Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"One or the other it must be; it cannot be both"

Preston King seems to embody the mysterious Barnburner-Free Soil connection. A hard-money, anti-bank, anti-monopoly Democrat who represented a hardscrabble, largely rural constituency from the far northern Passed-Over reaches of New York, King evolved into an economic Radical and Barnburner. At the same time, King increasingly came to believe that slaveholders were dominating his national party, and to perceive the spread of slavery as a threat to the ability of his free farmer constituents to settle the west.

Jonathan H. Earle reports that King developed “repugnance” to slavery by late 1844 or early 1845:
When annexation (with Polk’s election, a fait accompli) came up, leading Van Burenites and future Wilmot Proviso supporters George Rathbun, Lemuel Stetson, and Preston King spoke out forcefully against Texas. King, for one, was startled at the intensity of his own feelings on the matter: “I was . . . surprised at my own repugnance to Texas on the single point of slavery. The southerners do not want Texas without slavery – I would take Texas tonight without slavery . . ..” King and twenty-six other Van Buren Democrats (all fourteen from New York) risked being branded as hypocrites and defectors and voted against Texas annexation.

Jumping forward two years, it was King who re-introduced the Wilmot Proviso, four months after it died at the end of the last Congress. According to Professor Earle, King’s speech was “reprinted and distributed throughout the North, and even prompted President Polk
to confide to his diary that “the slavery question is assuming a fearful and most important aspect. The movement of Mr. King today, if persevered in, will be attended with terrible consequences to the country and cannot fail to destroy the Democratic party, if it does not ultimately threaten the union itself.”

I therefore thought I’d take a look at Representative King’s speech.

To begin at the beginning, on Tuesday December 29, 1846, Representative King “gave notice that he would”
introduce “a bill making further provision for the expenses attending the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations,” being the bill known as the $2,000,000 bill, which passed the House of Representatives at the close of the last session, and lost in the Senate.

Representative King attempted to introduce his bill on Monday January 4, 1847. It proposed to appropriate $2MM “to enable the President to conclude a treaty of peace with the Republic of Mexico.” Section 2 substantially repeated the substance of the Wilmot Proviso:
And be it further enacted, That there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any territory which shall hereafter be acquired by or be annexed to the United States, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. Provided always, That any person escaping into the same from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed out of said territory to the person claiming his or her service.

Due to procedural maneuvering, the formal introduction was delayed by a vote of 88-89.

The next day, Tuesday January 5, 1847, Rep. King obtained the floor in order to “make a personal explanation” concerning the “bill which I yesterday asked leave to introduce.” An article had appeared in the morning newspaper that “mistakes the purpose of the bill.” King desired “briefly to state the reasons and opinions which induced me to propose the measure.” Interestingly, King specifically explained that he had written out and was reading his comments “that I may not be misunderstood.”

King began by explaining that his actions were “governed solely by the desire to bring the subjects of the bill to the early consideration and action of the House.” He suspected that some members of the House were hoping the “Wilmot proposition” issue would just go away:
I will frankly say, that if I had not supposed that there was a disposition in some quarters silently to give the free principle of the Wilmot proposition the go-by, and, by smothering and avoiding action upon it, to give further extension to the dominions of slavery at the expense of free territory, I should not have brought forward this bill.

He was, King made clear, in favor of territorial expansion. But the territory that should, would and must be taken from Mexico “should be free.” “The time has come when this Republic should declare by law that it will not be made an instrument to the extension of slavery on the continent of America.”

“Every inch of Texas was yielded to slavery,” King complained, and yet the South was still not satisfied. Now the representatives of the slave states desired “to carry it where it does not now exist.”

The choice, King maintained, was between free territory and labor or slave labor. Using language that prefigured Seward’s “irrepressible conflict” and Lincoln’s “house divided,” King argued that “it must be” “[o]ne or the other”; “it cannot be both.”
Shall the territory now free which shall come to our jurisdiction be free territory, open to settlement by the laboring man of the free States, or shall it be slave territory given up to slave labor? One or the other it must be; it cannot be both. The labor of the free white men and women, and of their children, cannot and will not eat and drink, and lie down, and rise up with the black labor of slaves; free white labor will not be degraded by such association. If slavery is not excluded by law, the presence of the slave will exclude the laboring white man. The young men who went with their axes into the forests, and hewed out of the wilderness such States as Ohio and Indiana and Michigan and Illinois and Iowa and Wisconsin, would never have consented, in the workshops or in the field, to be coupled with negro slaves.

Professor Earle observes:
King’s mention of western pioneers was no accident. In what would become a mainstay of Free Soil rhetoric (borrowed from anti-rent and land-reform journals) antislavery Democrats like King referred again and again to slaveholders choking off potential immigration to new and old territories. Arguments such as these were especially powerful in rural New York. Many of the farmers in King’s district (and those surrounding it as well) had sons and daughters moving westward at a truly furious pace . . .. Dozens of King’s and [Silas] Wright’s own relatives in the North Country had already moved or were planning to leave soon.

About the illustration:
A particularly well-drawn satire on the three major presidential contenders for 1848, (left to right) Zachary Taylor, Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass. Of the three the artist seems to favor Van Buren, the "Barnburner" candidate, who sits on a stool milking the cow which the others try in vain to move in opposite directions. Taylor, who tugs at the tail of the animal, is called a "No Party Man" because of his continued refusal to commit to a party ideology. Cass, the "Hunker" or conservative Democrat, strains at the cow's horns. Van Buren: "I go in for the free soil. Hold on Cass, dont let go Taylor, (That's the cream of the Joke)." Van Buren was the candidate of a coalition, between Barnburner Democrats and Liberty and Whig party abolitionists, called the Free Soil party. Zachary Taylor: "I don't Stand on the whig Platform 'I ask no favor and shrink from no Responsibility.'" Lewis Cass: "Matty is at his old tricks again, and going in for the Spoils old Zack, and myself will get nothing but skim milk."

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