Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Seven

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner moved on from distinguishing between moral duties to reject evil at home and political duties to oppose it from afar with a standard repudiation of designs to interfere with slavery in the slave states. He positioned himself on the antislavery left, but not so far over as to talk himself out of politics. He repeated the normal demands of late 1850: the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolition for the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, no new slave states admitted to the Union, and then flirted with more. Sumner declared himself and his free soil party for abolition of the domestic slave trade, especially at sea where the US flag often sheltered it but also, by implication, between states.

But Charles Sumner had a wider vision still, one shared then by few in the North but which would grow in popularity as the 1850s wore on:

The Slave Power must be overturned, -so that the National Government may be openly, actively, and perpetually on the side of Freedom.

That did not, Sumner stressed, mean the overthrow of slavery. He wanted the institution’s political influence gone. That power

having its origin in Slavery, which has been more potent, sinister, and mischievous than any in our long history. This Power, though unknown to the Constitution, and existing in defiance of its true spirit, now predominates over Congress, gives the tone to its proceedings, seeks to control all our public affairs, and humbles both the great political parties to its will.

He had the Constitution wrong, but American politicians routinely do that. Sumner hadn’t missed the true situation, though. Slavery created a powerful “common interest” among enslavers. They themselves would agree, though couching it in terms of the special needs of their institution for security. Sumner lacked the time to trace its full history

the undue share of offices it has enjoyed, and the succession of its evil deeds. Suffice it to say, that, for a long period, the real principle of this union was not observed by the Free States. In the game of office and legislation the South has always won. It has played with loaded dice, –loaded with Slavery.

That got a good laugh out of the crowd, but Sumner had facts and laughs on his side. At the time of his speech, a total of three men who never owned slaves had occupied the Presidency, two Adamses and Martin Van Buren. None had won re-election and no northern president would until the slave states opted out of the election of 1864. The South had an effective veto on all national legislation courtesy of the Senate. The slave states dominated Cabinet after Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and exercised decisive influence in both national parties. Sumner likened it to the workings of a fake automaton playing chess, with a man behind the curtain actually doing the work. The Slave Power occupied the spot behind the curtain, a “living force” that, now unmasked, they must defeat to restore the nation to its original design.


Hale vs. Pierce: Central American Distractions

John Hale

John Hale

So far as I can tell, the Herald of Freedom did not publish a direct answer to Franklin Pierce’s annual message blaming all Kansas’ woes on antislavery fanaticism. George Washington Brown reprinted a lengthy essay from another paper attacking the theory of presidential impotency that Pierce appealed to as reason to stand aside and let proslavery Missourians dominate the territory. That constitutes a kind of response, but it did not make the president into his debating partner. For that, Brown’s readers had to wait another week.

The January 26 Herald of Freedom included extracts from the speech of John P. Hale, free soil senator from Pierce’s own New Hampshire, to directly answer the presidential message. Hale and Pierce went way back. The Senator began his career as a Jackson Democrat, but split with the party over Texas. That meant denying the explicit instructions of the state party to vote for annexation. For his trouble, the New Hampshire party expelled him. Franklin Pierce led the convention that did the job. Hale embarked on a campaign to win the Granite State for antislavery, which included a debate with Pierce, and succeeded in getting enough Whigs and Independent Democrats elected to the legislature to put him in the Senate. Subsequently Hale ran as the Free Soil candidate in the 1852 election, against Pierce.

The Herald of Freedom’s extracts from Hale open with a disclaimer of any plan to make an account of himself. The people, he reasoned, don’t care what individual senators think. But he wouldn’t damn other Senators for the act. Should some Northern senator want to stand up and explain why he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, more power to him. However:

there is not a one of them that has ever had his election submitted to the people of a Free State, who has had a chance to make an explanation on this floor, or will be likely to get it very soon. Hence, I have not a word to say about that.

Reading just barely between the lines, Hale commented on that nice election that Pierce had and informed him not to expect another. Should any of his colleagues feel like more proslavery concessions, they could go too.

Hale then addressed the subject of Central America, which so engaged Pierce. It occupies pages of his message, where Kansas managed direct references for barely a paragraph:

I tell the President that there is a central place in the United States-not Central America, Central United States-called Kansas about which the people of this country are thinking vastly more at this time than they are about Central America, down in the land of filibusters; and it seems to me that the President of the United States would have discharged just as appropriately his proper constitutional functions if he had favored us a little with that

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale submitted that Pierce devoted such attention to Central America as a distraction

seized upon by those agitators who do not think it prudent to take hold of a subject which really agitates the people. They care nothing about Central America-not a straw; the whole thing is a humbug exploded long ago.

I suspect Pierce, and others, cared rather more about Central America than Hale would allow, but the Senator’s larger point certainly stands. The most pressing news in 1855 had not come from south of the border, but west of Missouri. Furthermore, the Second Party System from its inception had stressed issues unrelated, or ostensibly unrelated, to slavery as a way to preserve the Union. Few Americans could miss that, given the constant fretting over the nation’s survival should slavery become and remain an issue of contention rather than the subject of bipartisan protection.

This didn’t mean that the people forgot they cared about slavery, for or against. You could hardly miss the institution in the South and no one made any secret of it. But so long as slavery remained the subtext of politics, policy might not arouse relatively moderate antislavery interest. Diehard abolitionists would never let it go, but keeping slavery off the table denied them some measure of the platform they would need to interest dormant or inchoate antislavery sentiment. One must expect that the custom frustrated antislavery Americans while doing little to impede their proslavery opposites, given that the founding figures of Democracy and Whiggery alike themselves owned slaves or, in the case of Martin Van Buren, partnered very closely with those who did.

Losing the Immigrant Vote

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren

In an era where raising the most money best ensures winning the most votes and election and corruption thus often merge into the same process we can easily forget just how parties worked just a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren created the first real party machine in New York for the Democracy. The machine ran on loyalty to the party and to its leaders, rewarding that loyalty with patronage. Every civil service office went up for grabs every four years and lucrative government contracts went to supporters as a matter of course. Contributing to campaigns, then and now, involved personal investment with an expected return. The president could appoint every single postmaster in the country but picking so many people for such a minor post generally took too much time and effort. Instead the president would farm the selection out to party machines at the state level. Those state level machines had their own subordinate, usually, machines at the local level in major cities or centered around powerful constituencies.

To some degree this went on before Van Buren, but he perfected the system and made it national when he and Andrew Jackson went to Washington in 1831. Before then, changes in power usually meant little turnover. Jackson dismissed nearly ten percent of the federal government’s employees. The raucous celebration that accompanied his swearing in, where an unruly and drunken mob stormed the White House party and the president had to leave through a window, neglects that many of those men came looking for offices. They made investments in the Democracy, after all. Time for the Democracy to pay up.

One can’t help but be struck by the corruption inherent in all of this. The United States did not stand out from other governments of the time. You could literally buy offices in the British civil service, and commissions in the Royal Navy and British Army, in the same era. But with all the corruption going in one can miss what rarely came out: ideology. You bought into the Democracy for your own interests and advancement, not out of abstract idealism. Joining did not mean you favored particular policies. It meant that you voted the right way, sometimes early and often. It definitely meant you did that if you won elected office, unless you had a very good excuse, many friends, or a powerful patron to support and defend you. If you ran a newspaper, buying into the Democracy meant that you hewed to its editorial line and produced its propaganda. The notion that a newspaper man should aspire to objectivity and fairness hails from a later era indeed, after most places had turned into one paper towns.

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson's spoils system

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson’s spoils system

The lack of an official ideology, beyond “vote our way”, made the Democracy into a cosmopolitan party very adept at handling internal disagreement, which thus weathered the division over slavery better than the Whigs had, until now. That cosmopolitan approach gave the Democracy a great advantage in the North: new immigrants.

Fresh off the boat, these Americans on the make had no jobs. They often had no friends and nobody local they could prevail on to help them get started. They naturally inclined toward others who came from the same places in Europe and shared a language, religion, and common culture to help them out. The Democracy patronized the natural associations that resulted, helping immigrants find jobs, housing, and helped them on their way to citizenship and voting. When they voted, the immigrants in turn had every reason to favor the Democracy.

Those immigrants did not come from slave societies. Many saw free blacks in the North as competition that helped keep labor prices down and thus keep them poor. Opening the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, essentially all of the nation left for those immigrants or their children to occupy, meant to them flooding it with black competitors. There the story of the northern cities would surely replay itself. Enraged by the prospect of losing their American dreams, the German migration that began after the revolutions of 1848 failed began to break away from the Democracy. Thousands flocked to anti-Nebraska meetings. The German language newspapers could only manage cool indifference to the act at their most generous. One of the nation’s most numerous and growing immigrant groups, a key to the Democracy’s future in a more diverse United States, prepared to desert.

The Senate’s Democrats knew all of that. They knew that Germans did not much like slavery or black people anywhere near them or where they aimed to go in the future. If popular sovereignty played out, Germans would vote against slavery. So would the British immigrants. In response they floated an amendment to exclude non-citizens from the territories. These new and future Democrats, who the party so courted and who had in turn faithfully supported it, found themselves rewarded as well as the old Northern Democrats: with a direct repudiation of the social contract that the party relied upon.

The Old Order’s Last Hurrah

The Free Soil Party did not make much of a triumphant return in 1852. Just four years before, the combination of Barnburner Democrats, Conscience Whigs, and Liberty Party alumni took over the opposition role in three Northern states and held the balance of power in divided legislatures. They used that influence to put some of their own into the Senate. But Martin Van Buren’s New York Barnburners returned to the Democracy in 1849, taking almost half of the Free Soil party’s support back into the party of Jackson. They, and Van Buren, cared more about settling scores with their fellow Democrats than they did about antislavery politics.

The collapse of the nation’s only avowed antislavery party might seem like good news for a system built on keeping slavery out of the political limelight. Without Free Soiler agitation, the election could revolve around other issues and the parties could return to the usual equivocations on slavery that helped keep the sectional peace both in the parties and in the Union as a whole. But by siphoning off the more dedicated antislavery voices into a separate movement, the Free Soilers had also removed much of the need for the Whigs and Democrats to appease them. Their return could meant they no longer conceded the old parties to politicians who stressed party unity over ideological purity on slavery.

The Barnburners and their ulterior motives did not account for all Free Soil men, however. Those with purer intentions remained in the party or returned to their old still committed to antislavery. Furthermore, their return reunited them with other antislavery men who preferred to work within the old parties. The Second Party System suffered either way. The Free Soilers temporarily lessened the sectional strains within the old parties by removing some of their more diehard antislavery elements. Their return to the fold might have helped make stands on slavery less of an imperative for the parties, but the circumstances of the Armistice made those stands and their costs unavoidable regardless.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

In the short-term, however, the old order had one last triumph in it. In November, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire won fourteen free and twelve slave states. Winfield Scott, the Whigs general of the moment, claimed only two states of each section. The Second Party System, if strained, came roaring back to deliver a resounding win to the choice of both sections just as the nation almost always had before. Only four times had the choice of just one section won the White House and the last of those came in 1828. Furthermore, the Democrats’ choice of Pierce sidelined candidates who had just the sectional constituencies that could have struck against the precedent: Lewis Cass for the North and James Buchanan for the South.

Looking at just the most obvious data, one could conclude that whatever the Whigs’ troubles the old order endured. The Democracy had, after all, always dominated the Second Party System. Maybe the past four years had strained it, but the system withstood that strain. We have the benefit of hindsight to tell us otherwise, but those who looked deeper at the time could have noted troubling signs too.

Pierce’s 254 electoral votes the fact that he carried many states by slim margins. He won five states with less than 51% of the vote: New York (50.18%), Iowa (50.23%), North Carolina (50.43%), Michigan (50.45%), and Maine (50.63%). Four more came in under 52%: Pennsylvania (51.20%), Rhode Island (51.37%), Illinois (51.87%), and Louisiana (51.94%). He just barely won the national popular vote (50.83%) even with two parties to split his opposition. He won only a plurality of the North’s popular vote and those close brushes with defeat concentrate heavily north of the Ohio and the Mason-Dixon line.

But no president would do even that again until 1912 when Woodrow Wilson won the Southern popular vote and enjoyed electoral college majorities in both sections just as Pierce had. None would both win the popular and electoral majority of both sections until 1932.

The collapse of the Whigs, who contested the presidency for the last time in 1852, yielded the White House to the Democrats for the remainder of the decade. But the fall of the party did not mean that the men who filled its offices, sought its patronage, believed its values, and voted its ticket evaporated. Many would quit politics for a time, but nothing like the decade of one party politics that preceded the Second Party System ensued. The new Republican Party organized just two years later.

The Twilight of the Second Party System

The idea of party systems deserves more of an introduction than my passing references last week. Broadly speaking, major realigning elections make and break party systems. Those realignments in turn come out of major events, processes, and trends in the wider culture. In American history, the First Party System involved the Federalists squaring off against the Republicans. That invites no end to confusion with the Republican Party that formed in the 1850s, but Jefferson and his contemporaries picked the name with callous disregard for the primacy of the men who gathered decades after his death. Inheriting that mess, we usually call Jefferson’s party the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans.

After the Federalists dissolved in the wake of the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans became by default the dominant party of American politics. For about a decade, during which many thought a republic might function better with only the one party instead of two, they had no opposition. But people do disagree, whether they have institutions built around those disagreements or not. In the absence of organized opposition, the Democratic-Republicans needed few institutions to keep themselves together through those natural disagreements.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Those disagreements over policy, over sectional interests, over party organization, and wrapped up in the personal animosities of various players, split the Democratic-Republicans four ways in 1824. In a time of weak party organization, with none of the four candidates commanding an electoral college majority, the election went to the House of Representatives. There Henry Clay managed to make John Quincy Adams president instead of war hero Andrew Jackson, who won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote alike. Clay in turn received appointment as Secretary of State.

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party

Jackson saw all of that and cried foul, denouncing the whole thing as a corrupt bargain to hand the election to the man who lost it. He and his supporters, chief among them Martin Van Buren, set out building a thoroughgoing party organization to ensure a secretive band of elites couldn’t steal another election. Recent historians have dismissed Jackson’s accusations, but he and his supporters believed them and acted accordingly. They founded the Democratic Party as a kind of anti-elitist common white man’s conservative party, aimed at fighting moneyed business interests and preserving a kind of populist version of Jefferson’s elitist agrarianism against the forces of industrialization and modernization.

The Jacksonian Democrats, with Van Buren as their organizational mastermind, placed a strong emphasis on party loyalty on local and national levels. Even if one’s own faction did not prevail a Democrat ought to feel honor bound to support the candidate and platform of the national party. Martin Van Buren did not feel so obligated in 1848, but a conspicuous departure from the norm does not negate the general tendency.

The Whigs, from their inception as the anti-Jackson movement, did not have that kind of institutional unity. Their coalition had a Southern wing of dedicated Nullifiers enraged over Jackson’s embrace of federal power over the states. That kind of thing could lead to abolition. But the Northern Whigs wanted internal improvements to build national infrastructure for trade and commerce. That required a deep-pocketed, engaged federal government to take on projects that crossed state lines and might demand resources beyond any state’s ability alone. The Democrats thought that entire program would enrich the rich and do nothing for the common man, a prospect which did not discomfit well-heeled Whigs much at all.

Before slavery came to dominate everything, the Whigs’ internal divisions did not bring them to much sorrow. As long as it stayed off the table, the common interests of many wealthy planters and industrialists alike made for sufficient unity. Especially in the old Southwest, wealthy planters had a healthy interest in growing commerce.  (DeBow’s Review, published out of New Orleans, proclaimed commerce its king at the front of every issue.) They appreciated the tariff, which brought in revenue that could go to internal improvements, and in an era when the South increasingly felt left behind by the pace of national development the Whigs offered a path to sectional improvement. Especially in Louisiana, sugar planters also appreciated the tariff’s protection against cheaper sugar from more tropical climes. Calhoun’s South, like Jefferson’s, had largely passed away by the 1850s.

So too had the era when slavery might intrude into national politics and then recede back to the margins once the crisis passed. War, California, the rest of the new Southwest, four years of tension, and the fugitive slave law closed the door on that, at least temporarily.

With its organizing principles and sectional modus vivendi overthrown by fire-eater secession conspiracies and fugitive slave rescues, how long could the old order endure? Uncle Tom’s Cabin flew off the shelves and abolitionists spilled the blood of slave catchers as the days of Millard Fillmore’s term ran out and the election of 1852 loomed ahead.

The Election of 1848

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

With Barnburner Democrats and Conscience Whigs making common cause with the Liberty Party in the new Free Soil Party, the election of 1848 became a three-way race. The Free Soilers, by insisting on speaking out firmly and often on slavery and damning Democrat and Whig alike as Slave Power lackeys, made the expansion of slavery the campaign’s central issue despite their objections.

Hopes to remain silent and leave slavery out of the national debate dashed, both parties responded by trying to be all things to all people. The Democrats told the North that popular sovereignty would best keep slavery out of the territories. They told the South that Cass pledged to veto any Wilmot Proviso bills and reminded the voters that their party had acquired the vast territory to which slavery could now expand via popular sovereignty. They circulated one campaign biography of Cass in the North and another in the South.

The Whigs played the same game. Taylor pledged to defer to Congress on slavery, whatever it passed. The antislavery Whigs that had not bolted the party, like William H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln, read into that promise tacit support for slavery restriction. In the South, Taylor stood the hero of Buena Vista, where he led less than five thousand to victory against a Mexican army of sixteen thousand. Taylor also owned around four hundred slaves (in 1860, only 0.02% of slaveholders owned 300 or more*) so surely he would be no foe to the peculiar institution.

Taylor the blank slate won with 47.3% of the popular vote and the electoral votes of eight of the fifteen slave states and seven of the fifteen slave states. Cass took 42.5% of the popular vote and the remainder of the states. Van Buren won no states, but his Democrats gave New York to Taylor even as his Whigs gave Ohio to Cass.

Salmon P. Chase, new Free Soil Senator

Salmon P. Chase, new Free Soil Senator

Van Buren did not expect to win. In fact, he expected to throw the election to Taylor. But the Free Soilers succeeded in making slavery the issue of the campaign. They also took over from the Democrats as the opposition party in Van Buren’s three best states: Massachusetts (28.4%), New York (26.4%), and Vermont (28.9%). On the national state, the Free Soilers elected two senators, one being Salmon P. Chase who had helped arrange the merging of Barnburners and Conscience Whigs with the Liberty Party and wrote the Free Soil platform. They also collected nine House seats, largely from former Whig districts.

The Free Soilers did not shatter the two-party system, but they dealt it a serious blow and highlighted the sectional polarization that both major parties tried to avoid. After Taylor’s inauguration in March, the nation would learn if it had elected the war hero from the Louisiana planter class or the war hero that would sign any law on slavery in the territories that Congress sent his way.

*This figure can only be approximate. I plan a future By the Numbers post discussing how many slaves planters owned and the difficulties in doing so from census aggregates. But in any case, four hundred was a lot of people even by late antebellum Deep South standards.