‘Go west young WASP’: Doctrine & Southern honor

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 9, 2001

So far, it has been established (I think, satisfactorily) that southerners wanted slavery to be preserved from threats. But if the abolitionists were not the majority in the North, why would the institution have been threatened?

(In the interest of making this a short summary, I will refer you for further reading to Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War, Oxford, 1970, which is arguably still the best book on its subject; and to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, Simon & Schuster, 1995, the Pulitzer Prize winning biography.)

Just as there is no question that most southerners’ support for slavery was in substantial part due to racism, there is also no question that northerners generally (but by no means universally) shared in these attitudes. Based on what he had observed during his travels, Toqueville even thought that prejudice was more pronounced in the North than in the South (Toqueville, Democracy in America, p. 359). Most northern states in 1860 withheld the suffrage from free blacks. Some had gone so far as to expel them. In 1848, 70 percent of Illinois voters had favored a constitutional amendment excluding all blacks from the state. This, of course, is the time and place where young Abraham Lincoln was cutting his political teeth.

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So it should come as no shock that even he was guilty of at least some of the same bias. In fact, his opinions serve as a very good barometer of those of the emerging Republican majority in the North. Amid the eloquence of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, Lincoln was asked by Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the senatorial campaign, if he believed in equality between the races. The sainted &uot;Great Emancipator&uot; answered directly, &uot;I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.

There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality&uot; (Donald, Lincoln, pp. 220-221). I realize that hearing such echoes of Jefferson Davis coming from his hypothetical &uot;opposite&uot; can cause a bit of historical vertigo. But from other comments Lincoln made elsewhere it is clear that this remark represented his true feelings on the matter and was not motivated by simple political expediency in the midst of a campaign.

On the other hand, some might think strangely, he was sincerely disturbed by slavery. &uot;If anything is wrong, then slavery is wrong. I am naturally anti-slavery,&uot; he famously said. As to the seeming inconsistency, Lincoln (and most northerners) simply believed that while blacks were not equal to whites, they were close enough to be undeserving of the humiliations of bondage.

Therefore, while Lincoln accepted that the Constitutional protections for property rights extended to slave property, he did avow a hope to see the institution ended at some point in the future. In fact, he believed that either the southern states would abolish slavery, or the northern states would have to establish it. The country could not long survive &uot;half slave and half free,&uot; he said. &uot;A house divided against itself cannot stand.&uot;

Along these lines, he foresaw an eventual, gradual process of emancipation, fully voluntary for the slaveowners, with compensation for their loss of property value, and with colonization for the freedmen somewhere outside of the US after the process was over. This, while the radical abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner were demanding an immediate end to slavery, with or without the consent of the master class, with no compensation for &uot;thievish&uot; owners, and with equal rights for the freedmen within the US at the end of the process. And of course, the most radical of them all, John Brown, had attempted to start a wholesale slave rebellion in 1859 to hasten this end. This makes for a definite distinction between the Republican Lincoln and those today labeled as abolitionists.

However, and this is vital to grasp, as viewed from the South, this was a distinction with little difference. Because while Lincoln and his ilk were professing no desire to disturb slavery where it already existed, they were steadily acting against the present and future interest of the institution. How? They were &uot;free soilers,&uot; committed to prohibiting the spread of slavery into the territories of the West.

Moral questions certainly entered into the free soilers’ thinking, but other factors were more essential to their aversion to slavery. Many northern business leaders who saw the abolitionists as crazed fanatics, yet saw slavery as a retrograde system of labor that would inhibit the economic development of American society as a whole — a &uot;free labor&uot; argument that had been made in the 1700’s by no less than Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Also, by limiting slavery’s expansion, they were convinced that they could limit the inordinate political influence of the so-called &uot;Slave Power,&uot; that small group of wealthy southern planters who had so dominated national affairs for so much of the antebellum period, and had thwarted so many of their pet pro-business initiatives.

Among the commonfolk of the North, working men felt that their wages would remain depressed at subsistence levels if they had to compete with slave labor. And then, there was racism. In 1846, free soiler, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania proposed his Proviso that would have prohibited slavery in any territory acquired in the war with Mexico which was just beginning. High-minded ethical ideals had nothing to do with his motivation. His object, he said, was to preserve these new lands for people &uot;of my own race and own color.&uot;

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, is famous for his advice to &uot;go west young man,&uot; but what is usually left out is his addendum that the &uot;young man&uot; was to be white — the West &uot;shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race&uot; (C. Vann Woodward, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue, Little Brown, 1964, p. 149 — Woodward, Arkansas born, was one of the preeminent American historians of the 20th century). Morality aside, most northerners found ample reasons to be anti-slavery out of self-interest. Nonetheless, as innocuous as this policy may appear when compared to the insults and perils to the South which a John Brown represented, we must realize that to southerners, the free soil doctrine was also seen as an affront to their honor, as well as a practical threat to their way of life.

First of all, any southern man worth his drawl would tell you that the US Constitution was created to protect individual rights, that among those rights was the right to private property, that among the constitutionally acceptable forms of property were slaves, and that therefore, a southern man, a law-abiding citizen of the United States, should have the Constitutionally protected right to take his lawful property into any national territory he chose. To say otherwise, was to say that he and his rights were &uot;second rate;&uot; it was to offend his honor. (To comprehend the central role of the concept of honor in southern life, read Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor, Oxford, 1982.)

Therefore, the impracticality of implanting plantation slavery in most of the western territories was damnably irrelevant. It was a point of principle. So said the editor of the Natchez Free Trader in 1857 at the height of the controversy over &uot;Bleeding Kansas (D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez, LSU Press, 1968, p.288 — James is Natchez born, Texas educated, taught for years at MSU, and is now at Virginia Military Institute).

It should be noted that throughout the decade before the war, this belligerent tone was typical of the Free Trader, which was the largest circulation newspaper in Natchez, with triple the reach of its more moderate rival, The Courier, by 1860. On this point, Mississippi’s Senator, Jefferson Davis, agreed. &uot;The desperate debate over the expansion of slavery into an unsuitable semiarid land seems to have been over an abstraction. Yet to Jefferson Davis it involved a vital principle.&uot; (Eaton, Jefferson Davis, p. 111). And, if anything at all is plain about the character of the man who would be the first and only president of the Confederacy, it is that he was a man who stood on principle.

But there was more to southerners’ scorn of the free soil Republicans like Lincoln. Their claim to have no problem with slavery where it already existed was, according to southerners, nothing less than a ruse. The men of the South believed, and knew that the free soilers believed, that if slavery couldn’t expand, it couldn’t survive, for both economic and political reasons.

&uot;A majority [of southerners] had concluded that the victory of the [Free Soil] Republicans in 1860 would eventually be as fatal to the perpetuation of slavery as any triumph of outright abolitionism. Southerners were certain that the most vital function of their society — its ability to assimilate and control staves — would be destroyed by the confinement of slavery&uot; (William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama & Mississippi in 1860, Princeton, 1974, p. 313 — Barney of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). In other words, whether Lincoln and the Republicans would admit it or not, they WERE abolitionists, just particularly oily, duplicitous ones.

This is the reason why in the South they were almost always referred to as &uot;Black Republicans.&uot; In addition to his &uot;principled&uot; stand on establishing slavery in the territories, Jefferson Davis assuredly shared this assumption as to Republican intentions. In a letter written in 1855, he alleged that &uot;free soil&uot; for the West was nothing more than a deceit. &uot;A direct attack they [abolitionists] have too much sagacity to make, for that would be met by open resistance,&uot; so they targeted slavery &uot;only&uot; in the territories instead. Except that he divined their true intent, &uot;abolitionism would gain but little in excluding slavery from the territories, if it were never to disturb that institution in the States.&uot; So, he concluded, to &uot;disturb that institution in the States&uot; in due time was obviously their ulterior motive (Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, p. 26).

With its population growing more slowly than that of the North, the slaveholding South was rapidly being reduced to minority status in a nation of majority rule, a disadvantage that would be set in stone if slavery couldn’t spread.

By 1860, Northerners who wanted to ban or at least restrict the expansion of slavery into the territories had a majority in both the House and the Senate. Electing a president would give them the executive branch as well, and then, with presidential appointment and Senatorial confirmation, the last domino, the judiciary, would inevitably fall.

And once the free soilers’ had guaranteed themselves control over the entire federal apparatus of government, the South assumed that then they would use their majority power to move against slavery in the South itself. THIS is the essence of the &uot;self-determination&uot; that southerners feared they were losing, feared would be lost for good with Lincoln’s election. In fact, the southern judgment that Lincoln was an indirect, slow-motion abolitionist was not just paranoia. Though, as has been seen, the South had raised paranoia to a high art.

Tomorrow, the racist, quasi-abolitionist Lincoln morphs into &uot;the Great Emancipator,&uot;

James Wiggins is a history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.