Sunday, February 01, 2009

Thomas Morris: "They are attempting to overwhelm us by the power of this Government"

Jonathan H. Earle’s Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 contains an excellent sketch of the life and career of Thomas Morris. Professor Earle identifies an April 1836 speech by Morris as containing “one of the first uses of a Slave Power conspiracy to condemn the South and slavery.”

The occasion was the debate over in the United States Senate over a bill proposed by John C. Calhoun to bar “incendiary” materials concerning slavery from the U.S. mails.

On April 13, 1836 – almost three years before the February 9, 1839 speech I discussed in earlier posts – Senator Morris rose in opposition “upon the broad principle that its passage would be an abuse of the legitimate power of Congress.” Morris “turn[ed] the tables” on Calhoun by posing a hypothetical:
He [Calhoun], too, has had within his State a proceeding which caused much excitement both within and without the State; I mean the attempt to nullify acts of Congress on the subject of the tariff. I assure the gentleman I do not mention this with any unkind feelings whatever. If, in that excitement, societies had been formed, and publications made within the State, for instance, in which I reside [Ohio], in aid of the doctrine contended for by the gentleman and his friends in South Carolina, I ask the gentleman what he would have thought and said, if an act of Congress had been passed to prevent the proceedings of those societies, and such publications in newspapers, from being sent by the mail to any citizen of South Carolina? Sir, I would have no doubt he would have condemned the Government in the most strong and emphatic manner, for the bare attempt thus to embargo public opinion; but we are now called on, in the most impressive manner, to sustain a like measure . . ..

Morris complained that the bill violated a number of provisions of the Constitution, including the First Amendment. The slaveholding states were trying to use the federal government to “gag” the free states and their citizens:
[W]e, the free States I mean, are called on to put the gag into the mouths of our citizens, to declare that they have no right to talk, to preach, or to pray, on the subject of slavery; that we must put down societies who meet for such purposes; that we shall not be permitted to send abroad our thoughts or our opinions upon the abstract question of slavery; that the very liberty of thought, of speech, and of the press, shall be so embarrassed as to be in many instances denied us, and, if not entirely prohibited, rendered in a great degree useless. All this is required to be done by an act of this Government, out of respect to laws of one or more of the slaveholding States.

But what really angered Morris was an assumption and argument underlying the bill: that slave property was guaranteed by the Constitution. Morris conceded that the Constitution permitted slavery, but the creation of slave property was exclusively a matter of state law. The distinction was crucial, Morris believed, because the idea of a constitutional guarantee threatened the destruction of the free states:
[I]f it [Calhoun’s “guaranty” theory] be true, and can be maintained, the honorable Senator from South Carolina, or any other gentleman, may bring his hundreds or thousands of slaves into the State of Ohio, cause them to labor there as long as it shall suit his convenience, and withdraw them at pleasure, and no law or regulation of my State – no, not even the constitutional prohibition against slavery [in the Ohio Constitution] – could reach his case, or afford us any security against this innovation . . .. It seems to me that the free States have a thousand times more just cause for fear and alarm . . . that [slaveholding States] will attempt to introduce slavery into the free States, than the slaveholding States have that we shall attempt to interfere in any manner with the question of slavery, as settled by the laws of their own States.

The “slaveholding States,” Morris warned darkly, “are attempting to overwhelm us by the power of this Government.”


  1. Good stuff. I'm going to have to pick up Earle's book I think.

    Thanks for posting.


  2. Rene,

    I'm glad you're enjoying it. I'm only one-quarter through it or so, but the Earle book is first rate, and exactly what I was looking for.


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