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.

Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

A Partial Refutation of Henry Wise

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.

But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.

Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.



Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.

A Partial Vindication of Henry Wise

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothings did not triumph in Virginia. They put on a very good showing and Henry Wise had to pull out every tool in the rhetorical arsenal to win, but win he did. Along the way, he called the Know-Nothings secret abolitionists. Their hidden meetings and secret society trappings only encouraged rumors about them. What did they have to hide, after all? Wise had a point, if not about the ex-Whigs from Virginia who flocked to the Know-Nothing banner. If the Puritan-minded antislavery men had a nativist problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency, then the nativists also had an antislavery problem diluting their ranks and competing for their natural constituency. The split ran both ways. If the same type of person favored antislavery and favored nativism, then having a party built around each issue meant splitting those voters.

Or did it? Henry Wilson’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts showed that nativists and antislavery men could work together, even if Wilson proceeded to act much more as an antislavery man than as a nativist. Across the North, the Know-Nothings and antislavery men did their best to avoid collision. Rather than work against one another, as one might expect of parties competing for the same voters, they tended to work around one another. That potential for amalgamation came together with the fact that even if one thought nativism or antislavery the controlling issue of the day, that need not mean one also felt the other should just drop off the face of the earth.

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

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

Across the North, many antislavery men also feared the hard-drinking, Catholic Irish flooding into their ports. Likewise many nativist men also feared that the Slave Power had taken control of their Union and sold off their future. Nativists could point to Catholic sins abroad and threatening moves at home. Antislavery men could point to their impressive string of defeats since the start of the Mexican War, culminating in Kansas-Nebraska, and imagine a natural alliance of the Slave Power and its northern fellow travelers, as abetted by urban political machines larding the ballot boxes with the votes of easily controlled Irishmen. From a certain mindset, the two issues seem to flow together at every turn. Why wouldn’t these groups come together into a single party, if as wings with differing priorities? Americans have long been terrible at developing political parties with any ideological coherence. Having only two competing groups might actually count as progress.

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The two groups already coordinated, avoiding direct contest amongst themselves. Some went one step further and did amalgamate, coming together as Know-Somethings and under other titles. If that antislavery nativist movement would go nowhere in the South, it could still frame itself as a northern party of northern interests and northern men. That would at once reverse Calhoun’s old dream of a single, southern political movement to save slavery. Instead a united sectional party would look down the map and down its nose at the South and set slavery on the road to extinction. Thus the end must come, unless the South could have and keep decisive control of national institutions or establish some kind of permanent veto over the national majority. Either solution depended on antislavery interests constantly losing, even as each loss further inflamed antislavery passions. The South could very well lose by winning.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Three

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

(Parts 1 and 2)

The Know-Nothing American Party contested Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 1855, hoping to replicate its success in adjacent Maryland and elsewhere. With Virginia in their pocket, the Know-Nothings would have a platform to expand in the South and become a true national party by sweeping up all the South’s discontented ex-Whigs. Against the strange non-campaign of ex-Whig turned Know-Nothing Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, Democrat Henry Wise waged an actual campaign. He toured the state extensively, speaking with theatrical flair. He took aim at the Know-Nothings’ secrecy and branded them a secret abolitionist cabal trying to subvert Virginia’s slave system.

One must expect that of a southern politician. Most every one of them had to prove his proslavery bona fides come election time or risk getting tarred as soft on slavery. But Wise also attacked the Know-Nothings based on the parts of their platform they made little effort to hide. If the Know-Nothings embraced such un-American dogmas as Boston abolitionism in secret, they openly avowed their hostility to the foreign-born and Catholics. Wise called that hostility just as un-American. To make his case, Wise invoked the one Frenchman that every nineteenth century American both knew and admired: the Marquis de La Fayette.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette

The French aristocrat came close to sainthood in the minds of Americans of the era. When he died, the nation mourned Lafayette like it mourned Washington. He got 24-gun salutes and Congress asked the nation to wear black for thirty days. The Know-Nothings would toss him out and betray the memory of his numerous sacrifices for the cause of American freedom. And for what? For the privileges of the native-born? Native-born like the Protestant Benedict Arnold? Patriotic Americans had to know that the place of a man’s birth and the nature of his faith did not determine his worth. The national epic said as much, as did all the places carrying Lafayette’s name.

Heaping patriotism on top of protecting slavery, Wise finished off with a vision for a new Virginia. He would build internal improvements. He would establish a public school system. He would support the development of industry and agriculture in a Virginia that looked a bit long in the tooth from decades of tobacco decline. Henry Wise, patriot, proslavery man, man of the people, would lead Virginia into the future.

When election day came in May, Virginians turned out in record numbers. Wise won more votes than any other Virginian of the century. The Democracy defeated nativism and kept the South by a margin of 10,180. It very nearly went otherwise. The massive turnout and tremendous enthusiasm the race generated still ended with 47% of Virginian voters choosing Flournoy. A swing of a few percent would have given him and the Know-Nothings their victory. Had Wise made any misstep, most especially had he not tarred the Know-Nothings as abolitionists in hiding, he could easily have failed and heralded the rise of a new party to challenge the Democracy in the South. With his victory, southern democrats could finally relax.

The Virginia Showdown, Part Two

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

In 1854, the Know-Nothing Party elected nine governors. It stood over the ruins of Virginia Whiggery, poised to make it ten. The Democracy’s Henry Alexander Wise stood just as poised to make sure they did not. He traveled across Virginia, arraigning the Know-Nothings and their chosen man, Thomas Stanhope Flournoy. Wise screamed himself hoarse. He exhausted himself riding Virginia’s roads for months on end. He made a tremendous show of his campaign in the finest nineteenth century tradition of democratic theatricality. Flournoy refused to attend public meetings. He wrote a letter instructing his voters, as an eighteenth century gentleman might, and called it done.

With that kind of contrast, one might expect Flournoy to lose so hard that his great-grandchildren felt it. Everybody watching the election, however, expected it to go down to the wire. The contest electrified Washington, with everyone seeing its potential. From Virginia, the Know-Nothings could sweep the South. Seeing an exciting election that could go either way and would have great significance for the future of the nation, Washington politicians wagered heavily on it.

Why did they think it could go both ways? Virginia had enough immigrants to fuel some serious nativism, unlike much of the rest of the South. Those nativists had plenty a mix of real concerns and traditional paranoia to stoke their electoral fires. Furthermore, Flournoy’s genteel non-campaign belied the fact that the Know-Nothings operated as a secret society. They did not do typical eighteenth century politics, with public meetings and stump speeches. Know-Nothings convened amongst themselves and behind closed doors. They refused to speak of their party operations in mixed company, insisting that as it says on the tin they knew nothing about it. Despite that secrecy, they elected the governor of Maryland just north of Virginia.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

But secrecy invites suspicion. What did the Know-Nothings have to hide? What of all these secret passwords, names, and so forth? It looked like a conspiracy, not a political movement. In the South, conspiracy meant slaves gathering and the underground railroad and abolitionists in their midst, preaching rebellion and ruin. Wise dug up a comment Flournoy made years before about how slave populations impeded prosperity. He pointed to the Know-Nothings’ success in Massachusetts, where they had just sent a slightly anti-immigrant but ferociously antislavery Henry Wilson to take moderate Edward Everett’s seat in the Senate. To do that, they openly combined with Free Soilers! Know-Nothing secrecy did not hide anti-immigrant politics. It only wore those as a mask to hide its true, antislavery face. Thomas Stanhope Flournoy would invite servile rebellion. He would raise up a legion of Nat Turners to murder white Virginians in their beds. Why else would he need that secrecy?

The Virginia Showdown, Part One



Henry Wise

Henry Wise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grappling with Demographics

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

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

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

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

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

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

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

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

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

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

Two Kinds of Missouri for Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Looking at Missouri’s 1850 census returns down to the county level yesterday got me wondering just how many different Missouris lurked behind the numbers. I decided to cut a few out and see what appeared.

It would not do to take this too far. I made no effort to geographically consolidate these states within a state, ensure they had sensible borders, or had anything else in common save for their demographics. Listing here should not imply some kind of secessionist, or even merely dissenting, movement from establishment Missouri or Southern politics. The point of the exercise is to tease out contours in the state’s demographics and liken them to peers and other, similar situations in a broader context.

Delaware in Missouri, 1850

Delaware in Missouri, 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

I began with the most obvious sectioning: the Missouri counties that had about the same number of slaves or fewer, proportionately, as Delaware in 1850. The first state’s three counties together held 2,290 slaves in that census, for 2.50% of the state population of 91,532. Delaware in Missouri includes twenty counties with a total population of 40,428 people and 603 slaves. That works out to 5.91% of the state’s total population, 6.72% of its white population, and 0.71% of its black population. It has less than half the population of the real Delaware and while 11.25% of Delaware’s black population lived as slaves, 93.93% of Delaware in Missouri’s black population did. To white eyes, Delaware in Missouri must have looked pretty free. Its 39 free blacks knew otherwise.

Still, one could read Delaware in Missouri’s demographics as an omen of the future. Few people lived there, but in 1850 Missouri still had frontiers left in it just waiting for free white settlement to drive the enslaved percentage down, form an indifferent and vaguely antislavery bloc, and grow the state to freedom. Thomas Hart Benton certainly thought so, and he had thirty years of statewide politics under his belt to back him up.

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

Delaware would not take compensated emancipation even when Lincoln offered it, so perhaps we should not look there for demographic signs of incipient emancipation even if the state is such an oddity in the South. The last two states to emancipate before the Civil War, New York and New Jersey, might make for better benchmarks. In 1790, both still had slave codes on the books. New York held 21,193 slaves (6.23%) and New Jersey held 11,423 (6.20%). If they could emancipate with so few, then in principle Missouri could too. James Tallmadge certainly thought so in 1820 when he ignited the Missouri controversy by putting an amendment for gradual emancipation into the act admitting Missouri as a state.

Taking New York’s 1790 benchmark of 6.23% enslaved, we come up with more than forty counties. Together, they have 36.49% of the state’s population, 40.00% of its white population, 62.18% of its free black population, and 12.34% of its slave population. Once more, a vast majority (86.88%) of its black population live as slaves. New York enslaved 81.91% of its black population in 1790 and still managed to emancipate in 1799. More than a third of the Show Me State’s residents live in New York in Missouri and 1790 New York proved that a state with its degree of slavery could emancipate. Benton’s vision of a free Missouri does seem near at hand here, and in a section of the state with enough people that we can’t dismiss it as a remote aberration like we could Delaware in Missouri.

Missouri in 1850

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton thought his Missouri home a Western state, not a Southern state. Nor did he count his preferred transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis as a Southern route. Roughly midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Benton needed only show a map to support the claim. Missouri had slavery and so belongs in the South, but not quite in the same part of the South as the Carolina Lowcountry, Mississippi Delta, or Alabama river bottoms. Like the rest of the Border States, its demography ran somewhere between North and South.

I have previously looked at demographics on the level of states and sections, but Benton’s position seems like as good a chance as any to narrow the focus and look just within a particular state. The University of Virgina’s historical census browser supplied the raw data, down to the level of individual counties. It differs somewhere from the state aggregates I took directly from Census Department summaries, but across the whole state that adds up to less than a one percent discrepancy. That could come from human error on my part, especially considering the amount of numbers typed into a spreadsheet in quick succession, but I think it’s close enough to make fair comparisons in any event.

For context, the Sixth Census found the United States 13.82% enslaved, with a typical variance of up to 29.67% enslaved. Taking out the almost absolutely free North and just counting the South puts those numbers at 33.15% enslaved, with a typical range from 19.35% to 46.95%. How does Missouri measure up? It enslaved 12.88% of its population, including some of Benton’s own human property. That brings it in well below Southern norms. That low percent enslaved still meant bondage for 97.09% of its black population, though. One does not find another Delaware (2.50% enslaved and that amounting to only 11.25% of its black population) or Maryland (15.50% enslaved, 54.74% of its black population) beside the Mississippi and astride the Missouri. But nor does one find another South Carolina (57.59% enslaved, 97.73% of its black population) or Mississippi (51.09% and 99.70%, respectively).

But a place as big as Missouri, until the admission of Texas the biggest state in the Union, can hide a lot of diversity inside it. Fortunately the census has breakdowns by county. A county in most states probably does not seem like a big deal to most modern Americans. But in 1850 the telegraph didn’t even reach California from the East Coast. Nor, of course, did rail link the two. Most people moved by foot or by horse over roads we might barely recognize as such. Poorer, slower communication and transportation made for a much bigger world where the nature of small numbers and isolated populations could generate a lot of heterogeneous areas in a space we would call quite confined.

Due to the large size of the spreadsheet, I had to split it in two. Sorry about that.


Missouri in 1850, counties Adair to Knox


Missouri in 1850, counties Laclede to Wright and state totals.

Missouri’s hundred counties do not disappoint. The most enslaved, Howard, weighs in at 35.01% enslaved. While that makes Howard nearly thrice as enslaved as the state average, it hardly casts a shadow over South Carolina and Mississippi. It would hardly stand out in Virginia (33.24%) or North Carolina (33.20%). If we call a black belt county a county where half or more of the population live as slaves, Howard doesn’t fit even after it exceeds the national norms. Lafayette and Saline counties join it in enslaving more than 30% of their populations, but all three have more Upper South than black belt in their demographics. Only fourteen other counties exceed South’s lower bound of 19.35% and qualify as typically enslaved.

But Missouri at least includes a kind of Upper South. Did it also have a sort of Lower North? Not quite, as in 1850 the North had 262 slaves total, mostly in New Jersey, but all of those states outlawed slavery decades earlier even if gradual emancipation meant they still had residual slaves waiting for freedom and the occasional superannuated slaves born too early to benefit from the laws. As Missouri still had legal slavery, Delaware makes for a better benchmark. The first state had 2,290 slaves in 1850, just 2.50% of its population. Of its black population, 88.75% lived free. Twenty of Missouri’s counties came in below Delaware’s benchmark.

It appears then that we have two Missouris. One, including the Delawares and other very lightly enslaved places, looks very much like Benton’s vision. It includes much of the state’s land and its demographics do not differ all that much from states on the edge of emancipation decades earlier and a few degrees further North. But the other Missouri looks more like the Upper South. Down the Missouri valley, profitable plantations grew hemp and tobacco like those in Virginia and North Carolina. Standing there in 1850, with Indian country on the edge of organization and opening to white settlement so near, both measures Benton favored, the future must have looked very promising for slavery indeed.