Saturday, April 22, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 22: Missouri Compromise and the "free labor" antislavery narrative

I've referred several times in this month's series of posts to an article by Joshua Michael Zeitz, "The Missouri Compromise Reconsidered: Antislavery Rhetoric and the Emergence of the Free Labor Synthesis" Journal of the Early Republic 20:3 (Autumn 2000) because it gives such a lucid account of the complexity of racial attitudes among whites in America prior to the Civil War. And particularly to the phenomenon described by historians like William Freehling that white opposition to slavery could be and was combined with hostility toward black people.

As Zeitz writes, "Throughout the North, emancipated slaves seemed to confirm the commonly held supposition that African Americans were more often than not a public nuisance and, on occasion, an outright threat. Much of this prejudice stemmed from the public's inability or unwillingness to distinguish between slaves and freemen." Zeitz refers to it as "this increasingly instinctive association in the white mind" between slavery and presence of black people.

Zeitz catalogues in his article a grimly impressive list of discriminatory measures taken by Northerners against free blacks living among them: restrictions; degrading and hostile attitudes; violence, even "ethnic cleansing" in some areas: bans on blacks entering a state.

He places this within the context of Northern opposition to slavery often being combined with hostility to black people, even outright hatred.

He cites a public meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1920 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, in which "leading Cincinnati citizens ... openly endorse[d] a doctrine of racial equality." And he describes the other side of Cincinnati racial attitudes:

Nine years later, Cincinnati mobs terrorized the city's black community with such ferocity that a large portion was persuaded to emigrate to Canada. Twelve years after that, the remaining African-American residents were so beleaguered by renewed violence that the men were disarmed and jailed for their own protection. While they waited helplessly behind bars, a white mob swept into black neighborhoods and turned on the women and children. As these episodes suggest, the history of race relations throughout the antebellum Midwest is generally one of recurrent violence.
There's no reason from Zeitz' account to assume that there was any overlap between individuals involved in the two incidents.

But it also illustrates how the real conflict between democracy and slavery kept playing itself out. They couldn't survive together in one country forever.

Zeitz' article also lets us know that what we today call "voter suppression" and related practices did not begin with white opposition to Reconstruction or to the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

New Jersey disenfranchised its black residents in 1807, Connecticut in 1814, Rhode Island in 1822, and Pennsylvania in 1837. In New York blacks were subject to a special property qualification that effectively excluded all but a scant few from the electoral process. According to Eugene Berwanger, African Americans in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana did not cast their first legal ballots until after the Civil War. By 1840 approximately ninety-three percent of northern free blacks were denied the right to vote. In addition, Leon Litwack has found that "[b]y the 1830s, statute or custom placed Negro children in separate schools in nearly every Northern community." When in 1835 abolitionists reacted in typical fashion to this unfortunate circumstance by establishing an interracial academy in Cannan, New Hampshire, the town responded by literally ripping the building from its foundation and placing it in the village common with the help of a large army of men and oxen.
At the time of the Missouri Compromise, Zeitz sees what is known as the "free labor" narrative as gaining predominance among antislavery advocates, or hegemony, if we prefer to use a fashionable academic term, over the previously dominant abstractly moral narrative:

As white America systematically denied blacks the trappings and status of citizenship - as it came to identify the interests and inclinations of African Americans as antithetical to those of the American nation-antislavery activists found it possible to reconcile their advocacy of emancipation with the dominant protoracist tendencies of the broader culture. It became convenient and even ideologically consistent to isolate slavery, and its past and present victims, as injurious to the new dynamism and liberal social order that defined the antebellum North. If denunciations of the institution's violation of natural and religious law could coexist with a pervasive prejudicial disposition, so too could northerners conceive of their opposition to slavery as benevolent and morally grounded even while they shifted the focus of that opposition to broader social concerns. Slavery and slaves and freed slaves were newly recognized as the cause of southern depravity and impoverishment. In tum, the debate over slavery assumed new dimensions. No longer was the question a "moral" one in the strictest sense of the word. Instead, it became a vital point of contention in a broader struggle for the security of America's economic future and public character.
Not that the moral argument completely went away. But it was undergoing a transformation. In the free labor narrative, the morality stressed became one more oriented to the moral imperative to protect white citizens against the baleful effects of the Peculiar Institution.

Ironically, this version of the antislavery narrative stressing more the self-interests of whites in opposing slavery became a way for defenders of slavery to frame antislavery arguments as cynical political concoctions by Federalists and Northern Republicans. Thus, Zeitz writes, "It is not difficult to understand why commentators and observers from Thomas Jefferson to twentieth-century historians interpreted the northern antislavery forces in 1820 as primarily political and only secondarily inspired by 'moral' concerns."

But he also emphasizes, "Although there can be no doubt that baser political motives lay at the heart of some portion of the 1820 antislavery impulse, to so reduce frequent references to 'slave representation' ignores the legitimate moral indignation felt by so many northerners. It was a resentment with various roots. For some the issue was one of fairness." And democratic convictions played a real role in 1820 and afterwards. "Slavery was an affront to the revolutionary era value system northerners still held dear."

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