William Lloyd Garrison’s Purity

William Lloyd Garrison

We left William Lloyd Garrison moving the goalposts. Charles Sumner betrayed the antislavery cause by not submitting promptly a petition for the release of Messrs. Drayton and Sayers, smugglers of fugitive slaves. Sumner spent that time working quietly for their pardon, but Garrison didn’t know and didn’t care. When pressed by the National Era, another antislavery paper, on the issue, Garrison shrugged off the whole Drayton and Sayres affair. Helping free people imprisoned for freeing slaves doesn’t appear to have excited Boston’s purest abolitionist nearly so much as getting a nice antislavery speech out of his new Senator.

The next week, Garrison took up the question again and said as much directly. He first insisted that the two prisoners didn’t have the ability, from inside a jail, to make meaningful judgments on their own case. But even if they did:

we repeat, this is comparatively a trifling matter. We complain, and must continue to complain, that Mr. Sumner has allowed six months and a half to pass away at Washington, without opening his lips for the millions in bonds, whom he was sent there to represent. It is useless to blink this out of sight, or try to apologize for it. The omiossion amounts to a positive dereliction of duty. In Faneuil Hall Mr. Sumner could declare, long ago-‘We demand first and foremost‘ [Garrison’s emphasis] the INSTANT REPEAL of the Fugitive Slave Bill,- a Bill which he branded as ‘most cruel, unchristian, devilish, detestable, heaven-defying; setting at naught the best principles of the Constitution and the very laws of God.’

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Anyone could look askance at Sumner’s silence in light of his previous rhetoric. The new senator had spoken himself into a corner during the campaign. But Garrison’s remarkable indifference to the plight of two men held for aiding fugitive slaves, the very thing that the Fugitive Slave Law prohibited, remains striking. He deserves points for not focusing entirely on the plight of white men when speaking against slavery, but his opposition to the law, his sympathy for slaves, and his indifference to people who have taken real action to help the slaves by smuggling them to freedom do not sit easily together. Garrison made no bones about it either, describing the present state of affairs that Sumner found so tolerable as

men, women and children are hunted daily, and ruthlessly shot down or dragged back to bondage.

Yet men who struck against that order and helped the enslaved rescue themselves from such horrors get a shrug. Even at the most sympathetic reading, Garrison seems more intent on vindicating himself about the fundamental corruption and uselessness of politics rather than securing material aid to fugitive slaves or their helpers. A speech would do more, to Garrison. Twenty years into his career as an outspoken abolitionist, he still believed that the right words from the right man at the right time would forge a great wave of manumission.

Sumner’s Silence and the Newspapers

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

In August of 1852, Charles Sumner could say he delivered for his antislavery constituents. Through months of quiet lobbying, he secured a pardon for two men caught smuggling fugitive slaves to freedom. All that time raising suspicions that he would betray his supporters by courting Millard Fillmore paid off. On that day, Sumner personally drove down to the jail and saw the men off under armed guard. The nation’s newest antislavery senator had made himself into a practical antislavery operative. His supporters at the Commonwealth touted the triumph, but Sumner had talked himself into an awkward spot back in November of 1850. If sent to the Senate, he had promised vigorous antislavery action. Yet Sumner sat on a petition that Massachusetts sent along for him to present to the chamber during all the time…to free those two antislavery men.

The National Era made a go of explaining things in June, a month to the day before the release of Drayton and Sayres:

We happen to know that it was from no disrespect to the petitioners, and no unworthy personal motive, that Mr. Sumner did not present the petition. On consultation with several of the anti-slavery members of Congress, and with persons especially interested in the case of the unfortunate prisoners, the opinion was unanimous that any agitation of the subject in Congress at present would affect very unfavorably other and more promising movements in the case.

William Lloyd Garrison

In other words, a Sumner put his head together with the other antislavery leaders in Washington and they hatched a plan. They believe things moving toward a satisfactory conclusion and presenting the petition would harm that. William Lloyd Garrison published that explanation, and the Era’s regrets that Sumner hadn’t explained things himself. Always sympathetic to practical politics and keen to moderate his tone in the service to immediate ends, Garrison then responded:

We cheerfully give Mr. Sumner the benefit of this explanation, though we are far from being satisfied with it. The real issue, however, is not in regard to the non-presentation of the petition aforesaid, but to the strange, extraordinary and inexcusable silence of Mr. Sumner on the whole subject of slavery for the long period of six months, and upwards, in his place in the U.S. Senate. True, he now promises to say something ‘hereafter,’ but he will speak too late to justify his past silence.

For Garrison not to take “trust us” as an answer shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. Every era has its dishonest politicians and their enablers and they all think that you should trust them. But the moment he has any satisfaction on the question of the petition for Drayton and Sayres, he moves the goalposts and insists Sumner has unforgivably betrayed the cause. Six months and change of silence on a signature issue deserves some scrutiny in any politician, but here all his admirable positions don’t save Garrison from sounding like a man committed to his own political unhappiness.

The Squatter Sovereign on Butler, Part Two

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley’s Squatter Sovereign would not tell its readers that the editor served as ringleader for the mobbing of Pardee Butler, but took great pride in the act all the same. More such treatment awaited any antislavery man who showed his face and spoke up in Atchison and, if they had their way, everywhere in Kansas and Missouri. Missouri would supply rope and Kansas the manpower to go further than Butler got, decorating every tree if the need arose.

But it takes a village to sustain a reign of terror. If the paper’s readers beyond the Atchison area took only a smile away from the story of Butler’s ordeal, then Kelley had not done his job. Thus he reached out to remind them of their duty as white, southern men:

With confidence we appeal to the Squatter Sovereigns of Kansas, to know if our slaves shall be tampered with? Will they allow the Greelys and Sewards of the Northern States, to inundate our broad territory with the scurf and scum, collected from their prisons, brothels, and sink-holes of iniquity? Is society, composed of such ingredients as these, a proper school for the morals of your children? Are such men fit companions for your daughters? Such women fit wives for your sons?

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

Do you want a man like William Lloyd Garrison to marry your daughter? Do you want your son saddled with a wife like one of the Grimké sisters? Why, those two turned against their own father’s politics! If you didn’t want your daughters at risk or your sons emasculated, Robert Kelley knew what you needed to do. With the world watching

Your brethren of the slave holding states, have placed their case in your hands. they have declared Kansas the Thermopylae of the South, and YOU the Spartan band, that must defend it from the foul invasion of Northern fanatics. They have crossed the Rubicon, broken through all restraint, and forced us to the final issue.

Having given his readers the nickel tour of classical history, before the United States stamped its first nickel coin, Kelley proceeded to familiar themes: Proslavery men fought for nothing less than survival itself. They could claim no shelter from the Constitution. The North had broken every sectional accord. Now they must choose between compromise with the faithless Yankees and their vast majority

or we must rise, unanimously, and drive the foe from our midst. In order to accomplish this end, no mercy can be shewn, and none is needed.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

This all endorses Butler’s treatment, and that of others like him, but the appeal to unanimity speaks volumes. No matter what they had to do, they must rid themselves of dissenters. Kelley told his readers that they must not hesitate, possibly mindful of how the attack on Butler lost steam at the river’s edge and certainly well aware that not every Southern man stood firm on his side:

If your self esteem is insufficient, your interests are enough to decide you. If you hesitate now, you are lost. Your brethren of Atchison have taken a bold, manly and decided stand. Unassisted they pledge themselves to purge their town, and its vicinity, from the polluted presence of Abolitionism. — Without your aid, more they cannot do. Give it us, and Kansas shall soon claim her proper place among her sister States, in a Southern Republic.

If the Abolitionists seek war, it shall come, and sooner than they wish; and if you are good men, and true, it shall be “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt.”

The Assembly vs. Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The fullypurged proslavery Legislative Assembly had enough of Andrew Reeder. His constant vetoing proved that he would never work with them for any who had not already decided the governor secretly clung to abolitionism so hard that William Lloyd Garrison and Eli Thayer found it off-putting. They wrote to Franklin Pierce asking that he rid them of the troublesome Pennsylvanian. The letter doing just that had already gone into the mail, and would arrive only days later, but the legislature had no way to know that.

Showing cause would improve their case, so the legislature commenced with a “brief history of our territory, written and unwritten, since its organization.” They began with what they considered the almost unprecedented speed of settlement in Kansas, exceeded only by California’s progress. Debates over the future of Kansas, and by proxy the entire West, spurred tremendous numbers to come and lay their claims.

A people thus numerous, thus diversified from birth, education, previous associations, and present intention and objects, required, it seems to us, for their government, the most prompt action on the part of those called on to preside over them. From the month of May until October, there were no officers here, the governor appointed to organize the territory, under the provisions of the bill, arriving in the latter month.

A great number of people and no government at all has a way of emphasizing the need of the former for the latter. In its absence, informal and alternative power structures will develop. Unfortunately, these almost without exception involve gangs and warlords. Few people, save those who imagine that they will rise to the top of such a situation, welcome it. The legislators have their dates right. What took Reeder so long?

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Franklin Pierce, to start with. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law at the end of May, 1854, but neglected to appoint a governor until almost a month later. He gave Andrew Reeder the nod on June 29. Reeder, who I presume received word in Pennsylvania, took his oath on July 7. One can’t blame that first month on him, though the legislature wisely avoided telling Pierce that he caused the initial delay. Receiving instructions, packing up his household, and moving out to Kansas then took Reeder until October. One can fairly pin that time on him, though to judge by his return from Washington it seems that about at least a few weeks in transit come down to having to go by horse and steamboat.

So soon as it was ascertained by rumor that he had arrived (for he never in any way made it public), it was presumed that he would immediately order the census of the territory to be taken, an election for members of the legislative assembly to be held, and call them together at once, so that laws might be enacted for the preservation of the public peace and weal.

They go on to say that everybody received Reeder generously. Leading men of the Missouri border hosted him and introduced him around. Everybody also urged him to hurry up and get a census done so he could call together a legislature. This early legislature would, of course, come full of recent Missourians thanks to their geographic head start on anybody else interested in Kansas. The memorialists did not quite say that, but did paint a stark picture of a lawless Kansas:

the people knowing of no laws in force, an d the governor himself having no settled opinion on the subject-appointing justices of the peace in various sections of the territory, some of whom enforced the Pennsylvania, some the Ohio, and some the Missouri code, acting as a matter of course under his instructions-still, with all these various imperative necessities urging his compliance, he heeded them not, but assumed himself to act as the lawmaking power, by prescribing the various codes above, and usurping the powers of the judiciary in issuing writs, and sitting as an examining court upon the charge of “assault with intent to kill,” the prisoner being at the time incarcerated within the walls of a prison

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

I find it hard to believe that a lawyer would knowingly tell judges to use contradicting codes to decide their cases, though I suppose Reeder may have told them to use the law they knew best and so inadvertently done so. His inexperience might have come into play here as well. I have yet found nothing on the matter of the prisoner mentioned.

Given the context, and passages of the document I shall address in future posts, it wouldn’t surprise me if the memorialists stretched the truth and took a hesitance born of uncertainty and irregularities well within the norms of a newly opened territory as evidence of malfeasance. From all I have seen, Reeder came to Kansas very intent on giving popular sovereignty a fair go, with either slavery or freedom equally possible. The proslavery men arrived equally intent on otherwise, insisting popular sovereignty meant that slavery prevailed until someone forced freedom upon them. Thus even the most impartial and disinterested governor would have their enmity, since he would not at once throw in with them and prosecute their cause to its fullest.

The Last Free State Man, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Legislative Assembly of Kansas, now relocated to Shawnee Mission, tried to go about its business. Andrew Reeder vetoed every bill they passed on the grounds that unless they met in Pawnee, they simply did not constitute a legal body competent to make laws. This did not convince the Assembly, which overrode each of his vetoes. It did, however go some way toward convincing Samuel D. Houston to quit the Kansas House. The majority could not very well remove him and maintain their position that only Reeder’s special elections drew their wrath. By the rules they invented to get rid of the other free state members, Houston had his seat fair and square:

Elected as I was by more than a threefold vote over my pro-slavery opponent, a gentleman of intelligence and ability

Houston knew going in that the majority would make trouble. Like everybody else in Kansas, he had not missed the massive fraud in the March elections. But he had stuck with it, submitting a minority report dissenting from the purge of his free state fellows and continuing on with the legislature to the Shawnee Manual Labor School and through most of July because

I felt that I could not honorably disregard the interests and wishes of my constituents while there remained any just ground on which I could retain my seat. This fact caused me to continue in a position from which, ordinarily, in the circumstances, I should have retired on the reception of my certificate.

Resigning would deny his supporters the representation of their choosing, paradoxically making him guilty of the same denial of their free choice that the Border Ruffians practiced. But that odd situation aside, Houston stuck with the House knowing its faults in the name of practicality:

The pressing necessities of our people in this wilderness land, destitute as we are in a great measure of wholesome laws, organizations, and all those varied benefits which result from a well regulated, civil arrangement, I felt disposed to pass over much that was clearly illegal; but I am fully convinced that, bad as it is to be without law, it is far preferable to an organization effected at the sacrifice of all that is just and noble in individual position, and all that is grand, fundamental and distinguishing in American principles.

Any government beats no government, but Kansas had the option of good government too. Houston pronounced himself ready to make many small sacrifices of principle, but only so far.

In a representative government like ours, many things may and should be passed over; but there is a point beyond which we cannot go without the most servile surrender of all our rights and liberties.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Those little sacrifices add up, until a mass of technicalities can overwhelm the whole. Houston reached the limit of his tolerance and called it quits. One can anticipate Houston’s reasons from prior posts well enough, but I think it best to look into the specifics rather than construct a generic antislavery man and project him on each historical figure. Doing that would very much mislead us with regard to many of them, especially in a place like Kansas where the lines often blur.

Andrew Reeder came to the territory loudly advertising his proslavery bona fides, but once present made himself deeply obnoxious to the proslavery party. Yet that did not make him an antislavery man like an Abraham Lincoln or a William Lloyd Garrison. Rather his commitment to popular sovereignty pushed him into alignment against the proslavery Missourians who violated its cardinal tenet, to his mind, of Kansas for the Kansans.

However, delving into Houston’s reasons just now would make for a much longer post. Instead they shall come tomorrow.

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.

Understanding Anti-Catholic Nativism

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, via the Library of Congress

Much of the Puritan crusade against Catholicism comes down to crude religious hatred and general xenophobia, with a healthy dose of partisanship on top. We can just write it off as a bigotry of the times and dismiss it, like we would the same sort of ideas today. That would probably suit our stomachs fairly well, and certainly flatter our self-image, but if we can try to understand the paranoia and outright terror that inspired slaveholders to the defense of their institution as making sense in a certain context then we can do the same for anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic hysteria.

Catholics, they imagined, engaged in all manner of political corruption, and sexual depravity on behalf of, and perhaps with direct instructions from, Rome. White Americans applied the same libels to black Americans, the corruption coming during Reconstruction, and the anti-black and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movements essentially merged in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. Over in Europe, generations of anti-Semites applied the same libels to the Jews. At various times they also attached to European Catholics, to various dissenting religious movements, to people from the Mediterranean basin, linguistic minorities, and so forth. We have a real genius for finding ways to excuse mistreatment of one another.

Puritan-minded Protestant Americans, fixed on their vision of a lily-white empire for people with ancestors in the fashionable section of the British Isles, did not need to look far to come on these ideas. The Reformation and consequent religious wars, complete with both propaganda and genuine atrocities, loomed large in their minds. To some degree, the Roman Church represented the ultimate religious horror: an institution devoted to serving Christ but corrupted from within into a Satanic vessel. Even if Protestants behaved terribly toward one another, and they often did, they all had a folk memory of an opulent, corrupt, oppressive church in Rome with designs on them all. But if they needed a reminder to spur their anti-immigrant hysteria, they could get one from the immigrants.

Many of the wave of immigrants sweeping into America in the late 1840s and into the 1850s came as refugees from the European revolutions of 1848. Their Springtime of Nations failed, but they took their nineteenth century liberalism with them across the Atlantic to the one republic that seemed to run on something approaching liberal principles, the United States. The admiration did not go only one way across the ocean, of course. The abolitionists often understood themselves as members of a kind of transatlantic liberal movement that had much in common with efforts to abolish aristocracy and the like in Europe. When the foreign-born population swelled by 84% in the 1850s, it included plenty of European liberals fresh off the boat with new tales of reactionary Catholicism to remind antislavery men of their own religious history.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

This all has a strong element of score-settling, of course. The revolutionaries lost their battles to reform Europe. Some of them quit the continent for good, but others intended to go back. Maybe they could go back with an army of Americans. Nineteenth century Americans, including far more conservative men than any abolitionist, adored the idea of teaching bad old Europe from which their ancestors fled how the world should really run. They would be the light of the world. If some American boys wanted to carry a gun alongside that light and go save Europe from itself, nineteenth century America could admire their patriotism and manly vigor.

This went beyond the streets and fringe. When Lajos Kossuth, Louis Kossuth to Anglophones, fled Hungary he found many admirers in the United States. Congress invited him to address a joint session, an honor previously given only to the Marquis de Lafayette. Millard Fillmore entertained Kossuth at the White House. He toured the nation, attending a meeting held in his honor by a failed politician named Abraham Lincoln among many others. Congress fell short of authorizing any kind of foreign adventures on Kossuth’s behalf, but filibusters courted him and he found welcome in the country until he got mixed up in a proposal to take over Haiti and recommended that German Americans vote for Pierce. Those efforts him a partisan and pushed him from the political mainstream.

The Puritan Nativists

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

To a modern American, abolitionism and nativism probably sound very different. We imagine that most abolitionists had modern, egalitarian motives that set them against slavery. Part of that comes from confusing the broad antislavery movement with the narrow abolitionist movement, but even aside that we naturally tend to project our own ideas back on the past. Certainly some abolitionists did themselves credit too in not taking their job as done when slavery ended but pressing on for full, or at least fuller still, racial equality. A few even went a step or two further and included gender equality in their mission. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison both also wrote and spoke in favor of giving women the vote. It only seems natural to us to assume that antislavery Americans opposed slavery because of the wrongs it did to black Americans and sought to end it for their sake. Only some, however, went the full way to a kind of egalitarianism.

Most antislavery Americans, even some abolitionists, did not see things at all that way. They did not live in a world after the Civil Rights Movement where so much of American political life hangs, at least in our minds, on everyone having their equal share of respect, dignity, and his or her own seat at the American table. They lived in the nineteenth century, not the early twenty-first. Equality, to them, meant equality of free white men. Self-government meant government by free white men. Other selves just did not count, and those not counting most emphatically included black Americans. David Wilmot probably said it best, in the course of defending his famous proviso:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Though a Pennsylvanian, born and raised, Wilmot could have spoken for any number of New England Puritans. They primarily hated slavery not because of the wrongs done to the slaves, but because of the corruption it introduced into the moral fiber of white America. In their minds, slavery gave license to rape, to violence, to subversion of self-government, and all manner of immorality not so much done to the slaves as committed by whites who ought to know better. As the name says, Puritans want to purify things and then keep them pure. They came to the New World to achieve religious freedom for themselves, but only for themselves and only within the narrow bounds of Puritan orthodoxy. Outside that, the Puritans aspired to a degree of religious persecution unavailable to them back in Europe. The shining city on the hill only stayed shining by keeping out the riffraff.

Many Puritans thus could and did oppose slavery not for the liberation of black Americans. Those people, the Puritans would happily see dispatched back to Africa. There the ex-slaves might bring Christianity and the blessings of American democracy to the continent, but mostly they would liberate white Americans from the sight of black faces and competition with black labor. Freedom from slavery meant freedom for a lily-white nation to dominate the continent. If the slaves benefited, so much the better. If they failed when dispatched to Africa, they did so far away with little risk of returning.

Religious dissenters in their own ranks had always given Puritans the fits. One bad example left unanswered undermined the whole community’s orthodoxy. Thus Puritan paranoia went hand in hand with Puritan orthodoxy. Satan always waited in the wings, ready to corrupt the righteous and lead them astray so they could lead others astray. Baroque fantasies about people fornicating with devils in the woods and writing their names in black books had gone out of fashion long ago, giving way to notions of priests cavorting with nuns, but the threat of subversion from within or without remained.

Back in Europe, the Puritans earned their reputation as some of Christendom’s most devoted anti-Catholic crusaders. They came, after all, from an already virulently anti-Catholic England. They broke from mainstream Anglicanism because they saw it as still entirely too Catholic. And now, generations later, the new waves of immigration to America came up on the docks of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia lousy with Irish Catholics fleeing the famine and Germans, many of them also Catholic. To a religious movement that had long at least suspected that the Antichrist wore the Papal tiara and that the Whore of Babylon called her franchises dioceses, this had an apocalyptic air. Catholicism from abroad, like slaveholding at home, would corrupt the nation and lead it astray. If the Puritans could not rid themselves of slaveholding already present, they could at least keep out the undesirable, foreign, Catholic hordes. They, the nation’s moral stewards, could do no less.

Moderate Massachusetts

Edward Everett

Edward Everett (W-MA)

If the Massachusetts Free Soilers-cum-Republicans wanted to call the South’s bluff and throw out not just Kansas-Nebraska but also the Fugitive Slave Act, on which the South insisted the Union rested, they could very well do so on paper. Doing so once elected would take rather more effort. They would have to master not just the large advantage that the near-equal division of the Senate between North and South presented, but also Northern interests that did not share their enthusiasm for brinksmanship. That included many in their own party. The man they finally sent to the White House in 1860 stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol and pledged himself to upholding the law…including the Fugitive Slave Act.

New England had long been the seat of northern Whiggery, and before that Federalism. Our own interests, especially in the context of the war at the end of the decade, naturally lead us to connect Whiggery and antislavery. The issue, after all, wrecked the Whigs but not the Democracy. The Whigs had a strong concentration of Puritan men with Puritan ideas from historically Puritan states. Massachusetts, the original home of the Puritans, voted against Andrew Jackson in 1836 and thereafter voted for the Whigs in every presidential election up through 1852. Vermont alone could match that record. But even in hyper-Whig, hyper-Puritan antislavery Massachusetts the Free Soilers pressed well ahead of the pack.

I must confess here that as a person of generally secular bent, I rarely find myself well-disposed toward Puritans. I sometimes suspect we’d do better as a nation if some Indian INS met them at the shore and turned them back. But they came and stayed and, if they no longer had quite the fanatical austerity that the first few generations brought to New England, they had also not surrendered all their fervor to a more moderate nation. They deserve credit for the good and the bad. Puritanism always had a strong communitarian strain. A Puritan man believed in moral stewardship. He served as his brother’s keeper, however widely he cast that net. Some cast it nationally and saw Southern brothers lost in the sins of slavery. This went beyond corrupting the slaveholders and degrading the slaves. The contagion of sin attached to those who made excuses for slavery, who accommodated it, who brought it where the law forbade it even if those men came from more Northern climes. Even those, like William Lloyd Garrison, who cast smaller nets and wrote Southerners off as hopelessly damned and so insisted that the righteous Union must cut away such moral cancers, could find defenders of the proslavery status quo and preachers of accommodating silence on slavery among their neighbors.

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Those neighbors inherited the same Puritan traditions. They could listen to the Garrisons and Sumners in their midst go on about how they stood at variance with their ancestral faith. The Daniel Websters, Edward Everetts, and Robert Winthrops of the state could give the same sermon right back. If Puritans believed in creating a city on a hill, they also had to look aghast at what their fellow citizens proposed. The abolitionists would burn the city down. They would cast aside all respect for property. They would abandon the very respectability that made Puritans fit to create that shining city with their wild lawbreaking and talk of splitting the Union. These conservatives wanted consensus and quiet, with the strategically-placed silences that permitted both when deep division arose. Everett kept on preaching the same when he ran with John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860.

Whiggery’s successes in Massachusetts also worked against them. With such successes, and a party at least amenable to antislavery thought, why would they desert a party that could and had given them such rewards? Even if they couldn’t win the White House, they had Massachusetts. Furthermore, close allies of Massachusetts’ cotton mills had ample motivation to stay in the good graces of their cotton-growing southern compatriots. Those Cotton Whigs had money on the line.

Thus when the Free Soilers met and resolved to overturn the apple cart in Massachusetts, few Whigs joined them. Likewise, few Democrats rushed to the banner. Their Worcester convention drew between 800 and 1,500 Free Soil diehards, four-fifths of them veterans of 1848, but even with a special convention train to carry them less than two hundred came from Boston. Most of the convention-goers came from central and western Massachusetts, away from most of the textile factories.

Parties Divided and Uniting

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas misjudged the North. Any hope he had that finishing forever debate over slavery and its future, as well as opening the floodgates for white settlement in the plains, would win the white North back for the Democracy and meet the challenge of antislavery Whiggery by removing its signature issue died hard over 1854.

Antislavery politics had spawned the tiny Liberty Party in the Burned-Over District of New York back in the early 1840s. They split off from more radical abolitionists like Garrison in reading the Constitution as an anti-slavery document. That core of a few thousand supporters went into the Free Soil party in 1848, briefly turning into a major movement. But the free soil movement largely subsided, at least on the presidential stage, after the Compromise of 1850. Antislavery found a more congenial home among the northern Whigs. William Seward’s wing of the party happily welcomed them. The party’s ailing southern wing did not, but the Democracy’s successes in the South helped limit their ability to reign in Whiggish moves against slavery. This in turn set up a vicious cycle where the party’s northern wing felt less beholden to its southern compatriots and thus could adopt policies increasingly hostile to those same men and their prospects of election in the South.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

Despite successes, the northern Whigs had their own problems. Without a functioning Southern wing, they had little hope of gaining the White House again. Their past success there, however fleeting, had also brought about results from Texas annexation to the Fugitive Slave Act that many of the same northern Whigs found obnoxious. Furthermore, the Democrats who might switch over had seen the Whigs and Whiggery as the enemy for decades. They may agree on slavery, but not necessarily the rest of the Whig program that would come with joining in. Chase appealed to the Independent Democrats, not the Whigs-in-waiting. To top it all off, Whiggery had both lost its southern wing and now faced a potent challenge from tides of immigrant voters. In the four years before 1852, more immigrants had flooded into the country than Winfield Scott’s entire popular vote. Those immigrants, the Irish prominent among them, tended Catholic and Democratic.

We can easily forget that trend, but in other circumstances it might have saved the Democracy in the North. To the extent most immigrants, especially the Irish, cared about slavery they saw it through the lens of free blacks competing with them for jobs. Slavery might protect them from such competition. While the Whigs made token efforts to sweep up the Irish vote but more often treated them as a band of drunken undesirables better kept from voting to begin with. They would just go vote democrat anyway. The Irish could very well see all of that. They could also see the Puritans, Scots, Welsh, and Ulster surnames, faces, and attitudes and know where they ought to go instead.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Thus alienated antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs both had problems in their parent parties. The Democrats had a party establishment dominated by proslavery men and their lackeys, bent on striking against the vital interests of the free, white North. They could, if they could overcome their other differences, go Whig. That might very well have worked out, as increasingly slavery trumped all other issues. More and more of the white North would compromise or take a loss on some other front in order to contain slavery. But the Whigs they could have joined also saw their own ship sinking. If they could not get what they wanted inside Whiggery, why not do it outside? That would at once free them from the encumbrance of party members opposed to their interests and duck what might prove a very difficult fight between antislavery and anti-immigrant Whigs for the party’s future.

The Free Soil party gave a partial blueprint for them. Though it never elected a president, it set a precedent for antislavery Whigs and Democrats to coalition. Furthermore, it still had senators that it elected in coalition with one party or the other as state politics dictated. If a new anti-Nebraska, antislavery party could not take over a state or two on its own then the Free Soil party’s route remained open to it.