not into the pockets of her corrupt administration.

This naturally brought Walker to the obvious conclusion for a filibuster:

If we get Cuba, we must get it in another way; and the road is open. Let but the United States Government hold off, and Cuba will free herself in a short time. So long as the government of Spain has to deal only with a domestic foe, she will be confident in her strength to quell the revolution, and will not, we may hope, discover her error, until too late to remedy it; but the attack of so powerful an adversary as the United States will, on the very first hostile demonstration, bring down the decree. If we acquire Cuba, we must acquire her as we acquired Texas.

More Cuban Adventures Still?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Secretary of State William Marcy sent new instructions to Pierre Soulé in Madrid. Those instructions told him that he could offer up to $130,000,000 to Spain to buy Cuba, changing the administration’s implicit policy from stealing the island to buying it. The day after Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act he joined in by proclaiming that he would zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all offenders. On the face of it, both of these facts suggest that the administration had more than enough “fun” with Kansas-Nebraska and would call it quits on Cuba.

One can, and I certainly have, read the evidence that way. But contrary evidence does exist and presents an equally compelling case. Marcy’s instructions told Soulé to try to buy the island. The previous instructions told him to entertain no such negotiations. Furthermore, they included this telling line:

the next most desirable object [after purchase] which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion and from all dependence on any European power.

If that didn’t make things clear enough, Marcy pressed on:

If Cuba were relieved from all transatlantic connection and at liberty to dispose of herself as her present interest and prospective welfare would dictate, she would undoubtedly relieve this government from all anxiety in regard to her future condition.

Soulé’s new mission then included purchase negotiations, but if those failed he should strive for Cuban independence. An independent Cuba would, naturally, relieve the United States of all its worries by promptly applying to join the Union. The more things changed, the more policy stayed the same. Marcy saw Cuba as a second Texas, freeing itself with a bit of American help and then rushing to join up with Uncle Sam. This would neutralize many of the objections in America, as the nation itself would not go to war and the independent Cuba would in turn offer itself to the United States. If the Cubans themselves wanted in, would the country really refuse them?

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

That accounted for Plans A and B, not all that much changed from the original. But Marcy did not elaborate on what methods Soulé should undertake for his end of Plan B. He knew, however, of Soulé’s past revolutionary activities. He also knew, as anybody looking did, that in 1854 Spain teetered on the brink of revolution. Few Spaniards liked their queen. The nation had little money and could only get more at exorbitant rates of interest. The infrastructure withered. The army consumed prodigious amounts of money that Madrid could ill afford, but which it could afford even less to cut. That would almost surely bring armed revolt.

Spain desperately needed the money that purchasing Cuba would bring. It could come through Soulé to the Spanish treasury. Daniel Sickles, who had a prewar adventure so colorful that I don’t feel I can tell it here without it taking over the post, floated the idea of a bribe to the Queen Mother, who owned much of Cuba. Plan B could also come from the fruits of Spanish discord. Soulé intrigued with various revolutionary factions, promising them cash now for Cuba later.

With Marcy’s new instructions, all these options remained on the table.