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.

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.

Those Texas License Plates

Texas SCV plateGentle Readers, I somehow convinced myself that I had written on this case. It turns out that I have not, as I learned via Twitter. Other bloggers have weighed in on the subject. I don’t feel that I have a great deal to add, but the issue is worth thinking about all the same.

The relevant facts, as I see them, run as follows: Texas raises money, sometimes a great deal of it, by selling vanity license plates. You can get the numbers and letters you like, provided someone else hasn’t filed first. Private groups can further submit to the state designs in of their choosing and receive a cut of the revenue generated by them. The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans put forward their plate design and Texas refused it. The design bore, as one would expect, a Confederate flag. The SCV sued and the case reached the Supreme Court (PDF) this past week.

My previous opinions on the use of Confederate flags still stand, but I think Texas’ case is very weak. The state, whatever formal apparatus it has set up to vet submissions for plates, has adopted a nigh-absolute lack of discretion in practice. As Andy Hall notes, you can get Texas plates in more than two hundred different brands, including those of universities from outside of Texas. That alone makes its refusals conspicuous and worthy of closer looks, even aside other issues. One might have a very unusual sort of submission with content problematic for other reasons. A plate including an explicit endorsement of violence against minorities would probably not pass muster. The SCV plate doesn’t do that.

That said, having read Texas’ argument before the Court I think they do have a point that by putting a group’s advertisement on their license plate they have given it a form of state endorsement. The ad adorns an official state document. The state receives money from its issuance. It literally goes into business with the SCV, should it sell the plates. The state has an obvious and legitimate interest in controlling what messages go out, again literally, under its name. However, by what nineteenth century Americans might call its promiscuous issuing of plates, Texas has essentially yielded its ability to do so in the given forum.

Otherwise, as the justices note in oral arguments, one creates a precedent where Texas could sell plates reading “Vote Republican” and refuse to issue “Vote Democratic”. It could put the same message on all its election materials, presumably down to the paper ballots themselves. Anybody would recognize that as obvious partisanship and, I hope, an improper use of state power for electoral advantage. The license plates, then, come down to one of those all or nothing positions where we either must affirm the rights of individuals to buy the plates and so participate in a relatively unregulated public forum which the state has created, or close up the forum. Texas, and other states, can close the door they opened. But if they do so, they must close it for everyone.

One does not have a principle if one yields it to inconvenience. This inevitably means at times we find ourselves on the side of people or messages we find personally loathsome. Either one supports equal rights, or one doesn’t really support rights at all but rather particular privileges that accrue to oneself at the expense of others. That kind of hypocrisy never goes out of fashion and we will probably never purge ourselves of it entirely, but we have more options than perfection or perfect stagnation. We can manage better, even if we can’t reach best.

This will give little consolation to people who have to look at the plates and know the history of the symbol, of course. I don’t mean to trivialize their objections, which I share. An official state plate does transgress good taste more than a private bumper sticker would, but I think both fall under the exercise of free speech.

The Fuss and the Industrial Luminary, Part Seven

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Magers’ paper.

The Platte County Self-Defense Association’s mob of two hundred sent George Park’s printing press to the bottom of the Missouri River, thus silencing the Parkville Industrial Luminary’s non-agitation on slavery and criticism of the proslavery border ruffians’ intervention in Kansas. As a nice bonus for David Rice Atchison, the destruction also revenged him on Park for publishing remarks that Bourbon Dave made in his cups. The incident sheds light on the fact that the filibusters feared for Missouri’s slavery in more than an abstract sense. As B.F. Stringfellow set down, they feared they may have already lost Missouri to slavery. Certainly their failure to evict Frederick Starr for his suspected abolitionism earlier on gave them reason to wonder. An enslaved Kansas would reverse their nightmare of an abolitionist safe haven, instead giving Kansas-based border hooligans a base to police proslavery orthodoxy on the Missouri frontier.

The story could end with the Industrial Luminary’s press rusting in the river. But Park’s reaction sheds more light on the complicated nature of slavery politics in the Missouri hinterland. He circulated a letter in response to the destruction of his press, pronouncing himself

filled with the deepest concern for the events that have transpired and the passions that bear sway-premeditated as they have been, by a large and powerful secret organization.

But at the same time:

I am happy to know that the people of Parkville and vicinity took no part in it

Men from Platte County did, but not from Parkville and environs. The mob surely didn’t let Park or any associates run a census of its members, but one imagines that small town residents in a frontier area knew one another well enough by sight to spot any familiar faces. That said, Park knew the limits of his town and his own conscience. He may favor a free soil Kansas on economic grounds, but

the charge of abolitionism is false; I have never harbored such a thought, nor meditated an action, detrimental to the honor, the interests, or institutions of Missouri; but have labored unceasingly to promote her prosperity. It is true I have not believed the honor and interests of Missouri to be in that course of policy marked out by some politicians-duty has compelled me to cross their path, which has brought on my devoted head the bitterest persecution.

That stand brought a mob of Atchisonians down on Park, but not his close neighbors. Would they permit no dissent at all? Park declared his love for both sections, his desire for a peaceful Union, and reminded readers of his service in the Texas Revolution. He dared the mob to come, insisting he would not leave his home. He’d rather be consigned to the waters with his press, but even his death would not destroy freedom of the press. But

If there is no security in the land of Washington-if an American home affords no protection-if the time has arrived when this union must be dissolved, and all its kindred ties and mighty interests broken and destroyed, and drenched with fraternal blood, then let me be buried beneath the turbid waters of the Missouri, rather than live to see such a scene. God save our country!

Park’s brave words did not stop him from leaving town in the end. Magers’ paper references a circular letter dated November 8, 1855. Therein the people of Parkville protested his eviction and said they needed him back. They could decide for themselves who did and did not belong among them, even if they disclaimed abolition and free soil in the doing. Park did return, and got $2,500 in damages out of the mob, but later found himself in Illinois and did not return to Missouri until after the war.

We can take from this that the people of Parkville tolerated George Park just fine and resented the Self-Defense Association’s meddling in their affairs. His free soil beliefs might make that tolerance less than pleasant on occasion, or they may have distanced themselves from it in the name of not bringing a mob down on their heads, but they felt confident enough to take a stand in his favor. In their forebearance, they lived up to the Self-Defensives’ nightmare: Missourians who would not tolerate proslavery vigilantes dictating to them the range of permissible opinion.

The Fuss and the Industrial Luminary, Part Four

 

The Alton mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton mob attacking Lovejoy’s warehouse.

Parts 1, 2, 3. Magers’ paper.

The mob pitched George Park’s printing press into the Missouri River. They wanted to tar and feather Park’s partner, W.J. Patterson, but without Park there to complete the set, the Platte County Self-Defense Association took a pass on that. At least the Herald of Freedom tells it that way. Roy Magers adds that Park went off to Kansas after getting advance word from a friendly Self-Defensive. He says this, however, in the same paragraph where he also seems to relate something more like a local legend. Given he provides only one footnote, and that an informational one rather than a source citation, one can’t tell just where the history end and stories take over. The Herald’s accounts speculate that Park got word of the party in advance, but don’t have the confidence in the notion that Magers did. A letter in the May 5 edition of the Herald suggests that the mob did not take great pains to hide themselves and Park may thus have required any inside information.

Magers also relates this probable legend:

It is said that he [Park] watched the proceedings from a hiding place just across the river from the scene of the raid.

Magers does introduce an additional consideration to Patterson’s treatment. The Herald focused on his wife’s involvement. Its May 5, 1855 issue has a letter from a frustrated mob member, or someone sympathetic to them, about how she kept clinging to him and they voted by a small majority that they just couldn’t tar and feather a woman. Magers adds to this that Patterson claimed Canadian citizenship and that his mistreatment would cause an international incident. It might have. More immediately, I’ve learned from David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage that the proslavery movement in the United States convinced itself from the 1830s on that the British Empire had ruined the profits of its own colonies with emancipation and so it had a special need to destroy competition, which its statesmen pursued under the guise of advocating abolition.  To molest Patterson would give Britain an excuse to meddle further in American affairs, something many proslavery men already thought it did regularly, if covertly, though American antislavery groups. Whatever reason they had for sparing him, Patterson felt safe enough in Parkville that in the same May 5 Herald of Freedom he ran an ad offering his services as a real state broker for lands around the town. Park may have left Missouri, but his partner stuck around.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

This brings us to the question of why the Platte County Self-Defense Association took action against the Industrial Luminary, Park, and Patterson. Their resolutions make it clear that they consider it an abolitionist paper, as did the letter that the member of the mob sent along. Therein, the author damned the Industrial Luminary as

a Free Soil sheet, and has been aiding and abetting the eastern Abolition societies in their abortive attempt to abolitionize Kansas for the past year.

One could expect nothing less. But Park published out of the Missouri hinterland. One does not expect him to channel William Lloyd Garrison and print blistering invective against slavery, slaveholders, and the sins with which they taint the nation. He may have hailed from Vermont, but Park lived in Parkville for as long as Missouri had the territory. He put the Park into its name. He went off from there to fight in the Texas Revolution, but came right back. George Park might not have perfectly imbibed proslavery orthodoxy, but neither did he bring with him the stigma of a strange outsider nor a fire-breathing abolitionist.

However, this runs long and I’ve often transgressed my usual limit lately. Further exploration of this tomorrow.

The Freedmen’s Patrol Review of Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast

Kansas can wait one more day. It’s been there since 1854, after all.

Back when I started this blog, in the savage age when the internet ran on carrier anomalocaris, I thought that I might review some books from time to time. I use quite a few regularly, in addition to period sources. Then a project to describe the election of 1860 turned into a short summary of major events leading to the war. How long could that really take? A week or two? By geological standards, that summary remains short.

Also in that distant past, I consulted Google to see what the internet had to offer in the way of Civil War blogging. Some guy out there made and photographed these amazing models of Civil War ships. Only later did it dawn upon me that Andy Hall did all that on a computer instead of with physical models. And then he wrote a book about the Texas blockade, a story featuring just those ships and the exploits of their crews.

So I had to have it. I went to my locally-owned, independent bookseller to get a copy on order. It’s a running joke there that I never want anything she actually has in stock. When she put Andy’s book into the computer, she got back the mysterious note that it was not available. The owner of the store had never seen that one before. Books came either in print or out of print, either in stock or out of stock. But she ordered it up anyway, just to see what would happen.

A week later it arrived. “Not available” must mean “available just like everything else.” Who knew? I took an unaccustomed walk out to collect it, but the ailing state of my calf muscles (Exercise and I don’t get on so well.) and my excitement prevented an uninterrupted trip home. I sat down in a park and read the Acknowledgements and part of the first chapter. It was worth the stop.

So let’s do this review properly, then:

Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast by Andrew W. Hall.

I have no prior experience with The History Press, but to judge from their catalog this book seems a typical offering. It weighs in at 141 pages, including endnotes and index. The text comes generously illustrated with both period photographs and drawings and the author’s maps and renderings of various ships. Unlike many histories, you could read it in a single sitting without doing much harm to your hindquarters or risking starvation. The clear writing will surprise no readers of Andy’s blog, but its frequent absence in the field makes it all the more appreciated.

I know relatively little about Civil War naval operations so most everything Andy wrote came as news to me. The work naturally focuses on his native Galveston, the premier port on the Texas coast at the time, but we do venture elsewhere when the subject warrants it. The war might have begun in 1861, but Andy takes us all the way back to the 1820s to briefly sketch out the history of Texas to that point and takes some time to lay out Galveston’s geography and the region’s economy for context. From there he moves into the opening of the war and the legal complications of declaring the blockade, something that international custom held could only occur between two nations at war rather than one nation suppressing a rebellion.

Then we come back to the Texas coast for the story of the blockade runners and their enemies. Andy gives us chapters on particular ships and their daring escapes. We read about their tactics, both clever and brazen. I found myself especially taken by the captain who dusted himself with flour and hid in a dark cabin, declaring that he had yellow fever. Nobody would want to inspect that vessel, right? A Navy officer and the ship’s surgeon boarded the blockade runner, but fell for the ruse.  So far, so good. But then:

Alden [captain of the USS South Carolina] was getting suspicious; he thought he recognized the schooner. He then went over to the schooner, opened the hatch to the master’s cabin wide to admit more light, and climbed down into the cabin to get a good look for himself. After a moment, Alden said quietly, “You’ve played this one out, Johnson, and you’d better get up.” Johnson immediately admitted the ruse.

Memorable stories like this flesh out the narrative spine of the book and provide the occasional welcome laugh along the way. In another we learn that William Henry Seward, alcohol, and diplomacy appear to have mixed memorably, if not exactly well.

To add to the history, Andy gives us the story of how the wrecks of some of the blockade runners have been rediscovered in recent decades. The actual ships can tell us things that written accounts neglected to share. I can’t say that I’d relish that work, groping blindly by touch in muddy, turbulent water and hoping to find an artifact rather than annoyed wildlife. But I’m glad that others, Andy included, get it done and so expand our understanding of the past. Catch him in the act on page 120.

Check it out. When the chance comes to combine fun reading and fun learning in one package, why pass it up?

Juneteenth Comes Again

I forgot Juneteenth again this year. Again, Andy Hall reminded me. This is a small reworking of what I wrote last year on the subject.

What’s Juneteenth? Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person; most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold. But even I know when it’s the Fourth. My state recognizes Juneteenth, as do forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.

Possibilities for Peace

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.

But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.

The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.

But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.

Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.

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.

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.