Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Who is there who is not shocked at its enormity?"

In his remarks of January 29, 1850, Henry Clay next introduced his fifth and sixth compromise resolutions, which, “like the third and fourth [the two Texas resolutions], are somewhat connected together.” These concerned slavery and the slave trade within the District of Columbia:
5th. Resolved, That it is inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, whilst that institution continues to exist in the State of Maryland, without the consent of that State, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.

6th. Resolved, That it is expedient to prohibit within the District the slave-trade, in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein a merchandise, or to be transported to other markets without the District of Columbia.

Before turning to Clay's remarks, a couple of points are worth noting. First, several aspects of the Fifth resolution were bound to be controversial. Northerners, of course, would be unhappy that slavery was proposed to be retained in the District. But southerners would be unhappy too. The major problem was that the resolution described abolition in the District as “inexpedient” but possible under certain conditions. That is, it conceded that Congress had the power under the Constitution to abolish slavery. In addition, some might reasonably ask – What happened to Virginia? The resolution listed the consent of Maryland as a prerequisite to abolition in the District. Why not Virginia?

Likewise, the sixth resolution was subject to attack from both sides. Southerners would complain that Congress had no power to limit the slave trade at all. But northerners would no doubt focus on the extremely limited nature of the restriction. Residents could continue to buy and sell slaves in the District. The resolution prohibited, in effect, only the operations of commercial slave traders.

Clay, presumably concerned about southern objections, emphasized the limited nature of the restriction in his speech. To assuage northern concerns, he disingenuously tried to characterize the exemption of individual sales as a humanitarian provision. At the same time, he attempted both to enlist southern support and reassure northerners by affirming that southerners detested the slave trade every bit as much as northerners did (citing none other than his arch enemy John Randolph of Roanoke):
I do not mean by that [the slave trade] the alienation and transfer of slaves from the inhabitants within this District – the sale by one neighbor to another of a slave which the one owns and the other wants, that a husband may perhaps be put along with his wife, or a wife with her husband.

I do not mean to touch at all the question of the right of property in slaves amongst persons living within the District; but the slave trade to which I refer was, I think, pronounced an abomination more than forty years ago, by one of the most gifted and distinguished sons of Virginia, the late Mr. [John] Randolph [of Roanoke].

And who is there who is not shocked at its enormity? Sir, it is a great mistake at the North, if they suppose that gentlemen living in the slave States look upon one who is a regular trader in slaves with any particular favor or kindness. They are often – sometimes unjustly, perhaps – excluded from social intercourse. I have known some memorable instances of this sort.

Clay also referred indirectly to the justification he would likely provide for not including the consent of Virginia as a prerequisite to the abolition of slavery in the District: Virginia's portion of the District had been retroceded to it:
But, then, what is this trade? It is a good deal limited since the retrocession of the portion of the District formerly belonging to Virginia.

There are Alexandria, Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk south of the Potomac, and Baltimore, Annapolis and perhaps other ports north of the Potomac. Let the slave-dealer, who chooses to collect his slaves in Virginia and Maryland, go to these places; let him not come here and establish his jails and put on his chains, and sometimes shock the sensibilities of our nature by a long train of slaves passing through the avenue leading from this Capitol to the house of the Chief Magistrate of one of the most glorious Republics that ever existed.

Why should he not do it? Sir, I am sure I speak the sentiments of every Southern man, and every man coming from the slave States, when I say let it terminate, and it is an abomination; that there is no occasion for it; it ought no longer to be tolerated.

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