The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

A Free State Fourth, Part Seven

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Charles Robinson did not, he declared, stand up on the Fourth of July, 1855, to preach abolition to the people of Lawrence. He slipped more than a bit into his speech and implied more all the same, but he kept his focus on slavery’s ill effects upon white men and the commercial development of Kansas. Abolitionists used those arguments as well, but he came short of what David Wilmot once called “morbid sympathy for the slave” in which his fellow abolitionists likewise indulged. His audience could appreciate Wilmot’s sentiment well enough. Many probably shared it.

But the proslavery party would acknowledge no such difference:

And who, or what is an abolitionist? Why everybody is an abolitionist, according to their dictionary, who dares to have an opinion of his own upon the subject of the rights of man in any respect differing from theirs. No distinction is made between the man who is opposed to the establishment of slavery in Kansas and him who is opposed to its existence in the States; between the man who would return him who had escaped to his master and him who would direct the fugitive to the land of liberty. Said one of the chivalry, whose name is suggestive of hemp factories, ‘Had I the power, I would hang every abolitionist in the country, and every man north of Mason and Dixon’s line is an abolitionist.’

I don’t know who Robinson quoted, but it sounds like he meant for his audience to get it. The hemp reference inclines me to think he quoted one of the Stringfellows, but I can only speculate on the matter.

Of course, one couldn’t really kill all the abolitionists. The proslavery men could shoulder the burden of their existence, provided it did not continue in Kansas. Robinson called that a demand for all to “bow down and worship the calves they set up.” He had as much enthusiasm for expulsion from Kansas as one might expect:

Made to leave! Gentlemen, look at that beautiful banner, think from whence it came, and of the motives which prompted its presentation, and then think about being MADE TO LEAVE your country, for no crime!

Robinson’s warm-up act involved the ladies of Lawrence presenting a flag to the local militia. Short of taking the thing and literally winding it around his body, one can’t get much more literal about wrapping oneself in the flag. Theatrics aside, the free state men lived in America too. They had as much right as any proslavery man to settle in American territories and move freely between them.

The Democracy’s Slavery Problem, Part Two

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Two weeks of consultation in Washington got Andrew Reeder nothing more than a promise that if Franklin Pierce dismissed him from the governorship of Kansas, he would claim Reeder’s shady real estate dealings as the reason. That concession looks perverse to us, but Pierce may have meant well by it. Nineteenth century politics involved corruption at least close to the point of self-parody. That Reeder used his post in an attempt to enrich himself may have painted him as a crooked character, but crooked characters might have enjoyed a brighter future in the Democracy of the 1850s than antislavery men. This spoke to the centrality of the slavery issue at the time, unlike past decades, but also to the deeper nature of the Democracy’s ideological commitments.

The antebellum Democracy upheld, per John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1860: states rights on the national level, limited government on the local level, popular control of all government, and resistance to projects of moral reform dictating choices to private individuals. These ideals, and others, did not demand an adherence to slavery. Nor did one necessarily have to read proslavery politics into them, even if the party’s heroes, Jefferson and Jackson, both owned slaves. The simple fact that black people, their lives and freedom, counted for precious little to most white Americans went a long way toward enabling slavery on its own. The Democracy’s ideology never demanded from the national party a full-bore defense of slavery as necessary or good. Attempts to require the national party to sign on to such a platform led, by design on the part of some of its proponents, directly to its split in 1860. If the Democracy had a specific ideological commitment to slavery, it may never have risen as a national party at all. Had it, in some strange world, managed both the proslavery platform and national political success, one struggles to imagine a homely nobody from Illinois taking up residence at the White House in 1861.

But Ashworth draws an important distinction here. While the Democracy did not adopt slavery qua slavery, each of its key ideals served to implicitly protect slavery. The party mainstream might have thought John C. Calhoun a dangerous crank. Those outside the hard core of proslavery southerners certainly chafed over the way in which that powerful, often the most powerful, faction exerted its influence. Despite these complaints, and dissenters of the David Wilmot and Salmon P. Chase stripes aside, the Democracy as a whole functioned as a proslavery institution. Each key point of Democratic ideology had its proslavery consequences, something Ashworth remarks “was no random effect.”

Thus limited government and state’s rights, if strictly adhered to, removed the threat to slavery from Washington and as a consequence from any potentially hostile northern majority that might be formed. The insistence upon individual autonomy in the moral sphere allowed Democrats to demand that individual white males be allowed to decide whether or not they should own black slaves without any legal coercion from government. The Democratic doctrine that all should be left undisturbed by government in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour was invaluable to slaveholders, since, as we have seen, it ignored the existence of the slave and simultaneously removed from view the inequalities generated by slaveholding.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

One could add that if states’ rights took threat to slavery from Washington off the table, then limited government in the states further removed it from state legislatures. Who then remained to enact emancipation? For some, this remained the purview of the Almighty. They may have genuinely believed it possible that divine intervention would remove slavery, and of course the slaves, but one doesn’t imagine them holding their breath waiting for it.

The result was that the Jeffersonian tradition operated not directly or explicitly to promote slavery but rather to disable antislavery. Slavery was an unrecognised or invisible underpinning, an unacknowledged condition of Jeffersonian and Democratic thought. In consequence, the northerner who had no interest in slavery but who accepted this creed was likely to end by defending southerners’ rights to hold their slaves, unmolested by the federal government and unchallenged by abolitionism. Such at any rate was the situation until the advent of the territorial question in the 1840s.

Even as slavery became the dominant issue, northern democrats often returned to this well. They grew up believing it. They bought into the party that preached it, wagering their futures, their fame, and their fortunes on its tenets. Franklin Pierce did not need the deep ideological underpinnings of the Democracy’s implicit proslavery agenda to refuse Andrew Reeder any help with the Missourians marauding about Kansas, stealing elections and lynching people. But his actions make more sense in light of them. So also do those of many Democrats, from Stephen Douglas on down, trying to navigate the increasing political confusion of the 1850s. Even a person who decided on the moral abhorrence of slavery could, through orthodox reading of the Democracy’s doctrines, adopt a strong position against opposing it in the political realm.

Together for Land and Slavery

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

While the Emigrant Aid Societies fit comfortably into the history of American settlement, that did not stop the people of western Missouri from seeing them as interlopers. Didn’t those New Englanders have their own territory just up north in Nebraska? Good Missouri men and women had waited for years at the frontier, some more observant of the law against moving across the line into Kansas than others, and now insulting outsiders would flood in and take it all from them. If the people coming under the auspices of the Massachusetts, later New England, Emigrant Aid Society and others had every right to the territory, a proposition many in Missouri would contest, then so did they.

This all must sound a bit remote from slavery. Whatever promises to the contrary, few slaveholders would risk their valuable human property on land that they would share with avowed abolitionists. The slaves might get ideas about freedom and find whites to help them escape. Worse still, they might find themselves inspired to violent revolution. Most of the Missourians who came to Kansas to stay probably cared far more about getting their land than the fate of slavery.

Interest in the fate of Kansas, however, extended well beyond the small Missouri farmer. The slaveholders of the Missouri valley lived too close and had too much invested to leave the matter to chance. They, like their smallholding neighbors, lived quite near to Kansas. With the governor not arriving until the fall, they also had and ample opportunity to arrange things across the border to their liking.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

They did not waste the chance. In Westport, a group formed calling itself the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Its founders included David Rice Atchison and his trusted lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow. They swore themselves to taking Kansas for slavery. To that end, they would take slaves into Kansas, keep them, and run out any abolitionist or free black they came upon. In Independence, proslavery men set up a vigilance (read: vigilante) committee and committees of correspondence throughout Kansas and the South to monitor events and promote settlement by reliable, proslavery men. Unlike those moving to Kansas permanently, these groups cared more about the slavery than the land. More precisely, they cared about their slavery on their land in Missouri and saw a free Kansas as threatening it.

On June 10, people inside Kansas got into the act with a meeting at Fort Leavenworth promising no protection to any abolitionist. Why would these people, presumably in Kansas on their own behalf and thus more interested in the land than slavery, make such a declaration?

Abolitionists settling in Kansas might encourage free blacks to do the same. This might further lead to communities of runaways who would settle down next door and become still more competition. In all that, they probably thought much better of most of the antislavery men coming to Kansas than the latter deserved. With few exceptions, most of the white antislavery movement shared with proslavery whites the vision of a future lily-white America. Such visions animated laws in Indiana and Illinois to exclude all blacks from those states only a few years before. No less an antislavery man than David Wilmot infamously declared that

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.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

In addition to that, to live in Missouri, especially the western part, at least implied a level of comfort with slavery and facilitated a kind of shared racial solidarity with slaveholders. They might not precisely share the same class, but a poor farmer who had little could take some pride in being treated well by a rich man on the grounds of their shared color. They could have had business dealings with their slaveholding neighbors. They could very well share the slaveholders’ nightmares about servile insurrections. Would enraged, rebelling slaves really confine themselves only to the whites who personally owned them? If all those slaves turned free, could poorer whites really compete with the suddenly free labor? Would not social equality soon follow?

And if none of that convinced the Missouri smallholder moving into Kansas, then slaveholding neighbors remained neighbors. One could not say the same for Yankee interlopers. If their neighbors cared more about slavery than land, but would help secure the land in the name of securing slavery, then why would a Missourian emigrant object to joining forces?

Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

When Lincoln and Douglas met at Springfield and Peoria, they debated the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln also made his return to political life and could have done worse than to do it by sharing a stage with and showing up one of the most famous, if also now infamous, men in the nation. But the two men met in the fall of 1854, an election year. Each spoke both for himself and for his party. Though Illinois had a Republican party, Lincoln kept away from them and announced himself still a Whig.

That year began with the reintroduction of a clean, Missouri Compromise affirming Nebraska bill that rapidly mutated through four versions into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed the House only thanks to Alexander Stephens’ firm whip hand. Just as the bill hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) affair erupted in Boston. All of this tumult merged with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement. Any one of those could have made for a wild election season. All three together generated a political firestorm of the kind rarely seen in American history.

Douglas, of course, wanted to see his fellow Democrats succeed. They had the Presidency. They had the Congress. During the Second Party System, they had governed the nation almost without interruption. The party might have its problems, and serious ones at that, but things generally worked out for it. The Democracy ran Washington. Then came 1854. Allen Nevins details the Democracy’s many reverses and the following relies heavily on his Ordeal of the Union.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, between strongly antislavery New England and the Border South, New York found the Democracy split and let a Whig, Myron H. Clark, slip into the governor’s mansion. Twenty-nine of the state’s districts elected an anti-Nebraska congressman.  Pennsylvania, home to James Buchanan and other politicians far more compromising than its other famous son, David Wilmot, delivered the Whig-Know-Nothing coalition a governor and control of the legislature. Pennsylvania’s House seats went twenty-one to four in favor of the anti-Nebraska men.

Up in New England, the news predictably came in more of the same. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts’ votes went to the Know-Nothing-Free Soil coalition. They had plenty of help from the Massachusetts Democracy, which passed what Nevins bluntly calls an asinine resolution proclaiming that Pierce and his administration “confirmed the fraternal feeling among the States.” What kind of families did they come from? Who could they possibly think they would fool? The Bay Sate went completely over to the anti-Nebraska bloc. It’s one-time possession, Maine, had been for the Democracy happily for years but now joined its parent in throwing the Nebraska men out of office.

John Hale

John Hale


The Northwest had no better news for Douglas. Salmon P. Chase’s Ohio gave the Democracy not a single House seat in its October elections. Indiana gave up only two in the same month. Just two years earlier, Ohio favored the Franklin Pierce 47.83% to 43.18 and Indiana 52.05% to 44.17%. Illinois soon followed, surrendering five of its nine House seats to anti-Nebraska candidates. The state legislature fell to the same deluge. Douglas’ fellow Illinois Democrat, James Shields, would soon find himself no longer a senator. Across the Mississippi, Iowa turned on the Democracy too, electing an anti-Nebraska governor who promised continual war against slavery’s expansion. Its anti-Nebraska legislature signaled that Douglas’ compatriot Augustus Caesar Dodge would soon join James Shields in the ex-senator club.

The 33rd Congress, which passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had 162 Democrats, 91 from free states and 67 from the slave states. The Democracy had never had a better showing. By the time the dust settled, the Democracy lost 4 (5.97%) slave state seats but held only 25 (27.47%) of their 91 free state seats, 66 (40.74%) down from two years earlier. Forty-four members of the Democracy’s northern wing voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A mere seven (15.90%) of them had jobs in the 34th Congress. Those who defied the party to vote against it, 48 in all, saw only 15 (31.25%) of their number kicked to the curb by angry voters.

The Democracy might have one more president to elect, and did regain control of the House when it put James Buchanan in the White House, but its days as the nation’s natural party of government had ended. From 1854 onward, the Democracy served as a southern party with a minority wing in the North almost completely at the mercy of the South’s proslavery politics. The party that once commanded majorities in both sections as a matter of course would not do anything of the sort again until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stephen Douglas had done to his own party what his successes in 1850 and subsequent increasing antislavery agitation had done to the Whigs, only with the sections switched.

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.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.