This week’s TIME cover story, which I perused briefly at the magazine rack, appears to be on the right track—lamenting the fact that many historians and Southern apologists continue to deny that the survival of, and extension of, slavery was the principle cause of the disintegration of the Union into civil war. Some would point to the Nullification crisis during the presidency of Andrew Jackson as “evidence” that this was not so; this was a “states’ rights” issue—ignoring the fact that South Carolina was alone in its extreme view on the tariff meant to protect the fledgling nation’s manufacturing from foreign competition. Others insist that this was a power struggle between the North and South and their vision of the future. But Robert Rhett, the most extreme of the South Carolina fire-eaters, stated after the threat of secession passed that
"A people, owning slaves, are mad, or worse than mad, who do not hold their destinies in their own hands.”
There it was in a nutshell. Rhett saw any increase in the authority of the federal government over the states to come nearer to threatening the future of the South’s “peculiar institution”: “Let Gentlemen not be deceived. It is not the Tariff – not Internal Improvement – nor yet the Force bill, which constitutes the great evil against which we are contending.” Unlike many revisionists and apologists today, Rhett was honest about it; the issue, ultimately, was about slavery.
South Carolina had already given anti-slavery Northerners pause when in 1822 it passed the Negro Seaman Act, in which all black seamen on a foreign ship could be forcibly detained in a prison while in port. Although a court ruled the action unconstitutional, South Carolina simply ignored the ruling, and the federal government failed to act against the state. Despite claims to the contrary, despite the often heated rhetoric in the halls of Congress on the slavery question, slavery where it resided was never directly under threat. Despite the fact that Congress repeatedly showed it was open to “compromise,” it was the paranoid South that always wanted more, was never satisfied. Southern politicians were so fanatical on the slavery issue that they were never able to see that adding more slave states—in order to “protect” the institution—only had the effect of increasing the ire of more people in the North against slavery. This anger was not properly gauged by Southerners, since there was only a limited area in which slavery could expand as a viable economic foundation. The only way slavery could be sufficiently “protected” in their eyes was to make it legal to hold a slave in every state—and they came close to achieving that in a U.S. Supreme Court decision passed down in 1857.
Because of Southern paranoia, the issue of the expansion of slavery had to be addressed time and time again. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, with the exception of the territory from which Missouri would be carved, allowed slavery in any new territories below the 36° 30´ parallel to the Pacific Ocean, or at least in theory since Mexico still claimed the Southwest and California. Under Mexican rule, slavery was illegal in Texas, but most of the white immigrants who were initially welcomed into the territory were Southerners who wished to bring their slaves as well; the ugly little chancre sore in the Texas myth was that slavery was a major factor in the fight for independence, and it was Southerners who most forcefully pushed support for its rebellion. And it wasn’t just north of the Rio Grande that the South saw open horizons; Southern adventurers known by the military term “filibusters”—essentially private citizens who recruited their own private armies to invade and conquer small countries—received tacit support from Southern politicians. One of these “filibusters”—William Walker—had designs first on Mexico and then Nicaragua, where initially he was “invited” as a leader of mercenary troops; Walker subsequently used this “army” to attempt to create his own slave empire with the support of many Southerners, who believed that if Walker was successful, it opened other opportunities for similar action throughout Central America (this would become Sen. John Crittenden’s “compromise” idea to save the Union in 1861). Walker’s adventure ultimately failed miserably, mainly because of lack of support from the federal government, an unfriendly British Royal Navy, and his own incompetence; Walker’s mischief-making came to end when the British handed him over to Honduran authorities, who promptly executed him.
The Missouri Compromise kept Southern fire eaters in check until 1846. During the Mexican-American war, David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat, attached a rider attached to a funding bill for the illegal war in Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso would prohibit slavery from any territory “acquired” from Mexico. It passed the House, but failed in the Senate. Wilmot was in no way an abolitionist; he was a racist. He wished to keep any new territories whites-only. Southerners, however, believed this was an attack on their “honor” and its equality with the North. The Compromise of 1850 was an effort to weasel out of the implications of the Proviso by allowing the South to maintain its “honor” through a quizzical concept known as “popular sovereignty”—that is, a majority of a territory’s residents could vote on whether to allow slavery. The Compromise did guarantee the dividing line of the Missouri Compromise, with the exception of California, but the territories available (today’s Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada) were unsuitable for slave-based agriculture. In return, however, the North was forced to accept the fugitive slave law, which was widely unpopular in the North. The law required law enforcement and all citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves, either on the basis of “suspicion” or on a claim by a slaveholder; the law was so draconian that any free black was liable to be accused of being an escaped slave without the right to testify on his or her own behalf. Law officers who did not comply, even only on the basis of a belief that a black might be a slave, were subject to a fine (the ghosts of the fugitive slave law cast a long shadow over Arizona’s anti-immigrant law).
The bitterness the fugitive slave law aroused, and the fact that the South perceived itself to receive the short-end of the stick accepting territory not likely to become slave states, guaranteed that the “peace” would be short-lived. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a naked effort by Southern slave-holders and their northern doughfaces (like Stephen A. Douglas, who championed “popular sovereignty”) to over-turn both the Missouri and the 1850 compromises—and allow slavery in any new territory by the “sovereignty” principle. If any revisionist historian claims that slavery wasn’t the overriding issue, then the words of Thomas Hart Benton, a moderate on the slavery issue but no abolitionist, gave the lie to that claim. Benton, who had been defeated after five terms as senator from Missouri in 1851 for his pro-union stance, was elected to the House in 1852; he gave a speech in 1854 on the House floor denouncing Kansas-Nebraska in the following terms: "And now what is the excuse for all this disturbance of the country; this breaking up of ancient compromises; arraying one half the union against the other, and destroying the temper and business of Congress? What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress, completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it!” Benton would pay for his obstinacy, losing his re-election bid that year in a state that was technically slave and South-sympathizing.
Some historians claim that the North’s “free-soil” position was not about slavery per se, but the idea that the North could “dictate” to Southerners what they could or could not do. They might not want to take slaves into a certain territory, but it was nevertheless their “right” to do so. This has been transmuted into “state’s rights” and sectional balance; slavery was just an insignificant issue within the “larger picture.” But let’s not allow ourselves to be deluded; the issue was still about the protection of slavery as an institution and its expansion. The South feared that if the North became too powerful a voting block, it could somehow force the destruction of the “peculiar institution.” But this was simply not true; even in his famous Peoria speech in 1854 which opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Abraham Lincoln did not support the idea that the South should be forced to abandon slavery by coercion, nor did anyone in the North outside the most extreme abolitionists.
If the South feared the “consequences” of free blacks in their midst, or the insane attempt of a northern fanatic like John Brown to arouse a slave revolt, the North also had its grievances, believing that the South was trying to bully its immoral ideology on them—and with violence if necessary. During the House debate on Kansas-Nebraska, Lewis Campbell of Ohio led the filibuster in opposition. After 36 hours of “debate,” the atmosphere had devolved into the firing of verbal missiles between the opposing sides; in keeping with the American fascination with guns, many congressmen pulled out their pistols to make their own “point” more “clear.” After awhile, it was apparent that the mere display of weapons would fail to change minds, and Virginian Henry Edmundson lost his mind and advanced toward Campbell with the intent to make a gesture more physical in nature. The sergeant at arms was forced to arrest him; afterwards, cooler heads prevailed and the chamber was abandoned before anything else unfortunate occurred. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed by a bare majority in the House, (having already passed the Senate) and was signed into a law by doughface Franklin Pierce; the subsequent revelation of the Ostend Manifesto was seen by the North (probably rightly) as another naked Southern effort to expand slavery in new states created out of Cuba and Central America. Pierce, although a Northerner from New Hampshire, would later shred what was left of his tattered reputation in the North by openly supporting the South during the Civil War.
The Southern inclination toward violence (odd considering their stated adherence to “noble” behavior and principles) was not long to be denied on the floors of Congress. In 1856, following a “damn fool speech” by Sen. Charles Sumner denouncing the slaveocracy, Representative Preston Brooks nearly caned him to death in the Senate chamber for “libeling” South Carolina and his relative, Sen. Andrew Butler. William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, wrote that "The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder...Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters? ... Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?"
Brooks temporarily resigned, but predictably was re-elected to his seat. He was subsequently ridiculed by Rep. Anson Burlingame as a coward and barbarian, and Brooks challenged him to a duel; Brooks, who had continued beating the unarmed Sumner even as he lay unconscious until his cane broke, later pleaded fear of crossing into Northern territory into Canada (where the duel would be fought to evade anti-dueling laws in the U.S.) when he discovered that he had a better than even shot at being killed by Burlingame. Amazingly, Florida saw fit to name a town (Brooksville) and a county in “honor” of a man who committed an act of shocking, cowardly brutality in defense of slavery. Florida is also currently engaged in an argument with South Carolina over who has the right to claim the first shot of the Civil War; I guess there has to be some silver lining for being on the side of the losers.
In 1857, the infamous Dred Scot decision essentially threw every “compromise” out the window. Not only did blacks have no “rights that a white man was bound to respect,” but Congress had no power to exclude slavery anywhere. For Chief Justice Roger Taney, this was supposed to be the “mortal blow” against anti-slavery agitation. Instead, it was the last straw for the North. In his diary entry of November 2, 1860, George Templeton Strong—having decided to vote for Lincoln—wrote
“One vote is insignificant, but I want to be able to remember that I voted right at this grave crisis. The North must assert its rights, now, and take the consequences…If we accede to Southern exactions, we must re-open the slave trade with all its horrors, establish a Slave Code for the territories, and acquiesce in a decision of the United States Supreme Court…that will entitle every Southerner to bring his slaves into New York and Massachusetts and keep them there. We must confess that our federal government exists chiefly for the sake of n*gger-owners. I can't do that. Rather let South Carolina and Georgia secede. We will coerce and punish the traitorous seceders if we can; but if we can't, we are well rid of them.”
In the South, it had become politically-incorrect to speak against slavery; virtually every white Southerner had been programmed to support the peculiar institution. For slave owners, it was the “positive” good of “civilizing” the Africans; for non-slave owners, it was the “threat” that free blacks posed to their livelihoods. But some in the North were less sanguine about such mendacity. In his 1854 Peoria speech, Lincoln was careful not to offend the "sensitivities" of his white listeners concerning the question of racial equality; however, his stance on slavery was clear:
“This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world---enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites---causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty---criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” Lincoln also argued that people should not be lulled into believing that adverse climatic conditions was sufficient reason to assume that slaves would not be brought into the territories, at least not in great numbers. If slavery were allowed into the territories, then it was one small step before slaves were allowed in the North (it should be pointed out that it was only 27 years prior that slavery was officially abolished in the state of New York).
Lincoln went on to argue that the South and its minority view was attempting to impose its immorality on the majority: “Another important objection to this application of the right of self-government, is that it enables the first FEW, to deprive the succeeding MANY, of a free exercise of the right of self-government. The first few may get slavery IN, and the subsequent many cannot easily get it OUT. How common is the remark now in the slave States---'If we were only clear of our slaves, how much better it would be for us.' They are actually deprived of the privilege of governing themselves as they would, by the action of a very few, in the beginning. The same thing was true of the whole nation at the time our constitution was formed.”
Lincoln noted the hypocrisy of the 3/5 of a man “vote”—slaves who cannot vote are used to “swell the influence of white people’s votes…If I am wrong in this---if it really be a sacred right of self-government, in the man who shall go to Nebraska, to decide whether he will be the EQUAL of me or the DOUBLE of me, then after he shall have exercised that right, and thereby shall have reduced me to a still smaller fraction of a man than I already am, I should like for some gentleman deeply skilled in the mysteries of sacred rights, to provide himself with a microscope, and peep about, and find out, if he can, what has become of my sacred rights! They will surely be too small for detection with the naked eye.”
Lincoln went on to deride the fallacy that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would “save” the Union: “But Nebraska is urged as a great Union-saving measure. Well I too, go for saving the Union. Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any GREAT evil, to avoid a GREATER one. But when I go to Union saving, I must believe, at least, that the means I employ has some adaptation to the end. To my mind, Nebraska has no such adaptation.” He went on: “I particularly object to the NEW position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there CAN be MORAL RIGHT in the enslaving of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a few [free?] people---a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity we forget right---that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere. I object to it because the fathers of the republic eschewed, and rejected it.”
Lincoln belittled the Southern claim that, after having once placed blame for the "peculiar institution" on King George for introducing slavery into the land, now it suddenly had become a "necessity" and a “sacred” right: “Nebraska brings it forth, places it on the high road to extension and perpetuity; and, with a pat on its back, says to it, `Go, and God speed you.' Henceforth it is to be the chief jewel of the nation---the very figure-head of the ship of State. Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’"
And finally: “Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.”
Today we see that much the same dynamic is at work, except couched in different terms and different issues. Republicans and Democrats have switched ideological sides. As income disparities increase, the working class has become the new slaves, the greed-driven corporate executives their new masters—with Republicans their whip-wielding over-seers. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision is a new Dred Scot, and is already allowing an unlimited flow of corporate money (that could be used to create jobs) to delude a gullible public by saturating the airwaves with deliberate misinformation; Republican governors engaged in the destruction of unions—the only effective counter to corporate power—is all part of the plan. Many voters still don’t understand that in this way they are being treated as people with no rights to be respected. Along with the contempt the Republicans have for the less well-off, the lily-white party (and I am including Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal) with its anti-Latino and coded anti-black rhetoric borrowed from the language of Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh and other “mainstream” white supremacists, Republicans have revived a view of the world comprised of “mudsills” who the “upper-classes” abuse to order to “advance” civilization—meaning their own greed. Working class whites who vote Republican because of their racial prejudices are blind to the fact that “equality” among “classes” as well as race has no place in the Republican view of the universe. They—along with all those held in contempt—exist to Republicans and their corporate masters not as “partners,” but as mere silt and sand to grind their heals on; they exist for no other purpose.