Sunday, December 28, 2008

Slavery in the Territories: Yet Another Take

In several recent posts, I have briefly described the views of two historians who believed that Southerners regarded the slavery-in-the-territories issue as symbolic. That is, white Southerners resented Northern attempts to exclude slavery from the territories because they viewed it as insult to their honor and a denial of their equal rights as citizens – not because they wanted (or even thought they wanted) to travel to those territories.

J. Mills Thornton is the author of perhaps the finest book on antebellum southern political culture and secession that I have read: Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860. In it, he argues powerfully that, in the end, the territorial issue was a symbolic one.

Professor Thornton admits – indeed, vigorously contends – that the southern desire for additional slave territory was very real. He argues that southern farmers did indeed exhibit a marked tendency to move from one region to another, and that they it was important for them to believe that new, culturally-friendly areas were available for settlement:
The southern farmer – indeed, the American farmer – in the nineteenth century suffered from a sort of claustrophobia. He could not tolerate the prospect of being irrevocably condemned to his existing farm, of being shut out of the possibility of migration to a new life if events should ever require it. But his vision was not of migration to a new world and a new life-style; rather, he wanted the assurance that there was an accessible alternate community in which he could engage in fundamentally the same pursuits, but in circumstances which might produce greater success. Southern rights advocates constantly reminded him that the Yankee culture was very different from his own, and that if he allowed the territories to become re-creations of the northern states, he could thereafter migrate only at the cost of giving up his own egalitarian, democratic world for a socially stratified society swept by the gales of class conflict and unbridled meliorist ferment.

To this extent, the availability of new territory was not purely a symbolic issue.

At the same time, Professor Thornton concludes that, ultimately, issues of respect and equality were critical, at least in Alabama. In a discussion that I have mention and quoted from before, Professor Thornton points out that there was “a fundamental non sequitur in the southern rights case.” Southern rights advocates argued that the north was trapping southern farmers in and confining them to their existing lands. But how, then, “would secession remedy the predicament?” The responses of southern rights advocates did not adequately address the issue. “If getting access to that territory was the primary southern goal, southerners had certainly not selected a means which gave obvious promise of being efficacious.”

But the clincher demonstrating that the issue was in the end symbolic lay in the fact that anti-secessionists “never mentioned the difficulty” in the argument. And they did so because they understood that the efficacy of the secession remedy was ultimately irrelevant, or at least beside the point. The following passage is simply brilliant:
It is essential to note, however, that though this genuinely crucial link in the southern rights argument was, to say the least of it, weak, Unionists almost never mentioned this difficulty. The solution to this paradox is the identification of which element in the southern rights case was the primary source of its force. Despite all the discussion about the effects of free-soil upon southern slavery, the threat of Negro inundation was not the chief terror with which the case conjured; and the Unionists knew it. . . . The essence of the case was not what would happen to southerners when they were excluded from the territories but was the fact that they were to be excluded. . . . Free-soil was an issue basically because it would represent an overtly discriminatory action by the common government.

Anti-secessionists, then, avoided attacking the weak link precisely because they would then have to defend the proposition that southerners were entitled to expect no more than second-class citizenship. Accordingly, they
contented themselves simply with maintaining that most northerners did not hate the South, that the North could be brought to compromise, and that compromise would restore calm to the republic and self-respect to all its citizens without the necessity for radical action. If the southern rights fears of discrimination should ever gain substance, however, Unionists agreed that immediate and harsh reciprocal action would be required.

What this tells us, Professor Thornton argues, is that secession (and the territorial issue as well) were, in the end, grounded in fundamental symbolic issues of equality and non-discrimination:
Secession, then, was not really intended as a remedy for the consequences of free-soil, despite explicit statements to the contrary. It was to be revenge for the condemnation implied by the policy and the inequality inherent in it. Southerners were Americans and they wanted to be treated like Americans; we must never forget that they saw themselves as struggling to preserve the substance of the American dream.

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