History Textbook Exercise

 

Abolition

 

 

From: Mussey, David S. The American Adventure. 2 vols. New York, 1980.

 

    The full importance of the Missouri Compromise appears only in the light of the history of the generation following. For the moment it seemed to have settled the controversy over slavery and thwarted the formation of new political parties on that issue. Regarded as a cowardly surrender of principles by zealots on both sides of Mason and Dixon's line, like Tallmadge and Randolph, the Compromise stimulated abolitionist sentiment in the North and fortified the doctrine of states' rights in the South. It revived the agitation over the ethics of slaveholding, which had been rather in abeyance since the debates of the Constitutional Convention and thoroughly quieted with the passage of the law forbidding the slave trade. It revealed with startling dearness to the North, where slavery was rapidly nearing extinction, how firmly the economic consequences of the invention of the cotton gin (enormously accelerated production, clamor for new lands, trebling of the price of sound Negroes) had fixed the institution on the South. It connected the question of the restriction or extension of slavery with westward expansion

Before the Whigs had the opportunity to contest the supremacy of the Jacksonian Democracy in a national election, other important issues arose to vex the administration. Chief of these was the abolitionist agitation. 

    William Lloyd Garrison had begun the publication of his Liberator at New Year's, 1831.  In 1832 the New England Antislavery Society was formed, widening the next year into the American Antislavery Society.  Moderate men in the North joined with the South in the effort to keep the dangerous subject of slavery out of national politics.  They remembered the stormy debates of the Missouri Com­ promise: the angry defiance of the Kings and the Tallmadge’s, the threats of secession and civil war from the Cobbs and the Pinkneys. But the specter rose like Banquo's ghost and would not down. Occasional petitions for the abolition of slavery in the national District of Columbia had been sent to Congress by Quakers and abolitionists, but they had been referred to the little committee on the District and allowed to slumber. With the opening of the session of 1835, however, in which the new Whig congressmen were first represented, some of the Northern members began to debate the question. Slade of Vermont moved that an abolitionist petition be printed, and when the Southerners vehemently protested and called on Congress to disclaim the power of interfering with slavery in the District, Slade took up the challenge and delivered a fiery speech which revived the passions of 1820. He insisted that Congress had full power over slavery in the national territory, and proceeded further to "declare relentless war" against the institution. Southern members, like Hammond, Jones, and Wise, interposed anxious remonstrance’s, and Calhoun in the Senate called the petitions "a foul slander on nearly one half the states of the Union." The mischief was afoot.

    Meanwhile the activity of the abolitionist societies was provoking hostile reaction all through the South. The new American society collected $30,000 for propaganda, flooding the states below Mason and Dixon's line with magazines, pamphlets, and tracts," Human Rights," The Anti-slavery Record, The Emancipator, "The Slave's Friend, " and the like. On a midsummer night of 1835 citizens of Charleston broke into the post office, seized bundles of the offensive papers, and burned them on the Parade Ground amid the plaudits of a large and excited crowd. The postmaster at Charleston wrote to the postmaster at New York, whence the abolitionist material had come, begging him not to allow any more such documents to be forwarded to South Carolina; and the postmaster at New York reported the matter to the newly appointed Postmaster-General, Amos Kendall. Kendalls reply was equivocal: He could not exclude the abolitionist material from the mails, but he approved his subordinate's refusal to deliver it. "We owe an obligation to the laws," he wrote to the postmaster at Charleston, "but a higher one to the community in which we live."  When Jackson upheld this extraordinary conduct in his cabinet officer, he incurred the condemnation of thousands in the North who had little sympathy with abolition. If the interests of slavery demanded the infraction of the law, they argued, it was time that those interests be curbed.

The agitation over the petitions to Congress tended to the same result. So long as the petitions were received and referred to the proper committee they were left to oblivion. But when the Speaker of the House, James K. Polk, of Tennessee, yielding to the general indignation of the Southern members, ruled that the constitutional right of petition did not oblige the House to receive a petition, he made the grave mistake of transferring the question from the merits of abolition to the constitutional rights of American citizens. John Quincy Adams, who had shown no leanings toward the abolitionist cause, now took up the fight in behalf of the right of petition. A battle royal was waged on the floor of Congress during the spring months of 1836, resulting in the adoption of a set of resolutions introduced by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, to the effect that Congress could not interfere with slavery in the states and should not interfere with it in the District of Columbia; that it was "important and desirable that the agitation on this subject be finally arrested"; and that "all petitions, memorials, propositions, or papers relating in any way to the subject of slavery . . . shall, without being printed or referred, be laid on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon. " When the roll was called on this last resolution (the " Gag rule"), John Quincy Adams answered, " I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents. " From that moment the ablest statesman of the House of Representatives fought the battle of the abolitionists.

Professor Burgess, in his "Middle Period" of American history (P. 274), declares that "it would not be extravagant to say that the whole course of the internal history of the United States from 1836 to 1861 was determined more largely by the struggle in Congress over the abolitionist petitions and the use of the mails for the distribution of abolitionist literature than by anything else." That struggle welded the abolitionists into a political party, whose influence increased steadily in the national elections from 1840 on, and whose principles, in modified form, triumphed in the election of Abraham Lincoln twenty years later. It convinced the South that the abolitionists were bent on carrying the war against slavery into the states below the Mason and Dixon's line, and led those states to guard their society against possible black insurrections by passing severe laws against the assembling of Negroes, their carrying of arms, their learning to read and write, or their having in their possession any abolitionist literature. It convinced the Southern leaders of the prime necessity of preserving their power in Congress by keeping the number of slave states at least equal to the number of free commonwealths; whence their desire for the annexation of new lands suitable for the extension of slave labor (Texas and Cuba) and their insistence that the great trans-Mississippi territory be kept free from antislavery restrictions. Finally, the attack of the abolitionists on slavery as a moral evil developed pari passu a defense of the institution as a useful social arrangement and a positive material and moral blessing for the Negro. All the scruples of a Jefferson, a Randolph, or a Washington on the justice or humanity of the slave system were hushed, and a new generation was trained by the apologetics, of Thomas Dew,' Calhoun, Hammond, and Wise to believe that the institution which they were eventually to defend in arms was indispensable to their civilization and sanctioned by the laws of God.

    During the whole of the administration, Congress and the country were increasingly disturbed by the abolitionist agitation. The President had declared himself in his inaugural address "the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt in Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding states." But all to no avail. Petitions were multiplied, the gag-rule was reenacted, John Quincy Adam repeated his defiance; the debates in the House and Senate grew angrier. Lawless bands sacked and burned Negro quarters in the cities, lynchings increased, and Elijah Lovejoy was shot down in Alton, Illinois, while defending his abolitionist press against the rioters. The movement for the annexation of Texas (which we shall describe in the next chapter) gave a great impetus to the abolitionist cause. Resolutions against annexation were passed by the legislatures of state after state in the North. The antislavery congressmen made the issue the topic for scathing denunciations of the institution, which provoked angry replies from the South.

Abolitionism was no doctrine of the Whigs. Clay and Webster professed as much horror of it as Calhoun and Benton. Yet there is no doubt that the antislavery sentiment in the North of which abolitionism was the militant advance guard, found a growing measure of sympathy in the Whig party. The Democrats, especially after Calhoun came to the support of the administration, tended more and more to become the party of the South. It took several years, to be sure, for the demands of the slave interests to wear down all other issues in the South and eliminate the Whig party there, but the tendency is already to be detected in the slavery debates of Van Buren's Congresses. One has only to compare the resolutions offered in the Senate by Calhoun and Clay on the subject of the petitions in 1837. Calhoun declared that the fanaticism of the North must be crushed "without temporizing or conciliation," else it would destroy the Union. Domestic slavery was an institution of the South, recognized by the Constitution, and "no change of feeling on the part of the other states could justify them or their citizens in open and systematic attacks thereon with a view to its overthrow, or in denying to the South the advantage which would accrue to her from the annexation of new states or territory on the ground that the institution of slavery which would be extended into them was sinful or immoral." Clay, on the other hand, professed that he had no such gloomy fears for the endurance of the Union. The best way to check the fanaticism of the abolitionists was to continue to receive their petitions and refer them to the proper committee, where they would die a natural death. 

The pacifism of the idealist, the merchant, and the constitutionalist was reinforced by the views of the men who thought that the South was not worth fighting for and that a Union held together by force was not worth living in. The Garrisonian abolitionists were quite willing to let the South go. The Union that was left would be freed from a great curse and exonerated from complicity in disgraceful legislation like the Fugitive Slave laws and humiliating pronouncements like the Dred Scott decision. At least up to the close of 186o men of enormous influence spread abroad the doctrine of acquiescence in peaceable secession, which their later conversion to the policy of coercion could not wholly undo.