The Buford Expedition, Part Six: The Daughters of South Carolina

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

Fleming’s paper is available here (PDF) or in Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume IV (huge PDF).

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left Jefferson Buford at the Alabama legislature, where he made his pitch for Kansas emigration. A visiting Massachusetts man got word of that and went straight to Ely Thayer when he got home with the news. Buford aimed to field a proslavery regiment in Kansas, all armed and ready to fight. The Emigrant Aid Society, while it had trafficked in guns at least informally, dealt more with the money end of things. Thayer and the good, antislavery people of Worcester got together and made a start on remedying that deficit to the tune of 165 guns and fifteen thousand dollars for further emigration.

Buford had not started the fight over Kansas, but Thayer and company realized that he had taken it to a new level. His plan, like the Emigrant Aid Society’s, found supporters. If Buford couldn’t shake any money loose from the state of Alabama, he could get some from Alabamans to go with the proceeds from selling forty of his Alabaman slaves. A meeting in Columbus, Georgia, resulted in a Colonel Gayle promised his county would deliver up five thousand dollars. Gayle seems to have had plenty of cash on hand, as Fleming notes that he later offered $100,000 for the execution of Abraham Lincoln. In less conventional fundraising,

A daughter of South Carolina sent to the editor of a newspaper a gold chain which would realize enough to furnish one man, and she begged him to let the ladies of her neighborhood know when more money was needed. “We will give up our personal embellishments and expose them for sale.”

Floride Calhoun

Floride Calhoun

That makes for a cute detail, but it speaks to an important reality. Nineteenth century America permitted political action by women in only tightly constrained venues. As the mothers of future citizens, they had a legitimate place in seeking to improve the moral condition of the country. They could do that through the action of various benevolent societies. We remember mostly the suffrage, temperance, and antislavery movements but nineteenth century women also practiced politics through church groups and exerting informal influence on their male relations. The women of South Carolina might have made a sentimental gesture in selling their jewelry, and most men probably read it that way, but they also took a political stand. They too lived in the Palmetto State and understood themselves as a slaveholding people, in solidarity with the slaveholders of Missouri and imperiled by antislavery activism in all its forms.

Should things worked out as they expected and antislavery agitation inspired slaves to revolt, the murderous hordes would come for the Mary Chesnuts as much as the James Chesnuts, the Floride Calhouns along with the John C. Calhouns. We know that no massacres came, but we have the benefit of hindsight they lacked. So far as they knew, the slaves told the truth when the menfolk tortured plans to kill all the whites out of them. Denmark Vesey, at least in their minds, really wanted to go on a killing spree in Charleston before sailing off to Haiti. That whites, then and now, proved far more prone to such things didn’t enter into it.

 

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Politics at Topeka, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

We left the Topeka Convention split into ersatz parties. The body concerned itself with writing a constitution for Kansas, which they would send on to Congress for deliverance from all the proslavery men had imposed upon them. To write a constitution, the revolutionaries had to decide on its contents and there differences between them appeared. Charles Robinson’s more radical abolitionists met at the Chase House. James Lane’s moderates gathered at the Garvey House. Both seem to have collected in the attics. Both also had their frustrations. Lane had his scandal and abortive duel.

Robinson’s Republicans had a less conspicuous failure. Given Kansas’ history of election stealing, going all the way back to the first election held in the territory and continuing as recently as the month of the convention, October of 1855, the question of who could vote in Kansas might seem like one easily settled. People from Missouri most definitely could not. The Topeka Constitution specified that every voter in the free state Kansas must

have his habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the State of Kansas, for six months next preceding the election at which he offers to vote; who, at such time, and for thirty days immediately preceding said time, shall have had his actual habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the county in which he offers to vote, and who shall have resided in the precinct or election district for at least ten days immediately preceding the election

Voters had to live in Kansas, really live there rather than just make a claim or swear to intention to settle. The six months in the territory would exclude the usual border ruffians. The requirement to live a month in the county and ten days in the district would curb any attempt by proslavery Kansans to steal elections by internal movements.

The first of Robinson’s frustrations, is probably the one he expected the most, came here. The Constitution specified the voters came in only two kinds: white males and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man”. Robinson reports that

A small segment of the members were thrown completely outside of all healthy political organization by voting for negro suffrage. Their names were R.H. Crosby, G.S. Hillyer, Amory Hunting, O.C. Brown, Richard Knight, Phillip C. Schuyler, and C. Robinson.

Seven votes out the fifty men elected to go to Topeka might not thrill modern sensibilities. If some others supported the principle of equal suffrage, they did not consider it worth marking themselves out as dissenters by voting with Robinson and company. Still, but nineteenth century standards, even the small turnout looks a bit admirable and certainly forward-thinking. Some of the same seven, whom Robinson doesn’t name, went still further:

as if to make their political damnation sure, [they] voted to strike out the world “male” as well as “white” from the constitution.

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

They deserve some credit from us for that, but it speaks to more important facts than our moral estimations of the long dead. The abolitionist movement had a large overlap with the nineteenth century women’s movement. As a movement concerned with public morals and reform, abolitionism occupied a gray space in the normally separate spheres of nineteenth century male and female life. Politics remained a world for men, but in their role as moral educators women could take a position within it all the same. Many availed themselves of that opportunity, just as they did with the temperance movement. We should thus understand the motion as an expression of solidarity as well as personal sentiment.

This in turn led to proslavery men castigating abolitionists as weak men dominated by the “weaker” sex. The women themselves received extensive condemnation, damning them as emasculating shrews who sought to force Southern manhood into “submission,” a duty that fell exclusively upon women and slaves. Likewise proslavery men cast them as hysterics who could not comprehend the nuances of politics. They further resorted to crude jibes at their appearance and speculation as to how traveling lecturers really made their money. If all of that sounds depressingly familiar, it should. A century and a half without slavery and a century with women voting have not freed half the species, our mothers, sisters, daughters, and other loved ones from the same sort of scorn for daring presume themselves as good and their opinions as worthy of consideration as those of a man.

The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.

“We love the white woman so much…”

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Gentle readers, we have almost finished with Stringfellow’s pamphlet. I could certainly extract more meaning from it, but I think I’ve captured the high points. Much of what remains involves a reiteration of past points. But Stringfellow, after listening the benefits of slavery to the black and white man, comes around to consider just how wonderfully white women benefit as well. In so doing, he expresses some exceptionally horrific ideas. I will reach them in full toward the end of the post. If any of you find discussion of sexual violence especially traumatic, please don’t ruin your day here.

Slavery, Stringfellow asserted

ennobles woman. Relieved by the slave from the abject toil, the servile condition to which the white woman is so often subjected by necessity where negro slavery does not exist, and which strip her of woman’s greatest charm, modesty; which make of her the rude drudging, despised servant of a harsh master; the white woman becomes, as she is fitted to be, not the slave, but the queen of her house, fit mate for a sovereign.

Virtuous, modest, sensitive, retiring, her only ambition to merit the love of her husband, her only pride to point to her children and say, “these are my jewels”; worshipped in her sphere, her gentle sway undisputed, the white woman in the slave-holding States needs no conventions to give her, her rights. Whether she be the mistress of a mansion, or the humble tenant of a cabin, to her the seat of honour is ever accorded — at home or abroad, every son of the south deems himself her champion.

Women, as decent, reasonable, male person knew very well, had only one rightful use: as help-meets to their husbands. Slavery permitted white women that role by taking from them many toils which they had to endure in the free states. But slavery gave them more than just occasion to fulfill their divinely ordained role. It saved them from far worse horrors:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

Providing black women as slaves to white men gave them someone acceptable to rape, thus sparing the virtue of white womanhood. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow wrote that for public consumption. He had it published. It came out as the official manifesto of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. The members approved it. They all knew very well what the words meant and accepted them as a statement of their principles for anybody in the nation to read. They might not like to talk about rape, but they accepted that it happened and preferred it happen to slaves.

Abolitionists damned the whole South as a great brothel, filled to the brim with degenerate masters forcing themselves on their human property. After pages of carefully answering antislavery arguments, Stringfellow comes up dry. He says it himself: “we love the white woman so much.”  Just them. Nothing of the sort should befall a white woman.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

I can think of no better answer to this than that Sojourner Truth gave in other circumstances a few years before:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?