Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Whose house is that?"

After outlining his compromise resolutions individually on January 29, 1850, Henry Clay then discussed his proposed “scheme of arrangement and accommodation” as a whole. Clay maintained that his “project contains about an equal amount of concession and forbearance on both sides.” His remarks, however, were addressed almost exclusively to those “[a]t the North.”

It is not clear (to me at least), however, that this means that Clay anticipated stiffer resistance to his proposals from northerners than from southerners. Clay positioned himself as a southerner attempting to explain to northerners why concessions on slavery-related issues were matters of life and death to southerners living amidst slaves. It strikes me that this might well have been Clay’s way of trying to convince southerners that his proposals did offer them adequate protection.

In making his appeal, Clay contrasted the importance of slavery to the north and to the south. To the north, Clay maintained, antislavery was “[a]n abstraction, a sentiment.” To northerners, the issue was “sentiment, sentiment, sentiment alone”, “a sentiment without sacrifice, a sentiment without danger, a sentiment without hazard, without peril, without loss.”

But to the south, slavery was central to “the social fabric, life, and all that makes life dear”:
In the first place, sir, there is a vast and incalculable amount of property to be sacrificed, and to be sacrificed, not by your [northerners] sharing in the common burdens, but exclusive of you. And this is not all. The social intercourse, habit, safety, property, life, everything, is at hazard in a greater or less degree in the slave States.

To the south, northern threats to slavery were a matter of life and death. Clay conjured up lurid images of death and destruction in the south while northerners remained “safely housed, enjoying all the blessings of domestic comfort, peace, and quiet in the bosom of their own families”:
Behold, Mr. President, that dwelling-house now wrapped in flames. Listen, sir, to the rafters and beams which fall in succession, amid the crash; and the flames ascending higher and higher as they tumble down. Behold those women and children who are flying from the calamitous scene, and with their shrieks and lamentations imploring the aid of high Heaven.

Whose house is that? Whose wives and children are they? Yours in the free States? No. You are looking on in safety and security, whilst the conflagration which I have described is raging in the slave States, and produced, not intentionally by you, but produced from the inevitable tendency of the measures which you have adopted, and which others have carried far beyond what you have wished.

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