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America’s Original Sin, Part Three: The Fire Eaters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison.

We see this every day in our media where outlandish and evil men build up followings and make others who hold their beliefs, without their character flaws look good by comparison. So here is tonight’s installment from one of my books dealing with the history of slavery, emancipation, and the return of Jim Crow and White Supremacy.

I admit that it is not a comfortable read and unfortunately it is also all too contemporary for comfort.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin 

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate around slavery, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. As I constantly note, human beings are the one constant in history. Two of these men, there are two that I think stand out from almost all other Southern supporters of slavery. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called one of the proponents of Confederate nationalism; and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett, who was so hard line in his beliefs that he could not work within any system that required compromise, even at the end of the war.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy, and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850, a compromise that actually did more to help Southern slaveholders than to harm them, which turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist.

When he decided on secession he did so with the zeal of a man on consumed by something almost akin to religious conversion:

he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Ruffin’s conversion was remarkable because as young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

But Ruffin was not a unlearned or unsuccessful man. He was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper, and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years, even before the Compromise Of 1850 hardened him into the most passionate advocate of secession. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was the type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. He knew that the only way slavery to survive was for the South to become a nation of its own, and that meant secession. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not disapprove of enslaving people of the same race, but he believed that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable. But Ruffin, a true believer in White Supremacy believed that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first shot.

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Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] Rhett was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification. Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] 

During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept the premise that the state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified.

After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways,  “The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] 

When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] 

Rhett was elected to the Confederate House Of Representative but However, following secession Rhett’s inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders. He grew increasingly isolated, and become one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865, with Sherman’s Union armies having overrun South Carolina and Grant’s at the gates of Richmond, Rhett remained defiant and uncompromising. He opposed any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the belated attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for survival of the Confederacy.

Rhett moves to Louisiana and left the Mercury to his son, he never reentered politics and died in 1876. Ruffin made a more spectacular exit. Two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia, Ruffin exited his earthly life.

When the war ended with the Confederacy defeated and the south in ruins, Ruffin still could not abide the result. In a carefully crafted suicide note he sent to his son the bitter and hate filled old man wrote on June 14th 1865:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule- to all political, social and business connections with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States! … And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my last breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule — to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.” [17]

There will be more to come.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slaveryhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the Southhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

[17] Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865). Diary entry, June 18, 1865. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Retrieved from http://blogs.loc.gov/civil-war-voices/about/edmund-ruffin/ 24 March 2014

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Enforcing White Privilege: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and “the Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race Part Three

thomas-sims-marched-into-slavery-nypl

Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act in Boston 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the third installment of a three part series  of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Robert Toombs of Georgia was an advocate for the expansion of slavery into the lands conquered during the war. Toombs warned his colleagues in Congress “in the presence of the living God, that if you by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people…thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.”  [1]

The tensions in the aftermath of the war with Mexico escalated over the issue of slavery in the newly conquered territories brought heated calls by some southerners for secession and disunion. To preserve the Union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, supported by the new President Millard Fillmore were able to pass the compromise of 1850 solved a number of issues related to the admission of California to the Union and boundary disputes involving Texas and the new territories.  But among the bills that were contained in it was the Fugitive Slave Law, or The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act was the device of Henry Clay which was meant to sweeten the deal for southerners. The law would “give slaveholders broader powers to stop the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states, and offered a final resolution denying that Congress had any authority to regulate the interstate slave trade.” [2]

fugitive-slave-law

A Warning to Blacks in Boston regarding the Fugitive Slave Law

For all practical purposes the Compromise of 1850 and its associated legislation nationalized the institution of slavery, even in Free States. It did this by forcing all citizens to assist law enforcement in apprehending fugitive slaves. It also voided state laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which barred state officials from aiding in the capture, arrest or imprisonment of fugitive slaves. “Congress’s law had nationalized slavery. No black person was safe on American soil. The old division of free state/slave state had vanished….” [3] If there was any question as to whose “States Rights” the leaders of the South were advocating, it was certainly not those of the states whose laws were voided by the act.

That law required all Federal law enforcement officials, even in non-slave states to arrest fugitive slaves and anyone who assisted them, and threatened law enforcement officials with punishment if they failed to enforce the law. The law stipulated that should “any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars.” [4] In effect the law nullified state laws and forced individual citizens and local officials to help escaped slaves regardless of their own convictions, religious views, and state and local laws to the contrary.

Likewise the act compelled citizens in Free states to “aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required….” [5] Penalties were harsh and financial incentives for compliance attractive.

“Anyone caught providing food and shelter to an escaped slave, assuming northern whites could discern who was a runaway, would be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. The law also suspended habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury for captured blacks. Judges received a hundred dollars for every slave returned to his or her owner, providing a monetary incentive for jurists to rule in favor of slave catchers.” [6]

The law gave no protection for even black freedmen, who simply because of their race were often seized and returned to slavery. The legislation created a new extra-judicial bureaucratic office to decide the fate of blacks. This was the office of Federal Commissioner and it was purposely designed to favorably adjudicate the claims of slaveholders and their agents, and to avoid the normal Federal Court system. There was good reason for the slave power faction to place this in the law, many Federal courts located in Free States often denied the claims of slave holders, and that could not be permitted if slavery was to not only remain, but to grow with the westward expansion of the nation.

When slave owners or their agents went before these new appointed commissioners, they needed little in the way of proof to take a black back into captivity. The only proof or evidence other than the sworn statement by of the owner with an “affidavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses” [7] that a black was or had been his property was required to return any black to slavery. The affidavit was the only evidence required, even if it was false.

runaway

Since blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied legal representation before these commissioners, the act created an onerous extrajudicial process that defied imagination. Likewise, the commissioners had a strong a financial incentive to send blacks back to slavery, unlike normal courts the commissioners received a direct financial reward for returning blacks to slave owners. “If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor ten. This provision, supposedly justified by the paper work needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners.” [8] It was a system rigged to ensure that African Americans had no chance, and it imposed on the citizens of Free states the legal obligation to participate in a system that many wanted nothing to do with.

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Frederick Douglass 

Frederick Douglass wrote about the new law in the most forceful terms:

“By an act of the American Congress…slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated;…and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States.” [9]

Douglass was correct as was demonstrated during an incident in Boston in 1854 where an escaped slave named Anthony Burns, who had purchased his freedom, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. The arrest prompted a protest in which, “an urban mob – variously composed of free Negro laborers, radical Unitarian ministers, and others – gathered to free him. They stormed the Federal courthouse, which was surrounded by police and wrapped in protective chains….Amid the melee, one protestor shot and killed a police deputy.” [10] The heated opposition to Burns’ arrest provoked the passions of thousands of Bostonians who protested for his release that caused the Massachusetts governor to deploy two batteries of artillery outside the courthouse to deter any more attacks. When the Federal Fugitive Slave Law commissioner consigned Burns to his Southern owner, the prisoner was placed in shackles and was marched down State Street. Tensions were now running extremely high and a “brigade of Massachusetts militia and local police were required to run Burns through a gauntlet and deposit him on the ship that would remand him to Virginia.” [11]Bostonians began to see their city as it was in the early days of the American Revolution, as a place that resisted tyranny. Neither did they did not forget Burns but raised the money to purchase his freedom. William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “the “deed of infamy… demonstrated as nothing else that “only “the military power of the United States” could sustain slavery.” [12] Nevertheless, Boston’s “mercantile elite had vindicated law and order” [13] but in the process they helped move so abolitionists who had been advocates of pacifism and non-violence to physical resistance to the bounty hunting Southerners. “Across the North, prisons were broken into, posses were disrupted, and juries refused to convict.” [14]

Violence between slave hunters and their protectors did break out in September 1851 when “a Maryland slave owner named Edward Gorsuch crossed into Pennsylvania in pursuit of four runaways.” [15] Gorsuch and his armed posse found them in the Quaker town of Christiana, where they were being sheltered by a free black named William Parker and along with about two dozen other black men armed with a collection of farm implements and a few muskets who vowed to resist capture. Several unarmed Quakers intervened and recommended that Gorsuch and his posse leave for their own sake, but Gorsuch told them “I will have my property, or go to hell.” [16] A fight then broke out in which Gorsuch was killed and his son seriously wounded, and the fugitives escaped through the Underground Railroad to Canada.

The Christiana Riot as it is called now became a national story. In the North it was celebrated as an act of resistance while it was decried with threats of secession in the South. President Millard Fillmore sent in troops and arrested a number of Quakers as well as more than thirty black men. “The trial turned into a test between two cultures: Southern versus Northern, slave versus free.”  [17] The men were charged with treason but the trial became a farce as the government’s case came apart. After a deliberation of just fifteen minutes, “the jury acquitted the first defendant, one of the Quakers, the government dropped the remaining indictments and decided not to press other charges.” [18] Southerners were outraged, and one young man whose name is forever linked with infamy never forgot. A teenager named John Wilkes Booth was a childhood friend of Gorsuch’s son Tommy. “The death of Tommy Gorsuch’s father touched the young Booth personally. While he would move on with his life, he would not forget what happened in Christiana.” [19]

The authors of the compromise had not expected such resistance to the laws. On his deathbed Henry Clay, who had worked his entire career to pass compromises in order to preserve the Union, praised the act, of which he wrote “The new fugitive slave law, I believe, kept the South in the Union in ‘fifty and ‘fifty-one. Not only does it deny fugitives trial by jury and the right to testify; it also imposes a fine and imprisonment upon any citizen found guilty of preventing a fugitive’s arrest…” Likewise Clay depreciated the Northern opposition and condemned the attempt to free Anthony Burns, noting:

“Yes, since the passage of the compromise, the abolitionists and free coloreds of the North have howled in protest and viciously assailed me, and twice in Boston there has been a failure to execute the law, which shocks and astounds me…. But such people belong to the lunatic fringe. The vast majority of Americans, North and South, support our handiwork, the great compromise that pulled the nation back from the brink.” [20] 

While the compromise had “averted a showdown over who would control the new western territories,” [21] it only delayed disunion. In arguing against the compromise South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun realized that for Southerners it did not do enough to support the peculiar institution and that it would inspire Northern abolitionists to redouble their efforts to abolish slavery. Thus, Calhoun argued not just for the measures secured in the compromise legislation, but for the permanent protection of slavery:

“He understood that slavery stood at the heart of southern society, and that without a mechanism to protect it for all time, the Union’s days were numbered.” Almost prophetically he said “I fix its probable [breakup] within twelve years or three presidential terms…. The probability is it will explode in a presidential election.”  [22]

Of course it was Calhoun and not the authors of the compromise who was proved correct. The leap into the abyss of disunion and civil war had only been temporarily avoided. However, none of the supporters of the Compromise anticipated what would occur in just six years when a “train of unexpected consequences would throw an entirely new light on the popular sovereignty doctrine, and both it and the Compromise of 1850 would be wrecked with the stroke of a single judicial pen.” [23]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.62-63

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.68

[3] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.71

[4] ______________Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 retrieved from the Avalon Project, Yale School of Law http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp 11 December 2014

[5] Ibid. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom  p.80

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.72

[10] Goodheart, Adam 1861: The Civil War Awakening Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York 2011 p.42

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.241

[12] Mayer, Henry All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1998 p.442

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[17] Steers, Edward Jr. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington 2001 p.33

[18] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.85

[19] Ibid. Steers  Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincolnp.33

[20] Oates, Stephen B. Editor The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.94

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

[22] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.64

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

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Legislating White Privilege: the Compromise of 1850 and “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race” Part Two

slave-sale

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the second of a multi-part installment of a section of my book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era which deals with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Economic Effects of the Compromise of 1850

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,”[1] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [2] The result was that slave owners and those who benefited from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation.  It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [3]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [4] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [5]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [6] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election of 1860. Helper wrote that:

“Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.”  [7]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [8] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.”[9]

Men like Helper were an anomaly in the South, other leaders were much more like Jefferson Davis who urged the creation of a “Southern “system,” internal improvements, building factories, even reforming education to eliminate all textbooks at odds with his notion of the blessings of slavery.” [10]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through  its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [11] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote these words of warning:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [12]

The trigger for the increase in tensions that eventually ignited the powder keg was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [13]

To be continued…

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.10

[2] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.54

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[5] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[6] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame  p.177

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[10] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.258

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[12] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/159.html  24 March 2014

[13] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245

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“The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race” The Racist Justification of American Slavery: Part One

negroes_and_negro_-slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am tired after working on installing new flooring in my house today and I am too tired to write about any of the fiascos associated with the Trump tantrums against NATO, the UK, and his insults against allies and despicable behavior toward Queen Elizabeth II. The man’s crude, uncivil, impolite, and insulting behavior is beneath his office and harmful to the United States and our allies. The only beneficiary is Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

So today I’m posting another section my book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era”  dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. I will do so again the next two days as I will be continuing to work doing flooring and painting in the house.

These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States as many of the same attitudes and justifications are being used in order to justify discrimination and even violence against immigrants and citizens of darker skin colors. As Mark Twain noted, “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Background 

The ante-bellum South was an agrarian society that depended on the free labor provided by slaves. In a socio-political sense the South was an oligarchy that offered no freedom to slaves, openly discriminated against free blacks and provided little hope of social or economic advancement for poor and middle class whites.  However, despite this, even poor whites supported it.  Many Southern Yeoman farmers were willing to tolerate their second class status because they: “feared the fall from independent producer to dependent proletarian, a status he equated with enslavement” [1] more than remaining subservient to planters and plantation owners. In fact, for them slavery was the one institution that kept them above the despised black.

In 1861, Dr. J.H. Van Evrie, promoted the scientific racist of ichthyologist Louis Agassiz in a pamphlet entitled “Negroes and Negro Slavery;” The First an Inferior Race – The Latter, Its Normal Condition” expressed how most Southerners felt about African Americans be they slave or free, and Jefferson Davis hoped that Van Evrie’s arguments would persuade people to adopt the view that racial equality was a fallacy which could not be tolerated, Van Evrie wrote:

“He is not a black white man, or merely a man with a black skin, but a DIFFERENT AND INFERIOR SPECIES OF MAN; – that this difference is radical and total… that so called slavery is neither a “wrong” nor an “evil, but a natural relation based upon the “higher law,” in harmony with the order, progress, and general well-being of the superior one, and absolutely in keeping with the existence of the inferior race.”  [2]

While all Northern states had abolished slavery, or were in the process of gradual abolition in the after independence and the Civil War and had moved to an economic concept of free labor, the South had tied its economy and society to the institution of slavery. The contrast was well said by the members of an Alabama agricultural society, which noted in 1846:

“Our condition is quite different from that of the non-slaveholding section of the United States. With them their only property consists of lands, cattle and planting implements. Their laborers are merely hirelings, while with us our laborers are our property.” [3]

Van Evrie was not the only person making such distinction between the races. Dr. Samuel Cartwright wove the pseudo-science of the day into the narrative of the Bible, noting:

“I have thus hastily and imperfectly noticed some of the more striking anatomical and physiological peculiarities of the Negro race. The question may be asked, Does he belong to the same race as the white man? Is he a son of Adam? Does his particular physical confirmation stand in opposition to the Bible, or does it prove its truth?… Anatomy and physiology have been interrogated, and the response is, that the Ethiopian, or Canaanite, is unfitted for the duties of a free man….” [4]

He also noted:

“The Declaration of Independence, which was drawn up at a time when negroes were scarcely regarded as human beings, “That all men are by nature free and equal,” was only intended to apply to white men…” [5]

Northerners on the other hand, even in states where the last vestiges of slavery held on, nearly universally ascribed to the understanding that there was a dignity to labor and that free labor was essential if people were to have a better life. It undergirded their understanding of human dignity and that “labor was the source of all value.” [6]

That understanding of the intrinsic value of free labor continued to gain ground in the North in the decades preceding the Civil War and found much of its support in the Calvinist theology that predominated in most Protestant Northern denominations. Labor was intrinsic to one’s calling as a Christian and a human being, slave labor, at least in the eyes of many Northerners undercut that idea. Success in one’s calling glorified God and provided earthly evidence that a person was among the elect. For many Northern Christians, “the pursuit of wealth thus became a way of serving God on earth, and labor, which had been imposed on fallen man as a curse, was transmuted into a religious value, a Christian calling.” [7]  Such ideas found their way into Republican political thought even when not directly related to religion.  William Evarts said in 1856 “Labor gentlemen, we of the free States acknowledge to be the source of all of our wealth, of all our progress, of all our dignity and value.” [8] Abraham Lincoln noted that “the free labor system…opens the way for all, and energy and progress, and improvement in condition for all,” [9] and Lincoln also noted something inherent in the economic theory of Adam Smith that Labor is prior to, and independent of capital…in fact, capital is the fruit of labor.” [10]

However, the South by the 1830s had completely wedded itself to slavery and southern advocates of slavery deplored the free-labor movement as wage slavery and extolled the virtue of slavery. James H. Hammond condemned the free-labor movement in his King Cotton speech to the Senate in 1858:

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life…. It constitutes the very mudsill of society….Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other that leads to progress, civilization and refinement….Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives,’ as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated…yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated.” [11]

Even so, the fact that the slave barons “were forced at every election to solicit the votes of “ignorant, slovenly, white trash in the country” with “frequent treats that disgrace our elections,” [12] rankled and humiliated many members of the Southern aristocracy. It was a marriage of two disparate parties linked by their membership in a superior race, something that only the continued existence of slavery ensured.

Lincoln extolled the virtues of free-labor, noting his own experiences after his election: “I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat boat – just what might happen to any poor man’s son.”  [13] Other Northerners lauded free-labor as the basis of upward mobility, and the New York Times noted that “Our paupers to-day, thanks to free labor, are our yeomen and merchants of tomorrow.” [14]

slave-coffle2

Slave Coffle

But whites in the South held labor in contempt due to the system of slavery, and the divergent views of each side were noted by Thomas Ewing who noted that labor “is held honorable by all on one side of the line because it is the vocation of freedmen – degrading in the eyes of some on the other side because it is the task of slaves.” [15] Of course with labor being the task of African slaves for southerners, the issue was entwined with race, and “Even if slavery was wrong, its wrongs were cancelled out for nonslaveholders by the more monstrous specter of racial equity.”  [16]

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown emphasized the threat to whites in that blacks would be their social equals and competitors should slavery end. The racial component assured poor southern whites that they were superior to blacks and an Alabama lawyer wrote “The privilege of belonging to the superior race and being free was a bond that tied all Southern whites together… and it seemed from a Southern stand-point, to have for its purpose the leveling of all distinctions between the white man and the slave hard by.” [17] But poor white workers who remained in the South “repeatedly complained about having to compete with slaves as well as poorly paid free blacks” [18] leading many to seek a new livelihood in either Free States or the new territories.

For Southern politicians and slaveholders, the expansion of slavery was essential to its continued maintenance in the states where it was already legal. “Because of the need to maintain a balance in the Senate, check unruly slaves, and cultivate fertile soils, many planters and small plantation owners- particularly those living in the southern districts of the cotton states- asserted that their survival depended on new territory.” [19] In those decades “a huge involuntary migration took place. Between 800,000 and 1 million slaves were moved westward….” [20]

The need for slaves caused prices to soar, largely due to the ban on the import of slaves from Africa. This made the interregional trade much more important and linked the upper and lower south as well as the new slave-holding territories into “a regionwide slave market that tied together all of the various slaveowning interests into a common economic concern.” [21] In some older states like Virginia where fewer slaves were required, the exportation of slaves became a major industry:

“male slaves were marched in coffles of forty or fifty, handcuffed to each other in pairs, with a long chain through the handcuffs passing down the column to keep it together, closely guarded by mounted slave traders followed by an equal number of female slaves and their children. Most of them were taken to Wheeling, Virginia, the “busiest slave port” in the United States, and from there they were transported by steamboat to New Orleans, Natchez, and Memphis.”[22]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With Sword p.50

[2] Van Evrie, J.H. “Negroes and Negro Slavery;” The First an Inferior Race – The Latter, Its Normal Condition 1861 in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate ReaderThe Great Truth about the Lost Cause, Loewen, James W. And Sebesta, Edward H. Editors, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2010 p.75

[3] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.19

[4] Cartwright, Samuel A. Diseases and Peculiarities of the negro Race, 1851 in Loewen, James W and Sebesta, Edward H. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate reader: The Great Truth about the Lost Cause University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 p.66

[5] Ibid. Cartwright Diseases and Peculiarities of the negro Race, 1851 p.70

[6] Foner, Eric Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1970 and 1995 p.7

[7] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men pp.12-13

[8] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.12

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era p.28

[10] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.12

[11] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.196

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.38

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.28

[14] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.16

[15] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.16

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.38

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.39

[18] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.44

[19] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes pp.125-126

[20] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.203

[21] Deyle, Steven The Domestic Slave Trade in Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.53

[22] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee  p.203

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The Ring-Bolt to the Chain of Our Nation’s Destiny: The Declaration of Independence at 242 Years

The Thirty Three Star Fort Sumter Flag

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is July 4th and the 241st anniversary of the declaration by the leaders of 13 colonies of their independence from Britain and the founding on a new nation. It was a nation founded on a principle of the Enlightenment, the principle that all men are created equal, and as their Declaration of Independence noted that as such are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Seventy-six years later the darkness of 1852 not long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850 which included an enhanced Fugitive Slave Act, it would be Frederick Douglass, the foremost Black abolitionist leader and himself an escaped slave would speak. The laws dictated that Northerners had to cooperate in the recapture and re-enslavement of blacks residing in their own states, regardless of their own state and local laws. While the Southern majority that crafted these laws always played the part of the aggrieved minority whose “states rights” were being threatened. But the reverse was true, with their majorities in the House and Senate which also included some Northern Congressmen and Senators, an always compliant White House, and a majority on the Supreme Court the Southerners used the threat of secession and civil war to enforce their mandates on the Free States.

On July 5th 1852 Douglass spoke these words these words to people who at the time were refused citizenship and who were enslaved:

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

Douglass understood this far better than many Americans in the South or the North. It would take a great and bloody war for most Americans to realize just how important the Declaration was to the destiny of the nation.  It would take far longer for the principle of an ever expanding understanding of liberty that included Blacks who were considered in law and statute as less than fully human.

One of the most notable of the apologists for White Supremacy was George Fitzhugh, a major Southern slaveholder and apologist for not only slavery but the inequality of poor whites and women. Fitzhugh spoke for many when he wrote against the principles of the Declaration:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.

Fitzhugh also wrote:

“We conclude that about nineteen out of twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands or masters; in other words they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are clearly born or educated in some way fitted for command and liberty.

A greater contrast of views regarding the Declaration is hard to be found. Abraham Lincoln would say about the contrasting views of liberty at a speech in Baltimore on April 18th 1864:

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names–liberty and tyranny.” 

Unfortunately these starkly contrasting views of liberty are still on display today. The President called Mexican and Central American refugees an “infestation” using a word that would to describe rats, insects or other disease carrying species. Members of his administration, Republican Congressmen and State Representatives, and members of various “conservative” media outlets, including their allies in the Alt-Right use the same language as Fitzhugh to declare for the superiority of the White race, to dehumanize Blacks, Mexicans, Arabs, and various dark skinned Asians and argue that darker skinned people are less than human and not entitled to liberty, equality and justice. A constant barrage of what quite literally amounts to state sponsored propaganda demonizes minorities, women, gays, the media, long term allies and alliances, and any potential political opponent.

Our Republic, its institutions and our freedom hinge on what Douglass called “the rig-bolt to the chains of our nation’s destiny,” and its principles “saving principles.” We must be dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” or submit to tyranny.

The proposition in the Declaration that all men are created equal is essential to understanding or appreciating liberty. If we view others as below us, as even less than human then we cannot say that we believe in liberty. If we decide to limit the right of citizens to speak out because of their color, their national origin, their race, their religion, their gender, or sexual identity then we are not for liberty, we are no better than George Fitzhugh or others, even the Nazis, who enslaved, imprisoned, and exterminated others in the name of their power, and their right.

If our concept of liberty is so limited by our ideology that we cannot accept others having it or being equal to us then we stand against the very proposition that the United States was founded and we should bury the American experiment and stop lying about a proposition that we no longer believe in. The eminent American jurist wrote these words, which for me are like the Declaration, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech are secular scripture that are sacred to my understanding of being an American, and something that I will never yield. Judge Hand said:

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”

With that my friends I wish you a happy Independence Day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a few days we as Americans will be celebrating the 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the day approaches I’ll be writing more reflections on what it means even as I intersperse some articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, a victory that helped ensure that the Union would survive and that helped to pave the way for the understanding that the Declaration must be understood in its universal sense. In a day like ours where many localities, states, and even the Federal government appear to be working to limit those rights, often based on the religious beliefs of a powerful, well-funded and militant minority of conservative Christians, this all the more important.

For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others.

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interment native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion.

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and the demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well.

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at their candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party.

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Sieg Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important.

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American.

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us.

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 3

thomas-sims-marched-into-slavery-nypl

Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law in Boston 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the third installment of a three part series  of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Robert Toombs of Georgia was an advocate for the expansion of slavery into the lands conquered during the war. Toombs warned his colleagues in Congress “in the presence of the living God, that if you by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people…thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.”  [1]

The tensions in the aftermath of the war with Mexico escalated over the issue of slavery in the newly conquered territories brought heated calls by some southerners for secession and disunion. To preserve the Union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, supported by the new President Millard Fillmore were able to pass the compromise of 1850 solved a number of issues related to the admission of California to the Union and boundary disputes involving Texas and the new territories.  But among the bills that were contained in it was the Fugitive Slave Law, or The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act was the device of Henry Clay which was meant to sweeten the deal for southerners. The law would “give slaveholders broader powers to stop the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states, and offered a final resolution denying that Congress had any authority to regulate the interstate slave trade.” [2]

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A Warning to Blacks in Boston regarding the Fugitive Slave Law

For all practical purposes the Compromise of 1850 and its associated legislation nationalized the institution of slavery, even in Free States. It did this by forcing all citizens to assist law enforcement in apprehending fugitive slaves. It also voided state laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which barred state officials from aiding in the capture, arrest or imprisonment of fugitive slaves. “Congress’s law had nationalized slavery. No black person was safe on American soil. The old division of free state/slave state had vanished….” [3] If there was any question as to whose “States Rights” the leaders of the South were advocating, it was certainly not those of the states whose laws were voided by the act.

That law required all Federal law enforcement officials, even in non-slave states to arrest fugitive slaves and anyone who assisted them, and threatened law enforcement officials with punishment if they failed to enforce the law. The law stipulated that should “any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars.” [4] In effect the law nullified state laws and forced individual citizens and local officials to help escaped slaves regardless of their own convictions, religious views, and state and local laws to the contrary.

Likewise the act compelled citizens in Free states to “aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required….” [5] Penalties were harsh and financial incentives for compliance attractive.

“Anyone caught providing food and shelter to an escaped slave, assuming northern whites could discern who was a runaway, would be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. The law also suspended habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury for captured blacks. Judges received a hundred dollars for every slave returned to his or her owner, providing a monetary incentive for jurists to rule in favor of slave catchers.” [6]

The law gave no protection for even black freedmen, who simply because of their race were often seized and returned to slavery. The legislation created a new extra-judicial bureaucratic office to decide the fate of blacks. This was the office of Federal Commissioner and it was purposely designed to favorably adjudicate the claims of slaveholders and their agents, and to avoid the normal Federal Court system. There was good reason for the slave power faction to place this in the law, many Federal courts located in Free States often denied the claims of slave holders, and that could not be permitted if slavery was to not only remain, but to grow with the westward expansion of the nation.

When slave owners or their agents went before these new appointed commissioners, they needed little in the way of proof to take a black back into captivity. The only proof or evidence other than the sworn statement by of the owner with an “affidavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses” [7] that a black was or had been his property was required to return any black to slavery. The affidavit was the only evidence required, even if it was false.

runaway

Since blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied legal representation before these commissioners, the act created an onerous extrajudicial process that defied imagination. Likewise, the commissioners had a strong a financial incentive to send blacks back to slavery, unlike normal courts the commissioners received a direct financial reward for returning blacks to slave owners. “If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor ten. This provision, supposedly justified by the paper work needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners.” [8] It was a system rigged to ensure that African Americans had no chance, and it imposed on the citizens of Free states the legal obligation to participate in a system that many wanted nothing to do with.

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Frederick Douglass 

Frederick Douglass wrote about the new law in the most forceful terms:

“By an act of the American Congress…slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated;…and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States.” [9]

Douglass was correct as was demonstrated during an incident in Boston in 1854 where an escaped slave named Anthony Burns, who had purchased his freedom, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. The arrest prompted a protest in which, “an urban mob – variously composed of free Negro laborers, radical Unitarian ministers, and others – gathered to free him. They stormed the Federal courthouse, which was surrounded by police and wrapped in protective chains….Amid the melee, one protestor shot and killed a police deputy.” [10] The heated opposition to Burns’ arrest provoked the passions of thousands of Bostonians who protested for his release that caused the Massachusetts governor to deploy two batteries of artillery outside the courthouse to deter any more attacks. When the Federal Fugitive Slave Law commissioner consigned Burns to his Southern owner, the prisoner placed in shackles and was marched down State Street. Tensions were now running extremely high and a “brigade of Massachusetts militia and local police were required to run Burns through a gauntlet and deposit him on the ship that would remand him to Virginia.” [11] Bostonians began to see their city as it was in the early days of the American Revolution, as a place that resisted tyranny. Neither did they did not forget Burns but raised the money to purchase his freedom. William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “the “deed of infamy… demonstrated as nothing else that “only “the military power of the United States” could sustain slavery.” [12] Nevertheless, Boston’s “mercantile elite had vindicated law and order” [13] but in the process they helped move so abolitionists who had been advocates of pacifism and non-violence to physical resistance to the bounty hunting Southerners. “Across the North, prisons were broken into, posses were disrupted, and juries refused to convict.” [14]

Violence between slave hunters and their protectors did break out in September 1851 when “a Maryland slave owner named Edward Gorsuch crossed into Pennsylvania in pursuit of four runaways.” [15] Gorsuch and his armed posse found them in the Quaker town of Christiana, where they were being sheltered by a free black named William Parker and along with about two dozen other black men armed with a collection of farm implements and a few muskets who vowed to resist capture. Several unarmed Quakers intervened and recommended that Gorsuch and his posse leave for their own sake, but Gorsuch told them “I will have my property, or go to hell.” [16] A fight then broke out in which Gorsuch was killed and his son seriously wounded, and the fugitives escaped through the Underground Railroad to Canada.

The Christiana Riot as it is called now became a national story. In the North it was celebrated as an act of resistance while it was decried with threats of secession in the South. President Millard Fillmore sent in troops and arrested a number of Quakers as well as more than thirty black men. “The trial turned into a test between two cultures: Southern versus Northern, slave versus free.”  [17] The men were charged with treason but the trial became a farce as the government’s case came apart. After a deliberation of just fifteen minutes, “the jury acquitted the first defendant, one of the Quakers, the government dropped the remaining indictments and decided not to press other charges.” [18] Southerners were outraged, and one young man whose name is forever linked with infamy never forgot. A teenager named John Wilkes Booth was a childhood friend of Gorsuch’s son Tommy. “The death of Tommy Gorsuch’s father touched the young Booth personally. While he would move on with his life, he would not forget what happened in Christiana.” [19]

The authors of the compromise had not expected such resistance to the laws. On his deathbed Henry Clay, who had worked his entire career to pass compromises in order to preserve the Union, praised the act, of which he wrote “The new fugitive slave law, I believe, kept the South in the Union in ‘fifty and ‘fifty-one. Not only does it deny fugitives trial by jury and the right to testify; it also imposes a fine and imprisonment upon any citizen found guilty of preventing a fugitive’s arrest…” Likewise Clay depreciated the Northern opposition and condemned the attempt to free Anthony Burns, noting “Yes, since the passage of the compromise, the abolitionists and free coloreds of the North have howled in protest and viciously assailed me, and twice in Boston there has been a failure to execute the law, which shocks and astounds me…. But such people belong to the lunatic fringe. The vast majority of Americans, North and South, support our handiwork, the great compromise that pulled the nation back from the brink.” [20] 

While the compromise had “averted a showdown over who would control the new western territories,” [21] it only delayed disunion. In arguing against the compromise South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun realized that for Southerners it did not do enough to support the peculiar institution and that it would inspire Northern abolitionists to redouble their efforts to abolish slavery. Thus, Calhoun argued not just for the measures secured in the compromise legislation, but for the permanent protection of slavery:

“He understood that slavery stood at the heart of southern society, and that without a mechanism to protect it for all time, the Union’s days were numbered.” Almost prophetically he said “I fix its probable [breakup] within twelve years or three presidential terms…. The probability is it will explode in a presidential election.”  [22]

Of course it was Calhoun and not the authors of the compromise who proved correct. The leap into the abyss of disunion and civil war had only been temporarily avoided. However, none of the supporters anticipated what would occur in just six years when a “train of unexpected consequences would throw an entirely new light on the popular sovereignty doctrine, and both it and the Compromise of 1850 would be wreaked with the stroke of a single judicial pen.” [23]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.62-63

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.68

[3] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.71

[4] ______________Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 retrieved from the Avalon Project, Yale School of Law http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp 11 December 2014

[5] Ibid. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom  p.80

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.72

[10] Goodheart, Adam 1861: The Civil War Awakening Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York 2011 p.42

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.241

[12] Mayer, Henry All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1998 p.442

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[17] Steers, Edward Jr. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington 2001 p.33

[18] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.85

[19] Ibid. Steers  Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln p.33

[20] Oates, Stephen B. Editor The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.94

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

[22] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.64

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

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