Other Southern Reasons not to Expand

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

John C. Calhoun

Motives aside political calculus played a role in inspiring Southerners to stand against expansion. The commercial interests of the planter class did not necessarily line up with any kind of sectional political imperatives. Despite the fears of the radicals, vast tracks of Texas and Arkansas remained almost untouched. In time, more of Florida might see clearing. Alabama still had arable land not turned into plantations. Only in South Carolina had cotton cultivation probably reached its natural limits. The South still had internal frontiers to expand, to say nothing of any expansion into the Great Plains or the Caribbean Basin.

But set aside for a moment the land hunger: what if the filibusters won and brought in new slave states in the tropics? Tropical crops, and of course slaves, formed the backbone of the Southern economy. But the balmy American South would then face competition from the balmier still Caribbean basin. Taking Cuba could destroy Louisiana and Texas sugar profits, which already depended on a tariff that could not protect those states against a suddenly domestic product. Those planters might have to convert to cotton, which could drive prices down elsewhere.  If the Caribbean ended up more focused on cotton, the same problem presented itself.

Cuba, annexed full of slaves, could crash the prices of slaves in the South and so wreck the Upper South’s lucrative export and the chief asset most planters, who often saw land more as an expense akin to seed than an asset in itself. The slaves cost more to acquire, after all. Even in the Lower South’s great economic boom, planters found themselves constrained less by available land than by available labor to work it. The Upper South could not supply enough slaves fast enough, which in turn played into racial fears about the future of whites in a South where it did.

That combination of economic need and racial fear gave impetus to the movement to reopen the African slave trade and to the dissenters from the same. But in the field of expansion, the fears also placed stronger limits on dreams for a Caribbean empire. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Seccessionists Triumphant has Calhoun expressing them:

John C. Calhoun a decade previously, when opposing the annexation of all of Mexico, had anticipated this foreboding about spreading slavery into polyglot areas, “More than half of the Mexicans are Indians,” he had winced, “and the other half is composed chiefly of mixed tribves. I protest against such a union as that!”

To that Freehling adds Calhoun’s fellow Carolinian, James Gadsden, of Gadsden Purchase fame:

You could not place a more irritating [cancer] on the Body Politic of our Federation than the annexation of Mexico-we have trouble enough with 3 millions of Africans.”

Worse still, what about all of Cuba’s free blacks? Or the Afro-Caribbean blacks who settled on the Nicaragua coast under British protection? Any free black could frighten a committed slavery booster, but thousands upon thousands? Would William Walker and his fellow filibusters have it in them to re-enslave those men and women in the name of white security? The racially hierarchical worldview that helped sustain slavery in the minds of the white South depended on status remaining static and exceptions to the rule that blacks labored and whites enjoyed the fruits of that labor kept to the margins where one could pretend they simply did not exist.

The racially mixed Caribbean, like beating heart of the expansionist movement in racially deviant New Orleans, could bring down that whole order. Nineteenth century America, North and South alike, belonged to whites. So many mixed-race people would invite both further racial amalgamation and admit the racially impure into the halls of power. White Charleston already couldn’t tell mixed-race people on sight and so demanded they wear veils. What would the balmy, sensual (many appeals to recruit filibusters mentioned women both beautiful and willing), Catholic, Latin, Creole, Indian, and Black Caribbean offer? Whites forced to share power and not even confident that everyone who appeared white actually had the proper racial credentials for admission to proper society.

With a far different outlook on race, we can neglect those concerns as irrelevant or marginal but to many nineteenth century Americans they struck to the very heart of their identities, to say nothing of their personal safety.

Opposing Expansion in the South

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

With foreknowledge of the war to come, our attention naturally focuses on figures and ideas prominent in that later struggle. They did, after all, carry off a civil war that killed upwards of six hundred thousand people barely a decade after the Armistice. Naturally one tends to think of the ringleaders and prominent figures in the Confederacy as representatives of the South in the years prior. Likewise, one tends to think of the politics of the antebellum Southern radicals as the politics of the leading confederates as well. Political calculation, if nothing else, seems predestined to put filibusters, nullifiers, expansionists, and secession conspirators all together in the same bed. Whatever one’s personal opinions, one should not lightly frustrate the interests of a significant number of one’s constituents. One might pay that cost in elections lost.

But people in the past had all the complexities of people today. They did not owe fealty to some historian’s model of a Southern politician. Jefferson Davis would defend William Walker against Hiram Paulding, but William W. Freehling quotes his anti-filibustering bona fides in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant:

Jefferson Davis, for example, expected the United States to control the entire hemisphere “in the remote future.” Yet he noted that we had always “obtained territory … fairly, honorably, and peaceably.” We must be able to “invite the world to scrutinize our example of representative liberty.” Likewise, the Aberdeen (Mississippi) Sunny South demanded “annexation” be consistent “with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

Little separates either of those positions, however tolerant of Walker, from Buchanan’s condemnation of filibustering. Davis might not have turned up his nose at a failed Walker, but the goal of filibustering always amounted to handing over a new land and then daring the mother country to refuse it. Would the United States really give back Cuba, Nicaragua, or another piece of Mexico when a filibuster handed it over? John Tyler and James Polk hardly did so.

Freehling goes on to note that Southern congressmen voted 52-20 to condemn Paulding’s arrest. New Orleans juries could look at the majority and imagine the section behind them when they acquitted the Quitmans and Walkers of the world, but those twenty votes in favor of the arrest amounted to 27.78% of their caucus. Some of the South stood with the filibusters and some did not.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Why? Some certainly had scruples about international law. Some had to fret over how uncontrolled filibusters could embroil the nation in dangerous conflicts, circumventing domestic politics just as they did foreign. But what if Walker kept Nicaragua and no one came? If no Southerners relocated, bringing slaves with them, how long would an American Nicaragua remain a slave state? Every state that had slavery and abolished it first had rather few slaves. A Nicaragua with only a tiny slave presence could come into the Union as another Delaware and soon abandon the South by transforming itself into another New Jersey. The Lower South worried endlessly that Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky and Missouri would jump ship for those reasons.

Adding an enslaved Nicaragua might give a temporary respite that foreshadowed greater calamities. The Border States and Upper South already sent a tide of slave exports down into the Lower South. Opening up a vast new land for slavery could mean a great acceleration of those exports, bringing those old slave states on the Chesapeake and Ohio past the tipping point where they emancipated. The outcome of a successful filibuster might not mean simply gaining one new slave state, it might mean instead gaining one new free state, or gaining one new slave state at the expense of losing as many as three or four.

America in 1860

The events of 1860 hardly require an introduction. The election of Lincoln in November and subsequent secession of South Carolina that December speak for themselves. Events quite overtook the census, but the data did reach Washington and see use in Union war plans. The text apologizes for not having all the tabulations and analysis intended, but the war got in the way.

The sixth census found the nation on the edge of war. Though Lincoln did not win a landslide, except in the Electoral College, his opponents had three candidates to divide their votes and so his election only stood to reason. At the heart of the conflict, of course, lay the nation’s 3,953,757 slaves and the future of their condition. Would the alchemy that transformed blood and misery into plantation profits endure or would the victories the Slave Power won over the previous decade prove its last hurrah?

The North in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The North in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The nation’s slaves accounted for 12.58% of its population in 1860. Only sixty-one (0.0015%) of those lived in the North and only eighteen in a Northern state: New Jersey. Most of the North’s slaves actually lived in the Utah territory (26, 0.06% of its population.) The Dakota Territory, listed as South Dakota but including the land of that state and modern North Dakota, stands out on another extreme: not a single black person lived there, free or slave. A state or territory could enslave no more than 0.01% of its population and count as normal by Northern standards. After a long run, New Jersey leaves that club. Utah takes its place.

The South in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The South in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

In the South, as usual, just the opposite story played out. By Southern lights, the North remained bizarrely free. The rest of the nation reverse the comparison. Anything above 15% enslaved counted as significantly far from the national mean. Delaware (1.60%), the District of Columbia (4.24%), Maryland (12.69%), and Missouri (9.72%) come in under that bar, but no other Southern state could. Of the remainder, only Kentucky’s 19.51% even comes close.

But as usual the South could flip things around again and say that by Southern norms, none of those states with a nationally “normal” level of slavery fit inside the South. They would need at least 17.87% enslaved for that, excluding even runner-up Kentucky. Also by Southern lights, anything up to 46.34% enslaved fit into the normal range. Louisiana (46.86%), Mississippi (55.18%), and South Carolina (57.18%) break that demographic ceiling.

I know I’ve said this before, but the numbers really put things in sharp relief. One can easily say the South stood apart from the rest of the United States, distinctly its own place, but every region and every locale within it would claim that status for itself. We all have our own distinctiveness. But demographically, the places closest to the national means do not belong in North or South. Delaware in 1860 would fit within the 1790 North, but even its less than two thousand slaves amount to almost thirty time times the entire Northern slave population.

Of course local distinctiveness comes in hierarchies. Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina form a South within the South. The Deep South in general does much the same. The Upper South and Border States do as well. Setting aside the demographics for a moment, it makes perfect sense to view a region as a containing associated sub-regions that differ from the norms in varying degrees and varying ways. The South and North respectively had more in common with their sectional neighbors than one another, but that does not mean their differences melt away. The real world gave, and continues to give us, many Souths and many Norths, which form parts of many Americas from which people draw and to which they hold multiple, coexisting loyalties. The statistics illuminate some of that messiness and give us measures to judge it by.

America in 1820

Each of the decades of the nation’s history prior to 1810-1820 saw at least one state abolish slavery. None would do so again until the 1860s. The importation of slaves ceased, legally, at the start of 1808. By then only South Carolina still did so, but smugglers took up some of the slack by dodging Navy patrols or running slaves across the border from Florida and Texas. The last year of the decade saw the Missouri Compromise, which continued earlier precedents for dividing the nation between slave and free territory. It accounted for all the land in the nation, until the nation took some more from Mexico, and so formed a kind of touchstone for those trying to settle sectional disputes in the generation to follow.

One can stretch the idea of turning points too far. Large subjects in history come down mostly to processes rather than single points in time, but certainly the second decade of the nineteenth century marked a kind of transition from a national order that imagined slavery’s inevitable and happy decline and to one based on a perpetual balance of power between sections divided by the legal status of slavery.

The North in the 1820 census. (Click for a larger version.)

The North in the 1820 census. (Click for a larger version.)

In 1820, the nation stood 15.15% enslaved, down from 16.45% in 1810. Of those 1,535,199 slaves, only 19,100 (1.24%) lived in the North., down from 2.13% in 1810. As before, New York and New Jersey account for vast majority (92.34%) of the nation’s slaves between themselves. Nowhere else had more than a thousand, though Illinois comes very close at 917 (4.80% of the Northern total and 1.66% of its population). By national standards, no northern locale is significantly enslaved. By the standards just of Northern demography, 0.91% enslaved counts as significant. New Jersey and Illinois hold that distinction in 1820, with late emancipation and a combination of geography and a free state constitution that allowed “apprentices” for life doing much to explain their divergence.

The South in the 1820 census. (Click for a larger version.)

The South in the 1820 census. (Click for a larger version.)

Down South lived 98.76% of America’s slaves. The upper band of the national norm for slavery in 1820 stands at 30.57%. The Southern regional demographics exceed that. As a whole, 33.84% of the section’s population lived in bondage. Alabama (32.91%), Georgia (43.89%), Louisiana (45.02%), Mississippi (43.49%), North Carolina (32.09%), South Carolina (51.35%), and Virginia (39.91) exceed the norm on their own. By Southern standards, anything above 45.89% counts as unusually enslaved. South Carolina maintains its place of distinction and by 1820 has recovered its colonial-era status as a majority-slave jurisdiction, further South demographically than the South itself.

The minimum level of slavery necessary to count as Southern in 1820 stands at 21.79% of the population. Just as in past censuses, the South has some under performers: Arkansas (11.33%), Delaware (6.20%), the District of Columbia (19.37%), Missouri (15.35%), and Tennessee (18.95%). The least of these, however, still exceeds New Jersey’s 2.72% by a healthy margin. As this pattern persists over all four censuses, and knowing how things work out in the 1860s, I feel confident in calling it a meaningful trend.

While the legal status of slavery might evenly divide the nation in two, the demographics argue for something more like a two and a half section model. The North stands wildly out of pace with the rest of the nation, far more free than the South as a whole and even more free at its most enslaved than the South’s least enslaved place. The South forms the second section, but its upper reaches are out of pace with the rest just as they don’t fall in step with the North. They come in too Southern to qualify for the normal in the North, but too Northern to qualify for normal in the South.

I call the border states/upper south bloc half a section because as a practical matter they tended to vote Southern in most cases, even if a few peeled away to vote Northern as part of the general pro-compromise Lower North/Upper South demographic. But then that demographic did not form its own coherent bloc that happily lined up as one for each compromise. Rather, architects of compromise like Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas found the few extra votes they needed within the group to join to the general unanimity of the sections otherwise. The cut and thrust of Southern loyalty (which in practical terms meant loyalty to slavery) politics created ample room for Upper South politicians to court the ultras to show up less dedicated opponents or shore up their own flagging fortunes.  Likewise when their local interests came into play, as they did with the Fugitive Slave Act, Upper South politicians could go more Southern than the Deep South, which for geographic reasons had far fewer runaways to reclaim to begin with.

Calhoun’s Long Goodbye (Part Two)

Calhoun's Statue at the Capitol

Calhoun’s Statue at the Capitol

Yesterday, Calhoun opened his farewell speech by declaring the great source of sectional strife not slavery itself, or rather antislavery agitation from North of the Mason-Dixon Line, but instead the growing disequilibrium between the slave and free states in the federal government. The ailing South Carolinian, in his last month of life, gave the Senate a history lesson to illustrate the point. Beginning with the first census of 1790:

the population of the United States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which then were in their incipient condition of becoming States; but were not actually admitted, amounted to 3,929,827. Of this number the Northern States had 1,997,899, and the Southern 1,952,072, making a difference of only 45,827 in favor of the former States. The number of States, including Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, were sixteen; of which eight, including Vermont, belonged to the Northern section, and eight, including Kentucky and Tennessee, to the Southern, — making an equal division of the States between the two sections under the first census.

Right there in the numbers: the sections enjoyed something close to perfect equality. But times changed:

According to the last census [1840] the aggregate population of the United States amounted to 17,063,357, of which the Northern section contained 9,728,920, and the Southern 7,334,437, making a difference in round numbers, of 2,400,000. The number of States had increased from sixteen to twenty-six, making an addition of ten States. In the meantime the position of Delaware had become doubtful as to which section she properly belonged. Considering her as neutral, the Northern States will have thirteen and the Southern States twelve, making a difference in the Senate of two Senators in favor of the former.

Calhoun tips his hand here by citing barely-enslaved Delaware as an uncertain neutral. Despite his opening insistence  that a vague sectional imbalance, not slavery, formed the cornerstone of sectional discontent he goes on to list the least enslaved slave state as the one which at least partly left the South for the North. The line between the two remained the line between slavery and free soil.

According to Calhoun, the sections agreed to the Constitution with the understanding that they came into the Union as equals. In other words, the Union required precise equality of North and South. One supposes the framers had a few too many the night before they planned to write those clauses. I plan a future post to highlight some other issues with Calhoun’s position here.

Regardless, that old order faced the crisis of 1850 like Calhoun did, in its twilight years. The South could no longer count Delaware as anything better than a sectional neutral, Calhoun wrote. To him, California’s admission did not break the senatorial balance. Delaware’s disloyalty to the South did that, or at least badly damaged it. He might have added examples from other Border States, the Upper South, and even the occasional Deep South politicians breaking faith with the solid South he invented as a new constitutional unit over the states and, in some ways, the national government itself.

And the Senate held the last vestiges of Calhoun’s Ancien Regime. Tomorrow, the Senator from South Carolina has some remarks for the House.

Slavery by the Numbers: The Upper South

Welcome back to Slavery by the Numbers. Yesterday, I followed up my overview of slavery in the South with a more detailed survey of the Border States. Today Slavery by the Numbers goes further South.

The Upper South: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia
The Upper South constitutes those states which did not secede prior to the attack on Fort Sumter but which did so thereafter. All these states are clearly Southern by both modern and period usage. Cotton, if not quite King outside Arkansas, at least stood in the higher ranks of nobility. North Carolina and Tennessee both had significant cotton planting regions, though it shared space with tobacco in both. Tobacco dominated to the exclusion of cotton in more northerly Virginia.

The cultivation does not tell the whole story. The Upper South, and the Border States as well, raised many of the slaves bought and moved south and west into the Deep South to work the growing cotton plantations. Richmond housed one of the nation’s great slave markets, where Deep South cotton planters often made yearly or semiannual trips to add to their human stables. That cotton planting took a greater toll on the slaves and often involved harsher treatment (not that slavery was ever humane) only added to the terror that breakup of families and being moved to a strange and distant place entailed in being sold South.

The Upper South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

Black people made up 31.56% of the Upper South’s population, only 7.35% of which were free. Virginia had the greatest proportion of free blacks in 1860 at 10.57%, leaving 89.43% enslaved. Arkansas, site of the newest cotton expansions, had the least, with fully 99.89% of its black population in bondage and might be seen as a Deep South state in training. (Only 114 free blacks lived in the state.) Tennessee comes second at 97.42% and North Carolina third with 91.57%. Even in the freest Upper South state the vast majority of black people lived as property. The least free Border State, Missouri (96.99% enslaved black population), stood still marginally freer than the most free Upper South state.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

Of white Upper South residents, 135,111 formally held slaves. This works out to 5.80% of families. Arkansas boasted the least slaveholding families (3.54%) and Tennessee (11.27%) the most. North Carolina (5.49%) and Virginia (4.98%) fall in between.The matter deserves more research, but Arkansas numbers suggest a planter elite that hold far more slaves than average and that would fit with its place as the new frontier in cotton planting. North Carolina’s and Virginia’s lower proportions and higher number of free blacks point to a legacy of manumission in decades prior that faded greatly by 1860.

Once again these number tie into the acts of Secession Winter. Just as the Border States, aside Delaware, had significant secessionist minorities, each state of the Upper South had a significant Unionist minority. (At least in principle, many had narrow Unionist majorities until Sumter changed minds.)  Those Unionists included Virginia’s Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Army, and George H. Thomas, who would destroy the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Nashville.