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Friday, September 06, 2013

It's Always Been About Slavery

Today Imma bridge from the Continental Congress to the Civil War.  Because that's what I do.  And because, turns out, our struggles to form and keep a republic have had a lot to do with slavery.

First off, let's check back in with my man John Dickinson during the Second Congress.  Here are some of his notes for a speech arguing against independence:

There are some other Considerations that deserve the Attention of Gentlemen. We have not yet tasted deeply of that bitter Cup called the Fortunes of War...The Danger of Insurrection by Negroes in Southern Colonies...

Then, of course, there's Jefferson's early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, which went from a brief reference about negro insurrection to a full bore condemnation of slavery:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither...Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.

But sadly:

Severe strictures on the conduct of the British king, in negativing our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some Southern gentlemen whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic. 

Not just Southern gentlemen balked:

The clause...reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.

It didn't stop with there.  Slavery was a big topic during debates about the Articles of Confederation, reminiscent of some sort of fractional compromise people might recall.  And that wasn't enough for vaunted libertarians like Patrick Henry:

It says [in Article I, Section 10] that "no state shall engage in war, unless actually invaded." If you give this clause a fair construction, what is the true meaning of it? What does this relate to? Not domestic insurrections, but war. If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress insurrections. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress.
Among ten thousand implied powers which they may assume, they may, if we be engaged in war, liberate every one of your slaves if they please...Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power?

This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it. As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition. I deny that the general government ought to set them free, because a decided majority of the states have not the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling for those whose interest would be affected by their emancipation. The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.

Even after many decades of Southern Slave Power dominating Congress and the Presidency:

Vermont's anti-slavery laws and resolutions irritated the Southern States exceedingly, a knowledge of which did not in any wise deter the Green Mountain lawmakers from expressing their opinions freely and fully.

In a message to the Virginia Legislature, Governor Wise, referring to one of the Vermont resolutions on slavery, said: "We cannot reason with the heads of fanatics, nor touch hearts fatally bent upon treason." Copies of Vermont resolutions relating to Kansas sent to the executives of the various States, called forth along message to the Georgia Legislature from Gov. Herschel V. Johnson, in which he characterized the resolutions as insulting. 

The Vermont resolutions are said to have caused "much high feeling and indignation in the House." One member offered a resolution directing the "Governor to transmit to the Governor of Vermont, with a request to lay the same before the State Legislature, the Georgia resolutions of 1850, declaring that the State would resist acts of aggression therein enumerated, "even (as a last resort) to the disruption of every tie that binds her to the Union"; and enclose the same in a leaden bullet. Other members suggested that powder and a coil of rope should be included. 

The following resolutions were offered:

"Resolved, By the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, That His Excellency the Governor be and is hereby requested to transmit the Vermont resolutions to the deep, dank and fetid sink of social and political iniquity from whence they emanated, with the following unequivocal declaration inscribed thereon:

"Resolved, That Georgia, standing on her constitutional palladium, heeds not the maniac ravings of hellborn fanaticism, nor stoops from her lofty position to hold terms with perjured traitors."

In the Georgia Senate this resolution was offered: 

"Resolved, That His Excellency, President Pierce, be requested to employ a sufficient number of able-bodied Irishmen to proceed to the State of Vermont, and to dig a ditch around the limits of the same, and to float 'the thing' into the Atlantic."

Fetch me my fainting couch!  The South's hurt feefees naturally led to secession.  South Carolina's declaration of causes:

  • The ends for which the Constitution was framed...it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions...
  • Yeah, but...
  • [T]he non-slaveholding States...they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
  • Other States and their people cannot enjoy free speech or control over their own institutions.  What's more...
  • A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.
  • Those other States also get to vote in national elections, and we don't like the result.  Worse yet...
  • This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
  • These States exercise their constitutional powers to determine voter qualifications, and that includes "the darkies."

And all this was counterproductive from the perspective of maintaining that peculiar institution.  As Lincoln's Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles, wrote:

The efforts of the secessionists to bring about a dissolution of the Union on the pretext that slavery in the states was in danger, in consequence of the success of the Republicans in 1860, and that new guarantees were required to protect the institution, had the effect of increasing the anti-slavery feeling in the free states...

The serious agitation of the slavery question had its origin in fact with the nullifiers...On no political subject was there more unity, than that the rights of the states should be respected and observed on the question of slavery. But the Nullifiers started to be aggressive, and with a determination to be the ascendant party in the government or to subvert it. The means resorted to for uniting the South irrespective of parties on this local question were, by creating alarm in the slave states—stating the free states were aggressive—warning the slave owners that their property was in jeopardy—demanding new guarantees for its security—promoting sectional animosity and some of them requiring a dual executive.

The rebellion rapidly increased the antislavery sentiment everywhere, and politicians shaped their course accordingly. On the wave of this antislavery excitement the Secretary of State and the British Minister in the spring of 1862 negotiated a treaty for the suppression of the African slave-trade, a revival of which had been threatened by the secessionists in the cotton-growing states. If other and ulterior purposes were designed, it was an adroit movement on the part of the English diplomat who availed himself of the popular feeling which in free governments influences public men. The Secretary of State very naturally fell in with a movement which was in harmony with public sentiment and the current of affairs. 

And Eric Foner writes in The Fiery Trial:

Three days into the session, the House killed a motion to reaffirm the Crittenden-Johnson resolution of the previous July [ed note: I wrote about that here], which had disavowed the idea that interference with slavery was a “purpose” of the war. Radicals launched a campaign for vigorous action. Anyone who doubted that slavery was “the very sole cause of the war,” wrote Horace White, the Washington correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, was a “lunatic.”

If anybody doubted that at the beginning of the war, it was completely clear to all by Lincoln's re-election:

Slavery, we know, was the sole cause of the war. It was Slavery that fired the first gun at Sumter, and demanded to rule or ruin the country. It was in the name of Slavery that the South seceded; and it was to extend and perpetuate Slavery, as a blessed and divine institution, that they avowedly framed the Confederate constitution. In the debates of Congress of 1860-'61, in the proceedings of the Committee of 1833, in the acts of the Peace Congress, in the various secession ordinances, by the very terms of the Confederate constitution, Slavery was the sole cause of this war upon the Government. Slavery was and is our great enemy, and shall we not destroy it? Slavery was the sole cause of the war, and shall it not be eradicated?

But I'm sure everybody was really more upset about tariffs.


September 6, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


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