Friday, April 14, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 13: Slavery vs. democracy (even for whites) in the Missouri crisis

In my last post in this series, I referred to the intriguing but challenging analysis of the evolution of the slavery issue by William Freehling in The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (1990) with particular reference to the Missouri crisis of 1819-1820. And I mentioned how the three-fifths clause of the Constitution set up a situation which, over time, became more and more obviously a limitation of democracy for whites. And for the most part, American democracy then was restricted to adult white men. When the more radical democrats talked about defending needs of the common man, they mainly really did mean man.

What we now call the Missouri crisis is understood to have begun when the Missouri Territory, which had been part of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for admission to the Union as a state. New York Republican Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr. (1778–1853) introduced a bill to require the phased elimination of slavery in Missouri as a condition of admission as a state. On February 16 of that year, he declared in Congress (from Annals of Congress):

Sir, ... my purpose is fixed, it is interwoven with my existence, its durability is limited with my life, it is a great and glorious cause, setting bounds to a slavery the most cruel and debasing the world ever witnessed; it is the freedom of man; it is the cause of unredeemed aud unregenerated human beings.

Sir, if a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, I can only
say, let it come! My hold on life is probably as frail as that of any man who now hears me; but, while that hold lasts, it shall be devoted to the service of my country - to the freedom of man. If blood is necessary to extinguish any fire which I have assisted to kindle, I can assure gentlemen, while I regret the necessity, I shall not forbear to contribute my mite. Sir, the violence to which gentlemen have resorted on this subject will not move my purpose, nor drive me from my place, I have the fortune and the honor to stand here as the representative of freemen, who possess intelligence to know their rights, who have the spirit to maintain them. Whatever might be my own private sentiments on this subject, standing here as the representative of others, no choice is left me. l know the will of my constituents, and, regardless of consequences, I will avow it; as their representative, I will proclaim their hatred to slavery in every shape; as their representative, here will I hold my stand, until this floor, with the Constitution of my country which supports it, shall sink beneath me. [my emphasis]
Freehling explains the sectional resentment of Yankee critics of slavery in this way:

Another southern state, Yankees argued, meant more illegitimate political power for the South, more slaveholding Presidents, more northern politicians relegated to undeservedly inferior positions. The North was not yet ready to slice the three-fifths clause from an otherwise healthy Constitution. The better remedy earlier seemed to be containment of the disease. James Tallmadge would slowly eliminate a new state's slaves and thus prevent the three-fifths clause from swelling the Slavepower. This proposal showed no concern for blacks. Instead, for the first of many times, Northerners demanded their own liberation from slaveholders' unrepublican rule. [my emphasis]
The view of slavery as a limit to or diminution of (white) democracy combined with the changing understanding of slavery in free and slave states and with the lessons that critics of slavery drew from the experience of abolishing slavery in Northern states to produce a strange result, in which opposition to slavery was often merged with hostility and active hatred toward blacks. Freehling's reference to Tallmadge's proposal "showed no concern for blacks" in his Missouri proposal is probably too harsh a judgment. But it references how the abolitionist viewpoint at that time was heavily influenced by the belief that "diffusion" of the slaves over a broader territory was key to the ultimate abolition of slavery. These are issues we'll examine further in following posts.

Freehling also quotes New York Sen. Rufus King (1755–1827), who had been the Federalist Party's last Presidential candidate in 1816, on the Missouri controversy:

Proponents of Tallmadge's Amendments admitted that they sought only white men's egalitarianism. I have no business with slavery as a social system over blacks, Rufus King declared. I oppose slavery's expansion because it bears upon whites' "great political interests." The three-fifths clause would rob Northerners of all "political power or influence in the Union. The slave region will parcel out the great offices, will determine all questions," and will forever "remain our Masters."
That reference to Southern slaveowners acting as masters to white citizens of the North was an expression of the deep and ultimately irreconcilable contradiction of democracy and republican principles, on the one hand, and slavery, on the other.

And that difference also manifested itself felt in practical politics, both as Federalists vs. Republicans, as North/South differences within the Democratic Party and later as differences within the Whig Party, as well as various factional manifestations along the way. Only with the formation of the Republican Party in 1854 was there a major party committed to antislavery principles. And its position was to contain slavery, as Tallmadge attempted to do with the admission of Missouri, not to abolish it within states where it existed.

Another prominent New York Republican Congressman who co-sponsored the Tallmadge Amendment was John Taylor (1784–1854), who would later become Speaker of the House. William Johnson ("Prelude to the Missouri Compromise" Arkansas Historical Quarterly 2:1 (Spring 1965), described Taylor's approach in an attempt to extend the proposed antislavery provision from the incoming state of Missouri to the Arkansas Territory, as well:

Now, in 1819, along with his colleague Tallmadge and the other restrictionists, Taylor was attempting to exclude the institution of slavery from all United States territory west of the Mississippi, except for Louisiana which had already entered the Union as a Slave State. He had good reason to be confident of success since many of the Southerners conceded that Congress had full constitutional authority to legislate concerning slavery in a Territory, although they insisted that no such right existed in the case of a State. If Taylor could only maintain the Northern majority achieved by the restrictionists in the vote on Missouri, the task would be accomplished.
An admiring biographical article from 1920 gushed, "During the Missouri controversy [Taylor] had had no equal in boldness, persistency, or vigilance." (D. S. Alexander, "John W. Taylor" Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 1:2; Jan 1920)

Here I want to call particular attention to the fact that slavery had now become a partisan club in conventional politics. Freehling:

Southerners answered that jealous Rufus Kings and James Tallmadges sought the White House, not equality for whites. That cynicism both shrewdly diagnosed and partially ignored northern malaise. Yankees assuredly resented Virginians' power. But Northerners' sorest point was that the Slavepower's unequal ascendency defied the new egalitarian wisdom. If black slaves were allowed to spread, areas of white men's egalitarianism would further shrink: that was the political fire ignited in the North. [my emphasis]
Political motives on major issues are typically overdetermined. The fact that a moral issue became useful in partisan disputes doesn't mean that there is no moral issue involved. That antislavery politicians focused on the cost of slavery to free whites doesn't mean that their attacks on slavery were a matter of indifference to black slaves and their future. Freehling usefully calls attention to the partisan incentives for politicians on both sides of the slavery issue:

Of the 18 Yankees who either voted the South's way [on the Missouri Compromise] or (as helpfully) voted not at all, only one was a Federalist. The 17 northern Republicans who leaned southwards talked publicly of saving the Union. They also feared privately that a Rufus King triumph on Missouri might revitalize the Federalist Party. Their attitudes, partisan and nonpartisan, prefigured the opportunity the minority South would seize again and again to control the North-dominated House of Representatives in pre-Civil War crises. In the Missouri Controversy, as later, the minority South could secure no concessions on slavery from northern nationalists, Federalist or Whig. But appeals to Union and party could attract some saving Yankee states' righters, Jeffersonian or Jacksonian.

In the Missouri Controversy, as later, the South needed only a few Yankee allies because the Slavepower possessed extra House power. The three-fifths clause, the most important reason why the James Tallmadges fought the enslavement of Missouri, ultimately defeated the Tallmadge Amendments. In a House apportioned sheerly on white numbers, the South would have had 17 fewer members in 1820. The Slavepower needed almost all those 17 boosts in power to defeat Tallmadge by three votes. [my emphasis]

No comments: