Thursday, April 20, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 19: Missouri Compromise as a transition point in the pro- and antislavery narratives

Joshua Michael Zeitz in "The Missouri Compromise Reconsidered: Antislavery Rhetoric and the Emergence of the Free Labor Synthesis" Journal of the Early Republic 20:3 (Autumn, 2000) focuses on the Missouri Compromise as an historical marker of a shift in the rhetoric on both sides of the slavery issue:

In many ways, the Compromise of 1820 presents itself as a natural transition point between two very thematically and rhetorically divergent stages in the history of the antislavery movement. Arriving too late for the "Era of Good Feelings" but too early for the "Age of Jackson," the compromise found itself directly situated on the chronological divide between two distinct periods in American history-what historians normally term the "Early Republic" and "Antebellum America," respectively. Because the year 1820 and the Missouri Compromise fall awkwardly between temporal categories, they provide useful insights into the timing and nature of the critical transition between an antislavery language grounded in the culture of eighteenth-century republicanism to one founded on the principles of "free labor, free soil and free men."
Zeitz describes the emerging Free Labor narrative this way:

In the years following the War of 1812, increasingly divergent cultural patterns and disagreement over questions of political economy aroused a dormant sectionalism that had existed since the earliest days of confederation. This development in tum transformed the language and substance of the northern antislavery impulse. Grafted onto the familiar rhetoric of the revolutionary period - the easily identifiable "moral" strain of early abolitionism, as expressed in natural rights and religious terms - the new northern critique of southern society assumed moralistic undertones, even as it sterilized its opposition to human bondage. New focus was given to slavery's impact on the American nation as a whole. If the peculiar institution was objectionable in its violation of human rights, it was also invidious in its cultural consequences. Its victim was as much white America as the black slave. Using the Missouri Compromise debates as a historical lens, this interpretation is at once straightforward and paradoxical, as it portrays a political culture that was still surprisingly sympathetic to the natural and religious rights of black Americans, even as it incrementally placed them outside of its boundaries. [my emphasis]
What he describes here is a reminder that white antislavery advocates were acting from a variety of motives, without abandoning an outlook of white racial superiority. It was not only possible but very frequently the case that whites were antislavery without being anti-racist.

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