Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thomas Morris and Democratic Antislavery

Jonathan H. Earle has introduced me to a man I hadn’t heard of, and a truly remarkable speech that man gave in 1839.

The man is Thomas Morris, a loyal Jacksonian Democrat who served as Senator from Ohio for a single term from 1833 to 1839. Professor Earle describes him as the man who “introduced the phrase and concept of the Slave Power into American political culture.” Now that, I thought, was interesting.

Professor Earle’s footnotes referred to a speech that Morris gave on the Senate floor on February 9, 1839.

By way of background, on February 7, 1839, Henry Clay delivered a famous speech on slavery and abolitionism. The speech was Clay at his worst. In an attempt to position himself for a run at the presidency in 1840, Clay courted southern votes by presenting a petition from residents of the District of Columbia, in which they protested against efforts in Congress to outlaw slavery in the District. The decision whether to outlaw slavery in the District, the petitioners maintained, belonged solely to the residents of the District. Congress did not have power, they contended, to interfere.

Clay used the introduction of the petition as the basis for accusing “abolitionists” of disrupting the harmony of the country. It was “abolitionists” – into which category Clay lumped essentially everyone who sought to limit slavery in any way – who were the problem. By unnecessarily complaining about slavery, the “abolitionists” were responsible for the regrettable, but entirely understandable, reactions of southerners determined to resist encroachments on their rights and institutions. If some overzealous southerners reacted by imposing the Gag Rule, or threatening disunion, well Clay regretted it, but the “abolitionists” had only themselves to blame.

Two days later, on February 9, 1839, Mr. Morris rose to present his own slavery-related petition, and to deliver one of the most remarkable speeches I have read – both for its power and for the insights it gives into the origins of Democratic antislavery.

The petitions that Morris presented opposed slavery:
These petitions, sir, are on the subject of slavery, the slave trade as carried on within and from this District, the slave trade between the different states of this Confederacy, between this country and Texas, and against the admission of that country into the Union; and also against that of any other State whose constitution and laws recognize or permit slavery.

Morris’s denunciation of slavery was passionate. “In my infant years I learned to hate slavery,” he announced. The Declaration of Independence, the words of Thomas Jefferson, and the free state in which he was born “taught me it was wrong.”
I also, in early life, saw a slave kneel before his master, and hold up his hands with as much apparent submission, humility, and adoration, as man would have done before his Maker, while his master, with outstretched rod, stood over him. This, I thought, is slavery – one man subjected to the will and power of another, and the laws affording him no protection; and he has to beg pardon of man, because he has offended man, (not the laws,) as if his master were a superior and all powerful being.

It was this certainty that his petitioners’ cause was just that gave Morris the courage to oppose “the very lions of debate in this body, who are cheered on by an applauding gallery and surrounding interests.”
What, sir, can there be to induce me to appear on this public arena, opposed by such powerful odds? Nothing, sir, nothing but a strong sense of duty, and a deep conviction that the cause I advocate is just.

Henry Clay had labeled anyone who objected to slavery an “abolitionist.” In that case, Morris’s petitioners were “abolitionists,” and he would defend them to the last:
I charge gentlemen, when they use the word Abolitionists, they mean petitioners here such as I now present – men who love liberty, and are opposed to slavery – that in behalf of these citizens I speak; and, by whatever name they may be called, it is those who are opposed to slavery whose cause I advocate. I make no war upon the rights of others. I do not act but what is moral, constitutional, and legal, against the peculiar institutions of any State; but acting only in defense of my own rights, of my fellow-citizens, and, above all, of my State, I shall not cease while the current of life shall continue to flow.

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